IDENTITY

BY JAMIE LOWENSTEIN

 

Artist’s Statement: 

Changing the format of a poem from visual (reading) to visual (video) and auditory (spoken word) stretched my imagination and forced me to rely on intuition, friends, and my theatre training. My poetry writing tends to start with a small idea or phrase, and then goes onwards with no clear direction in mind, mixing metaphors, and ending eventually when there is not much steam left to go on. In my everyday life, I tend to have more direction with the same result- stopping when I run out of steam. In this case, I had already completed this step because the poem, which acted as the foundation, was already written. The small idea, identity and identifiers/labels, had coal thrown on its fire, and the steam powered it on for 5 pages. I finished the poem, reflected on its exploration of how one identity for an entire person is minimizing because people are inherently intersectional–“i am at the intersection of all my identities”–and set the poem to rest. So, how did I find a way to further explore a piece that I felt was finished?

In a class I’m currently taking, we spend a lot of time discussing media as a form of performance, and how this type of performance, in a Warholian way, either is or is not a reflection of our truth. So, my first idea was to film myself looking in the mirror in order to turn a private moment of performance public. Publicizing intimacy normalizes it, and allows an audience to feel personally understood. Next I thought of writing my identity labels on my body. Originally I wanted them to circle my neck like a noose, and then up onto my face like a tool of asphyxiation. However, I ultimately decided against that idea because of simple practicality and the worry of breaking out even more–maybe “vain” should have been a title in that list. In any case, I now had a new idea to further my work: the inability to change how others perceive you visually i.e. based on skin color, acne, etc.

With this idea in mind, I mapped out what the camera would be showing the audience for each beat of the poem, bringing out images in the poem more clearly and concretely. Once I had planned each beat, I knew I could not do this project myself. I am not a drawing artist, and I couldn’t pan around my own body. I reached out to 2 friends of mine who do have these talents, and they were extremely helpful, doing their best to help me achieve my vision. The process mirrored my theatre work, meaning that it was collaborative. I gave Ray a lot of liberty to draw the pictures however she wanted, which ended up with a beautiful result going down my spine. The filming went a similar way. Jen apologized for her shaky hands and not getting the timing exactly right, but I assured her that all small flaws could be embraced because the poem is not about being perfect, but rather about falling apart at the seams. The video both adds to this idea, but also contrasts it: showing me free of labels in the end, no longer dictated by the text of the poem. The last shot is very similar to the first because the text mirrors itself, but at the end the “i” words do not make me blink because I am controlling my own identity and what you see of me when.

The audio experience of the poem–my harsh assonance and stabbing pronunciations, contrasted with the Chopin piece–are used to further the contrast of the visual with the text. My voice reflects the uncontrollable spiral of self-doubt and the overwhelming power of others’ impressions. However, self-doubt is often internal. The most seemingly stable, happy person can be torn apart internally. And that is the function of the song- to reflect the external performance of someone struggling to come to terms with their identities’ intersections.

 

Jamie Lowenstein is a poet and actor based in New York City currently at Pace University in its International Performance Ensemble. He’s interested in diverse stories, especially within the queer community.

[REVIEW] Trouble the Water by Derrick Austin

BOA Editions
April 2016
REVIEW BY JORDYN SCHWERSKY
Derrick Austin’s stunning debut, Trouble the Water, gives readers unique insight on what it means to be a queer, black man in today’s world. He navigates the complicated worlds of race, sexuality, and religion with such fearlessness that we as readers can’t turn away even if we wanted to. Mary Szybist, in her forword, writes that that fearlessness begins with the book’s title, and she’s right. Before we even see the first page, Austin lets us know that this is not a book to be read passively. Rather, Trouble the Water is both a title and a command, a command for us to trouble both society’s waters and our own.
One of the most striking aspects of Trouble the Water is the graceful way Austin weaves sexuality and religion together, so much so that at times they are one and the same thing. Sex and God are both equal and opposite, drawing Austin’s speakers in and also forcing them to turn away. Heaven is another’s lips. One poem, called “Devotions,” is an ode to a lover. Often poetry about sex or religion takes an obvious standpoint, either on one side of the line or the other, but Austin’s poetry makes the reader think, hard, about what it is we believe in, particularly on the subject of LGBTQ issues. Sexuality and religion are separate issues that have been so convolutedly twisted together in today’s society that it’s hard to see them coexisting, but Austin attempts to show us that they can.
The other prominent theme in Trouble the Water is race. In the poem “Blaxploitation,” every line ends with the word “black,” forcing the reader to confront that, for a person of color, blackness is something that is ever-present rather than something which exists only when it’s convenient. Then there are times when Austin writes about race as if it’s an afterthought, balancing the ideas that race is both a massive part of people of colors’ lives and at the same time is merely a descriptive factor.
An interesting tool that Austin utilizes throughout all his poems, whether they focus on race, sexuality, or religion, is to use art as a descriptor and comparative factor. Many of his poems are set in museums, others inspect God and Christ through paintings. The poem “Breakwater” is theimagined story behind a photograph. Paintings and photos and music are not separate from our humanity; they are our humanity.
Austin tackles the difficult task of being both hauntingly amusing and utterly serious, making the reader feel hope and joy and sorrow all at once. He makes us rethink old assumptions and reminds us that we have the power to change what we think we know. Religion can evolve to fit today’s society. Love is complicated. Race is too. In the end, though, we’re all essentially the same, just people trying to live our lives free from fear. In “Torch Song,” the speaker says, “when I open my arms to the crowd and mouth / the night’s first note, I don’t sing; you singe,” and I think that line embodies Trouble the Water. Austin sings to us in a way that makes the reader feel uncomfortable, on fire.
Austin is an important voice in poetry. His book comes at a time when it is becoming more and more difficult to ignore the social injustices these communities face. Trouble the Water is not justthe title of Austin’s book; it is a command. The only question now is whether or not we will listen.