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.”

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.)

“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.

For a Beloved Colleague

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Killarney National Park, Páirc Náisiúnta Chill Airne

Hy-Brasil / by Kathleen McCoy

in memory of Carole Dunson Moreau

A big-hearted brainy broad born
to be a teacher went to bed last night
and never rose again, yet the sun
dares shine without her. Chocolate

turns to sand, to salt, to silt and still
the earth is green. Hands must
stroke the open wound to know
what’s real–how Venus burns

brightly because sulphuric acid
reflects the rays of sun. How the isle
of Hy-Brasil knits an Aran mist
whose molecules have passed through

St. Brendan and Molly Brown alike.
How it disappears after five hundred years,
unuttered word at tongue’s moist tip, then
rises from the sea, transmogrified

in fog and crystal skies. In dreams she still
wears streaks of summer in her hair,
inscribes notes of succor with a purple pen
her smile wide as the ocean between us.

 

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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