The poetics of a serendipitous encounter

Yesterday I had a wonderfully inspiring meeting with Alice Hiller, who will be helping me put together a storytelling workshop. The idea is to take an item of clothing, or accessory, that holds emotional meaning and turn it into literal and visual poetry. Although there will be an end product, the objective of the workshop is the creative process, which will hopefully create moments of self-reflection and perhaps even some healing. Alice has a background in both journalistic and creative writing, and experience running a small poetry group herself so her input is exactly what I need and it will bring much added value to the intervention.

We decided to start by testing some ideas with a small, informal focus group to help us plan the first official workshop. Although the first workshop is by no means intended to be a finished end product, I do of course want it to be organised and planned in a way that the participants (as well as Alice and I) can benefit from the process.

Alice told me again how much she liked my black dress performance and that she would never have guessed that it is not something I do frequently. I said to her that I think it is perfect that we met by sharing our personal creative work; that we were drawn to each other through our stories and a moment of vulnerability and empathy. Had it not been for the language of poetry we may never have ended up collaborating on this workshop. And the fact that an intervention that was organically shaped during my research process – with roots in the Nightmare – serendipitously ended up catching the attention of a collaborator, is poetry in itself.

Planning future success stories by exploring past narratives

I was invited to participate in a workshop of self-exploration by one of the contacts (psychologist and coach Kelly Scott-James) that I have made during my research process. The workshop was based on concepts and exercises used in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and the objective was to explore personal aspirations, obstacles, and feelings.

NLP builds on cognitive psychology and deals more with the ‘how’ rather than the ‘why’. It is essentially about exploring our narrative identity and ‘telling ourselves better stories‘; shaping and adding strength to your personal narratives by turning worries into opportunities and realising our own potential. NLP explores the complexity of a person’s inner world and builds on the idea that the basic tools we use to process the world (sight, sound, touch etc.) are the same but the way these tools are used is highly individual (Grayson, J and Proctor, B., 2000). NLP sees the world in systems of individuals, relationships, and societies that form an ecology of systems and subsystems that interact with and influence each other (Grayson, J and Proctor, B., 2000). Furthermore, NLP believes there is no failure, only feedback – failure happens when something is completed and life itself is a process and not a completed event (Grayson, J and Proctor, B., 2000) – which happens to be exactly the same concept action research is built on – and although sometimes perhaps a dangerously black and white view, it is unarguably a healthy approach to some aspects of life. 

I cannot confidently say I fully agree with the philosophy of NLP and that I know enough about it yet to form a comprehensive opinion, however, there are clearly several aspects that offer a sustainable way of approaching our personal narratives and place within the world.

During yesterday’s workshop we did brief NLP-based exercises in a small focus group of three. We started by choosing an individual objective and then worked on visualising the journey and identifying the obstacles that we have or may encounter. We did a series of self-reflective exercises that eventually lead to a stepping stone activity designed to mentally prepare us for the objective/s we chose for ourselves. I organically ended up choosing my own research process and a PhD as the aim. At the end of the day I had a visual, physical, and emotional manifestation of what the journey could be like. During the afternoon we all realised we have reached similar aspirations before and already possess the tools we need for the journeys we want to do, which can be a highly empowering realisation.

Overall it was an inspiring and empowering afternoon for me both on a personal level and for my current research process. When I received the invite I became intrigued by NLP and the experience of analysing my personal narrative and how it would impact me emotionally, partly because it links to my current research (self-reflective storytelling and affective well-being). The interactivity of the workshop made things seem much more tangible and created a space for exploring narratives linked to a certain topic and how it fits into the ‘bigger picture’. I can see potential in pushing a process like this into even more creative territory by involving different artistic media and combining aspects of NLP with art therapy and DIY culture – a thought that strongly links to my existing research.

 

Grayson, J. and Proctor, B (2000) 'Neuro-Linguistic Programming' in Palmer, S. (ed.) Introduction to counselling and psychotherapy. London: Sage Publications, pp. 159-171

 

(Hopeless) intervention

Unfortunately my intervention evening last Friday gathered a hopelessly small amount of people. This means that I was not able to observe and analyse how people might respond to interactive storytelling through affective objects, in the way I had hoped.

People showed interest in the intervention but eventually only 4 people attended the event, and two of them were the owners of the venue. Sometimes the most difficult part of an event is getting people to come, and I suspect that the location and insufficient marketing were the main reasons for the low engagement rate.

However, there is always something gained. Although the event may briefly have felt like a waste of time, there were useful things to learn from both the evening itself and preparing the event.

There was a positive response to the self-portrait studio – a separate room with a tripod, remote-control for the shutter, mirrors and a few other props –  which indicates that this may be a concept that is worth exploring and developing further. At first people did not seem tempted by the idea but after I encouraged them to try it they were positively surprised at the experience. Quoting one 22-year-old female participant: ‘My first reaction was doubt and mild panic, but afterwards I was excited to try similar pictures at home.’ She said the self-portrait studio was a curious exploration in creativity, and has prompted her to think about the way she is used to interact with the camera lens and in what ways she views her self as the subject of an image. Her experience illustrates how a creative photographic approach can provide a means to translate and evaluate personal experiences through a creation of original photographic artwork (Simmons 2013).

