Last night I attended a book launch/reading for an Italian American poet and essayist whose career spans four decades. The evening was a celebration of this poet's life and career and struggle, including her struggle for acceptance among "mainstream" American writers. At one point, she told a story of how two writers prominent in PEN/American Center had publicly dismissed Italian American writers as a viable group.
I call this poet an Italian American poet because she identifies as such. Many of us "ethnic" writers have done this at different points in our careers, though not always. Many of us have found strength and support in gatherings of ethnic writers associations, such as the Italian American Writers Association. Last night many of the stalwarts of that association, along with other Italian American poets, gathered in one room, to read and comment on work by one of their own. Many of these writers had shared various stages and pages over the past twenty or so years. Many have careers because they were able to share these spaces with other Italian American writers, who promoted their work by introducing it to others inside and outside of the Italian American circle.
If a particular group of poets do not share a common ethnicity, they may share a gender, sexual preference, culture, belief system or home turf. Many poets may identify with several groups at once. (It was good to see at least one Greek-American writer and one Anglo-American "New York" writer in the room.) The ability to identify with a group may facilitate poets' crossing into various groups' poetic territories, producing and performing work in veins these groups, even groups to which they do not belong, have mined. We might say then that identity group readings are the backbone of American poetry scenes.