Research using poetry?

This is the post excerpt.


I have been working on a research study towards a PhD thesis that I duly submitted for examination on the third of February this year. You can read some of my reflections on the process here. I am indebted to the people who took time to participate in the study. So why this blog? you may ask. I would like to complete the PhD project by going back to people who participated and sharing the outcomes of the study. I know this is nothing new, many research plans include a report back in one form or another.  Do I need a blog to share the research with participants? Well… not really but if you want to explore what it means to report back to the participants then you start a blog around it. So, this blog is a space I hope to share my interactions with participants as I  present the thesis and the participants responses to this in turn.

My PhD research explores the memorialisation of Gukurahundi violence, which occurred in the 1980s in Zimbabwe, by migrants in Johannesburg. I looked at how people were using music, poetry and drama to memorialise the violence. In turn I wrote poetry as part of the thesis. Why write poetry in a thesis? I hope you are asking because I intend to answer that question. Poetry allowed me to continue writing the thesis during some difficult personal circumstances. I also thought poetry would be one way I could share the research outcomes with the participants instead of asking them to wade through a three hundred page document of academic speak. Does poetry actually work to bridge the divide and make research easier to engage with for a non-academic audience? This is the question I hope my interactions that I am embarking on from here on and documenting on this blog, will give insight into.

So you can look forward to poetry I wrote during the research process and reflections from participants on the poetry as well as any and everything that comes up during our discussions of the poems. Before I end this post I want to reflect on the any and everything that could come up. The first time I brought people together to share the poetry I wrote as part of the thesis felt like I was a tiny fish jumping into a shark tank. Let me prefix this by saying I am not a formally trained poet. I write poetry because I have always written poetry and enjoy it. So there we were in a room full of people and I had given out printouts of the poetry. One of the first questions I received was “Why have you written this as open poetry?” What is open poetry?

I probably should Google this but I haven’t as yet. I am revelling in the solace of ignorance. Anyway I was stunned? I felt challenged, how could I write poetry when I didn’t know what open poetry is? As a researcher there is so much I could say about that moment. What does it mean that I answered with a confession that actually I don’t know what open poetry is. I just write poetry. Did that mean I was not a good enough researcher? At that point it certainly made me feel like it was a bad idea thinking I wanted people to engage with what I had written. I guess I am reflecting on this here to say that I thought it was a great idea to do this, but it is turning out to be an uncomfortable process, an exercise in vulnerability. I am not that sure I want to get the feedback but I look forward to it.

As I write this blog I am also wondering how to write and to whom I am writing this blog? I suppose at different points I am going to write for different audiences, the academic and the non-academic and I am hoping  I am able to write for both. I imagine the poetry will work for the two audiences but let me not preempt things and just say the train is in motion and I will be back with some poetry soon.


Illegal Immigrant

In the first blog post I spoke about the discomfort I had taking back the thesis to the research participants. Turns out this was well worth it. While everyone else was having a jolly good time celebrating freedom day here in South Africa I had another workshop scheduled to again talk about the thesis. I suppose I need to backtrack a little here and tell you that by thesis I mean the seven poems that summarize the larger document that I submitted to the university for examination. Well I submitted a thesis document that was written across genres, it was both poetry and academic writing. In a way i submitted the thesis for examination by the academic world and the workshops I have been holding were the thesis examination by the participants.

It is an understatement to say I was anxious about what participants had to say about the research. My anxiety was not totally misplaced as we did have a few interactions where some participants did not agree with what I had to say and that was part of the reason why I wrote poetry in the first place. To stage those differences that were not easy to explain. As someone who shares a history and nationality with the research participants many interviews became sites of recruitment. I was being recruited to hold the same views about the Gukurahundi violence and what needs to be done to move on from its pain and effects. I found it important that I come clean, about my position and my views and so I infused poetry into the thesis. I also thought poetry was an easy way to summarize the thesis and take it back to the participants, which is the process I am documenting here.

So there are seven poems in the thesis that I presented to participants. The seven poems all summarize the thesis but also function in different ways.  In our last workshop I was reading the poems as people listened and we were running out of time and so I was thinking of skipping one poem titled Illegal Immigrant when one of the participants asked that we don’t skip it. So I read the poem:

Sweet words

I keep

Under my tongue

So when you stop me

I negotiate

The bribe price

Of my freedom

Call me

Any name

I am here to stay

I will find a job

Any that affords me

To stay

I pay daily

For my stay

Yet they still

Call me

An Illegal Immigrant

This poem, he felt, expressed so well their daily lives as migrants in South Africa. He spoke about how it makes no difference whether one has ‘documents’ ( a work permit or asylum seeker permit) allowing them to live in South Africa or not, the police will stop you and you have to carry a sweet tongue. Others also reflected on how this poem shows the resilience of migrants who find a way to stay and are paying for their stay although this is not acknowledged.

There were many moments I was glad I had taken the thesis back to the participants during this last workshop. I will be posting more of the conversations and poems that came out of the process. Today I leave you with this short piece by one of the participants (who has chosen not to be named) that was inspired by the word, MIGRATION

Sawafulathela amakhaya

Sawela imifula

Sadabula amazwe

Sesibizwa ngamabizobizo

Asisela sithunzi


Sesikhohliwe amasiko


We turned our backs on our homes

Crossed rivers

Went through foreign lands

Now we are called strange names

We have lost our dignity

We have forgotten our customs