Ten years ago, I discovered a collection of poems titled ‘Holocaust’ by Charles Reznikoff’s. During this time, I was working as a consultant in London in the arena of gender-based violence. Reznikoff’s work resonated with me. I had grown up with stories of the war in my family. Also working with survivors of abuse, I had a deep awareness of the impact of trauma in the ‘ordinary’ settings of family and intimate relationships. ‘Holocaust’ is a unique collection of poems depicting the atrocities of war.
Reznikoff's collection draws directly from the official government transcripts of the Nuermberg Trials and the records of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. This technique of creating poems, literally by carving out the poem from the original text, is a technique known as Found Poetry. Found poems take existing texts or other source materials and refashion them, reorder them, and present them as poems. The literary equivalent of a collage.
Charles Reznikoff’s work is an exceptionally skilled piece of work, created solely from source text and pure to form. Reznikoff’s collection presents multiple narratives that may have otherwise remained locked in the court room and buried in history. The accumulative effect of his poetry is powerful and gives a stark insight into daily atrocities. At the time of discovering this collection, I attended a series of courses at the Tate Modern in London led by TS Elliot Prize winner, Pascale Petit. These courses were magical; one evening a week for 8 weeks we would have exclusive access to exhibitions in the Tate Modern gallery and workshop our poems.
Inspired by Reznikoff’s collection, my poems were clearly influenced by the trauma of abuse. Using art as a stimulation to write poetry, prodded my subconscious and the poems that emerged were strangely surprising, and quietly familiar at the same time. I began to notice that a recurring theme was the ‘ordinariness’ of abuse with glimpses of change and escape.
after I’m here but Nothing by Yayoi Kusama
She grows wild wings
under the dinner table
where fields of begonias flower.
Thoughts of escape
travelling from the television,
a confetti petal.
Edward De Bono who is credited as the inventor of lateral thinking claims that creativity is the ‘most important human resource of all. Without creativity, there would be no progress, and we would be forever repeating the same patterns.’ As I worked on my poems, inspired by being in such a magical place, with such a generous teacher, it became an important part of my de-compressing and ‘processing’ vicarious trauma.
In addition to the healing properties of creativity, uncovering otherwise hidden ‘truths’ is a powerful learning tool. Our language and communication reflect our thoughts. The French philosopher Foucault believed that systems of thought and knowledge are governed by rules which operate beneath the consciousness. He named the process of revealing those hidden rules the ‘archaeology of knowledge’. Poetry has the power to take something familiar or ‘accepted’ and make it unfamiliar which confuses ‘the rules’ of our thought processes and creates an opportunity to think differently about the subject. Yevgeny Yevtushenko says, ‘poetry is like a bird; it ignores all frontiers.’ Where this happens, it can be a transformative experience; a ‘light bulb’ moment.
I use creativity consistently in my work. Where possible, I introduce art, music, poetry as tools for transformation. I have used these techniques with children, young people and adults, as a vehicle for self – expression, mindset shifts and mindfulness. I would not have called it mindfulness 10 – 20 years ago, it was fun, it was play. I noticed particularly with boys how their aggressive, competitive behaviour changed when they engaged in tasks that focussed on creating, rather than winning. The poet Pablo Neruda refers to poetry as ‘an act of peace’ and in my experience, creativity and creative expression not only bring the individual peace, as their gifts are shared, others also benefit. I could trace my own personal transformations through my poems as new realisations emerged.
after Tree of 12 Metres by Giuseppe Penone
I cast off innumerable skins, emerged
as an amber tree with spokes,
reminders of a gnarled self.
The cracks in the wood became oubliettes
where devils crept out,
descending to the earth from branches.
Now, with careful attention,
a finger or an eye may trace the circles.
This appeared as a guest blog for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. For more information about their work, click here to visit their website ncadv.org/about-us