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

 

chocolate
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.

 

 

“Green and Burning” Poetry Reading Video, Kathleen McCoy, January 4, 2017, Saratoga Springs, Caffe Lena

“So real it sears my hands, this / drawing, Celtic oak of two minds . . . .”

Kathleen McCoy – Poetry – “Green and Burning (Dar Glas Agus a Dho)” from Kathleen McCoy on Vimeo.