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Lean Into Mystery

On Poetic Inquiry

Love affairs will do it. So too death, depression and despair. Bundle them all up together and, if you have the courage to pick up the pen, will find yourself standing right at the doorway of great poetry and great poetic inquiry. Primary drivers right there. In a literary review of Donte Collins’s ‘Autopsy’ Kyle Tran Myhre (author of ‘Love Song’, ‘A Death Ray’, and ‘A Battle Cry’) writes, “writing about love and death are both central to poetry”. And artist Sally Lewry, who lost her great love and husband in tragic circumstances, believes poetry saved her life. But not through providing de/finite answers. It simply gave her a “container to hold what [she] was experiencing” and to just, “sit with this” (Lewry in Scolaro, 2020, p85).

When I began to engage with poetry and spoken word I was chasing something else. A way to truly engage an audience. With both the spoken word and the written. As an academic this has always been a massive part of my job. And a difficult one. In their 2015 ‘Call for Abstracts’ for ‘Writing: that which touches’ (an annual two-day writing retreat at Keele University in the UK) Sarah Gilmore and her colleagues used philosopher-poet Denise Riley as an example of how poetry can do this; it contains “language that drips with metaphor and draws its readers in so we feel the meaning of what she is saying viscerally, so that our bodies understand it even though our minds may not”.

Poetry is heightened speech. Embodied speech. Captivating speech. It also has no rules. I wanted in. For those reasons and many more. And I first stepped up behind the mic at Dust Temple’s ‘Alternator Poetry Jam’ on the Gold Coast (Australia). I approached my job behind the slam poetry mic no differently than my job behind the university lecture dais. I was there to “jolt people out of their preconceived notions and give them a completely new way of looking at the world” (Gallo, 2013). To illustrate and illuminate. I was there to be a walking talking living breathing epic f**king idea. To inspire everyone within range, and make them feel something, long after I had stepped off the stage. I found all that much easier said than done. However, those things became end-goals that set up a very interesting and engaging academic chase.

Poetry, and in particular poetic inquiry, has often been described as a pedagogical tool. A tool to practice reflexivity and also show positionality (Apol & McCarthy, 2019). At one point in 2019 I used it as an introduction to a teaching fellowship application. Reflexivity on my approach to teaching. And I use poetry and spoken word performance in lectures to deliver content, show positionality, pose questions and to inspire and guide audience debate. I have even used it to set up, detail and describe, and provide different stimuli for assignments and projects and announcements. What it does so well is allow everyone involved (on both sides of the stage and / or page) to “lean into the mystery and those very difficult, complex questions” (Lewry in Scolaro, 2020, p85). It became a way for me to make topics and content and theories and communication “more approachable, powerful, emotionally poignant and accurate than traditional prose” (Faulkner, 2019, xi). I could piece together my philosophies and the philosophies of others in innovative and creative ways and still maintain high-end academic rigor. I found the whole concept enlightening. It energised me. And that flowed outward into my teaching. It energised my students too.

It also provided me both reason and ammunition to take a stand against “sterility” (Reale, 2015) and in the words of New York based photographer, Igor Madjinca, to “portray the real from the bleach and the fake copies” (Madjinca, 2019). This was no longer talking head text-book regurgitation. Julie Perrin interviewed facilitator, poet and theologian Padraig O Tuama for Dumbo Feather magazine in March 2019 and noted that “there’s a sense in which you need to expand yourself to reach people”. Padraig agreed. So do I. Piecing together and delivering lectures in this manner does exactly that. By default. It is inescapable. You can’t deliver words in this manner without approaching it like a performance. An expanded self. Is intimate. Interactive. And unique. It is also unexpected. Everything but sterile. And far removed from fake. Norman Denzin will tell you, “the poet makes the world visible in new and different ways” (Denzin, 2013, p86). Students show up – routinely – week after week – for what he is talking about.

