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.

Bittersweet Chocolate

 

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Image courtesy of KinYu-Z.net

Whether with dread or welcome, we find ourselves at Valentine’s Day yet again. It’s a challenging day to teach creative writing to undergraduates. In teaching my students to notice what works best in their own poems, they’ve started already (three weeks in) to recognize the lasting appeal of love poems that express complication without surrendering to despair.

This modern love poem doesn’t work well for white chocolate lovers. Too high a tolerance for sweetness. Permit me a moment of synesthesia when I say that if your tastes turn to a bit of bitterness, darkness, or chili with the chocolate, the sound of the taste resonates far longer and more pleasantly.

It seems to me that many poets have done this, though, arguably, none better than the late Seamus Heaney. Featured today on Poetry Daily is his poem “Scaffolding.” A friend and colleague commented that the “wall” in this poem resonates differently in the Trump era; however, despite the obvious temporal and situational contrasts, I challenged that idea. Consider how Heaney endured the Troubles in Belfast with its sectarian divides rendered in concrete “peace walls” before he defected to the Republic and eventually the States. The image of a wall is fraught with tension, yet in “Scaffolding” he appreciates the solidity, the creation, the relationship between the poem’s couple who set up the scaffolding in order to build the wall. Heaney’s metaphor celebrates letting the scaffolding go to show that a relationship builds something new, something that establishes boundaries and claims territory at the same time that it represents a mutual, hard-won peace. A peace wall carves out a space where people with their own differences can meet. Only then can love be realized. Enjoy.

 

 

These Winter Sundays

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Mini-chapbook by Marilyn McCabe

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Yes, these are really our socks

 

These winter Sundays, when snow mounds, temperatures plummet, and spirits sag a bit, I renew my appreciation of spirit lifters, chief among which are the Women of Mass Dissemination, my writers’ group of the past decade. We meet monthly, go on a weekend retreat twice a year to write, and hold each others’ multicolor sock-toed feet to the metaphorical (and this year, literal) fire. In the past decade the six of us have published more than I can count (books, poems, video poems, novels, reviews, and essays, with plays in the works), but only after months and years of drafting, rewriting, sharing, critiquing, debating, informing, and exploring. We write collaboratively, try out or create writing  prompts, debate literary standards, test the water-worthiness of our rafts of words. We take two drafts forward and three drafts backwards. We mutter, we admonish, we ask, we suggest, we redirect, we inspire, we bless, we curse, we wonder, we wander, we read, we retreat, we return, we succor, we savor, we paint, we review, we write, we blog, we brand.  We expand each other’s reading lists and hone each other’s literary taste. (Of course, chocolate and pot pie are often involved.) We worry, we plan, we learn, we teach, we share, we fuss, we fix, we applaud. But mostly, we write.

Here’s to the Women of Mass Dissemination,* without whom I’d be sitting in a barn somewhere wondering where all the poets are, wondering too what happened to the poet in the mirror. And here’s to you, writing at your desk, on your bed, on your train, in your barn. Here’s to your tribe, whether you’ve found them yet or not.

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*The Women of Mass Dissemination (WMD for short) are Lale Davidson, Elaine Handley, Marilyn McCabe, Mary Sanders Shartle, Nancy White, and yours truly. (In the photo above right, standing: Marilyn McCabe, Mary Sanders Shartle, Elaine Handley, Nancy White; seated, left to right: Lale Davidson and Kathleen McCoy.)

Book Fair Season

 

22nd-Chronicle-Book-FairTo smell damp leaves, feel the crisp cheek-brush of November breeze and enter a grand old hotel full of books–poetry, novels, children’s books, travel books, regional books, genre fiction and more–well, it’s difficult to think of a better way to spend a weekend day. Especially in a small town. This Sunday, November 5, join award-winning poets and novelists like Barbara Ungar and Mary Sanders Shartle between 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. at the Queensbury Hotel (did I mention I’ll be there too?). We’re reading 12:30-1:00 in the Saratoga Room, talking with folks and selling books all day, and your presence will make our day. It just might brighten yours as well. #Chronicle Book Fair on Twitter; Glens Falls Chronicle Book Fair on Facebook. Click here: Chronicle Book Fair.

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Sacred Sister: The Voice and Vision of Joy Harjo

 

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Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings should be required reading for each presidential candidate this year, as well as for the rest of us who crave air and earth, word and music, story and myth, who measure our lives in the woes of flesh and the joys of spirit.

