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.”

Writing and Empathy

Marilyn McCabe’s reflections on faith and success seem particularly germane this Easter season. Writers and wonderers, consider.

O Write: Marilynonaroll's Blog

A poem by Dante Di Stefano, “A Drone Pilot Discusses the Story of Abraham and Isaac” (http://www.amethystarsenic.com/issues/4-1/dante-di-stefano.php) compares Abraham’s faith on that day he offered up his son to the kind of everyday faith with which we live our mundane lives, faith that, for example, if we wait in line at a store, we will be served, if we offer up our credit card, the purchase will be successful. “You don’t question the altar or the knife,” he writes. “You don’t ever doubt that the Walmart/will carry the Tide marker you need…” This is kind of stunning, this deep empathy with Abraham’s point of view, speculative though it may be, ironic, rueful. I thought of this poem when I heard a lecture by Alain de Botton about our culturally-based ideas of success and failure (http://www.ted.com/talks/alain_de_botton_a_kinder_gentler_philosophy_of_success). He claims our contemporary understanding of them can lead us to discount the…

View original post 106 more words

Do the Catwalk

Doing the catwalk
Doing the catwalk

This year, I’m challenging myself–and any of you who care to join–to claim your own catwalk to move across steadily and with as much grace as we can muster. I’m not talking about a Kate Moss catwalk, but the kind that’s tethered near the tops of trees, a single cable you inch across for the heady experience, and just to convince yourself you can do it. Mine has something to do with picking up and moving on without one of my biggest cheerleaders, searching for contact with the wire, checking my fear at the tree and pressing on to the next one. (And yes, that’s me in the photo last year, nearly hyperventilating with a fear of heights but moving across as I’d urged my students to do. We all made it, unscathed.) The breeze will blow; my balance will not be constant; the air will grow cold. But walking the line requires trusting I can find some words, some truth. I’m harnessed in, after all, so all I love will break my fall.

In her poem, “Apples,” Grace Schulman writes, “beauty strikes just once,/ hard, never in comfort. For that bitter fruit,/ tasting of earth and song, I’d risk exile.” The act of inching across the catwalk is a deliberate pursuit of beauty, but the risk is real, and it can feel like exile. Waiting months for the response of an esteemed publication. Then getting it. Over and over. There are compliments as well as critiques. There is hope. But the rope is high and the trek is long.

This month, I’m revising (for the twenty-something time) several poems in an evolving book-length manuscript while trying to work up a new class on portfolio development for creative writers and kick out a couple of new poem drafts. Then it’ll be a recommitment to sending out small batches of poems. Step by pensive step, I inch across. I think of my lifelong cheerleader, my confidante, my first reader, whose death still does not quite feel real. She wanted to be a writer, but wrote very little. She did publish one article and write a couple of stories and a song. She really wanted me to succeed. I have to walk the walk for myself . . . but I know it’s for her, too. At this rate I may not break any land speed records, but then, I’m not touching the ground.

So, what is your catwalk? What’s your plan to get across?