WRITING AS THE BODY
KØTER at SISTERS ACADEMY – A philosophical report
In the beginning of March 2016 a delegation from the literary label KØTER travelled to the high school Nova Academy in the small Swedish town of Simrishamn to conduct a didactic experiment concerning collective writing and sensuous presence: poetic meditation.
The set and setting for this endeavour was the performance installation of Sisters Academy – a school for poetic and sensuous learning –, which was taking over Nova Academy for two weeks.
The ambition of this report is to uncover what happened in the poetic meditations and to reflect upon what these immersions of collective writing can teach us about the relationship between life and aesthetic practice.
PART I: THE POETRY OF THE SELF
SCATTERING THE SUNBEAMS
How did it get to this, friend? The two of us sitting naked with nothing to tell us from the mad but this piece of shrubbery we somewhy call poetic.
- The Vibrator.
I have become self-conscious.
Well, that was bound to happen. After all, I just carried a massive stick with notebooks and ballpoint pens dangling from it, like lianas from a tree in some tarzanian jungle, through a crowd of flabbergasted students. “Wtf is going on?” someone already wrote in one of the notebooks. Good question. I’m asking myself the same thing.
At the moment the poetic stick has found temporary rest on its strange journey, stretching itself across a blood red carpet. But its jungle tentacles have gained new life as ballpoint pens deflower notebooks in the diligent hands of high school students. Dressed in simple school uniforms (black pants, white shirts) they are writing with their eyes closed, vigorously.
If this scenario wasn’t weird enough in itself, the surroundings surely make up for it. Black velvet covers the walls of what used to be an ordinary Swedish high school. An eerie lynchian soundscape is constantly heard from hidden speakers. In a nearby room, sand is running through hanging bowls, forming fine piles on the floor. A person dressed in a thousand small mirrors walks by, scattering the sunbeams falling from the window ceiling.
But to me, this is not the strangest thing.
Right beside me my dear friend Frederik, fellow writer and researcher, is sitting cross-legged, talking to the writing students:
“Where does the sound enter your body? Where does it show itself? Please write,” he says with a loud, chanting voice. Then, suddenly, he bangs his knuckles against the stick. He doesn’t sound or act like his everyday self. But he also isn’t. At the moment he is The Vibrator. His poetic self.
I get up from my sitting position, hovering a wind chime over the heads of the students. The soft, soothing sounds ripples through the room. “Listen to the bells,” I hear myself saying. “Do they remind you of something? Do they take you somewhere? Is it a special place? Please write.”
But it is not me speaking. It is The Shepherd. Which is me. My self.
Welcome to Sisters Academy.
Strange roaming into the unknown,
the delicate attempt of laying worlds on top
of each other,
walls breathing like whales
or we think so,
dumping rocks into wells
before the sun comes up.
Flashing into other things
the white night in the pitch black fire
there I was
just a minute ago.
- The Shepherd.
A MERGING OF WORLDS
It is an odd experience being in two realities at the same time.
We are at Nova Academy, an ordinary high school in the southern part of Sweden. But at the same time we are at Sisters Academy, a school for poetic and sensuous learning. For two weeks the teachers and students will teach and learn inside a pedagogic experiment, as the performance group Sisters Hope transforms the school into a poetic parallel universe.
Sisters Hope was founded by Gry Worre Hallberg and Anna Lawaetz in 2007. It is currently run by Gry Worre Hallberg, performance artist and scholar at Roskilde University. Her poetic self is The Sister. Together with the rest of Sisters Hope she strives towards a school system, where the aesthetic dimension is allowed to flourish. In Sisters Academy the analytical and rational learning tools are given a break as more poetic and sensuous modes of being and teaching are taking the front seat.
But what does this mean, exactly? What is Sisters Academy? Well, it is a grand-scale performance project operating in the cross-section between performance art, pedagogy and humanistic research. It is a school, an academy, but with no fixed location. As any performative space, it is installed - or in the vocabulary of Sisters Academy, it manifests. Sometimes on its own (Sisters Academy - The Boarding School in Malmö) or, as now, within an already existing educational institution. The Takeover of Nova Academy is the third manifestation of Sister’s Academy.
