Poetry slam as therapy sessions

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UNISA academic Dr Raphael d’Abdon has begun investigating spoken word and slam events in South Africa as “liberated zones” and “group therapy sessions”. Karin Schimke spoke to him after a presentation earlier this week at the Writing for Liberty Conference. The conference was hosted by UWC Creates, in partnership with Lancaster University’s Centre for Transcultural Writing and Research, and the Centre for the Book in Cape Town.

Poetry slam sessions, says d’Abdon, are places where young people can “voice their dissatisfaction, channel their anger and heal”.

He believes they are, as such, critical channels of expression in a nation traumatized by a noxious past, a violent present and ongoing debilitating inequalities.

Poetry as therapy is not a new concept, and is thought to have been practised in various forms by shamans and healers the world over, long before Sigmund Freud became interested in the link between poetry, dreams and the unconscious in the early 20th century. The concept of poetry therapy has been investigated in various books and papers since then.

However, poetry therapy is a new area for d’Abdon, whose interest in South African spoken word poetry, in all its variations, is wide. He has been immersed in the local spoken word field since 2007, but it was only at the end of last year that this new strand started to crystalise out of his observations.

The generally chilly relations between page poets and stage poets is a topic that comes up frequently in formal and informal conversations about poetry, and d’Abdon, who writes, performs and teaches poetry and often judges slam poetry competitions, started to ask himself why poetry readings didn’t attract the attention of young audiences, while slam sessions regularly filled venues.

He already had some of the answers. Slam sessions are a form of leisure and entertainment, and provide opportunities for young poets to perfect their writing and performance skills, win prizes, promote themselves and gain a reputation – even a kind of celebrity status. Plus, there’s the matter of the historical exclusion of black voices from established literary channels.

But d’Abdon started to tune his ears not only to the content of the poems that won slam competitions, but also to the reactions of the audience to the poems that won. He came to the conclusion that slam sessions also allowed people to tell their stories in friendly environments, in which they felt they could freely develop their identities.

His central argument is that, with slam platforms, South Africa’s “disillusioned and traumatized youth has created arenas for self-expression and healing that are simultaneously ‘liberated zones’ and ‘culturally responsive poetry groups’”.

The process of creating becomes a deeply meaningful recognition and expression of multiple identities that include race, gender, age, class and location, he believes, and the lived experience of writing poetry for South African youth “uncovers the power to name who they really are, individually and collectively”.

The “liberated zone” idea comes from Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist theorist who died in 1934. It is a space of material and symbolic power, in which the creators of a new society support each other while challenging the status quo, and creatively imagine the emergence of this new society-in-the-making in a “climate conducive to literary and artistic expression”.

“As the Fees Must Fall movement has shown,” says d’Abdon, “South African urban youth are reclaiming spaces in which they can voice their dissatisfaction, channel their anger and heal. Slam sessions are particularly fit to serve this purpose, since, through poetry, young South Africans can feel heard and validated [as] they tell their stories, determine their own identities and receive positive affirmation of their culture.”

What are the topics that win an audience’s admiration and enthusiastic support? Trauma, he says. Poverty; physical and sexual abuse; discrimination based on race, class, gender or sexual orientation.

Koleka Putuma is one of South Africa’s most visible and celebrated spoken word poets currently, and her poetry collection Collective amnesia (Uhlanga) is being launched in the next two weeks. In an interview with the poet Gaamangwe Mogami, she said:

I find the idea of walking around and interacting with people without a mask quite liberating. I find living in a world where we don’t show our true selves, and where we don’t ever say we are hurting, quite suffocating. What is freeing for me is to be able to say that that experience or person over there hurt me, particularly as a black person … So, I feel like my writing is for that interaction to exist, where I can honestly and unapologetically write/talk about an experience that happened, and I don’t have to sugar-coat or sanitize it … In my work, I create a space where, as a black woman, I can name my traumas/hurts, and name the people who have inflicted those traumas in an unapologetic way.

Jack Leedy and Sherry Reiter, in their book Poetry Therapy, write: “When a person identifies with the pain or joy of the poet, emotions that may have been previously repressed are released. The poet … is a kindred spirit, whose written expression reassures the client that he is not alone. By examining the thoughts and feelings in the poem, rather than the patient directly, the client remains unthreatened, and retains the objectivity necessary for gaining new perspectives.”

Leedy and Reiter were writing as therapists engaged in providing poetry therapy. People who attend slam sessions are not “patients” or “clients”, but the principles of relating to another’s pain through his words is the same.

“Look,” says d’Abdon, “I don’t want to put out there the argument that slam communities are therapeutic communities, because, at the end of the day, we are poets, not therapists. What I tried to do initially was to explore the connection, and my idea came from my observation of the kinds of topics poets prefer to talk about, and which poems generated the strongest responses from the audience. And my response to this question is that, inevitably, the poems that generate the strongest impact are those that deal with traumatic experiences. Out of that observation came the hypothesis that, subliminally or subconsciously, many young people are attracted to slam competitions because, again subconsciously, they find a space where they can have some kind of healing.”

Having attended hundreds of spoken word and slam events, as well as poetry readings, d’Abdon has noticed a marked shift from political, resistance and protest poetry, to confessional poetry. While as an academic and a teacher of poetry he is not uncritical of slam poetry (not enough editing, too much replication and repetition), he find this shift in focus encouraging. It also affirms his own experience of coming into spoken word arenas and being accepted easily and warmly.

The title of his talk “We find love in this group” – a patient’s quote used in an academic report on poetry therapy* – reflects this.

In the paper d’Abdon delivered to the conference on Monday, he quotes [the above-mentioned] Mogami, playwright and screenwriter: “[Our] society doesn’t encourage spaces where we open up and talk about our traumas … There is also courage and vulnerability that are required when owning one’s trauma, because there is the need to look at the self as the subject in it.”

D’Abdon concludes: “I don’t think we can ignore or underestimate the positive impact these spaces have on the traumatized youth of neocolonial urban South Africa.”

*Kobak, D (1969). “Poetry therapy in a ‘600’ school and in a counseling center: Creative writing as a therapeutic instrument”. In: JJ Leedy, ed., Poetry therapy: The use of poetry in the treatment of emotional disorders. Philadelphia: JB Lippincot, pp 180–187.

Busisiwe Mahlangu

Koleka Putuma

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