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.)

Nat Geo and Processes of Poetry, of Peace

Watching Nat Geo gets my engine going with its brilliant animations and explanations of the processes that go on beneath our feet in the bowels and heart of the planet. Millions of years ago uncountable blankets of dead plankton settled into the bed of a dried-up antediluvian sea, descended far into the earth, were superheated by the oven-engine beneath them and tossed about like ashes in a hurricane, then settled into the sandstone deep down between crust and core and, after much pressure and slow tectonic shifts, became the black sludge that powers cars, computers, cities, universities, nations. We jack-hammered hundreds of miles down and pumped up this blackness, this foulness, this richness, this pure potential, the energy required for the engine of modernity to chug to life. While it’s far past the time we should be weaned from our oil diet in every city and town, hard drilling is how we started to create and share power.

What struck me most is how similar evolution must happen in our psyches and our nations before we can become a world where peace is even possible. The hard labor of breaking up the stone that surrounds our inner core must happen before we can discover the richness that makes such ecological and psychological trauma an unnecessary, outmoded process of the past. We must destroy the old illusions that we are separate, that there is no deep core of potential in our antagonists, that we can persist in oblivion upon the crust of social systems whose magma is about to erupt from beneath our dancing feet.

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(Pixabay, CC0 Creative Commons)

So we must do with our being: bore into the hard stone inside us, break it up, pump up the rich energy it releases. Carefully. That superheated heart has been known to blow off the tops of mountains and level whole towns in rains of fire.

When it is relieved of pressure intentionally we find power; when the pressure is relieved by nature itself we find the land blanketed with lava that can melt our shoes, but that becomes, when it cools, the most fertile of fields. Love. Forgiveness. Will to give ourselves to art and to each other.

If you have not yet done so, read Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings by Joy Harjo. Recommend it to your elected officials. Before you write your next poem, read her prose poem “Transformations” from In Mad Love and War.

Getting Back In

As difficult as it is now to imagine, as I child I was beyond timid. While in my imagination I could make things that were beautiful to my child-eyes, swim all day without tiring, ride a pony into the sunset, speak my mind without shaking, in actuality I was frequently frustrated by art that didn’t match the intricate mandalas I could see in my head before I knew what a mandala was, a pony so stubborn she wouldn’t take a step without cajoling, a body so terrified of deep water that I’d rather tremble at the edge of the pool than jump in (and the ocean?–for toes only), a voice that shook and hands that sweated so badly I’d have to wipe them multiple times during any test. Now, I’m deeply grateful and certainly not complaining about what was, all told, an idyllic beginning on this planet. But the felt gap between the desire to get “out there” artistically, physically, intellectually and my perception of my ability to embody this free, artistic person I longed to be was, at times and for decades, crippling. It’s been, shall we say, a theme for me.

I blame only myself for this. It’s like knowing you’re so far from your longing that you see only a corner of it through a telescope whose eyepiece has been blacked out. You think the lens is very, very small until you realize that if you clean the eyepiece, you can see; the irony is that you were just so darn close to the eyepiece that you couldn’t see it, really, at all, much less fix it–and where you can see, one day you can go. But until the voice telling me to go for it was my own, until I could feel in my body that failure is more a possibility I can learn from than a death trap–only then could I get out of my little self in little ways and keep pushing outward from a center that knows that the extent of what is possible only grows.

Now, in a season of change when rock-solid friends are dying young and my list of must-dos seems to lengthen with every breath, I realize I’m again at the edge of the water, frustrated that my Crayola art looks little like the Sistine Chapel, that Taffy the dark, dappled Welsh pony with the gorgeous flaxen mane is snorting, stock-still. She used to keep that up for so long (it seemed like fifteen minutes but was probably more like three) that I would give up, dismount, and walk her back to the shed. My friends that said you have to get back on after any buck or disappointment didn’t understand that my ride just wouldn’t move. Welshb_shangri-la

(Wikipedia, “Welsh Pony and Cob”)

So here I am again, not that different, I suppose, from anyone else, wondering what’s next and how to reach it. The difference for me from my younger self is the richness I’ve found inside myself. (You can be brought up in the church and still take a rather long time to reach this point, I’ve learned.) The Source of all goodness is source for everyone (I’m not talking about creeds here)–I feel this in my core. It is that love I seek to embody, that that gets me out of bed. Breathing it in, filling with it feeds, resurrects. The mindfulness we now agree is transformative (in homes, in schools, in artists) is a moment-to-moment invitation. I find myself wondering, instead of whether I will evolve as an artist, how, which of several projects to prioritize artistically.

What does it mean to be in the present and still be a thinking person? (I won’t even touch Alfred North Whitehead’s paradox–or more recently, Deepak Chopra’s–that none of us is the same person in any sense that we were at some undefinable point in the past; most of our bodies’ thirty-seven trillion cells would be unfamiliar to the children we were, and yet we feel some I-ness that grows far more slowly.) Then the present, I suppose, is not limited by space and time and current perceived actuality; reality is comprised of a richer, sourced, psychological and spiritual landscape enriched by the thoughts of all those I can access in the Information Age, in my memory, in the stream-of-consciousness within my head, in the wild imaginings of the heart. The earth is present and so is the beyond when heart and mind synchronize, when we breathe/imagine/write from a single light-filled breath that widens and widens, selects, illumines, includes until limitations fall away and worlds like sci fi, telephathy, poetry, the unwritten history of a people, the unscored music of the spheres take on a body, a shape, a color, a stream in the senses that renders them as real as if they were being seen, published, written, sung, recited, read, experienced in the present moment. This is a space no longer limited by dogma, acculturation, doubt, or fear. We are liberated in the act of creating.

Yet there is always more work to do, a process with one’s own mind, with the heart, with the mind several more times, with one’s peers, with the experts before it ever reaches the public, or some sliver of the public (my writer-friends are fond of saying we must each find our “tribe”) in form of publication or performance. But the enrichment of the artist’s soul is an essential precedent to any contribution to one’s own life, teaching, family, dreams, self-actualization, philosophy, spirituality, technology, medicine, politics, artistic creation, self-healing, healing of others, and innovation in the world.

At this point, dear reader, please take a moment to read Denise Levertov’s poem “The Secret.”

Now a rare airplane buzzes over our house; locust leaves waft slightly, brooding, waiting for rain; the cat sits tucked and patient for my lap to be free of books and computers. Taffy’s stopped snorting; her right foreleg is actually lifting from the hard ground.

May your water be safe, your pony trudge forward, your art pour onto the canvas or the page in vivid color.