Two philosophical ideas underlie the education at Sisters Academy. The first one is the idea of the poetic self, which I will elaborate on below. For now I will just say that all the staff members of Sisters Academy (the performers) are expressions of their own poetic selves. Their names give you hints of what kind of poetic being you have before you: The Gardener, The Flow, The Nurse, The Untamed etc. But the poetic self is not restricted to the staff members. The students are in different ways encouraged to explore and express their poetic selves and the high school teachers (the old staff) are also stepping into “new” identities. The Philosophy and Social Science teacher, for example, has chosen to be The Keeper of Undisturbed Thoughts. His performative outfit is a tuxedo and high hat. With his mild way of speaking he explains that one of the biggest problems today is that we do not take the time to really think a thought from start to finish. Truly contemplating a philosophical problem or societal issue demands time, concentration, and immersion.
The second guiding principle is the democratization of the arts. The prime ambition of Sisters Academy is to bring the arts from the stage and into the classroom. The central thought is that the artistic exploration of our own lived experience, which is usually only undertaken by professional artists, is available to everyone. Not only that. The basic conviction is that art is not just a surface layer, which provides the human experience with more sparkle and excitement. Art does not originate on the stage. It originates in our own selves. It is a fundamental way of tapping into ourselves and the world. By allowing artistic expression in a setting, where evaluation and competition is not in focus, these ways of exploring and expressing can help us to discover ourselves and the world in ways we could not otherwise. Furthermore, this exploration might give rise to new ways of being, individually and collectively, that would not arise from more analytical and rational approaches.
This is why many of the teachers have prepared alternative teaching methods in their respective fields. In one social science class, for example, The Keeper of Undisturbed Thoughts engages his students in abstract painting. Just before that they have read articles on poverty and child-abuse, but instead of writing an argumentative text about it, they were told to make notes of their emotional responses and then to transform these into a painting. This is one example of the aesthetic experimentation that is going on as the two Academies merge together.1
Nova Academy has also undergone somewhat of a makeover. In the holiday leading up to the manifestation Sisters Hope has radically changed the appearance of the school, turning it into the highly imaginative and sensuous environment of Sisters Academy. New classrooms has emerged, named and decorated after the five elements.2 In the natural science lab test tubes are glowing with colourful substances. In the Grande Hall the offices of The Sister and The Link are filled with stuffed animals, statues, old typewriters and marble tables. At the entrance to the school, the students pass through a corridor of black frayed cloth before entering the Academy.
When they do, they are met by the new staff (the performers). The new staff will constantly be present at the school, facilitating alternative learning experiences for the students, both inside and outside the classrooms. They are teachers, but of an alternative, often enigmatic sort. At the Academy you meet them in their tableaus: rooms or quarters that express their imagination and sensuality. Spending time with them is like meeting part a mythic character, part an existential guide - or provocateur. It can be like listening to a subconscious voice, uttering strange thoughts and desires. Or like having a good conversation with an old friend. Sometimes, simply like finding new playmates in the schoolyard, jumping around in puddles, making up new games. They are also “just” human beings. The sensuous and imaginative ways of being among the performers are not to hide their humanity. On the contrary, it is there to strengthen it, to make authentic encounters between teachers and students possible.
The staff members come from very different backgrounds. Many have previous experience with the performative arts, but not necessarily everyone. There are academics, yoga teachers, classical musicians and more. Their backgrounds or who they are behind the title is not relevant in itself, but indirectly it serves as the fabric out of which the poetic beings at Sisters Academy come alive. In this way, everyone’s personality and life-experience are essential.
The dive into the poetic self is the most central aspect of the pedagogic experiment. The goal is to create a space where everyone: Performers, teachers and students, in the words of the Sister, can unlock their own poetic potential. This is where performance art meets pedagogy meets existential research.
STEPPING INTO EXISTENCE
In slow motion The Vibrator and I carry the poetic stick across a sea of young faces. Students in black and white uniforms rising from the floor like waves.
We are in the middle of one of the first morning rituals taking place at the Academy. The new staff members guide the students one by one into the hall and instruct them, wordlessly, to lie down on their backs with their eyes closed. The Well, one of the staff members, a small, slender woman with short hair, stands in the middle of the room. She is swinging a large bell back and forth. The loud, repetitive sound is fully dominating the room.
The poetic stick has to be carried by both of us, one in each end. The notebooks and pens swing softly from side to side as we take slow, careful steps between the recumbent students. From time to time the Vibrator bends down, playing the wind chime close to the student’s ears.
