Poems of Identity
My first Poet Laura post partly led us in poems of identity by including the popular prompt Where I’m From and the not-so-serious poem I wrote using it. I’ve written several poems about my parents immigrating to the U.S: my Macedonian father from Greece in 1930 and my Russian-Irish mother from Australia after WWII.
Now as I hear stories of Ukrainian refugees from people I know who’ve had personal contact with them, my thoughts go to the difficulties of leaving your home country and starting anew somewhere else, whether by choice or by force. To add to the everyday challenges of any move, there’s navigating a new language and culture. Worse, there’s having to face prejudice. And then, there are the despicable hate crimes, even when someone has lived here for generations.
Once again, poetry can help. Especially poems of identity. They give voice to the frustrations and, indeed horrors, of being stereotyped and seen as “other.” Poems can, in precise language and images, bring to light injustices and help us feel the poet’s pain and our own. One such poet who has done this with heartbreaking impact is Jericho Brown, winner of the 2020 Pulitzer for his collection The Tradition. Here you can read his poem Bullet Points from that book. He’s also a powerful reader; this reading gives me chills.
I am also moved by this remarkable poem written by Nancy Chen Long, an Asian American poet whose white American father met her Taiwanese mother when he was in the Air Force and stationed in her county. The poem relates just one of Chen Long’s stories where she was made to feel “not normal” … and this abomination from a school system children are expected to trust.
Before the Days of Self, or Elementary, or Elementary School Achievement Test as Primer
A child will learn to check
herself, mark the correct
answer, press the sabered
pencil, requisite #2,
will fill in the hole,
will fill in the whole
square so no white
tests, the question
below the student name
will be answered
by the teacher
who will instruct them:
“All children are to color-
in Caucasoid.” Except three.
Those children she will call out
by name, pointing to the first child,
“You are Mongoloid.”
The child will sprint across
the small patch of Mojave Desert
between a grade school
and trailer park,
will apologize to her father
for having denied
him on a test, will apologize
for having failed
to achieve Caucasoid.
—Nancy Chen Long from Light Into Bodies
The book in which that poem appears won the 2016 Tampa Review Prize. Chen Long also has a new book Wider than the Sky, the Diode Editions Book Award winner.
Immigrants—even when lucky enough not to face outright prejudice— also face the challenge of keeping their cultures alive. I grew up with everything Macedonian: food, dancing, “name days,” and other traditions, both secular and those of the Eastern Orthodox Church to which we belonged with Ukrainian, Serbian, Russian, and other eastern European families.
I never heard stories of my father’s dealings with prejudice, and he had white skin, which must’ve kept him at least somewhat immune. Fortunately, I never experienced embarrassment or cruelty. Other kids thought we were strange because our Easters and Christmases were on different dates than theirs, but I thought it was kind of cool because we celebrated on both the standard Gregorian calendar and the church’s Julian calendar.
I was also truly an American kid, though I cherished my heritage. Marrying someone who wasn’t of my faith and ethnicity and moving away from my hometown made it pretty difficult to keep cultural traditions alive. I still miss them. I go to the local Greek festival for the food and to dance. A poet friend/mentor encourages me to add interest to my poems through unusual details about my family’s history and cultural traditions. Here’s an example:
To My Father: Man with Three Names
Greece took your village of Bouf in 1912,
forced Macedonians to speak Greek,
to change their names,
yours from Konstantine Papazoff to Kosta Papas.
You left for the New World, a teenager
with your father, but not your mother,
never saw her again until someone sent a picture
of her in a coffin.
In ’30, Ellis Island declared you Carl Paul.
Your people clustered in Michigan,
formed Orthodox churches. We celebrated
name days (May your name last forever!),
and on Easter, dyed eggs red for His blood,
shouted Christos voskrese! Christ is risen!
You walked me to that gilded altar.
I took my husband’s name, practiced writing
it over and over.
But Dad, I want you to know your granddaughter
embraces her one-quarter you,
now goes by Katja instead of Kathryn.
Remember Father Raphael baptizing her?
A new servant of God, tiny and naked,
anointed with oil, immersed in the font,
she came up laughing.
Before she matured, we buried you—
once again Konstantine Papazoff—
held candles for you, sang Vechnaya,
Memory Eternal, incense rising.
We still make quiche-like zelnik,
still dance the Makedonia and Pajadushko
at church picnics with eight-to-eighty-year olds.
Katja and I feel the Balkan rhythms
in our blood. When the clarinet wails,
we know the tempo is about to double.
—Karen Paul Holmes from No Such Thing as Distance
Have you written a poem about identity or prejudice? Or have you read one lately that especially touched you? Please link to it or post it in the comments.
(Note, if you plan on submitting your unpublished poem to a journal, please be advised it will be considered previously published if you post it here. Publications like Every Day Poems, however, gladly welcome previously published work! A good poem is a good poem, after all. Worthy of being experienced again.)