The University’s Jakob Ziskind Poet in Residence and English professor discuss role of identity in poetry
Speakers discussed the role of their sexual identities within their work.
Prof. Yuri Doolan (HIST) moderated a discussion on the role of personal identity in poetry and academia with Prof. Elizabeth Bradfield (ENG) and Chen Chen, the University’s Jacob Ziskind Poet in Residence. The discussion, which was conducted through a Zoom webinar Oct. 7, was part of the Critical Conversations series, a segment of the First-Year Experience which introduces students to the interdisciplinary conversations and intellectual pursuits of the University’s academic community.
The theme of the discussion, Doolan said, was the relationship between poetry and identity, and the way those elements can be used to explore the world and other academic disciplines. Doolan expressed hope that students would recognize the ways that almost everything is “inherently autobiographical, or related to ourselves and our experiences of the world,” and encouraged students to engage with questions of identity in their future pursuits.
Chen began by reading his poem “Poem in Noisy Mouthfuls.” The poem, though based on his personal experiences, had fictional elements, he said, but functioned as an “open letter” to those who see his work as narrowly focused on issues of identity –– “all you write about is being gay or Chinese,” a line of the poem reads. Chen pointed out, however, that work such as his that engages with identities which are specific or marginal can also be “expansive, complicated [and] rich.”
Chen called the poem a “breakthrough” piece for him, and described poetry both as a vehicle for him to explore issues of identity which he had no outlet for previously and as an expression of his “love of language.” He cited Li Young Lee, Ocean Vuong and Joseph Legaspie as inspirational poets who engage with Asian American and queer identity.
Bradfield discussed the ways that she has had to resist categorization as strictly “a woman writer” or “a gay writer,” preferring instead to explore the intersections and resonances of her identities as a lesbian poet who also works and writes about nature and science. “The ways that your complicated selves and curiosities and expressions … are manifested –– that’s your strength,” Bradfield said.
Bradfield read her poem “Site-Specific Adaptations,” which explored the ways that different aspects of her self can sometimes come into conflict, particularly in regions, such as Alaska, and fields, such as science, that can be homophobic. When she moved to a more homophobic community in Alaska, she felt “personally vulnerable,” she said, and this prompted her to write specifically about her identity.
Bradfield was pressured to keep her poetry about nature separate from her poetry about identity, but she rejected that division, saying, “that rich, confusing, confused sea of who we are and what we are –– that is the poem.”
Doolan shared the impact of his identity on his own academic pursuits, saying that curiosity about his mother, who was a single parent and a Korean immigrant, drove him to learn more about the history of his family as well as his cultural background. In high school, he had little interest in history because of the erasure of Asians in American history, but in college, he read a book about Korean military brides and said he felt he was reading about his mother, which opened the door to his further pursuit of history as a discipline.
Doolan read an excerpt from a piece titled “Dear Umma,” which explores his relationship with history as well as his relationship with his mother. The piece is part of an anthology titled “Mixed Koreans: Our Stories.”
Chen and Bradfield responded to an audience member’s concern about being “pigeonholed” as writers by their gender identities. Bradfield said that there is no need to shy away from identity labels because of the diversity of approaches that exist within those labels. Chen echoed this sentiment and shared Toni Morrison’s response when asked if she found the label of “Black woman writer” limiting: “I embrace that label … and complicate it, and show you all the nuances within it.”
Bradfield is an associate professor of English and co-director of the Creative Writing Program. She is the author of four collections of poetry, the recipient of the Audre Lorde Prize and a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. Her work has been published in the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, Poetry and many other publications. Aside from poetry, Bradfield is a naturalist and biology field researcher.
Chen teaches poetry workshops in the Creative Writing Program as the Jacob Ziskind Poet in Residence. He is the author of several collections of poetry, most recently “When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities.” He is the recipient of, among other awards, the 2019-2021 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Literature and the 2019 Pushcart Prize. His work has been published in Poetry, the New York Times, the Best of American Poetry 2015-2019 and many other publications.
Doolan is the inaugural Chair of the Asian American and Pacific Islander Studies department and a professor of History and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. He is the author of the forthcoming “The First Amerasians: Mixed Race Koreans from Camptowns to America,” as well as work that has appeared in the Journal of American Ethnic History, “Koreatowns: Exploring the Economics, Politics, and Identities of Korean Spatial Formations” and other publications.