Finally, everyone is there. The Well stops swinging the bell, silence echoing in its wake.
The Sister takes the stage. Dressed in a black gown and white bonnet, she looks like a mixture of a nun, a maiden temptress – and a dark fairy-tale queen.
“What is time to your poetic self?” she asks softly into the microphone. “How does your poetic self relate to time?”
A long stretch of silence follows. Then another question:
“What is space to your poetic self?”
More questions, each one rising out of a gulf of silence. The students are given time to contemplate each question by themselves.
"What’s important to your poetic self?
What was the happiest moment of your life?"
Eventually, no more questions arise out of the pulsating stillness. Suddenly, one of the performers utters the words: Rise and shine. After a while, another repeats the words. Then another. Rise and shine! Louder and louder.
A metallic rod starts clanking monotonously.
It’s time to step into the day. The morning gathering is over.
Through collective rituals like this one the students at the Academy are encouraged to discover their poetic self. But what does this mean? Well, it can easily sound like we all possess some alternate inner identity that we need to uncover: An ideal artistic personality. Such a thought can be very detrimental to any kind of healthy development, since it implies that you have a right and a wrong side to your personality. This is the pitfall of the concept of the poetic self: That we mistake it for a perfect picture of ourselves. The goal is not to repress parts of our self and only allow a specific form of expression. It is not about learning how to play a cool rhythm. It is to tune into the rhythmic structures that are already there. The starting point is the acceptance of your whole personality, allowing yourself to see and be all of you. Nothing in you is fundamentally wrong or right. The concept of the poetic self is to find the poetry of your way of being, not changing your way of being according to some idea about yourself. If the aesthetic dimension is a way of self-discovery that belongs to everyone, then the poetic self is your subjective gateway into this dimension. It is the subjective, creative process of uncovering yourself and reality. This demands freedom, courage and trust in your own capabilities – qualities, which might be inhibited by societal structures and behavioural patterns. If these inhibitions are transcended, the flow of imaginative and sensuous self-discovery can empower the individual. And then, maybe, the collective as well.
This, in short, is the poetry of the self.
Finding, building and exploring the poetic self does not only take place at the morning gatherings, but also in the student’s interaction with the staff. Each of the performers in Sister’s Academy has his or hers own exercises and ways of guiding the students. There is a lot of experimentation and intuition at work. The students might build their dream machine in The Mechanics workshop. Or they find their inner creature in the wild abode of The Untamed. In The Flow’s anatomy class, the students not only learn about skeletal and muscular structure, they actually touch and feel their own and other's bodies, in order to perceive and sense, in their own experience, how the body is structured.
Often it seems that the performers are learning as much from the students as the other way around. From what I’ve seen of the different staff members at work, it’s not only about rooting the students deeper in their senses and unlocking their inherent poetic potential. It is as much about giving them the freedom, courage and sense of safety to be how they want to be, to express themselves freely, directly, passionately - even if it may be scary.
There seems to exist a connection between freeing your own poetic self-expression and finding the connection to a more sensuous presence - into the world, with others. This is why the sensuous and performative work undertaken at Sisters Academy has a distinct existential dimension. To sense more strongly and express yourself more freely is, in the words of Kierkegaard, a way of “stepping into existence”.
It is in this performative conglomerate that KØTER participated as guest artists for the first days of The Takeover. As our field is writing, what we wanted to share with the students was a certain form of poetic practice. What does it mean to write poetically? Is it a way of self-exploration, a way to investigate our own lived experience of being? Is it a way to expand our sense of self and our perception of the world - through our own sensuous imagination as it unfolds in words and sentences? Or is it perhaps the act of uncovering inner and outer landscapes that was hidden from view before we put pen to paper?
We did not know the answers to these questions before we stepped into the realm of Sisters Academy. In fact, we did not even know the questions yet. All we had with us was 1) our own few glimpses of something extraordinary and mysterious when writing poetry, and 2) the euphoric experience of stepping into this poetic space together. Live, write, share - repeat. That is what we wanted to bring to the table. But we were going into the unknown just as much as the students we were about to meet. The last twenty minutes in the car before reaching Simrishamn, out of sheer dread, neither of us was able to utter a word.
