Reading and writing poetry about unknowing

Owen Bullock
Lucinda McKnight
Ruby Todd

Hello poets and readers,

How do we read a poem? Do we analyse it, interpret it, critique it, or just feel and experience our way through it? Multiple readings trouble the idea that we can master a text, but not its potential for openness. Lucinda McKnight, Ruby Todd and myself (all poet-researchers) decided to conduct three individual readings of the same poem, to share and discuss them, and to approach poetry and collaboration in a way that allowed for difference, indecision and complexity.

We’d planned this piece of writing for a long time, and to choose a poem that was important to all of us, but the demands of our meeting meant that we didn’t have time to find a poem that we knew we each loved. So, we chose one at random, from The Guardian’s Saturday poem series: Tishani Doshi’s ‘A Fable for the 21st Century’. We hoped to engage without creating definitive readings, and to provide an example that might be useful for teaching.

Doshi’s poem proved to be a goldmine for various approaches to reading, which included analysis, interpretation and critique – all quite different ways of looking at a poem. Doshi’s work concerns unknowing, a topic which has often cropped up in our interviews with poets and in these blogposts. Since our first meeting in 2014, Lucinda, Ruby and I had been researching collaborative poetry, “to be interpreted and translated into the language of analysis but as research art in its own right” (McKnight, Bullock & Todd 2016: 3). Much of our research was conducted online and included engagement with language in a digitised world (Todd, McKnight, Bullock 2017). We now had the chance to write together in person. And another important creative aim soon emerged: we wanted to write new poems of our own in response to the poem by Doshi.

In the article recently published in Qualitative Inquiry, ‘Reading and responding to poetry: To know, to experience’, we present our initial readings of the poem and summarise our discussions of them grounded in the transactional reading theory of Louise Rosenblatt and nuanced by assemblage theory. A final section includes our three original poems written in response to Doshi. Our conclusion is that a poem is an even better vehicle for recognising diversity than a discussion.

You can access the article here from Qualitative Inquiry.

Or, you can read the accepted version (which is only slightly different to the final published version) on my Academia page (for free).

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