Open book with the pages flapping in the air

Poetry for Better Futures

What do you think of when you hear the word “poetry”? Perhaps you picture Wordsworth marvelling at his yellow flowers, or the Insta-poet Rupi Kaur and her viral Tumblr-esque words. Perhaps your relationship with poetry ended after a childhood of scrawling acrostics, or hasn’t yet begun at all. Either way, Dr Mariah Whelan, the poet, editor, and academic, led an open event on June 3 that showcased the power of poetic practice, challenging misconceptions about the craft and the identity of the poet, which was riveting for all attendees. 

The event consisted of an exhibition of poems written by UCL students alongside Dr Whelan as part of UCL’s ‘Back to The Future’ programme, and a roundtable discussion between Whelan, Dr Eric Langley (UCL), Dr Hannah Copley, Dr Thomas Karshan (UEA), and Dr Hannah Walters (UCL). The discussion reflected on the relationship between poetic and academic practices, exploring what creative methods can bring to research.

The event opened with a celebration of students’ poetry and their use of creative methods to engage with the academic, personal, and professional. Whilst in pre-Covid times their work would have been displayed in an in-person exhibition, audience members could encounter the array of poetry in a digital gallery — all the same fun, simply without any lukewarm wine. The multimedia gallery space consisted of collage, page, and performance poems. Two poets recited their work live, the first being Aleksander Jagielski, who read their poem ‘Changeling/My Body Unravels’ — an exploration of the trans body. Deepali Foster then read a series of poems entitled ‘SPONGE/BRiCK’, inspired by notions of safety and structure, partially in response to the Grenfell Tower fire. To read the poets’ work, click here.

The showcase portion of the evening initiated discussion about poetry and research in conversation.

Dr Langley opened the panel discussion by reflecting on the “tight congruence” between his work as a creative writer and academic. He noted the “liberation” he feels now that English Literature departments are increasingly allowing academics to include their creative output in their work, and described his poetry as “slightly furtive”, creeping in around the edges of his critical work. Langley called the relationship between his creative and critical work “mutually beneficial”; in his poetry, he takes starting points from things encountered as part of his academic research, providing the example of Shakespeare’s conception of subjectivity — the dominant theme of his academic writing. For Langley, poetic practice “loosens” — he doesn’t have to justify as much, and the reader is expected to do labour that is otherwise the responsibility of the academic. 

The notion of poetic creation as something freeing was also evoked by Dr Hannah Copley when she considered the value of writers going into archives without knowing any ‘answers’. As poets aren’t confined by the same rules that restrict critics and historians, they can engage differently with archival or legislative material, ripping it up, probing and collaging it, whilst remaining aware of the power they exert over stories. Copley explained that her place as a researcher and archivist is all part of her being a poet. For her, poetry is a way to critique — to dismantle and put together again. Inspired by history books, census records, and old medical textbooks, she “gets to the personal through the critical”. This will surely be evident in her forthcoming poetry collection: Speculum, its name evoking investigation, illumination, and control.

Whilst Langley and Copley emphasised how their academic research informs their creative pursuits, Dr Hannah Walters focused on the value of creativity in research. Walters will be collaborating with Whelan to use poetry in the research setting. Her work explores gender and class-informed experiences of working class women students at elite universities through the analysis of posters and lifelines that students create and which speak to their academic journeys. Walters drew out the tensions between the creative and critical in academic spaces and contemplated how creative methods can “make the familiar strange”, allowing us to upturn assumptions regarding the social world and its meanings. Her project aims to respect creative artefacts in and of themselves, generating data that is located in the creative, as opposed to using the creative as an afterthought. This suggests creative approaches as having an emancipatory value and being central to high-quality research.

The panellists’ talks and subsequent Q&A session with the audience was incredibly thought-provoking. It encouraged me to think about the harm of segregating critical and creative work, and potentially viewing one as more ‘serious’ or rigorous than the other. I wonder how we, as UCL students, can dare to bring acts of poem-making (or other forms of creation) into traditional academic spaces, and reap the benefits of experimental research. 

The ‘Poetry for Better Futures’ event was one of energy, compassion, and contemplation. From the young poets’ phenomenal creations, to the discussion of working in an interdisciplinary way, it was truly enriching, asking far more questions than it answered.

The perpetuation of “not knowing”? Typical of those poets!

Post photo by Elisa Calvet B. on Unsplash

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