In addition to the self-portrait studio, I also created a word puzzle to inspire poetic word play during the event. Based on my personal experience this is a useful tool for starting the process of poetry creation. Arranging and rearranging a chaos of random words is an effective brainstorming technique. The words ‘kitchen’ and ‘lake’ inspired me to write a poem almost entirely out of the blue. I believe this word collection will be useful for the next intervention, which is going to be a poetry workshop at the Poetry Café.

I did also notice that selecting and bringing in a personal item inspired a general conversation about emotions, memories, personal narratives, and identity. One dress that an older woman once wore to a 50s themed secret cinema triggered a whole range of memories and self-reflection, not just in the owner of the dress but others as well. This suggests that affective and mnemonic objects are powerful devices for self-reflective, and potentially therapeutic, storytelling.

Although there were moments of self-reflection on Friday, they were superficial and no noticeable in-depth exploration happened during the event. It is of course possible that the theme will prompt self-reflection at a later stage, but it also does show that trying to reach people who already have a desire to investigate their own emotions may result in more significant change.

 

Intervention SWOT

Strengths: the self-portrait studio was a success, and caused notable change in at least on participant; spending time selecting an item beforehand prompted more reflection than not choosing one; random word play can act as a simple and efficient tool to inspire poetry writing

Weaknesses: the activities were not clear enough and people needed to be encouraged to interact with them; the event inspired very little in-depth exploration, which may partly be because of the personal and intimate nature of the subject and the empty room

Opportunities: using elements from the event in a structured workshop and reaching the ‘right’ people could result in more significant self-reflection and interaction with the activities

Threats: a small amount of participants has an overall negative effect on the atmosphere because it does not encourage story-sharing and spark curiosity; by not targeting a specific group of people (by choosing the right venue and marketing channels) there is a risk for the story-sharing to remain casual rather than deeper exploration within the stories

 

 

A brief look back at my nightmare

On Thursday I spent approximately 40 seconds far outside my comfort zone. I confronted my nightmare, and performed the dress poem during an open mic session at the Poetry Café. I wore the actual dress to include it as a part of the poetry reading. I wrote down the poem in a little notebook just in case, but instead of the poem I decided to go up with a glass of wine in my hand. I told the audience that I would share a brief moment with them, after which I performed the poem about my black dress.

I did not receive any specific comments from individual people, except for one which was much more than I had expected. Poet and curator Alice Hiller told me she loved my performance and thought it was a clever way to perform a poem. I have been in email correspondence with her after the poetry reading regarding my upcoming interventions and she is interested in helping me with my research.

Inside out

On Wednesday I had an inspiring meeting with a psychologist. She is interested in the psychology of architecture so we met at Central Saint Martins and did a little tour of the building before discussing clothes, memories, and mental well-being over a cup of coffee.

She told me how my ‘intervention scores’ had prompted her to spend almost five whole hours looking through her wardrobe and reflecting on individual items and how her clothes make her feel. ‘It was like Vesuvius going off in my head.’ Discovering and exploring the memories and feelings in her wardrobe ended up being intensely memory-inducing, and an element of self-therapy had clearly been present in the process. Her response to the intervention exercises was what I was trying to explore, however, I must admit that I was surprised at exactly how powerful the self-reflective properties of exploring your own wardrobe can be.

She brought a dress and a pair of suede shoes with her and shared some amazing emotional stories triggered by the items. Both were entangled by a vibrant range of emotions and memories. The ‘intervention scores’ may not have reached many people yet, but on Wednesday I gained evidence that they have acted as the root for at least one personal journey of recollection, feelings, and realisations.

She also told me about one of the very first things that came to mind when she thought about my research topic. The memory is from almost three decades ago when she was doing a postgraduate work placement at a psychiatric hospital. There was a woman who kept repeating the words ‘My dress, my dress, my dress.’ which caught her attention and she asked the permanent nurses what was wrong with the woman. To which they replied that her dress is on inside out. That day she learned, to her shock, that they had communal clothes and the nurse would just pick something she thought would fit and put on the patient. This tragic story illustrates, at least partly, how important the things we wear are – clothing is like a second skin and something we often take for granted. This anecdote shows that clothing is not just a frivolous luxury item, but an important part of our being.

She thought my research has PhD potential and that exploring the mental health aspect could be a worthwhile direction to go in. She has been incredibly helpful and said she will compile a list of people who she thinks might be useful contacts for the development of my research. Who knows, maybe the two of us will work on something together in the future…

An evening of clothes and narratives: intervention development

As previously mentioned, I have been in correspondence with one of the owners at Locus of Walthamstow, Stella Taliadoros, regarding my next intervention. The date has been confirmed as 31 August, and Stella was happy with my plan on how to organise the space during the event.

