Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Readers Write: When Poetry Becomes Necessary

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The Art of Poetic Inquiry

By Guy Ewing

Several months ago, a small Nova Scotia publisher, Backalong Books, released an anthology called The Art of Poetic Inquiry. The anthology was launched in November at the Dora Keogh with readings by some of the Toronto poets who contributed to the anthology: Kelly Aitken, Catherine Graham, Nancy Halifax, Sue MacLeod, John Oughton, Mary Rykov, Mary Lou Soutar-Hynes, Sheila Stewart and Elana Wolff.

The anthology originated at the Second International Symposium on Poetic Inquiry at the University of Prince Edward Island in 2009. Many of the participants at this symposium were researchers who incorporate poetry in research. These are researchers, in areas such as education, health and social change, who feel that they need poetry to bring them closer to what they want to learn.

At the Dora Keogh, incorporating poetry in research was mentioned, but not discussed. Poets read poetry. And having read the anthology (all 551 pages), I don’t want to distinguish between what leads a poet to pursue inquiry through poetry and what leads a researcher to turn to poetry. Poetry simply becomes necessary to inquiry sometimes.

The necessity for poetry is explained in the anthology both in the language of research and in the various languages of poets talking about poetry. Kimberley Dark, using the language of research, writes of exploring “variances” in how respondents in research studies answer questions about gendered interaction. “Variances are often attributable more to the invisibility of gender privilege than to the ‘truthfulness’ of respondents.” Gendered interactions are “hidden, even from ourselves . . . Poetry prompts an emotional re-living and re-framing of everyday events so that the contours of gendered experience come into view.” She follows this explanation of the necessity for poetry in her work with a beautiful and revealing poem called “Litter,” which narrates a verbal exchange in a traffic jam on an LA freeway between her, in her “little blue car,” and a man in a Hummer.

Toronto poet Ronna Bloom explains the necessity for poetry in a similar way, but using poetic narrative. “Almost as soon as the idea came for the talk in 2006 [“Poetry and Mental Health,” a talk which Ronna gave at the League of Canadian Poets AGM], I wanted and didn’t want to talk about poetry and mental health. It had been the most important thing in my life and I didn’t know what to say about it. I wanted to back out, thought: what do I have to say about this? Yet, if I imagined cancelling, all the fragments of things floated up and waved their arms and said: What about me? Don’t you want to talk about me? “Oh, you’re just fragments,” I’d say, “You’re not enough.” Fragments! they shouted back. Fragments are everything. They’re how we start. How could you ignore us? She goes on to illustrate how this openness to what is “hidden, even from ourselves,” to use Kimberley Dark’s phrase, is something that poetry allows.

Our hidden ways of knowing are a recurrent theme in this book. A related idea is “the edge of knowing,” which Sheila Stewart refers to in the following description of her approach to using poetry as research: “In my approach to poetic inquiry, I let the poetry lead the inquiry. I try to follow, asking where it needs to go next, what it requires of me. The poetry and the inquiry are one: wrestling with language, a way of coming to know what is on the edge of knowing.” Sheila, a doctoral student at OISE/UT, does poetic inquiry into “the threads that run between shame, grief, silence, learning and language, drawing on my experience as an adult literacy worker.”

It is this drive to find out what is “hidden” or “at the edge” which connects research to poetry in this book. Poetry becomes necessary when we need to know what is hidden, or almost hidden, “even from ourselves.” This is one way in which poetry becomes necessary.

In research, poetry is often in conversation with prose discourse. Poetry which is inquiry, but not intended to be research, stands alone.

The authors in this book have various kinds of working relationships with poetry and research. Some write poetry which is, among other things, inquiry, but do not engage in research as such. Mary Lou Soutar-Hynes and Elana Wolff are examples. Others, like Sheila Stewart, are poets who have become engaged in research, using poetry as a medium. Others, like Lorri Neilsen Glenn, are researchers who have become engaged in poetry. These are just some of the working relationships. What these relationships have in common is poetry driven by inquiry. What they show is how permeable the traditional distinction between poetry and research actually is.

We can thank this book for pointing to this permeability, and those who are working in the field of Poetic Inquiry, and in the more general field of Arts Informed Inquiry, for making a place for poetry and art in research. The presence of poetry in research signals cultural and institutional shift. This shift has been accomplished not through storming the barricades of traditional research methodology, but through persistently attending to the necessity for poetry.

It was good to celebrate this anthology with Toronto poets at the Dora Keogh. It was also good to read the anthology, its wide-ranging prose and poetry, including some wonderful collections of poems, with commentary by the poets.

Guy Ewing has a background in academic research, as a linguist, and in research-in-practice, as a community literacy worker in Toronto. He is the author of two books of poetry, Hearing, and answering with music (The Mercury Press, 2009) and Earth Becoming Sky (Teksteditions, 2012).

The Art of Poetic Inquiry (Backalong Books, 2012) is edited by Suzanne Thomas, Ardra L. Cole and Sheila Stewart.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Do you have a story to tell about your reading or writing? Send an email to clelia@openbooktoronto.com.

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