Week 3 Poem of the Week: ‘These are my Identities’ by Emily Nixon

We spoke to Emily about her excellent poem and how she finds poetry capable of conveying powerful statements

These are my Identities

These are my identities
But you try them on for size
You hypothesise
And critically discuss
With lexicon that I don’t understand
You fight and you search for meaning
Some struggle that runs deep
You want to have it all
The shots you call
And the journey, and the narrative, and the story
The medal at the finish line

But you don’t want the struggle
The hours working for pittance
That time could be spent philosophising
You don’t want the inadequacies
The lostness, being cut adrift in conversations
About things you can’t even imagine
Name drops in the ocean of discussion
And opportunities and chances that most dream of

We are a case study to you
A white whale
Something to pat yourselves on the back for
It’s possible, some people can do it
You can mutter a pleasantry about access and inequality
And then fill the shoes that were destined for you

You can play politics
Appreciate each form, structure, and nuance
It’s a game
An academic challenge
A debate
Real life is blissfully far away
The people affected by these decisions made in ivory towers are so distant

But times are changing
We are starting to walk among you
We are working harder and harder to meet the standards
We are working by candlelight
To cram in the time
To observe a culture so far removed
To observe enough to be able to discuss
To prove our worth and intelligence
In a game that was never our own

Image credit: Keira Quirk

You will never see how we bite our tongue
We mask our surprise at every corner
As you discuss and contemplate theories intended to describe our lives

You find endless possibilities here
Then our world swoops in and sets the limits
Adds hurdle after hurdle
To your clear track
Don’t get me wrong
You’re still running an uphill race
But with the blinkers on, how will you know what we face

Of course, though, you do know
You study this constantly
Systemic inequality, deprivation, and control
But you don’t understand the whole

How frightening the endless possibilities can be
When you start climbing, rungs below on the ladder
When you doubt yourself at every turn
When all you want to do is excel at something, anything

But everyone has had years more training, and has tons more ability
You realise that maybe
The thing you excel at is survival
And that is certainly not a skill
That makes the best use of the endless possibilities
Laid out in front of you

These are my identities
They follow me like shadows
Influence everything, I think, do, and say
They can’t be tried on like a fancy suit
Something to be brought out in company
They shape the world I see before me as much as the world from which I’ve come
They can always be seen
They always run deep
Woven through the fabric of my life

So please understand
You can’t separate my identities and me

We chatted to Emily via Zoom to give her the opportunity to talk through both her poem and her creative process.

To begin with, Emily gave me an insight into her poem’s background and the message intended to be conveyed, which she emphasises is chiefly one of frustration.

“[The poem] is meant to describe being working class at Cambridge and the alienating experience that can be. It was written after a string of interactions with people who – while incredibly well-meaning – I felt were trying to explain my own identity to me. It felt like people were discussing the political and sociological side of things I’d very much experienced growing up or seen around me within my own community.”

For Emily, there is a distinction between discourse regarding social issues and an individual’s own lived experience: a ‘them’ and ‘us’ who are in constant conflict and brought to the fore throughout “These are my Identities”.

She adds that the poem was “written with quite a lot of conflict through it, as that is really trying to express the feeling of being shut out. It is a feeling of not necessarily wanting to be in conflict, but the narrative works in Cambridge making it feel like there is a conflict between the way that things are academically discussed and the real world. Then there is also the separation between the world that is Cambridge and what’s actually happening outside.”

Image credit: Keira Quirk

Noting that the overall tone of the poem is fairly critical, Emily continues that the level of frustration surprised even her upon a second reading of her work. However, she feels it was the cumulative effect of the “small things that grate on you” that led to this written catharsis, as opposed to any one occurrence in time, and that “a lot of it is very subtle”.

As such, she finds that poetry is an effective means to give vent to emotion and articulate certain patterns of thought. “I very much use it to process things that happen, to notice things through the day, to put across feelings that I don’t know how else to say. Especially with matters like this, sometimes it’s difficult to express that sense of frustration without offending whoever you’re talking to.”

Poetry, then, seems to be the ideal vehicle by which such issues can be conveyed without either causing further conflict or targeting anyone in particular. The ambivalence within poetry of both addressor and addressee Emily finds can aid in conveying powerful statements with a sense of agency and conviction, and without fear of judgement or silencing. Indeed, the clarity of the message in this poem Emily says spurred her on to publish it, though she stresses that she is “very much not a seasoned poet or publisher.”

Nevertheless, Emily tells me that poetry-writing for her took root from a particularly young age and remembers being ‘inspired by the writers who came into our primary school’. University – and particularly lockdown – also afforded her an atmosphere of “peace and tranquillity” within which to revive her love of both writing and musical composition.

Image credit: Keira Quirk

Despite studying a degree in Veterinary Medicine, Emily insists that there isn’t such a wide discrepancy between science and poetry writing, adding that she herself intends to study Education with English in her third year.

“Certainly clinically, there are some parallels: most of being a vet is actually working very much in shades of grey. Animals don’t follow textbooks, so a lot of it does involve lateral thinking and considering how to approach problems in various ways. It’s also about taking in information and assimilating it in a different way.”

As for poets who have influenced her work, Emily isn’t keen to cite anyone in particular, as her poems are more concerned with “individual experience” and the “feelings that I don’t know how else to express”. Nonetheless, she does still recall being set Philip Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’ in secondary school which she found particularly thrilling, as “in every line you took apart, you found more and more to pull out”, something she too aims for throughout her poetry.

Thank you Emily for your wonderful poem! If you too would like to be featured, just drop in your submission to [email protected] with your name, subject and college. We look forward to reading them all!

Feature image credits: Keira Quirk

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