Translating Academia through Creative Writing

Poetry is how I make sense of the world. This the one answer that never goes away when I’m asked about my relationship with poetry. It should be no surprise then, that I keep looking for new things to explore through the prism of poetry, which for me, includes other creative writing genres, for which poetry serves as my stepping stone and/or foundation. If you came to see Ilé La Wà, then you know.

2019 was replete with new experiences: first theatre tour, publication announcement, first professional performance in Nigeria, etc, and, my first season of creative consultancy and workshops with various academics at King’s College London (KCL), where I did a Masters in Law, many many years ago.

This time the law didn’t come up and the fact of being alumni was completely coincidental and was only identified when it came to marketing the events. There were four or five events in total in collaboration with the Faculty of Social Science and Public Policy.

Event 1 was a workshop I devised with leading eurosceptic expert Prof Simon Usherwood called ‘British Identity In the Age of Brexit‘. I brought Jess Nash, an amazing illustrator who I met at a residency in 2017, to add a different dimension to the session.

Event 2 was a workshop devised with Dr Leonie Ansems de Vrie, Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Chair of the Migration Research Group exploring the theme of ‘Home’ with students in one session, and then with faculty and the public in another.

Event 3 was a showcase following the three workshops and the launch for KCL’s Home exhibition which included poems from the workshop participants, art from international artists, a public participation installation from me, a panel and performances.

The best part was seeing people interacting with old subjects in new ways; fostering an environment where people were confident enough to talk about their stories to strangers; seeing people perform for the first time and getting over some of my imposter syndrome.

I should say, this whole thing started with a failure of sorts. I pitched as a creative consultant for a project at KCL and it was all going smoothly until funding was pulled. Then someone from KCL came to see my play with a prominent member of a UK university who loved Ilé La Wà and thought it should be doing a university tour with symposiums. Three universities were in on the conversation and then for some reason or another, that also fell through.

But not completely. I’d done the Home project. Jayne Peake, who is the engagement manager for the Exchange had seen the exhibition and the play, heard the pitch for the thing that fell through and was inspired to curate a Season of Home at the Exchange, KCL. I happily consulted, did the workshops, wrote the poem below and commissioned artist Ian Bobb to respond as part of the season and turned my lemons into lemonade.

In this world where one thing leads to another if you are diligent and patient, another department asked if they could use the installation in another exhibition and a couple of lecturers asked if I would be interested in exploring their areas of research through creative writing. I said yes to everything.

In November 2019, as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences, I had the chance to collaborate on two more workshops.

Event 4 was based on research by Dr Negar Elodie Behzadi (Lecturer in the Social Science of International Development) and Professor Cathy McIlwaine (Prof of Development Geography) exploring gender based exclusion. The featured image is from that session. I had a small group of 15 – 18 year olds whose teacher told me a few days later that they talked about the session all the way home; the writing, the performance games, the way the students felt respected and thus enabled to speak. This session was even more exciting because I collaborated with artist Charlotte Hollande who live illustrated the whole session.

Event 5 was a few days later in collaboration with Dr. Pablo de Orellana from the department of War Studies. Again with some young minds, we explored the rise of the far right in a session titled ‘Identity,  Birth Culture  and the Politics of Language‘.

How does it work? I like to hear what excites the researchers; why they do what they do? Then I ignore all the advice to read only the official summary document and instead plunge into the longer academic pieces. If someone thought it worthy of their time to interview countless women, or to dissect a plethora of theories to figure out why the world is how it is, then I want to read it and see what questions it raises for me. A conversation then follows with the academics. My mind forms patterns. As I read, stories come to me which both spring from and have nothing to do with the text. I follow their trajectory and create within whatever parameters I have been set: a poem, a play, a power game, photography, discussion-scapes…

I learn as I go along and more than that, I get to watch people grow.

I’m looking to do more work with academics in 2020.