It was with joyful hearts and poetry on our minds that wine women and philosophy members came together yesterday evening for the first salon of the 2011 Fall season. About a month ago we had asked members to use the balmy evenings of August to look up some female poets and to lose themselves in their poetry. It quickly became clear that our members had done just this...Which meant that with favourite poems in hand and a range of conflicting emotions around how poetry either spoke to us (or not) at the ready, we were soon on our way.
The conversational approach being highlighted on this particular evening was the show-and-tell format - a technique developed in the late 1940s by elementary teachers in North America to help young children become more comfortable with public speaking. Rona provided us with a brief history of this peer-to-peer learning approach and those present were quick to recount their own experiences of show-and-tell sessions at school. Then it was time to get going with some show-and-tell experimentation wwp style!
Our first task was to establish our respective relationships to poetry. Memories of feeling intimidated by poetry's seeming inaccessibility at school, of suffering humiliating memory blocks when reciting a poem at the front of the class, of failing to come up with the 'right' interpretation of a poem on an exam, of never really getting what all the fuss about poetry was about, of finding it a comfort for lonely times, of seeing it as something mysterious that only a chosen few could ever penetrate, all came flooding back. Along with these memories came a growing understanding of why poetry seemed to shut so many of us out - that idea that there was just one possible way of 'reading' a poem that one either 'got' or not - and of how a different approach to this literary genre might help to make it less prohibitive and more appealing.
To this end, Linnet proposed a bodily approach to engaging with poems. First, she presented what she termed 'Derrida's Dilemma' - that is, French philosopher Jacques Derrida's lament that words on a page are but the "dead remains" of the living body that penned them, and his gloomy conclusion that short of tapping into a vein and pouring our blood right out there onto the page, we must resign ourselves to the fact that writing is, on the whole, woefully devoid of the body's vitality and variegated textures. By way of a response, Linnet suggested that Bulgarian philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva's understanding of words as being a combination of untamed rhythmic bodily tones and more stabilizing denotative meanings might provide a way out of this impasse.
For the next little while we explored and experimented with Kristeva's notions of phenotext and genotext, of the symbolic world of grammar and syntax and the semiotic bodily drives, of straightforward texts that are pleasurable to read and reflect upon and unruly texts that, unprompted and in spite of ourselves, produce a visceral and sometimes violent bodily response. Picking up on Kristeva's belief that poetry, more than any other literary genre, provides us with the best way to explore how the writer's fleshly body lives on in the words that she produces, we discussed the rhythmic and tonal aspects of poetry that help us to tangibly feel the presence of that body. We also speculated on how best to go about sensing and savouring this body's sonority and tactility, its motility and materiality, even its smell!
Though not all of us felt quite ready to abandon the idea that a poem's principle worth lies in its literal meaning, everybody was at least prepared to consider the idea that words, if allowed to swell on the page, to dance before us, to jostle and jive and come alive, might provide us with a means to becoming active participants in the poem itself. In this way, we began to engage with poetry not as an exercise of the mind, but as a physical experience with the power to either move us or not. If nothing else, we acknowledged that such an approach could open the door to appreciating a poem - to truly loving a poem - even if we had no real sense of what that poem was trying to say.
Then it was showtime. In turn, each of us introduced and read the poem that we had selected on the basis of it having touched us in some way - among our guest poets were Maya Angelou, Alison Pick, Anais Nin, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Muriel Rukeyser, Jacqueline Bouvier and Elizabeth Bishop. It should be noted here that 3 members chose a poem by Maya Angelou - two of them even choosing the same poem (Phenomenal Woman). As for our task as audience members, it was not to engage with each poem's meaning. Rather, Linnet encouraged us to listen with our bodies and moreover, to listen out for the body of the poet as evoked in and through the words she used and the spaces she left between them. Again, this way of appreciating poetry was not always self-evident...If there is one thing that formal schooling appears to have taught us well, it is that the message lies in the analysis and not in the affect. Still, wwp members are no strangers to experimentation and taking risks when it comes to new approaches to learning and by the end of the evening, we were finding some unexpected rewards and stumbling upon the occasional revelation as a result of allowing our bodies to do the thinking.
Thank you to all those members who attended. We were impressed by the zeal with which each of you undertook the assigned homework and the depth of insight that each of you brought to the group discussion. Wow! It felt so good to be back stretching concepts and working ideas with all of you!
Our next salon evening takes places on Thursday the 27th of October and takes the form of a debate. In the blue corner, the good girls. In the red corner, the bitches. Watch this space to find out more.