In One Vital Motion Reflexive Essay
In One Vital Motion is an ethnographic portrait of three poets—Kyle Lovell, Henry Maddicott, and Anh-Khoi Nguyen. Firstly, my fieldwork and the participative and observational ethnographic filmmaking that shaped In One Vital Motion will be delineated. Secondly, the fictive and imaginative elements of literature will be framed as allowing for a particular kind of art-knowledge, reflexivity, and intersubjectivity. Thirdly, the liminal space created by creative writing groups and poetry events will be explored through the themes of self-disclosure, intimacy, and literary friendships. In One Vital Motion illustrates how in Canterbury, as Khoi states: “People write poetry for different reasons, but they all come together at these beautiful events”.
As Kyle mentioned in one of our interviews, poetry is a process of elucidation in which people aim to make sense of themselves and the world. In One Vital Motion showcases this process by illustrating the differing ways in which poets pull from their social worlds, portraying poetry not as a product, but as a continual process through which people negotiate their positions as social actors and create narratives that give meaning to their lives. In the film, Kyle, Henry and Khoi are seen negotiating their relationship to poetry and identity of ‘poet’. This is shown through their reflections upon their own condition—for Kyle it is an almost tortured condition in which writing is not fun but ‘necessary’, for Henry it is a political and expressive condition through which struggle can be overcome, for Khoi it is at once a bonding and isolating condition that necessitates a community through which to share one’s writing. These three characters because they consisted of three ‘nodes’ in the network of the poetry scene in Canterbury; that of the solitary poet, slams, and the creative writing community. My footage was intentionally unselective and unstructured, and I allowed for two months and a half of extended participant observation at the Creative Writing Society and other poetry events such as I Speak My Truth, the Chocolate Café Slam, and the LO FI Zone. This long-term and in-depth exploration of the Canterbury poetry scene allowed me to experience the shifts in character and disposition of my informants under different environments, and observe the various ways in which poetry was shared, received, and exchanged. It also allowed me to invite audience members, writers and performers to lead the direction of my research, which positioned them not as passive subjects but rather as active participants in the film. In the manner of Jean Rouch, I let the poets give significance and context to their own experiences. As Khoi states in response to the film, the camera allowed him to access the personal reasons for writing and sharing poetry that he seldom got from his creative writing group members, seeing the ways in which he directly affected their lives; ‘it’s very nice to hear that it means something to them’. My fieldwork was additionally auto-ethnographic; performing and sharing my own poetry allowed me to access the visceral and vulnerable sensations of performance and reflect upon its cathartic and bonding effects. It also served to forge meaningful and genuine anthropologist-informant relationships with other poets. My decision to structure the film as three portraits rather than oversee one poet or poem can be surmised by Renov’s point that: “If life’s paradoxes and complexities are not to be suppressed, the question of degrees and nuances is incessantly crucial.” (Renov, 1993: 100). In Khoi’s considered feedback, he stated that, “using different people, and different voices, I think you put together quite a comprehensive image of [the community]”. The meaning, definition and locus of poetry remains a contentious issue in the documentary, which centers on these debates not as factual contradictions but as differences in the lived realities of poets, who navigate their own, yet overlapping, social fields.
In One Vital Motion highlights the role of fiction as producing a particular kind of art-knowledge, showing how the sensibilities and insights created through poetry are primarily experiential and imaginative. Although the film itself does not take ethnofiction as a method of ethnographic research and representation as in the work of Johannes Sjøberg, the presence of fiction in the creative writing I filmed allowed for a reflexive and collaborative research experience between my informants and I. As Banks and Ruby state, “the ethnographic encounter can itself be a work of art, an exercise in social poetics—the skill in managing social relations in which the ethnographer, always more of a learner than the informant, begins, however clumsily, to master that skilled elaboration of everyday habits that garners real appreciation in the host society.” (2011: 318). Reflection and interpretation was a vital part of the creative writing scene, and feedback from the audience at poetry slams was fundamental—this forged an intersubjective environment through which various approaches to writing were exchanged, and styles particular to Canterbury can emerge. Cultural studies approaches towards poetry have focused on analyzing its production and exchanges through a critical framework, thinking historically about aesthetic judgement. In the manner of Barthes, the text tends to be seen as ‘a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centers of culture’ (Barthes and Heath, 2010: 146). Although this succeeds in deconstructing the economic and political dimensions of poetry, it does not account for its cathartic effect. Although I included issues of class, the sensorial, emotional, and communal aspects of poetry are the centre-piece of the documentary. I framed the poets’ sensibilities as taking precedent over cultural capital in their poetic production; demonstrating how differing spaces for poetry are carved out in social fields. Indeed, “Value, one must remind oneself, is contingent, mobile, and situational, not perfectly absolute.” (Nelson and DuPlessis, 2015). The fictive opens up a space through which social actors can imagine themselves, others, and the world, and engage in acts of self-disclosure which encompass their deeper, felt, realities. Aligning with Ingold’s observations on knowledge and creativity, poetry is framed as a process of elucidation additionally showcases knowledge not as a ready-made product but as a creative process through which one’s sensibilities connect with those of others (2013). As Khoi mentions in one of our discussions about poetry and politics, a speech is not always effective as ‘change starts in people’s hearts’.
The inclusion of the poetry community as creating a liminal space for self-disclosure and intimacy showcases the intersubjective element of this art form and opens up the space for the viewer to be included in the atmosphere of the writing process itself. Theorized by Victor Turner, the liminal space forms the core of social reproduction and is the second stage of ritual, in which one’s social role become suspended; the former self dies whilst another is reborn. Neophytes forge strong bonds through the liminal stage, as it forces reflection on the origins, meanings, and functions of one’s culture—they become a singe body in communitas. Similarly, the performance or reading spaces render social actors devoid of their societal roles and expectations, with every audience member giving their undivided attention and embodying the perspective of the reader or performer for the course of the poem. Poetry performances can include the taboo and vulgar in a way which becomes humorous and insightful within this liminal space. As Henry states in the film, poetry allows for people to say to a room full of strangers what they otherwise wouldn’t dare say to their best friends. Audience members also take part; their social selves are suspended and in a state of flux as they re-imagine their own vulnerabilities and insecurities through relating to the poets’ own acts of self-disclosure. Indeed, “cultural performances are not only reflective—in that they show something—but also reflexive, in that they indicate that they show something and install a consciousness” (Møhl, 2011:234). My auto-ethnographic research allowed me to directly experience the spontaneous communitas present at these events, and see the literary space as a locus for personal and intersubjective change.
In One Vital Motion allows for poetry not to be conceived as emerging in isolation or through a particular method, but showcases the ways in which it is personal in content and practice, inviting the viewer the make their own interpretations. The liminality present in the creative writing and performance spaces is showcased through the suspension of social roles, deep bonding, and spontaneous communitas—allowing for acts of self-disclosure and intersubjective negotiations of the lived realities of poets, performers, and audience members. It illustrates the cathartic effects of poetry and the deep yearning we all have to share how we feel ‘in one vital motion’, and how this yearning creates literary friendships and intimate communities that can hold space for vulnerability.
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