But we took the plunge. The night before the manifestation leaped into existence, The Vibrator and The Shepherd went into the woodlands by the sea and found the stick that was going to be our portable tableau. Tying notebooks and ballpoint pens onto it, while getting to know the other performers and taking the first peeks into the strange rooms of Sisters Academy, we gradually transformed into the collective poetic self The Mongrel (the English equivalent of ‘køter”). Besides exploring our individual poetic selves, we wanted to teach and learn as a collective identity, since the idea of the poetic meditations was of a writing practice done in unison.
The first day of the manifestation was named Leap Day, because it happened to be on February 29th. As the sun cast its first beams over the harbour of Simrishamn, we moved out of the dormitory with the other staff members, put on our poetic uniforms and stepped into the otherworldly realm of Sisters Academy.
If the reader is interested in knowing more about Sisters Academy and the work of Sisters Hope, please take a look at the following websites:
For more on the work of KØTER, please go to:
PART II: BLEEDING ON PAPER
The second part of this report takes the form of a philosophical narrative. Narration, because these experiences actually took place. Philosophical, because the same experiences raise significant questions about the relationship between aesthetic practice and the human way of being-in-the-world. Consequently, I have strived to connect two modes of being: experiential storytelling and academic contemplation. The result is a form of artistic anthropology, where the analyst is himself imbedded in the web of action and being.3
The tale is told from the perspective of The Shepherd, in close collaboration with The Vibrator (and, of course, these beings’ everyday counterparts). But sometimes it soars into the perspective of The Mongrel. In this way the text reflects the actual experience of being at Sisters Academy, which oscillated between everyday self, poetic self and collective poetic self.
The students’ writings during the poetic meditations comprise the potent material from which the text’s reflections draw their energy. Therefore quotes from the notebooks play an important role in the narrative. When the notebook entries are from The Vibrator, The Shepherd or The Mongrel, and not the students, this is clearly indicated.
“Help me to stop time”
(From notebook 2)
There is nowhere to hide. It’s good that way, a rational voice inside of me says. Let’s just get into it. Into the work. Another voice is speechless, wanting to escape this strange dimension, getting back to the comfort of everyday life.
No way around them.
We have just walked out of the Grande Hall with the poetic stick on our shoulders: Our portable tableau – a “place” for exploring writing as a sensuous practice. Is it possible? Is writing not just an abstract, intellectual, cerebralactivity? Is it possible to write (with) the senses? To let the body do the writing? Let’s see. Let’s find out.
We pass a group of students not attending any class at the moment. We stop and set down the poetic stick in front of them. The look on their faces. Freaked out and curious. Who are these weirdos? One guy dressed like a Chinese diplomat, the other as a 19th century romantic poet. “I have to study. Wft is going on?” (From notebook 4)
Adrenaline pumping through my veins. We have no idea where to start. How do we get into the poetic meditation?
Sometimes you just have to start. Somewhere. Anywhere.
“Have you guys heard about the poetic self?”The Vibrator asks, softly.
“Do you have a poetic self?”
To this question, they look undecided, perplexed. Perhaps a bit thrilled, also? No one answers.
“Maybe you have more than one!” I add, somewhat jumpy. “Maybe, you have many different selves. Maybe, inside, there’re a lot of different voices making themselves heard. Some of these voices might be louder than the rest. Concerned, or even worried, about everyday things. But maybe, there are other voices that you don’t listen to that often. They’re not so loud. You might know them well, or they might be strangers. Perhaps there’s one of them that you find particularly interesting? That you feel like exploring? Or that you already feel very close to?”
“You see, we like writing,” The Vibrator continues. “We write to explore our poetic selves. When you write, all the loud voices, the ones you already know back and forth, might steal the picture at first, and then it’s good to just write it out, all of that stuff that you might find boring, or uninteresting. Maybe it won’t be. And maybe, getting that out, you make room for something else in you that is also speaking.”
A young guy with short, blond hair leans forward and asks: “So, what are your poetic selves?”
“I’m the Shepherd…”
“... and I’m The Vibrator.”
The guy looks curiously at us, like he wants to know more.
The Vibrator gets to his feet.
“Do you know that everything has its own vibration?” he says and walks to a lamp pole close by (yes, the building has lamp poles standing indoors). “For example, if I shake this pole…” he grabs it with both hands and shakes it softly. From an initial, almost invisible shaking it slowly builds up into a violent shake. “You see, the wobbling is already in the lamppost - the shapes it will bend itself to and how fast it will swing. All it needs is a bit of energy at its own frequency.”
