How to Write an Identity Poem

poetry Sep 20, 2021

Who am I? -- is a timeless question. But not always an easy one.

The exploration of the self is central to the meaning of our lives.

From when we are little, and we see our own reflection in the mirror for the first time. To the times when the world around us starts to reflect back to us new images of ourselves.

An idea forms in our mind: This is me. This is who I am.

At one point or another, everyone finds themselves with the burning desire to dive deep into self-inquiry, to know exactly what this ‘me’ is. 

And one way to do that is to write an identity poem.

What is an Identity Poem

The word ‘identity is often defined as “the qualities, beliefs, characteristics... that distinguish or identify a person or thing”.

In other words, identity is your description. It is the set of traits you use to present yourself to the world.

These traits can help you understand your role, your motivations, and the way you choose to live your life.

Identity can be made up of many things. In fact, one person can have multiple identities (take caution: not the same as multiple personalities).

Girl, boy, old, young, friendly, shy, eccentric, smart, creative, mother, father, husband, wife, American, British, Greek, Chinese, white, black, Asian… -- pick your identifying label of today.

The interesting thing about labels is that they can help us translate our essence into the physical world. But at the same time, they can destroy our understanding of who we truly are.

That’s why connecting identity and poetry can serve as a form of self-expression, and be a gauge for a deeper understanding of who you see yourself to be outside of society. 

Countless artists explore their individual identities through songs, poems, paintings, literature, and even business projects.

So, what makes poems about identity different from other types of poems?

An identity poem is a self-portrait. It is an exploration of who you are: your personality, your culture, your likes, and your dislikes. 

In an identity poem, you begin to answer what makes you -- you.

How Do You Write an Identity Poem 

The way you identify in this world is influenced by a great many things.

The way you look, your upbringing, the time in history you were born in, the language/s you speak, the friends that you have, all create personal stories we use to understand ourselves.

When you are putting together an identity poem you can focus on exploring specific aspects of one particular identity.  

For example, you can focus on one identifying factor such as race, age, gender, status. And how those factors influence your sense of belonging, how you feel about yourself, and how you interact with the outside world.

Or you can go on an exploration of identities that society has assigned to you, identities that you live by, or the identities you have lost and gained throughout your life journey.

To start off your first poem about identity, here are some ideas for you to work with:

MORE>> Learn how to write:

6 Identity Poem Prompts

To write poems about identity you first must be ready to talk about yourself.

There are many personal stories that come together to form the idea of identity. And many narrative experiences to choose from.

To search for your definition of selfhood, here are 6 aspects of identity you can begin to explore when writing an identity poem:

1. My Name Is

Your name is a big part of how you experience yourself. 

In most cases, it is something you hear more than once a day, which creates a narrative for your life.

Your name appears on all your documents, social platforms, in your communication with others.

What can you talk about when exploring your identity through your name?

You can research its meaning, origin, maybe even ask your family how they chose that name for you (if that option is available to you).

Do you have nicknames? What do those nicknames mean to you? Do you identify with them? How did they come about?

Another method is to explore your culture through your name and surname. 

For inspiration, see -- ‘Two names, Two worlds’ by Jonathan Rodriguez.

2. Your Physical Characteristics

Your physical form deserves some exploration.

The physical vessel that is your body is the first thing you see. It is what others see before anything else.

Talking about your body is also an opportunity to make use of imagery and personification.

Instead of relying on descriptions like tall, short, slim, brown/green-eyed… lean into poetic forms of expression.

Use metaphors, similes, imagery: charcoal-colored eyes, ocean waves that hug my thighs, auburn skin...

How do these physical parts of you, define you? What part do they play in your everyday life? 

You can talk about your scars. How your physical appearance affects the way society looks at you. How your physical being is the same or different from your inner being.

3. Where I’m From

A lot of our personal narratives come from our cultural heritage.

There are infinite sets of beliefs that come a package deal with your nationality, race, ethnicity, and heritage.

The need to unpack those beliefs isn’t only about the desire to see which ones align with your understanding of self. 

But to, also, uncover deeper meanings. 

How have those labels impacted the way you view yourself? Are there roots you are not aware of in your ancestry? Does the way the world sees your nationality, race, ethnicity... affect the way you see yourself?

