Experiments in Ethnographic Poetry: A Workshop Summary

Susan Wardell

Poetry, like ethnography, is about listening with the whole self. This was the focus of a workshop in January 2022, run in association with the SHA.

The workshop, entitled “Experiments in Ethnographic Poetry: the personal, the sensory, the more-than-human”, was part of the online AAA Workshop series (delayed from 2021). It was facilitated by Anthropology and Humanism’s Poetry Editor, Susan Wardell, and members of the journal’s Poetry advisory group: Ather Zia, Wesley Brunson, and Darcy Alexandra. The session was designed for people at any stage of their career (including students) and any level of experience or confidence with poetry, with over 50 people participating, for 2 hours, via Zoom.

Anthropology has a long history of engaging with a variety of different genres and forms of writing. North American anthropologist Toni Flores – writing in Anthropology and Humanism in 1982[1] – acknowledged that even defining poetry is difficult, but that it has to do with “sensuality and the mind”. In introducing this workshop, Susan read Flores’ poem ‘Marking Time’ to start the group thinking about the expectant and attentive mindset that both ethnography and poetry has in common. It is also a great example of how poetry can invoke the body and the senses, so this led into an initial warm-up free-writing focused on smellscapes and soundscapes from the field.

After some sharing and discussion, the workshop was then broken into two streams, focused on 1) autoethnography and autotheory, and 2) the more-than-human world, which participants selected from, based on interest. Below, we outline some of the exercises used in each session and, with permission from the individual participants, share a small sample of the work produced.


This stream, led by Wesley Brunson and Ather Zia, explored the intersections of the personal and professional; ways of listening, analyzing, and theorizing through body/ies; and poetry as a channel for the ‘surfeit’ of experience in the field. As a writing prompt for the first exercise, participants were asked to choose a photo, from their own devices; ideally something personal and resonant, which could be either related to their fieldwork, or their wider life.

They entered a period of freewriting based on this photograph, where they were asked to pay attention to what was both present and absent from the photo. For the second part of the exercise, they were tasked with editing what they had written into a restricted form of two stanzas, four lines of four words in each). This two-step exercise was intended to give a brief introduction to how one might generate “material” for a poem, and from that initial material, edit it using some of the many techniques of poetic form.


Here is an example by Luke Kernan (University of Victoria, lkernan@uvic.ca), showing how the exercise promotes reflection, then enhanced by attention to the possibilities and power of poetic technique.  

Context of Selected Photograph:

Image of a typewriter ornament gifted to me over the winter break from a friend who is experiencing compounded loss and grief. Underneath on my desk are a stack of recent personal holiday letters and correspondences, the THIS IS ANTHROPOLOGY postcard from AAA, an issue of the journal, Anthropology of Consciousness (2021, 32:2), Anthropology News, 62:5 (Ten Things about Ghosts and Haunting), Wordworks: British Columbia’s Magazine for Writers, 2021 vol. III (Words will carry us: Mental health and wellness for writers), and Anthropology News, 62:6 (The Camera and the Stairs). I find this particular arrangement interesting from how it illustrates the connections between (1) stories/selves in the inner circle, (2) personal communications on the outer-middle circle, and (3) professional and disciplinary, or public-facing, fronts within the hidden-last circle—and how we all struggle to find balance and mix within that maelstrom. As such, I am reminded of this article I read: Haunting Wholeness: Inviting Ghosts on the Bridge So We Can Transform by Cristina M. Dominguez, who talks about how the personal and all its associated energies and trauma cannot be easily nor ethically separated from the professional. And, if anything, poetry and emotive ethnographic writing are indispensable tools from which one might begin to sort through and untangle these levels of engagement and discourses of personhood.

Free-Write Exercise:

The ornament lay on stacks of letters. The shimmer of its unrest signalling stories. The call to sit deep in composition, execute, express, breath in the room and be absent. The film of decorated letter covers holding a tomb of words and well-wishing. The halo of the Madonna and child covered and smudged out as much as their faceless silhouettes were removed from view, leaving patterns and tapestry. Decorative and emblematic. The history marked out, but still there. I turn to thoughts of words and what all might have been said—how I have been buried by communications yet to happen. The glee and bustling gratitude of the ornament is not lost as it signals further. 

Be that storyteller, imagine. 

When was the last time you had a good word-soak!? You ask yourself amid the rush of moving houses, unsettled, resettled—but never there in full until you decide so. Does it really take a yearly holiday, a death, even a broken limb and a misplaced salutation to get quipped and equipped? You used to fold into an evening spilling your violet-ink pens, remembering yourself and others in the tiny captures of letters and lost light.

Form-Write Exercise (edited to two stanzas, four lines and four words each):

Stacks of letters shimmer,
sit deep and express.
Their grief, faceless silhouettes,
decorative and emblematic ornaments.
Our violet-ink pens
spilling halos, bustling gratitude,
tiny captures of letters:
word-soaked and bereft.

And here are two more examples of poems produced by other participants, from this exercise (with the photo prompt included for reference):

Kirsten Van't Schip (kirsten.vantschip@gmail.com)

Speaking through cedar stripping
All part of all