Identity/-ies in Poetry and Art

We’re all adding brushstrokes to a much larger mural than any one of us can hold

Poems and Photos by Kathleen McCoy, Painting by John Hampshire, SUNY Adirondack
October 23, 2019

How might poets and painters explore and reinterpret the complexities of identity/-ies? These days, not only are borders in flux, but the often-fraught term “identity” is nearly always complicated by multiplicity and intersectionality. We define ourselves partly by inheritance and partly by choice, often while standing at those often foggy bog-borders of ethnicity, geography, gender, religion, or any of a number of other foci of identification. We need the arts to help us navigate our way toward and across the borders of our lives in hopes of approaching self-understanding and, eventually, mutual understanding. Audre Lorde said it best at Harvard in 1982: “I learned that if I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” At the very least, the arts help us ask the questions and meet the people we need to encounter to discover where and to what extent we can really see at all.

These boglands of identity are deep and sometimes treacherous. I would never want to idolize, demonize, patronize, tokenize, or any other -ize anyone. At the same time, we can’t pretend our differences wholly define us any more than we can pretend they don’t exist. Ultimately, I want to see and to bear witness to how I see, just as I want to hear and read and watch how others see. In crafting art, in interpreting and reinterpreting selves and worlds, we’re all adding brushstrokes to a much larger mural than any one of us can hold.

Yesterday artist John Hampshire painted live on stage while I read poems-in-process on the theme of identity/-ies (here is the video link). He started with one portrait and plans in coming days or weeks to add more until he has created a canvas montage on identities. During our presentation I explored my roots in America and Ireland, sharing some of my travels and interests in indigenous Americans, the ancient Irish, and the bog bodies of Ireland that Eamonn “Ned” Kelly has studied and interpreted for the Kingship and Sacrifice exhibit at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. Seamus Heaney portraits kept appearing over my shoulder in Ireland, and Medbh McGuckian, Leontia Flynn, and Scott Cairns were my travel-muses.

Whoever you have been, whoever you are, whoever you’re becoming, I’d like to offer a friendly challenge to write an identity poem of your own, or paint a portrait. Or both. As Joy Harjo writes, “We pray that it will be done / In beauty. / In beauty.”

Irish and ‘Other’

The arts validate those who question and help close the chasms between us.

The Old Mill Ruin at Anam Cara Writers’ and Artists’ Retreat, Eyeries, County Cork

Last year I had a student who struggled with conflicting feelings about belonging and otherness in college. I could write that sentence about any semester, any class I’ve taught, particularly any writing class. Since each of us humans comprises a nexus of cultural, genetic, and chosen identities, I’ve shared students’ ambivalence about identity, despite the pallor of my complexion. As a result, I’ve been exploring how poetry in particular and the arts in general help us to confront our self-conceptions, choose our identity/-ies, and empower ourselves as writers and citizens. Theories abound; studies are few but extant. But the arts vivify the questions. The arts validate those who question and help close the chasms between us.

In the first eight months of 2019 I used sabbatical time to ponder issues of identity and poetry as I wrote, read, and presented at conferences in Ireland, Northern Ireland, my native southern Ohio, and Santa Fe, and worked with local high school students who were new to poetry.

Questions about relativity in identity and language, in the sciences and poetry, in art and teaching swirl. My mind now braids themes of identity in teaching, in poetry, in art, and in ethnicity.

On October 23rd at 12:40, I will be joined by the legendary artist John Hampshire in the Visual Arts Gallery of Dearlove Hall at SUNY Adirondack. I will discuss my sabbatical and read poems while John paints in-the-moment. If you come, you may find a bit of yourself in the words or on the canvas.

100 Thousand Poets for Change: Global, Grassroots Arts and Social Advocacy

100tpc2017_PawprintRev-page-001
This is regional event I organize and host every year. It is part of a global grassroots movement to call attention to the arts and social justice: 100tpc.org.

