“Tell it slant:” poetic musings on identity

I hated labels anyway. People didn’t fit in slots–prostitute, housewife, saint–like sorting the mail. We were so mutable, fluid with fear and desire, ideals and angles, changeable as water.  Janet Fitch, White Oleander

The acclaimed poem, Where I’m From, by Kentucky poet laureate George Ella Lyon has become a popular poetry writing exercise. It is well-known in schools, creative writing classes, contests and writing forums.

The poem is a beautiful evocation of childhood with a strong sense of place and belonging. It speaks to people in diverse circumstances and provides a template to express one’s uniqueness and experiences. As Lyon writes, “the list form is simple and familiar, and the question of where you are from reaches deep.”

Here’s a poem based on the Where I’m From template by Melanie Poonai, the 15-year-old winner of Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award in 2007:

Where I’m From

I am from a life filled with colour,
From the chocolate brown that is my skin.
I am from the sunshine yellow of my mother’s laugh,
From the red and white of my brother’s favourite football shirt.
I am from the crisp new white pages of a book,
From the miserable grey of the street I live on.
I am from green, pink and yellow; My garden in summer filled
with flowers,
From the terrifying black of the nightmares that haunt me.
I am from the ginger orange of my buried cat,
From the blue and gold of my ever-short school tie.
I am from the dark oak of my grandmother’s coffin,
From the golden “Aum” pendant around my neck.
I am from every pink scar etched into my body,
From the red, orange and brown of a hot curry.
I am from every identical colour of the twins I love,
From the blue and green of a hospital ward.
I am from all that has happened,
And all that will be.

Since introduced to the poem at a Toronto Writer’s Collective training workshop, I have used it as a writing prompt in many contexts: from healthcare settings to a youth shelter to a program for street-involved people to a forum for academics and educators.

I’ve had many opportunities to write to it myself and every time the end product is different. I am always surprised at what emerges. While there are certain phrases and images that keep surfacing as a recurring thread, new things emerge every time I do the exercise that leave me wondering where they’ve come from.

I’ve been thinking about what gives this poem its power and resonance. Is it the openness and universality of its subject? Or the simple structure and repetition that opens a door for writers of all skill levels? Is it the possibility of writing about the “self” without divulging too much, or boxing us in to restrictive categories?

While the autobiographical nature of the piece is often emphasized (and Lyon has written about its roots in her childhood), the poem allows for accounts of the self at a literal level, a metaphoric level, or both. It can capture the emotional tone of “where we’re from” without relying on concrete information about the past. It offers opportunities to write about things that may otherwise feel too exposing or too raw.

While Lyons rooted the poem in her own experience, the poem allows us to create a story about the past through fragments and glimpses — a story that can change and evolve with every telling. It is this ambiguity and flexibility that bestows a sense of psychological safety and freedom not possible in explicitly autobiographical pieces that construct identity as unchanging and solid.

In an era of increasing complexity about notions of identity and the pressure to place labels on our experience, this kind of writing offers another way to express and re-create ourselves. As Emily Dickinson so beautifully wrote, “tell all the truth but tell it slant.”


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