Experiments in Ethnographic Poetry

The further I progress with my PhD, the more I realize ways I can bring my whole self to my work. As an undergraduate in the Mellon Mays program preparing me for graduate school as a minority in academia, I developed the false assumption that academics are supposed to present themselves in a particular way. Even when I decided to pursue a PhD, I didn’t necessarily see myself — a mad, artistic, Black motherscolar — as having a place in a long-term academic career. However, since I challenged myself to make my lived experience a part of my work, I found people and spaces that nurture everything I once thought academia was not. For instance, I didn’t know that I could bring my poetic lens into my research.

This month, I attended a workshop hosted by the American Anthropological Association (AAA) called “Experiments in Ethnographic Poetry.” It was the first time that I occupied a space with poet-anthropologists who use their bodily and affective senses to feel through their work and make sense of what they witness. As a scholar, I was thrilled to learn about this way of knowing and experiencing the world in my work.

I have been writing poetry since childhood. I processed life with poetry and used it to communicate with those I loved. Later, when I experienced mania I would translate my flight of ideas into poems. Complete poems would come to me in streams of consciousness. The words flowed so easily, it felt as if I were downloading them directly from a Higher Source. Finding stability smothered my hypomanic poetic inspiration. As a result, poetry has become more of a grounded practice rather than an overwhelming flood I franticly try to contain. That’s why when I learned about ethnographic poetry, I was motivated to maintain my writing practice and use my poetic lens to inform my academic work. Here are some of my takeaways from the workshop.

Poetry as Data Collection

This seems obvious to me now, but poetry can certainly be a form of data collection or writing field notes. Sometime poetry evokes more poignant feelings than prose. When we’re in the field, it might be more accessible to write notes using small poems than it is to write pages or paragraphs.

It is impossible to put everything we observe into words. Sometimes experiences evoke sounds, feelings or textures that cannot even be put into a “coherent” sentence. And that’s okay! Poems don’t need to “make sense.” They can create sounds that resonate in our bodies. They can provide important information that jog our memories and enliven our senses when we go back to our notes and want to write about our experiences.

Poetry as Connective Tissue

During the workshop, someone asked how to organize notes and whether to separate poems from their standard ethnographic observations. In response, people talked about the utility of putting all the notes in one place no matter what form they take. When we choose not to separate our notes into our “serious” academic journal and our more unconventional book of seemingly disparate, random words and phrases, we allow poems to be the connective tissue between thoughts, events, and images.

This reminds me of my Bipolar Book, a large oversized art book filled with poetry, collaged textures, and images. During a manic episode that last months, I glued several images, newspaper articles, and found materials, like cafeteria napkins and foliage, into the book. I colored pages with paint and crayon. I practiced erasure crossing out words on text to create new phrases. I wrote stream of consciousness poems throughout.

Going though the pages of my Bipolar Book now triggers visceral memories of the places and emotional spaces I occupied. I do not think a diary would have embodied that period of my life in the same way that this multimedia book does. While the book does not emphasize a chronological sequence of events, the haphazard organization does speak to rapid pace at which I was experiencing time and the onslaught of intense life events I was enduring. Similarly, I think combining our research notes into one place where we can see the conversation between poetry, prose, and image on the page can bring us back into the field in a more visceral way after our departure.

Poetry & Epigraphs

I love the notion of poems finding their way to our articles, dissertations, and manuscripts. A poem from the field can provide the perfect key to unlock the door to our larger ideas. At the beginning of a chapter, fieldpoems can encapsulate the question we will explore. It can also distill an argument we will elaborate. This lights me up because it means our poems can have a life outside our field journals.

Coda

At the workshop, we engaged in a free writing exercise where we had to pick any picture from our phone and consider:

What is inside and what is outside of the image? Who is present in the photo and who is absent? What are they doing? What can our senses tell us? What would being inside of the image smell like? Sound like? Feel like?

I picked a picture of my partner not long before we got married and pregnant. After 10 minutes, we were asked to take phrases from our free write and convert them into two stanzas of four lines with four words. This is what I came up with.

alone on a bench

looking at a tapestry

he is the last

living man on Earth

//

perhaps he saw an

intricate weaving of our

lives together / our daughter

absent but ever present

My husband sits with on a bench with his back turned to the camera looking at a tapestry at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At the end of the day, ethnographic poetry highlights the creative dimensions of scientific research. It challenges our perceptions of what is professional, what is scientific, and what is valid in fieldwork and ethnographic writing. Now, I feel a bit more confident about bringing the artistic and poetic sides of myself into my research. This further informs my Black feminist convictions that my subjectivity is a valuable component of my scholarship.


Image Description: Dainty flowers emerge out of the fold of an open book.

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