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The Poetry of Difference

May 16, 2010

The Poetry of Difference

Article by Nicole Nicholson

In We Write Poems’ inaugural forum, we discussed how the personal is the political. The politics of race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation and disability may color how we write. Nicole Nicholson talks about these things that leak into our poems. In particular she discusses her poem about Asperger’s which, in my opinion, powerfully demonstrates there is really no “normal” because everyone is different.

Poetry is a universal art form with many faces. We find this true when we consider aspects such as form, rhyme, meter, imagery, and metaphor. We also find this true when we consider schools of poetry and other kinds of literary movements which have affected English language poetry. But spanning across all of these categories is what I call the poetry of difference.

What is the poetry of difference? Simply put, it is poetry infused with “stuff” from the cultures to which we belong. And when I say cultures, I mean it in a very broad sense – not just things such as race, ethnicity, and nationality but also religion, gender, sexual orientation, and even disability status. This kind of poetry is written in two dimensions: identity and experience. Material from both of these dimensions, whether we realize it or not, may unconsciously leak into and color our poetry. We can also consciously mine these dimensions and integrate whatever we find into our work. Either way, this “stuff” becomes a part of what we write.

The Identity Dimension

The identity dimension is who we are in terms of our cultures of membership. Every culture comes with its own set of attributes, which include both physical cultural artifacts and what Sir Julian Sorrell Huxley calls “mentifacts” – ideas, values, and beliefs that are specific to that culture. Though we are each unique individuals, attributes of the cultures or groups we belong to will affect the formation of our identities in some way. And these things will leak into our poems.

A great (and probably textbook) example of how the identity dimension bleeds into poetry can be seen in “Cross” by Langston Hughes (which can be read in its entirety here). In the last four lines of the poem, Hughes states the speaker’s dilemma, which is caused by the social consequences of his/her identity – a biracial person alive at that time in America:

“My old man died in a fine big house.
 My ma died in a shack.
 I wonder were I’m going to die,
 Being neither white nor black? “

I believe that for this poem, Hughes looked to his own identity for inspiration – both of his parents were of mixed race ancestry, with African-American mothers and white fathers.

The Experience Dimension

The experience dimension is comprised of whatever experiences that we have as a result of the larger cultures that we belong to. In short, what we go through can be a result of who we are. We celebrate holidays, observe customs, speak languages, eat foods, and worship (or not) in certain ways because of who we are. We face challenges, difficulties, pains, and choices because of who we are.

A really wonderful example of this expressed in poetry comes from Sherman Alexie’s “Powwow Ghazal” (as published in the Fall 2009 issue of Blackbird). Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian who grew up on a reservation, drew from his experiences to write this ghazal. I’ll quote two of the couplets below to illustrate how he does this:

“And what about those drummers? O, they’re old school.
 They’re everybody’s elders. They’ve gone gray with drums.”

“Damn, look at that fancy dancer spin in circles.
 She’s weeping! The girl is going insane with drums.”

Intersections of Identity and Experience

These two dimensions frequently (truthfully, more often than not) will intersect and work together within the same poem. An example of this is in one of my poems, “Dust“, which chronicles my nearly life-long search for and attempts to be “normal”.

I recently discovered that I have Asperger Syndrome, a neurological and development disorder that is part of the autism spectrum and that has such characteristics as difficulty making eye contact, trouble with reading and understanding social cues, and oversensitivity to external stimuli (such as difficulty tolerating bright lights, loud sounds, and scratchy clothes). I didn’t know this, but only knew that I was different from everyone else: there was a “normal”, and I clearly wasn’t whatever it was. The lines I quote below from “Dust” speak to this:

“Your name was Normal. You were a fantastic idol,
 a phantasm made out of God, pedestal-high,
 queen of all things that I could never touch. You
 wore my face like perfection even better than I did.”

Later in the poem, I speak of my attempts to reach that normal:

 you said. And I
 did. Until my back ripped itself apart,
 until my spine slapped me, until my
 arms fucking hurt like rubber bands that
 forgot that their skins could break. Muscle wire, worn out,
 the end of feeling human. Just reach a little further,
 yeah, that’s it.”

After I discovered that I have Asperger’s, I finally understood that I will never be or achieve that normal, made peace with that idea, and decided to opt for self-acceptance instead. The last stanza illustrates this:

“I suck in a deep breath and reach out to
 touch you –
 and when I do,
 you collapse into a mound of dust. So this
 is what my dreams were made of. I laugh, shake my head, and
 turn a scarred and bruised back to you. Fuck you. I’m not
 sorry for leaving you behind.”

So how do both dimensions work in this poem? As you read it, you see a journey of transformation. This is the experience. This transformation is from a person who longs to be what she perceives everyone else is (i.e. “normal”) to an acceptance of who and what she is. Thus, this culminates in identity – namely, the acceptance of it by the end of the journey.

There can be an infinite number of ways that these two dimensions work in poetry, and each of us has unique pieces, differences, and bits of cultural identity which affect our lives and our poetry. How do you explore these things to write your poems? How do you cast common experiences in your own light? How do your experiences and the lenses you see through color your poetry? Feel free to discuss, share links to your poems, and so forth.

Note: Stay tuned as Nicole will continue to explore poets writing difference. Join in the conversation as you wish on this rich topic. If you’re inspired to write a piece on your own poetic practice, email WWP by clicking on the Article Suggestions tab in the left column.

When Nicole Nicholson was eight years old, she started building magic kingdoms in alternate dimensions and talking to invisible people. She began writing poetry when she was twelve and has been storytelling ever since, trying to engage minds and hearts, communicate, offer different ways of seeing and feeling, and help others find their way back home. Now 33, she lives with her fiancé in Columbus, Ohio where she still builds magic kingdoms in alternate dimensions and talks to invisible people. You can find some of her poetry on her blog at Ravens Wing Poetry, as well as in Young American Poets, Strong Verse, and Spring Street. She has also published two chapbooks, Raven Feathers and word.

  1. May 17, 2010 11:42 am

    Oh, I so welcome the insight provided by this article. I, too, was recently diagnosed as an Aspie, and it appears my daughter may have this “difference” as well…Like you, Nicole, a huge relief settled over me with this discovery. Your poem, “Dust,” says it all, beautifully. While I do write poetry, I’m also delving into memoir, and the latter experience — perhaps more than anything I’ve experienced — has helped me open up to the “identity dimension” and the “experience dimension” and the juxtapositions between the two in various times of my life. Well put. Thank you!


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