Interview with Madison Gaines
February 19, 2019
Honors College student Madison Gaines has recently been featured by George Mason News in an article focusing on her lluminating Biracial Identity at the Juncture of Social Science and Poetry project. In this project, she composed original poetry concerning the experiences of biracial-identify individuals she interviewed.
Madison was first inspired to begin this project when she was taking Dr. Blake Silver’s HNRS 130 Conceptions of Self: Social Inequality and Self. With Dr. Silver as her mentor, she applied for and was awarded OSCAR Undergraduate Research Scholars Program funding so that she could pursue this research during the Fall 2019 semester. While working individually under Dr. Silver’s guidance to conduct the research and compose the poetry, she was enrolled in Dean Zofia Burr and Mr. Richard Todd Stafford’s HNRS 410 Multidisciplinary Research and Creative Projects seminar. This class gave her some early test audiences to talk about her research methods, explore how using poetry as a mode of inquiry differs and relates to projects undertaken by her peers, and to share early drafts of some of her poems. At the end of the Fall 2019 semester, she was recognized by the Honors College for having the best research poster/project among the upper division students who presented at the Fall Research Exhibition and Awards Ceremony.
In January, she learned that she has been accepted to speak about her work at the Cultural Studies Association’s national conference in New Orleans, LA. The theme of this year’s Cultural Studies Association annual conference is “Performance, Politics, Power,” so Madison will have a supportive environment where she may share the expertise she developed by composing and peforming this poetry with scholars from across the country.
Madison took time to answer some of our questions about her project.
RTS: Will you briefly summarize the work you’ve been doing for this project?
MG: This project, entitled Illuminating Biracial Identity at the Juncture of Social Science and Poetry, presents the difficulties and formation of the biracial and multiracial identity through a series of poems. 13 biracial and multiracial individuals were interviewed in the fall of 2018 to inform the poetry. The interviews were analyzed with a social science lens to identify concepts such as disassociation, code switching, colorism, and negative impacts on romantic and familial relationships. The poetry communicates these concepts to the target audience [which includes] individuals who do not identify as biracial or multiracial.
RTS: How did you first come up with this project? What was the context that inspired it?
MG: My project began as an assignment for HNRS 130: Conceptions of Self and Society with Dr. Blake Silver. We were tasked with writing an autoethnography that highlighted the injustices we faced in our own lives, but the assignment could take the form of whatever we chose. I chose to write a series of poems that explained the trials and tribulations of being biracial. Dr. Silver was the one who encouraged me to continue the project.
RTS: You are working with practices drawn from disciplines that others might perceive to be disparate: sociological ethnographic interviews and poetic composition. How did the practice of conducting interviews enrich the experience of poetically engaging with this topic?
MG: So many people have told me that you can only write what you know. I, personally, think that’s a dumb phrase. There is no limit to what you can learn! If you don’t know something, google it! Ask a friend! Read a book! Conduct an interview! Yes, I do know what it is like to be biracial, but every biracial experience is different. The interviews allowed me to learn about the experiences of other biracial and multiracial individuals and write about the most fascinating aspects of their lives.
RTS: How has the process of composing poetry based on your interviews helped you develop, deepen, or transform your understanding of the experiences your interview participants shared with you?
MG: Writing poetry is a very reflective process for me. After conducting an interview, I spent hours just thinking about how their experience differed from mine and how their experiences shaped them as a human being. I was able to put myself in their shoes and write their truth, and that’s an important thing to acknowledge. I might also be biracial and may share experiences, but the poetry is telling their story, not mine.
RTS: Can you describe some examples of times of when you’ve encountered perspectives that you didn’t expect that have proven generative, helpful, or challenging for you?
MG: In one of the interviews, a Chinese/Italian individual explained the many times they wanted to disassociate themselves from their Chinese roots because of the racist within Chinese culture. The surprise did not come from the desire of the disassociation, but the reason. Can we, as biracial individuals, disassociate because we are ashamed of the actions of that race? How do we accept a culture that we are ashamed of? And even further, it is easy to ignore the white side of biracial identity if the individual does not present as white or light skinned. But does that mean the individual can also ignore the racist or shameful actions ingrained into white culture? If society does not perceive you as white, does not treat you as “white,” then are you allowed to disassociate?
RTS: As you’ve developed this project, you have been situated in multiple different community contexts. You mentioned above that the target audience for the poetry is “individuals who do not identify as biracial or multiracial. When talking about your work, you have also mentioned that you hope that it can function as a way for biracial community members to come together. You’ve presented the poetry in both academic and public contexts. How has thinking about these different communities and contexts contributed to the development of your project?
MG: Many people in the scholarly community do not easily recognize [that] poetry or the arts can be used to inform the social sciences, and thus keep them separated. My project focused on bridging the gap between the arts and social science to show how the two may inform each other. This mindset drove me to find a way to bring biracial individuals closer together, even though we may not share the same racial combinations because we can understand and inform each other.
RTS: You have been preparing your work for multiple different audiences: public audiences for whom you might perform the resulting poetry and audiences who situated within scholarly research communities in the social sciences. Based on what you have done so far, how does communicating effectively with these different audiences differ?
MG: With a public audience, I can utilize any analogy or poetic method of communication to explain the experiences. I have prewritten the best explanation with the intention of making the target audience – people who do not identify as biracial or multiracial – understand what it means to be biracial. This usually involved creating an emotional connection with the audience and forcing them to feel the emotions of the individual I have written about. Within the scholarly community, the focus is predominantly how I connected the poetry and social science, so my explanation requires a more professional touch. I am blunt and to the point within the scholarly community, whereas with public audiences I can take my time and provide an emotional connection.
RTS: What has been most interesting aspect of simultaneously working to communicate with these different audiences?
MG: The most interesting aspect is the reaction of both audiences. Due to the emotionally charged content of my poetry, I tend to make a lot of people in the public audience cry. The scholarly community is usually baffled because they either had not considered connecting poetry and social science or because they never considered the experiences of biracial individuals. Both audiences ask me when I’m performing poetry next.
RTS: Can you describe talking about your research at the Honors College and OSCAR research exhibitions? What was most useful or generative about talking through your work in these contexts?
MG: My real goal is to inform the target audience about the biracial experience, so the most useful aspect was people asking me more about the experiences of the biracial individuals. I provide a sample of poetry in my research presentation, and that usually generates a lot of questions. The best moment, however, is when a biracial or multiracial individual sees my project and gets excited about being represented. I’ve had three people come up to me and thank me for my project because our community is finally being given a voice.
RTS: Can you describe your performance at Epicure? What was most useful or generative about performing your work in this context?
MG: My performance at Epicure was approximately 40 minutes long and in front of a small crowd of family, friends, and a few strangers. It really helped me understand what works poetically and what doesn’t. The reactions of the audience, whether they laughed or clapped or cried, that told me if the poem was good or not. Being able to speak in front of a small audience instead of a mirror was helpful in building my confidence in my poetry.
RTS: What’s next for this project?
MG: Moving forward, I will be continuing to write poetry about biracial identity. I hope to one day publish a collection of the poetry that came from this project, but until then I’ll just be presenting at open mic nights in the DMV. [Madison is also presenting about this project at the Cultural Studies Association national conference this year.]