The event is going to be an interactive storytelling evening to observe how people respond to and interact with the topic of clothes as narrative and affective objects.

An evening of clothes, narratives, and bubbly! 

What kinds of memories and stories do you have in your wardrobe? Do you ever wonder about the lived experience of previously owned clothing? Would you like to get rid of clothes you no longer wear and share memories in a creative way? 

Discover the stories that time has woven into the clothes we wear during an evening of clothes swapping, storytelling, and mingling.  

Bring clothes or accessories you no longer use and swap them for something else. The catch? Each piece should come with a little story from its past life. Maybe it whispers nostalgia? Maybe it witnessed a serendipitous encounter? Or perhaps you wore it to a party on 31 August ten years ago?  

You may even discover long lost love stories in your wardrobe, which is more than okay. If you do not have anything you want to swap, come share your precious story over a glass of bubbly, immortalise it in the self-portrait studio, or turn it into a poem!

The space is going to offer a chance to discover and share stories in an immersive environment. The intervention event has been developed from the four ‘intervention scores‘ and includes similar possibilities for self-reflection. The low participation in the ‘intervention scores’ does not appear to be a result of a lack of interest but rather a ‘lack of time’. By creating an event around the theme I am hoping it will be easier to reach people and record their response in real-time. It will also provide a platform to explore the creative possibilities of storytelling through dress.

poetry

The Oxford Dictionary (www.oxforddictionaries.com, 2018) defines poetry as ‘literary work in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm’ or ‘a quality of beauty and intensity of emotion regarded as characteristic of poems’.

Since poetry is a form of storytelling that places emphasis on emotion, and because I am also drawn to poetry on a personal level, it has been present in my research process from the start.  

The activity of creating poetry is a powerful tool for extracting emotional narratives from objects and events because poetry gives shape to feelings. Reading an essay by Laurel Richardson (1992) – The Consequences of Poetic Representation: writing the other, rewriting the self this week, caused me to reflect on this idea further. The thought of translating emotional connections into poems was already there but after reading about Richardson’s (1992) experience of turning her transcribed interviews into poems, these thoughts were once again pulled to the surface. If poetry is the language of emotion then surely it would also be an important tool for ‘emotional archaeology’.

Based on these thoughts, I started thinking about my black dress in form of a poem. How could I convey the feeling of the moment I associate the dress with, to someone else? Emotions are highly individual and our memories are never entirely objective, therefore a purely analytical recollection of an emotional connection would be nearly impossible and would probably fail to transport someone else into my personal memory. However, by giving us a language with which we can create moments of emotion and empathy, poetry presents possibilities for expressing feelings and thoughts that are otherwise difficult to express due to their complex nature.

 

 

Yesterday afternoon I met with Suzanne Posthumus, who manages the Poetry Café. We had a brief discussion about my research and what I have in mind for my next intervention. After sharing my ideas on how the theme of narrative clothes could be explored we concluded that an event where people can swap clothes in form of poetry – a type of poetry reading that turns your clothing into poems – would be an interesting way to invite people to discover the emotional connections they have with items in their wardrobe. Suzanne was intrigued by my project and kindly offered me use of the café space in the daytime. The Poetry Society can also help me market the event on their online platforms and in the café. Suzanne and I agreed that the poem I wrote along with a picture of the black dress would be perfect to use in marketing because it would clearly illustrate what the event is about.

 

Note. After writing this, I discovered a book called The Memory of Clothes (Gibson (ed.), 2015) – a  collection of essays and stories that explore the evocative and autobiographical characteristics of the clothes we wear. Some of the texts approach this theme in a poetic way; a few are even written in the traditional structure of a poem. I have only read one so far, which is a self-reflective recollection of a stolen dress, that the author took when she could not have the person she loved, ‘the one’. 

 

Richardson, L. (1992) ‘The Consequences of poetic representation: writing the other, rewriting the self’ in Ellis, C. Flaherty, M. G. (ed.) California: Sage Publications Inc., pp. 125-137

Connections

I have a meeting with an expert in psychology next week. I suggested we both dress in something we have an emotional connection to and share our stories when we meet. To which she replied:

‘Oh my gosh, I think dressing in our stories is a fabulous idea, I’ll enjoy thinking about that one.’

First few fragments

Objects, including the things we wear, hold meaning and memories; they are linked to people and events through personal association and interpretation. 

To contribute with your own magical fragments, please click on the images below and follow the instructions. Exactly how you perform the exercises and how you record the results is up to you.

As already mentioned in a previous post, a series of performance scores from the 70s helped me shape this intervention. Before that, I knew what I was looking for but something was missing and I was struggling to identify what that was or how to move forward.

Inspired by Mieko Shiomi’s spatial poems I took the existing ideas I had for my first intervention and created a series of ‘intervention scores’ that invite people to creatively reflect on their relationship to items in their wardrobe; their personal connections between objects, people, time, and space.