The Pitfalls of Using Other People’s Voices in Poetry

The young poet said he hoped to write about female, Muslim refugees, though he was not female, Muslim or a refugee. “I’ll ask them about the stuff they do that everyone does, like playing table tennis and stuff…”. His voice trailed away, as the section he’d put on the form began to look more like a blatant bid to tick a funding box than to have a cultural conversation. 

There are pitfalls in writing about other people in your work. I’ve been thinking about how not to fall into them.

Most of the workshops I run, whether that’s poetry or comedy or radio, involve people writing and speaking their own words. That, for me, is where the excitement and power lies. When people are using their voices they will use them elsewhere too. It means that when a project’s aims are a bit woolly or don’t quite fit with my values then I can still think that there has been an unleashing of voices which can critique and resist and protest and dialogue. Lots of funders will say they like this. Even if they don’t really.

Perhaps it means I’m sometimes too optimistic about the possibility of those voices being unleashed elsewhere. There are so many leashes now. Schools which have less space for creativity, creative workplaces which are hard to enter if you’re not rich. But it also means I look at arts and creative projects which claim to hear the voices of participants with a sceptical eye. I don’t get verbatim theatre and shows which are based on the words of “community groups we worked with”. Not really. In many cases, they seem to take the words of others and make cultural and economic capital out of them for directors and actors (I know not ALL of it does this, and it can be a way to tell stories that otherwise wouldn’t be told).

However, I risk being hypocritical. I’m always going on about hearing the voices of others in my projects, and I wonder how often those voices get lost. In order to try mitigate this, I was guided by a particular methdology when I did a project for Hull 2017. It helped me be clearer about what I was trying to do, and the traps I might fall into. I shared it with the writers I was working with. I had been using it in my PhD too and I’m going to briefly detail here in case it can give any other writers and performers food for thought.

Dialogical performance is a tool used by in performance ethnography (and laid out by Dwight Conquergood). Ethnography is a tool used by anthropologists, among other close observers of culture. Users of it acknowledge that the culture (ethno) they’re studying is both re-constructed and constructed in their writing (graphy) of it. It’s a novelistic, journalistic way of doing social sciences; which is why it appeals to me. Performance ethnographers basically, in extreme summary, perform their fieldwork. Both so that it becomes bodily and visceral and can be felt by a live audience, and so that it gets out beyond only sitting in notebooks or universities. Some people have argued that stand-up comedians can function as performance ethnographers- highlighting and querying the rules of their culture. It’s therefore logical to argue, as I have, that performing poets can too. Again in extreme summary, critical performance ethnographers don’t just go “Here is a reflection of how this culture works” they also go “Here is how power works in this culture, and we would like the oppressed and marginalised to have more of it, including by participating in speaking and writing about it in order to shift it”. They recognise performance as what Conquergood called a “moral act”- even, or especially when it says that it isn’t one. That seems to fit well with the approach of many poets to participatory arts projects.

Conquergood says that ideally dialogical performance is a conversation with the other. You don’t pretend you’re not there, with your own voice which is filled with ideologies and biases and sensitivities; “It’s all about them!” but you don’t dominate. “Instead of speaking about them, one speaks to and with them” as he says.  You’re aiming for a central place between identity (“I just get them, we’re the same!”) and difference “I’ll never understand their alien-ness”). Also between commitment (“I will save them!”) and detachment (“They’re on their own”).

He lays out the four positions you can occupy at the extremes of those poles:

The Custodian’s Rip-Off

It becomes all about you. “There’s great material here” you think as you selfishly plunder and appropriate stuff that isn’t really yours in a spirit of using things (and words and people), rather than genuine inquiry.  Conquergood gives the example of a cultural group who performed a Hopi Indian dance “To preserve it”, despite the objections of Hopi elders.

The Enthusiast’s Infatuation 

Too much identification with the other, here. “Aren’t we all basically the same!” you cry as you dash in for a short time, with a superficial appreciation of the Other, which belittles them and their genuine differences from you.

The Curator’s Exhibitionism 

Making the difference of the other into something stuck and flat. Conquergood says this is like the “Noble Savage” attitude of anthropologists of old who collected their artefacts in order for people to marvel at their astounding weirdness. It puts you and them into a different moral universe and suggests the twain will never meet.

The Skeptic’s Copout 

The skeptic wouldn’t be doing a poetry project involving the words of others, one would hope, because they are both detached and entrenched in their difference from others. They’re probably just conducting Brexit negotiations or something.

I was going to write about how I tried to use dialogical performance when I worked on the show Queens of the North with the writing collective “Women of Words” from Hull. But maybe in another blog. Except, just to say, in brief, I felt that I, as a non-Hull woman, was not going to be the best person to capture the voices of women of Hull, even though I’d proposed it as a project following on from my work at the Women of the World festival in the city. (Possibly I sometimes fell into the “Skeptic’s Copout” position). But I thought that if I facilitated other women writers from Hull, then together we could speak with and from Hull. We also went off and spoke to particular groups we were interested in (For example, Vicky spoke to female boxers, Cassandra spoke to the partners of oil rig workers, Michelle spoke to foreign students, Julie spoke to Mums of children with disabilities) and came up with pieces which included our and their voices). I would say I facilitated the show, rather than directed it, in a dialogue with all of us as writers and performers. It was also a dialogue with the city and with past and present. Lynda for instance, used her past in a Hull girl band to tell a story of the city in which that sixties story is now being told as history.  It became a dialogue with the audience who would both have identified with and felt a difference from some of the stories told. It stirred strong emotions for them and there was a standing ovation at the end- so they were very committed! But I think we also built in enough spaces where audiences could reflect in a more detached way about the issues that have impacted the women of Hull.

Of course, we still will have fallen into various pitfalls. Also, of course, not everybody associated with a piece of work might be operating in the spirit of dialogical performance (“Women? Northern ones? We haven’t got enough of those. Let’s get em on!”). But I think we did manage to find a middle space so that as well as a performance, we were holding a truly intimate conversation.

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