Communication is vitally important to building community. Despite this, we are often dreadfully uncreative when it comes to communicating with one another. In institutions and workplaces, meetings often prevail as the dominant form of communication. Our obsession with meetings has extended from the workplace into neighbourhoods as residents meet to create green maps, healthy community initiatives, or plan their next event.
Meetings have their place. In fact, I openly admit that I love meetings. Perhaps it is the face-to-face contact, in a world increasingly reliant on online communication. Perhaps it is because I have spent a good part of my life in communities that emphasize participatory democracy – which more often than not seems to mean meeting to create a lot of committees…that hold more meetings.
Nevertheless, meetings are limited in their usefulness. They often encourage participants to be relatively passive, often reinforce existing power structures, and are rarely physically structured in an inviting manner. In addition, meetings promote a particular way of thinking and acting. I wonder if we should try a completely different approach to conveying our thoughts, feelings and proposals. Instead of meetings filled with rules of order, noisy discussions, or ill-prepared statements, what if we took an approach that encouraged more reflection? For example, could poetry serve as a way to communicate with one-another in a more thoughtful manner? Would it force us to be more selective about what we say and therefore perhaps allow for deeper communication? Would it mean that we need to create more time for silent reflection and preparation?
In Yemen, the value of poetic communication has been recognized for centuries. Balahs, Zamils and Qasidahs are key forms of poetic political expression that have traditionally served to bring about change and influence decision-making. This is an excerpt from a Qasidah composed in 1998 asking the president of Yemen to address the inadequacy of widow’s pensions:
Where is the care for the shattered patient?
Where is the medicine or an examination for the diseases of the body?
My children number from one to ten
Behind the feral wolf, each one’s lot is drawn
[Her] daughters, family, and husband
All of them have sought a sprig of moist basil from me…yet there’s naught
My [only] aim is for a morsel of food, a satisfying life
That has honour, for the lack thereof is the stopping of breath
(Flagg Miller 2002, p. 114)
Organizations such as the World Bank and UNESCO have recognized the importance of this form of communication by funding Literacy through Poetry. This is a Yemen-based project aimed at using poetry and oral tradition to improve literacy and the ability to communicate among women.
The importance of poetry is catching on fast in the corporate world. David Whyte, a poet and Associate Fellow at Templeton College and Said Business School, focuses on how poetry and ‘thoughtful commentary’ can “foster courage and engagement” in corporate workplaces. In What Poetry Brings to Business, Clare Morgan “demonstrates that the skills necessary to talk and think about poetry can be of significant benefit to leaders and strategists, to executives who are facing infinite complexity and who are armed with finite resources in a changing world.”
In neighbourhoods, perhaps a less verbal, more open-air form of poetry is called for. Broadsided focuses on printing and posting one-page publications in coffee shops, telephone poles – even inside airplanes. Check out these simple instructions on spreading your ideas through poetry.
Whether it is in your office, neighbourhood, school, home or local constituency office, perhaps you could shake up your regular meetings with a little poetic communication. I would love to hear about anyone’s adventures in poetic communication, or other ideas about how to convey our thoughts in ways other than traditional meetings.