I read Sandra Faulkner’s Poetic Inquiry: Craft, Method, & Practice this January, while visiting family in Australia. Starting the book, my intent was to incorporate what I learned reading about the process of poetic inquiry into our interview. It was a matter of chapters and days before I began practicing the art myself, eager to make sense of the spate of wildfires that proved to be just the first of the new years’ cavalcade of disasters. That Faulkner is able in her words and writing to not only successfully advocate for the practice, but also to make it as accessible as she has in Poetic Inquiry is testament to the craft of her prose, as well as the scope of poetic inquiry’s application. I thought there were things we created to survive us, and somewhere else the things we created to survive. Poetic inquiry has shown me the two are indistinct. I could not have learned about it at a more essential time.
BB: One thing I love about this book is how well it succeeds in being both personal and meta at the same time. This starts in Chapter One, where you introduce a poem of yours, “Moving to Poetic Inquiry,” in which you familiarize readers with the craft using a piece devoted to it. The effect is substantively different from the one your prose achieves; how do you see the two in conversation with one another?
SF: Those who use poetry in their research and as part of ABR (arts-based research) practice must consider the dialectic between aesthetics and epistemics, that is the dialectic between how your work functions as poetry and how your work functions as research. When I first saw the potential of poetry for social research, I tried to combine my traditional social scientific writing and poetry. This was disastrous as poetry, because traditional social science writing does not contain (m)any of the things we associate with poetic writing—music, metaphorical language, attention to line. The work approached something like poetry, but the language and voice was too stiff, too dry, too “scientific.” It did not do what I needed it to do, which was be research that was evocative, representative, and worked as poetry. Then I tried a different approach where I wrote poems paying more attention to poetic craft. I started by focusing on aesthetic concerns, rather than using my researcher lens. This writing worked as poetry, and some of the poems were published in academic and literary journals. After this, I was able to see how approaching Poetic Inquiry from a craft perspective produced better work. It is in that middle space of considering research and artistic criteria, and asking yourself what your goals are for your work. This is the conversation (and maybe argument?) that we need: What is your work doing to achieve your research goals? What is your work doing to be “good” poetry?
As your book makes clear, Poetic Inquiry is hardly part of the normative research discourse. Is there a normative poetic discourse it is positioned against as well?
Poetic Inquiry is the use of poetry as/in/for research. Given the focus on poetry in a research context, considerations of what is good Poetic Inquiry occur within discussions of craft and criteria for ABR (arts-based research). Those who engage in ABR practices consider both artistic craft and methods. Thus, the discourse of interest is methodological; we can talk about the poet-researcher, the goals, uses, craft, history, and practice of poetry.
Reading the many poems that you incorporate into this book, variations in titles and form became especially fascinating to me. In poetic inquiry, are the principal functions of these techniques to contextualize? Is an inquiry-driven poetics dependent on context in a way other kinds aren’t?
I’m glad you asked this question, because I still wrestle with how to present Poetic Inquiry. What I can tell you is that it depends on the context. If I am reading poetry in an academic setting—a journal, text book, or presentation—I want and need that academic theorizing. I ask myself, “why is there poetry here?” “How is this part of research?” “What is poetry doing here?” The strength of poetry is the ability to position dialectics, to be evocative, to be embodied experience, but in a research context I often need a clue as to what the poetry is and should be doing. Having said that, there are times when a poem or poems can stand solo without the explanation. The explanation can be too didactic and ruin the experience. Perhaps that is what footnotes are for in Poetic Inquiry projects. I mean, who reads footnotes anyway?
What is poetic inquiry’s relationship to editing? If editing is a vital part of the process, is it usually clear what one is editing towards?
Revision. Revision. Revision. I tell students that revising is part of the process, a necessary part of method. If you want your work to achieve your goals, which are often multiple, then you have to revise and edit. I find having different sessions focused on specific editing goals helps. One session may be devoted to the aesthetics of the work. Another session may be all about the research. Of course, whether you achieve those goals is not usually something the poet-author-researcher can reliably assess.
In the book you discuss poetic inquiry’s close relationship to embodiment, and therefore its potential utility for feminist writers and scholars who “call for a methodology that is attentive to bodies and bodily knowledge.” How does this attention extend to race, disability, and class?
I consider Poetic Inquiry to be feminist methodology. I use poetic inquiry to collapse the false divide between private and public, as a form of embodied inquiry, and as political response. This means that the work must be part of a feminist ethics and reflective research practice. It necessarily attends to intersections of class, race, ability, gender, and sexualities. Or at least, the best work does. A poet needs to ask themselves how their positioning influences the lenses they use. In every project, you need to ask yourself: What about gender? What about race? What about class? What about ability? Feminist poetry as a form of poetic inquiry and political action offers a means of doing and showing embodied inquiry and to give voice to gendered and raced experiences.