For Love of Poetry

I’ll be writing 30 poems in 30 days for the 30/30 Project throughout the month of July.  I’m quite excited about this opportunity because it’s a win-win-win: you can get a tax-deductible charitable deduction on 2015 taxes if you wish; I get my poems published on the Tupelo Press 30/30 blog page throughout July, and we all help Tupelo Press, a leading independent publisher of new and established American poets that publishes books, a literary journal, and chapbooks. Donations go not to me (at all!) but to Tupelo Press.The link to donate and read the poems of the day is below.
I have been asked to participate and have set a goal of $400. Anything you can spare will help–but there are incentives for giving a little more. If you give $30 and email me with a poem request, I will write a poem for you (or your occasion, friend, or family member; give me some information to work with, please). If you give $50, I will travel (within the Capital District of New York State) to your venue to do a poetry reading as my schedule allows or will write you a review of your original poetry (up to 20 pages of poems) for your use. For any donor who wishes, I would be happy to mail you an oversized poem postcard (glossy and suitable for mailing or for framing).
If you can give, please do. Go to https://tupelopress.wordpress.com/3030-project/ , select “DONATE” and be sure to name “Kathleen McCoy” in the “honor” area to credit your gift toward my fundraising pledge. You will have my eternal gratitude, as well as the pleasure of knowing that you are contributing to a meaningful and innovative literary endeavor.

100 Thousand Poets for Change

time&place100,000

There may never be a time when it is more important to bring the Big Ideas of Peace and Sustainability home. And nothing brings Big Ideas home to roost like poetry.

It’s been my joy to assemble local poets, artists, and thinkers with a global initiative: the SUNY Adirondack Writers Project is sponsoring 100 Thousand Poets for Change, a poetry reading and informative gathering for peace and sustainability. And heck, I get to say that “Philip Levine likes us on Facebook, and so does Caffe Lena Poetry!”

We have a line-up of award-winning and student poets, artist John Hampshire‘s work, and mini-talks by professors Tim Scherbatskoy on sustainability and Rebecca Pelchar on art and peace.

100,000 medium postcard

For Adrienne Rich

They led a writing workshop together in Austin...
Rich (right), with writer Audre Lorde (left) and Meridel Le Sueur (middle) in Austin Texas, 1980 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the memory of Adrienne Rich, one of our country’s finest poets who died last week, I offer the following poem, penned a couple of decades ago and revised very recently:

The New Androgyne

She will be like the deaf mute                                                 turned composer:

ink will pulse               through her veins the color

of half-lit midnight                  when grass sways slightly

By turns she will be            gardener and stargazer                  peasant

and prophet                      bag-lady                                   and carpetbagger

pointillist                                                                 and modern dancer

delivering mother                                and midwife delivering

the mother                                           and her child

You will see her                           gradually

rising with the sun                   her origins uncertain

her language                        raw and bold                       her hands stained

strong-boned                                 her eyes deep                    as Andromeda

She will take                                   by the first two fingers

anyone who will                             enter the labyrinth                               listen

to the crackling of leaves                     as she infuses them                with breath

and witness                         her gypsy dance                as she steadily

wrenches                                 an arc of bone                          from her side

–Kathleen McCoy

In the past two weeks I’ve had a house fire, attended a magical manuscript conference, and lost Adrienne Rich.  While I won’t forget any of these occurrences, one of them I can now acknowledge with this piece. For the way she championed the oppressed of all types–gays and lesbians, men and women of color, the imprisoned, the marginalized, the impoverished, and the politically oppressed (all people who have been silenced or ignored)–and did it with beauty, grace, and always, compassion, I am deeply grateful.

Rich helped to show the world the value of the women’s liberation motto that “The personal is political.” This is a good time to reread some of her unforgettable poems like An Atlas of the Difficult World, “Sources,” “Integrity,” “Diving Into the Wreck,” “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” and “Twenty-One Love Poems.” Or you may want to read one of her landmark essays such as “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson,” “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying,” “Split at the Root,” or her historic rejection of the National Medal of Arts in 1997, when she dared to write to Jane Alexander, then head of the National Endowment for the Arts, that she could not accept an award for a few privileged artists when “the people at large are so dishonored” in this country.

Related articles