by Sam Illingworth
Poetry has the potential to build communities and provide shelter for people who otherwise feel isolated. Whether using poetry as a method of spiritual and mental healing in palliative care or being used to foster community development and positive change, poetry has the power to heal, support, and engender action. Similarly, community engagement projects such as Talking Wellness and The Good Listening Project have been designed to develop social capital and enhance community engagement for often marginalised communities, encouraging participants to reduce the stigma around mental health and wellbeing by talking about it through poetry.
Poetry also has a long history of helping to explore issues of belonging, from using poetry to support women in prison, to aiding student nurses explore the complexities of compassion fatigue. Within the context of higher education, there are also examples of poetry being used to help students cope with stress and anxiety, as well as instances of poetry being used to improve presentational technique and to explore teacher-student relationships. However, to date there is a relative paucity of work exploring how poetry might be used to help staff working in higher education to address their own sense of belonging in what can, at times, be a somewhat harsh and unwelcoming landscape.
As a way of trying to address this gap, and to explore the potential for helping those working in higher education, we set up Learned Words as an anonymous repository of poetry; a place to curate the poetic reflections of people from around the world who support learning and teaching in higher education.
Whether it be the exclusivity evidenced in ‘Barred Doors’:
I know whiskey when I smell it
Down the hall and through the corridors
The chosen scent of patriarchy
Accept it or the doors are barred
Or the lack of institutional support discussed in ‘Imposter Syndrome’:
Is it imposter syndrome
When I strongly believe I should be here
You tell me I don’t belong.
Learned Words was set up so that readers might reflect on their own experiences and find solace and hope in the words of others. Poetry has the capacity to lay bare that which cannot otherwise be said, providing a frame for reflection, recognition, and perhaps even reconnection. We acknowledge that each poem will be encountered differently to each reader, and that what might resonate for some will contend for others; such is the subjective nature of the medium. In presenting these poems we also hope to provide some creative playfulness to complement the profound; something which readers might find in these lines from ‘Inner Monologue at a Conference’:
Free wine and coffee combine to create
An atmosphere of compulsory enjoyment;
Conference assistants and helpers tell me:
This is the friendliest conference in humanity.
I see a former colleague and bow my head,
We pass like kidney stones in the night.
We welcome poems from anyone working in the higher education sector; there is no gatekeeping with regards to aesthetics, reputation, or succinctness of thought. Rather, we want to create a space were everyone is welcome to read, to write, and ultimately to belong.
Dr Sam Illingworth is an Associate Professor at Edinburgh Napier University, whose research centres on using poetry and games to help develop dialogue between communities. You can find out more about his research via his website www.samillingworth.com and connect with him on twitter @samillingworth.