In a time of ‘fake news’ and crass clickbait, it is sometimes difficult to empower marginalised people people and to make the voices of smaller groups be heard. At the Unusual Suspects Festival roundtable discussion event with Poet in the City, the dialogue focussed on current power structures that can be found in media and how these structures affect the information and narratives that we receive as ‘news’. Ideas were then put forward on how these dynamics can be modified and the role that poetry can play in this change; alongside contributions from guests Zena Edwards, Georgia Bowen-Evans and Maurice Mcleod whose personal knowledge of our topic and the insightful contributions from all who attended made for a thought-provoking conversation.
Discussions began with an identification of traits participants had noticed occurring regularly in the media with regard to the presentation of stories and how the language employed can become oppressive. Small group discussions highlighted that the media often chooses and exaggerates stories depending on, not only what will sell, but also what will mirror existing dominant narratives. As a result, there are far more existing perspectives to stories than we are generally presented with. Whilst many news stories are indeed negative, there are many positive themes and trends that are largely ignored or remain unhighlighted, for instance community spirit. This is indicative of the multiple sides and interpretations that lie within every narrative. It seems that sometimes the compulsion to report past events overrule sensitivity. Deeply concerning and emotional situations can be perceived as de-humanising when reported on without fully presenting the realities of those involved.Often those who are being reported on are marginalised and under-/misrepresented. These communities lack ways of communicating externally, and the few means of expression they do have, have been manipulated by the media in order to paint a certain image of them and often diminishes their worth. This often results in a sense of powerlessness, frustration and diminished worth.
Poetry can be a way to creatively reshape these narratives. There are notable nuances in the way language is employed in poetry compared to its use in the traditional media. AS Georgina Bowen-Evans from gal-dem outlined: ‘We all have beating hearts. If you follow the rhythm of a poem, it’s like the beating of our hearts…everyone’s in the same space’.
Poetry is the perfect tool to counter or balance the empathy void found in mainstream media. Like all creative language, it can serve as social commentary with attached emotion. It was brought up in the discussions that that in many countries facing social upheaval, poetry, both new and reclaimed from decades past, is often used as a tool to highlight and draw attention to current events and the human impact they have. There’s something in poetic narrative; we know stories and we understand stories, perhaps because of their reflection of the human condition.
Poetry is accessible to everyone – anyone can be a poet. A great example of the wide-reaching power of poetry is the many Afghan women who create landays as members of Mirman Baheer as a form of rebellion and challenge preconceptions. You don’t need contacts, qualifications or social position to write or perform poetry. Poetry has the capacity to alter power dynamics, by providing alternative narratives and empowering individuals to express themselves.
Poetry can be more approachable than news for many. As an art form, it can be easier to digest and interpret. At a time when many are concerned about the trustworthiness of media outlets, perhaps the use of creative language can thwart misinformation and a lack of emotional connection. Presenting feelings in this way and evoking the same emotions or empathy in others cannot be faked. Poetry does not pretend to be impartial in the way that mainstream media often does. In this way, it is less deceptive as it is open about its individual bias and that it is merely a snapshot of one particular narrative.
Platforms such as gal-dem and Media Diversified are providing spaces for those who wouldn’t usually have the space to tell their stories and empowering them to do so. As Maurice Mcleod shared anecdotes from his career, he noted that ‘the voices of the people around [him] weren’t being heard’. This sentiment was echoed by Georgia Bowen-Evans ‘We were being left out of mainstream conversations and platforms… so we made our own.’
By making the discussion less about taking sides and more about exploring perspective we can unite people through what we have in common, our humanity. If the mainstream press worked more with the people, there would be less alien-feeling, marginalising narratives. The influence of traditional media sources seems to be waning under the growing presence of grassroots/independent organisations and social media. This perhaps became most clear during the recent General Election, when grass-roots social media campaigns were influential.
As the session drew to a close, participants attempted to reclaim and repurpose oppressive language. The phrase ‘not one of us’ earned a response of ‘thanks!’, whilst ‘what are you?’ was met with ‘I’m hungry’, and ‘where are you from?’ became ‘I wonder where you come from?’. Pledges were then made to reclaim this repurposed language on a day to day basis, and to work to elevate the voices of marginalised voices through championing the presentation of their own narratives.