And there is one more thing poetry and poetic inquiry has provided me. Activism. Against digitisation. Against automation and artificial intelligence. And whilst relevant to universities and their staff across the globe it is also highly relevant to several courses I have developed, redeveloped, and taught. Some are focussed on technology and its relationship to humanity. Lectures in these courses and their associated debates and discussions unfold as a set of propositions to be investigated. They contain questions such as, “is technology an inherent component of human evolution” or a “slippery slope towards subservience to the structure of giant computers?” (Kelly, 2005; Lanier, 2013 respectively). I may ask an audience, “is your smartphone a part of your mind?” or, “is your social media profile your own personal sockpuppet?”. I may recite a spoken word piece like, ‘run’ and simply ask students to respond to it.

There is a very human centred feeling to poetry and poetic inquiry and scripted spoken word performance. It is close range. Personal. Raw. Open. Honest. Vulnerable. “In reading or listening to poetry we are bearing witness to the other” (Faulkner, , 2019, xi). The poet is accessible. Present. Right there with you. In the text but even more so in the flesh. I have in the past expressed to staff and colleagues my concerns on universities putting technology / digital first. One occurrence was upon invitation – to speak on the topic of technology and teaching in higher education. I delivered a six or so minute spoken word piece with the following ending:

… this is a fundamental mistake

not in terms of a business strategy

but as an educational ideal

and a way to approach life

and those two things should be highly aligned

this is a very loud a clear statement

that technology comes first

and human beings come second

and whether you can hear that statement yet or not is irrelevant because that

is the statement

that has been made


we have a number of defining fights of our times and this is one of them

we need to make sure that machines stay what they ought to be

the slaves instead of the masters of men and women and hey

if we don’t fight for this now

we have no right

to cry

about what happens to us later.

Sandra Faulkner writes that poetry and poetic inquiry can be an “active response to social issues, political commentary, and a call to action” (Faulkner, 2019, xi). For me it went further. Like I became the call to action I was calling for. My lectures and workshops became the action. The example. The exemplar. And in the process something very difficult to offer / deliver in a pre-recorded or pre-packaged manner.

I feel as though poetry, poetic inquiry and spoken word allowed me to become a true teacher.

And further, one that can never

be replicated

or digitised.


1. Myhre, T. K. (2017)

2. Scolaro, N. (2020). Sally Lewry Dances With Grief, Dumbo Feather (64), 59-68

3. Gilmore, S. (2015). 2015 ‘Call for Abstracts’ for ‘Writing: that which touches’. Keele University, United Kingdom.

4. Gallo, C. (2014). Talk like TED: the 9 public-speaking secrets of the world’s top minds. St. Martin’s Press.

5. Apol, L., & McCarthy, M. (2019). I: Poetic Inquiry as Pedagogical Practice and Community Building. Poetic Inquiry as Social Justice and Political Response.

6. Faulkner, S. L. (2019). Poetic Inquiry: Craft, Method and Practice. Routledge.

7. Reale, M. (2015). We Never Thought It Would Be Like This. Refugees Experiences in Sicily. The Qualitative Report, 20, no 1, Article 6, 107-114.

8. Madjinca, I, No Cure, Issue 19, 018.

9. Perrin, J. (2019, May). Pádraig Ó Tuama Leads From The Heart, Dumbo Feather, (59), 50

10. Denzin, N. K. (2013). Interpretive autoethnography (Vol. 17). Sage Publications.

11. Kelly, K. (2005). How Technology Evolves. Paper presented at TED, San Francisco, California.

12. Scwartz,O.(2013).Jaron Lanier is a humanist. DumboFeather, 37, 80-92.


Those Who Were Wondering


Myhre, T. K. (2017); Scolaro, N. "Sally Lewry" (2020); Gilmore, S. (2015); Gallo, C. (2013); Apol & McCarthy, (2019); Faulkner, S. L. (2019); Reale, 2015; Madjinca, I. (2019); Perrin, J. "Padraig O Tuama" (2019); Denzin, N. (2013); Kelly, K. (2013); Lanier, J. (2014).

Image Size

210mm x 297mm (A4 portrait)

Image Detail

Harding 2020 ⎮ Photography ⎮ Digital Collage

Publication Date

30⎮ 04 ⎮ 2020