How have you made use of embodiment in your own practice of poetic inquiry?
For me, writing poetry is an embodied activity. For example, I just finished a chapbook of poems titled Trigger Warning in response to news headlines. Reacting to headlines in the past few years has been a visceral experience for me. Often, I feel a mix of anger, deja vu, and sadness, and I feel it in my head and body. The poems in Trigger Warning speak to my embodied experiences and the connection of personal experience to larger understandings of gender, race, and class represented in the media. The presentation of embodied responses in poetry is part of living a feminist life. I write poetry as a way to understand and articulate bodily experiences and as a way to show feminist theory as an everyday practice. I work out lines when I am walking around town, when I am running; there is not separation between mind and body in my poetic practice.
In the section Poetry as Political Response, which begins with this wonderful quote “Students and audience members will take what they will from poetry. This is perhaps part of the traditional researcher’s fear.” This speaks to the democratizing power of poetry, and made me wonder; who is poetic inquiry’s primary audience? Is the democratizing value of poetic inquiry contingent upon its dissemination?
Poetry is powerful. Poetry matters. More people are writing and reading poetry than ever. A big strength of Poetic Inquiry is that it bridges a divide between public and academic work. I see it as a public project and an important part of public scholarship. I work at a public university, and we are having conversations about the public good. Our research is for the public, so considerations about how we can bring this work to the public speaks to the strengths of Poetic Inquiry.
So yes, we need to share our work in all kinds of spaces—blogs, rallies, bus stops, church, Girl Scout and PTO meetings as well as in more traditional academic venues.
What are the limits of poetic inquiry?
There are none! Okay, I will give the answer that I give to my students. I think there are some projects that may be better suited for Poetic Inquiry than others. Because poetry can be both/and, be read on multiple levels with varied interpretations, it is well suited for identity and social justice projects, any project where you want to show multiple points of view, a project where you want to evoke strong emotions in an audience, a project where you can’t make definitive statements. However, if you need a definitive representation, then you may need to use other means. I’m thinking of the use of statistics to show structural issues of inequity in such areas like housing, wealth accumulation, and debt. Of course, I would make the argument that you could use mixed methods; show the emotional resonance of a social problem with poetry and use “harder” science to make definitive factual claims.
Later on in the book, there’s a wonderful line in your chapter on craft, “[T]he line between my research poetry and my personal poetry has become like a gossamer thread as I live and embody the ethnographic poet’s life,” as this separation in your own work has become progressively scanter for you with the passage of time, have you noticed a similar phenomenon when engaging with the work of others?
Thank you for this question. Yes, I read others’ work with the same engagement, whether I’m listening to news, reading headlines and morning poems, or preparing to teach. I often consider how the material relates to a topic I’m teaching, a life problem I’m working through, or a writing project. And, especially when reading poems, I find inspiration, motivation, and instructions for work and life. I bring in poems when I teach, share poems with friends, and write response poems.
Since writing this book, you have also edited an anthology titled “Poetic Inquiry as Social Justice and Political Response,” within which a piece of yours appeared, co-authored with Sheila Squillante, “Nasty Women Join the Hive: a NastyWomanifesto Invitation for White Feminists.” How did the process of collaboration inform your understanding of poetic inquiry’s relationship to embodiment?
I am drawn to those whose work is doing things I admire. I understand that creativity is also a collaborative process. So, I have asked some of these folks to collaborate with me, as I get ideas for projects and refine them in conversation with others. Again, everyday conversations and life are inspiration and motivation for poetic projects. Sheila Squillante and I have been collaborating on work for a few years, often sparked from IM chats about the tedium of daily domestic life. Andrea England and I were at a writing residency at SAFTA and our breakfast conversations about feminism, teaching, and politics led to an edited collection on writing and resistance (Scientists and Poets #Resist). Collaboration is part of my daily embodied being.
Sandra L. Faulkner is Professor of Communication and Director of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Bowling Green State University. Her poetry +images have appeared in Literary Mama, Ithaca Lit, Gulf Stream, Writer’s Resist, Rise Up Review!, damselfly and elsewhere. Her latest books are Poetic Inquiry: Craft, Method, & Practice (Routledge); Poetic Inquiry as Social Justice and Political Response (Vernon co-edited with Abigail Cloud); Scientists and Poets #Resist (Brill coedited with Andrea England). She researches, teaches, and writes about relationships in NW Ohio where she lives with her partner, their warrior girl, and two rescue mutts. She was the recipient of the 2013 Knower Outstanding Article Award from the National Communication Association and the 2016 Norman K. Denzin Qualitative Research Award. https://bgsu.academia.edu/SandraFaulkner