We’re all adding brushstrokes to a much larger mural than any one of us can hold
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.
How do you feel about “poetry of witness”? I’m referring to a still-debated term used by Carolyn Forche and other poets that respond in their poems to the injustices, oppression, and violence suffered by others.
At the recent AWP conference in Boston, I heard wonderful poets–from the Old Guard and the Newer alike–including Sharon Olds, Olga Broumas, Kathleen Graber, and Kimiko Hahn–praise Adrienne Rich and Muriel Rukeyser. Carolyn Forche is a long favorite of mine as well.
It’s one of many paths poetry can take, and this one can be fraught. My poetry mentors of the ’80s were mostly men who were, while brilliant artists, indoctrinated in the view that any brand of “political poetry” was, categorically, bad. Today I’m sure their views are more nuanced. At least, I like to think so. I don’t think they would have argued that Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” is a bad poem, nor Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner,” but when it came to feminism, domestic violence, abject poverty, and a host of other social issues, they turned away, huddled over poems that remained intensely personal or philosophical. I’ve noticed, over the years, that much of this work is written by women or people of color against whom they would never overtly discriminate today.
What makes “political poetry” good or bad? When does some measure of social activism cross the invisible (perhaps undulating) demarcation between compassion and schlock or opportunism or appropriation of others’ experience?