News & events


02 July 2021

Poetic Inquiry Symposium 2021: Breaking barriers with poetry

Andrea Teagle

The major challenges facing the world today cannot be neatly categorised. COVID-19 is a health disaster; it is also an environmental issue, a scientific challenge, and a social justice issue. It follows that meeting these challenges requires bringing together different kinds of thinking and research. At a recent poetic inquiry webinar, academics and poets explored how poetry can be used to recentre the human voice in social science research. By Andrea Teagle

The 2021 international symposium on poetic inquiry, hosted virtually by the HSRC, brought together researchers and poets from around the world, creating room for new voices in academia and new reach for research. Themed ‘intersections of silence and invisibility’, the three-day workshops saw academics learn to work with poetry as a research tool, and young South African poets and poets who do research perform and distil experiences that statistics can describe but cannot embody.

From the onset, when the trumpet notes of Hugh Masekela welcomed participants to the event, it was clear that bringing poetry into academia was not intended to create a new ivory tower, but rather to ground research and make it more accessible to the people it purports to serve.

Throughout human history, poetry has been a powerful tool for self-reflection; and is also a means of reconnecting across overwhelming inequalities, the HSRC’s Prof Heidi Van Rooyen suggested. Attempts of the social sciences to emulate quantitative research might have cost academia the human element that often drives research and motivates change.

“A poem is the shortest distance between two people,” said co-organiser Dr Monica Prendergast, paraphrasing the American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. “I think that also has an embodiment in it, in that it pulls people together; it crystallises a thought or a feeling.”

At the opening session, two South African poets paid testament to the experiences of young children in South Africa. In his live performance of his poem Anakiram, Mjele Msimang painted a moment between father and son before the father goes back to the mines, “back to making cuts in the ground, as the ground carves holes in him”.

Maneo Mohale, reading from her recently published debut collection, spoke of a boy too young to know of violence and discrimination, who breathes new meanings into the world around him: “For now, the Bible is a hand drum for women draped in white and blue.”

Poetic inquiry

Poetic inquiry is the practice of using poetry as a tool for research. Drawing from interview data, an article or a book chapter, a researcher may arrange the words of study participants into a ‘found poem’, or use field notes or journal entries to reflect on the research process – types of poetic inquiry that Prendergast dubbed the participant and autobiographical voices, respectively.

In one example, the poet Pieter Odendall drew from news articles about the drought, neatly turning descriptions of meters cutting off water supply before daybreak to capture people’s resignation to a life of invisibility: “We’ve been programmed to shut off before we wake up.”

Where researchers relay ‘found poems’ back to participants, it becomes a joint and iterative process; poetry is the bridge between the researcher and the participant. In a 2020 paper published in the journal Arts & Health, Van Rooyen used poetry to amplify the voiced experiences of transwomen in Namibia. Based on focus group data, in which a participant describes the random violence that men inflict on trans women, the poem reads:

Will help you. 
They stand and stare ”till the guy is done

Where academia can be rigid in its form or expression, as researcher and co-organiser Duduzile Ndlovu said, “poetry breaks all the rules”. In its rhythms and – critically, for the theme of the symposium – in its pauses, it can also reproduce silences, inviting the reader to see and to empathise with unspoken experiences.

Decolonising research

For Ndlovu, pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable in academia is an ethical obligation – one part of decolonisation. “Poetry allows for the widening of the audience of our research. It challenges, who gets to be the audience? Who gets to critique me as the researcher?”

In 2017, Ndlovu published her doctoral thesis on the stories of Zimbabwean migrants who lived through the Gukurahundi in the form of poetry, to allow for a more authentic rendering of their experiences. Fittingly, the paper was titled “Let me tell my own story”.

“Part of the background to my thesis is that I was an insider-outsider researcher,” she said. While under pressure from the academic world to produce a certain kind of text, she also had critical insight into the lives and desires of the migrants she was researching. Poetry allowed her that ‘in-between voice’.

Her subsequent research on Zimbabwean migrants in Johannesburg, published in the African Studies Review, includes a found poem that captures the voice and intention of one of her participants, Mr Mabuyo.

I lost hope in 1980
We went to a wedding
The bride didn’t come

Ndlovu writes: “Using a wedding metaphor to narrate and problematize the inception of the Zimbabwean nation, as a wedding without a bride, Mabuya presents freedom as the bride…In the absence of freedom, the bride, Zimbabwe was doomed.”

Such found poems arguably capture a feeling of a time alongside the documentation or analysis of fact; they include a felt dimension that is often decoupled from academia and yet is fundamental to human interpretation of the world.

“New pathways”

During the second part of the symposium, participants were invited to create poems themselves. For researchers, a poetic inquiry workshop provided a non-judgmental space to explore their data.

For one participant doing research in theatre, poetic inquiry was a welcome bridge from the arts to the social sciences. For a researcher involved in drug policy work, the process captured drug users’ experiences from interview data. Another researcher found that poetry allowed her a different perspective to work through a tricky section of her data. It forces you to distil information, she mused, something that academics are not accustomed to doing.

The nature of the resulting poems varied: some were short and punchy, some rambling, some direct and some obscure. However, all attempts were welcomed, and the participants were unanimous that the workshop had opened new pathways to think about and express their research.

What was most striking, perhaps, about the event was the open atmosphere: the willingness of researchers to share a first draft of a poem, the unfiltered enthusiasm, and the gentle encouragement and generous praise. In this space, people from around the world were relating to each other as people first, and writers and academics second. Silos between disciplines were gently pulled down.

As the world grapples with multifaceted problems, the role of the researcher is shifting. “We can no longer be satisfied with just putting something in a book or journal…,” Van Rooyen said. “We have a bigger responsibility to much more widely disseminate our work and [to] speak to others, and poetry allows us to do that in really powerful ways.”

You can watch day 1 and day 3 of the symposium here and here.

Note: These webinars were a precursor to the 8th International Symposium of Poetic Inquiry which will be hosted in (hopefully, in person) in Cape Town South Africa in May 2022.

Andrea Teagle

Related Articles