To read Joy Harjo’s poetry, particularly Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (W.W. Norton, 2015), is to feel like we’re in the presence of a vatic voice, a prophet singing with the power of a volcano and the hushed rustle of a breeze. The seeming simplicity of her style is complicated by the power of tradition and the adaptation of native forms like tribal legends, myths, songs, blues, jazz. Modulating all these art forms is a powerful voice. When asked how she conceives of the voice in her poetry, Harjo tells me, “I feel like the poetry voice is its own voice. It’s the same voice as my saxophone voice. It has its own heft and weight and size and shape and impetus, and it’s more than me. I don’t confuse it with me.”

Last fall I had the privilege of talking with the aptly named Joy Harjo, the Mvskokee/Creek poet who had just been announced as the Wallace Stevens Award winner and who stands as one of the pre-eminent voices in contemporary American poetry. The surface simplicity of her language belies a complex and multilayered approach to identity, ecology, politics, feminism, and pacifism as much as to the forms of art itself. She creates a fertile space for peace between and among the arts of story, poem, song, wisdom writing, ceremony, lament, story, dance, and visual art. Her most recent book, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, reads like her essential message to the world, quite personal, but always rising to the tribal and above the tribal to the universal and even the cosmic observation, offering a sense of history, interrelatedness, and the deeply human drive to create that transcends genres and forms. The book incorporates some pieces revised since her How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems, her memoir Crazy Brave, as well as new work.

Conflict Resolution alternates artfully between short, provocative, lyrical prose and poems, a technique she also used in earlier books like The Woman Who Fell from the Sky and A Map to the Next World. In these books her aim was to create a “sense of oral performance.” She laughs, “I don’t know if anybody got it.” Map ends with the poem “The Beautiful Perfume and Stink of the World,” a piece whose title illustrates the poet’s ability to embrace the ugly with the beautiful, and whose structure continues the conversation between prose and poetry. This embrace of dialectics is an overtly political act in her earlier work. In “It’s Difficult Enough To Be Human,” one of Harjo’s columns for The Muscogee Nation News in June 2007, reprinted in Soul Talk, Song Language: Conversations with Joy Harjo, she writes:

Maybe if we take care of our own story of our people, and make a story of justice, honesty, with a vision of caring for all within the tribe, we might inspire the same in others. If I remember the story correctly, we had no need for jails, for institutions, for military transport jets. We had everything we needed. We took care of each other. (100)

This ethos of compassion that she sees in her unvarnished view of Native cultures becomes a political stance: “Everything is political, whether you choose to see it that way or not. I’ve weathered fierce tribal politics, canoe club politics, music, poetry, and everything has politics . . . . And even that you are saying or doing something makes a stand” (Soul Talk 52). Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings is no less political, beginning with a quote from Phillip Deere which states that “Only the Indian people are the original people of America . . . . Every tribe has a trail of tears. We wonder when it is going to end” (1). Yet the structure, the force field, the life-giving water of Conflict Resolution is invoked in the second half of the volume’s title, which proclaims that we—all human beings—are sacred. We can relearn our interconnectedness to the earth and to each other. The school that teaches this is the school of art—of song, of poetry, of ceremonial dance, of story—and that school was built on Native ground.

As she reveals in her memoir Crazy Brave (W.W. Norton, 2012), Harjo chose early between life with a charismatic but alcoholic Native man and poetry. You can guess which won. Conflict Resolution showcases Harjo’s ability to make spiritual connections between her Native culture and what she calls the American “overculture” in a way that John Scarry compares to W.B. Yeats (“Representing Real Worlds: The Evolving Poetry of Joy Harjo” in World Literature Today 66.2, spring 1992). This connection intrigues me deeply, as a writer who has been dabbling in her own Anglo-Irish roots. Harjo assures me that the Irish and the Native share much in common, such as their fondness of poetry, song, the land, politics, alcohol, but also dreams and the spirit, and their historical experience of being shunned, exiled, disenfranchised, discounted.

Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings proffers its wisdom literature in four parts: “How It Came To Be,” “The Wanderer,” “Visions and Monsters,” and “The World.” The book shows the range of responses a healthy person can have to cultural dysfunction and alienation, from the wry humor in the creation myth “Rabbit Is Up to Tricks” (“Rabbit realized he’d made a clay man with no ears”) to the historical correction in “We Were There When Jazz Was Invented” to ceremonial dance-songs such as “Had-It-Up-To-Here Round Dance” to elegy (“The First Day Without a Mother”) to autobiographical songs like “Indian Night School Blues” to poems which serve as meditations on forgiveness and spiritual reconciliation (“This Morning I Pray for My Enemies” and “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings”).

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Joy Harjo at 100 Thousand Poets for Change, SUNY Adirondack Writers Project -Photo by Kathleen McCoy

By the time we get to the final section of the book, we are ready for deep work of reconciliation that Harjo initiates as facilely in poetic prose as in poetry and song. In “You Can Change the Story, My Spirit Said to Me as I Sat Near the Sea,” the speaker recalls “the story of the killing of a walrus who is like a woman,” and feels compelled to “sing the story” because “It is still in my tongue, my body, as if it has lived there all along, though I am in a city with many streams of peoples from far and wide across the earth” (104). The problem is plainly stated at the end: “We make a jumble of stories. We do not dream together” (104). If we would bother to know each other, to share our stories, to listen to the earth and to each other, we could dream together. The common dream is what Adrienne Rich called the dream of a common language. Harjo much admired Rich, who returned the feeling, calling for “a greater conversation, its tones, gestures, riffs and rifts” born of a “stubborn belief in continuity and beauty, in poetry’s incalculable power to help us go on” (Rich, “Defying the Space that Separates Us” in Arts of the Possible W.W. Norton, 2002).

It is this power that Harjo claims unabashedly with the simple voice that is Mvskoke/Creek and transtribal, a voice that speaks from the deep well of American history. In “Speaking Tree” Harjo asks bluntly, “What shall I do with all this heartache?” In this poem placed astutely alongside poems of praise and joy, she concludes, “drink deep what is undrinkable.” The collection ends with hard-earned optimism, a dream of “Sunrise” in which “We move with the lightness of being, and we will go / Where there’s a place for us.”

Near the end of our conversation, I ask Harjo about “time-bending,” a gift she has said her seventh-great-grandfather Monahwee had which allowed him to perceive time differently and manipulate it. She responds that time-bending affects poetry because poetry, like song, depends heavily upon “rhythm.” She likens the prose pieces in Conflict Resolution to saxophone “riffs,” short interludes that themselves play a part in the larger rhythmic structure of the book. Rhythm is an element of the cycles of history, the cycles of human emotion, the cycles of earth, the cycles of human relationship—and certainly, the nature of time in poetry and song. Even in free verse, meter measures time. It is the means of breath, and breath is the means of freedom, and freedom is the basis of art.

 

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Rush Pond Trail

Part of the risk and exhilaration-cum-embarrassment of writing daily and posting daily for the 30/30 Project is the sudden realization (after hours of drafting and editing) that two more tweaks would make a huge difference in your fledgling poem-child. Here’s today’s post, with alterations. If you’d like to support this nonprofit endeavor, please go to 30/30 Project, click on “Donate,” and be sure to mention “Kathleen McCoy” in the “Honor” field to credit your gift toward my fundraising goal. Happy trails. . . .

Rush Pond Trail / Kathleen McCoy

The other day my daughter showed me
I had to slow her down so we could talk,
allow the woods to shield us from obsessing
on the news. She flicked her flopping ponytail

behind her, smiled—she’d meet me later
at the house—plugged in her music, jogging on,
knowing the trail but not which branch to choose.
My music came from red-eyed vireo and thrush.

Felled white birch bits rested in a bed
of ferns in a room with green couches
of mossed maple; then I saw the forties roadster
careened into a trunk and left to rust,

right door missing, now nest for raccoons,
rabbits, squirrels. Eventually I reached the bridged
marsh, largely green and blooming with water lilies
and the unabashed purples of swamp milkweed.

What pilgrims trekked these woods
before the path was cleared? Acclimated
woodsmen, sticky wood-wise children, herb-
smart women, broad aprons for sacks?

Today my girl is purple wildflower, floating lily,
hers the chatter of invisible vireo, ethereal
song of wood thrush reverberating in the pines;
I, the rusty car, part of my right side missing,

open to air and moss and the steady passing-by of life
in all its forms. Tomorrow I will be the bed of ferns,
the green couch greeting her upon return
from her shadow-laced trail of song and surprise.

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