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.
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.
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
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.
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