If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going.” -- Maya Angelou

4. Your Family

We are a product of our mothers and fathers.

On the DNA level, on the emotional level, and/or on the behavioral level.

Without awareness of how your family plays into who you are, your family’s experiences can quickly become part of your personal identity. Whether you want it to or not.

If you choose to write about your family as part of your identity poem, you can discuss what you learned from them.

What beliefs did they instill in you? 

How did their behaviors affect what you do now?

To start off this kind of identity poem play around with the following sentences:

  • I’m a son/daughter of a man who __________ → what is something your father often did? 

 

  • My mother often __________ → describe an action your mother often did.

 

  • No wonder I know how to __________ → write down something you do, a behavior.

 

  • I am __________ → use a description/s to say something about your personality.

Keep in mind that what you choose to write can be positive or negative.

5. I am

Writing poetry requires you to be open and honest. It’s no wonder that poetry and discovering your innermost beliefs and feelings are so interlinked.

“I am” is also a common way to start off an identity poem.

Many famous poets, Emily Dickinson, Wilt Waltman, and William Wordsworth... wrote poems about identity to discover their inner workings.

Since ‘who am I’ can be one of the most difficult questions to answer, what you can do is start with an exercise.

Write out “I am…” 30 times, and finish the sentence with a different word/phrase each time.

What do you associate yourself with? What labels do you take on in the world? What resonates deep within you?

 

I am... a woman

I am… American

I am… a daughter

I am... earth

I am... sincere

I am... frost

 

Don’t stop, just write what flows out. Keep beginning the new sentence with I am, and completing it with a new description. Don’t repeat yourself. 

You can finish your sentence with whatever associates, may it be nouns, adjectives, even phrases: ‘I am not who you think I am’.

6. What You Don’t Know About Me

In one of the famous poems by John Clare, he wrote:

 

“I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;

My friends forsake me like a memory lost”

 

It can be easy to become lost in what others see in you.

The truth is, you don’t have to only rely on the outside world to write about who you are. 

In an identity poem, it is your perception that matters.

Make a list of 5 facts about yourself that you know to be true but others may not know, notice, or pay attention to.

Focus on your feelings, or on the things you do when you are in a safe space, or alone. 

Maybe you talk to yourself out loud, you burst into song when cleaning your house, or you like to step on each of the white lines when crossing a crosswalk.

Consider the last thing that made you sad, happy, or excited but you didn’t voice it.

How to Make Your Identity Poem Poetic

The poem format you use to write your identity poem doesn’t need to rhyme unless you want it to.

You can use rhyming schemes, prose, and free verse. But you don’t need to use correct grammar or even complete sentences.

In songs, you will often find incomplete sentences used as poetic devices to aid the flow and rhythm:

 

Since a little baby, skating in boogie boards

And raiding your cookie jar, my radio analog

 

The important aspect for a poem is the use of descriptive language:

Make use of metaphors, similes, and comparisons:

  • What objects do you associate with where you were born (city/country) → cherry blossoms, double-decker busses, droughts, skyscrapers… 

 

  • When talking about your family, rather than using names, think of an object you associate with them:
    • your mother → black high-heels, cozy sweaters, a glass of wine, a yellow apron…
    • your father → burnt toast, old western movies, cigar smoke, bible book…

 

  • Use personification to breathe life into inanimate objects → the heavy hum of factories, the warm touch of sun, a dancing breeze... 

For inspiration, listen to a slam poem about identity by Tucker Bryant “Facts About Myself”.

To write an identity poem, explore and express what you know to be true within yourself.

Events, circumstances, people don’t define you -- you have the power to define YOU.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adventurous by nature, Valery has been a world wanderer for many years. 

Her journey started in Russia, transitioned to the UK, and now she discovers a sense of home in nations all around the world.

She moves beyond borders - learning, participating, finding inspiration and familiarity in diverse cultures she’s had the joy of living in.

When not chasing adventures and out-of-the-comfort zone experiences, she explores the wonders of language and its impact on the self, the world, and interpersonal communication.

She never ceases to seek opportunities for self-development and to contribute to a brighter future for the world around her.

You can discover some of her experiences on https://medium.com/@valeryvoyager

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