Frederik has a background in Physics. I remember him teaching me the same thing, one day at Olafur Eliasson’s Bridge in Copenhagen. There, we were shaking a steel rope instead of a lamp pole.
“My poetic self is curious about this,” The Vibrator continues as he returns to the group. “It’s interested in things, when they’re about to set in motion. When something starts moving, when it’s about to swirl, my poetic self wants to get in there and vibrate.”
Of course, there is a ton of ways to “explain” a poetic self. Since it is an imaginative expression of one’s own self, it is crowded with the same complexity as our everyday selves are. This first morning at Sisters Academy the complexities of many selves – the students’, the new staff’s, the old staff’s – are colliding in a wonderful mess. The concept of the poetic self may be the centre of vortex, the self-exploration that can unite us into a shared reality. Thus, it seems a good place to start.
We ask the students if they would like to pick up notebooks from our stick. And write. Write what? Anything that comes up. How is your experience right now? What is going on? And, we add, if they have any thoughts, feelings or impressions concerning their poetic self, they are very welcome to write those as well.
Silently, the students lower their eyes onto the white sheets of paper. Pens click. Soon, minuscule finger movements make them vibrate along the blank pages. The earliest entries in the notebooks are coming into being:
“Who am I? Who am I?
I feel like I’m in an episode of Teen Wolf or American Horror Story. But I like it. It’s interesting and something new.
I’m a believer. I believe in all supernatural creatures.”
(From notebook 2)
“I want to be a philosopher not a prophet. Take a step back and look at the whole truth. With a wider perspective. Rather take the brutal truth about the world and if I don’t like it, I’ll kill myself. But I’ll have the truth.”
(From notebook 2)
“I don’t really know what to write. This whole experience makes me feel kind of empty inside. I don’t know what to think about anything, the takeover and the dresscode removes my identity. I don’t feel like I’m an individual person anymore, I’m just one of many.
The most strange thing must be that such a familiar environment is suddenly changed into something completely different. I’m used to this being a safe comfort zone where things are always the same. At the same time it’s somewhat relaxing.
My poetic self is something that’s everywhere at the same time, that you can’t really say what’s special about it.”
(From notebook 3)
Afterwards, as we reflect upon the session, we both find this frontal way of approaching the poetic self too forceful, too crude. We want it to be more organic, something that happens by itself, as we enter the realm of writing.
Nevertheless, it seems that we have at least provided the students at Sisters Academy with an organ to put words on their experience – be it thrilling, bewildering, scary, comforting, or something else -, which also serves as a stepping-stone for the first few reflections about the poetic self.
This is good, but we want to go further. The writing can do more. I am sure of it. We have not yet conducted a poetic meditation.
We are in the classroom called Fire. The students are sitting in a circle inside a frayed tent illuminated by red lamps. In the centre, the poetic stick lies on a bundle of white tulle. The Keeper of Undisturbed Thoughts has removed his high hat. He has invited us here to facilitate an experience of writing as a sensuous practice.
Silence before the storm. The ambient soundscape filters into everyone’s perception, as they wait with notebooks in their laps.
Then we start the rollercoaster.
We tell the students to put pens to paper and close their eyes.
What happens when you write without looking? How do your other senses react? How do you write?
We tell the students to listen. First, to anything that is communicating with their ears. The soundscape. Our voices. All the noises and voices coming from outside the classroom. How does it all sound? Please write.
The first tentative scrawling of words onto paper.
Maybe, there is also voices and sounds on the inside. Maybe, thoughts and feelings are communicating with you. What are they saying? How are they communicating? Please write.
Words and sentences are taking shape in the notebooks. Some write without pause. Others only sporadically.
We do not know where we are going. All we know is that we want to explore the act of listening. Working with sound might be a potent path. Writing as listening instead of talking. Can you write your senses? Can you write your listening?
Suddenly, The Vibrator bangs his knuckles against the poetic stick.
Where does the sound enter your body?
We ask the students to touch the place on their bodies, where they feel the knock.Still with their eyes closed, they stop writing and move a hand towards a place on their body. Many touch their shoulder. The Vibrator bangs his knuckles against the stick again.
How does the sound move in your body?
I pick up the wind chime and walk along the circle of students, letting the soft sounds seep into their field of perception.
Listen to the bells. Where is this sound coming from? How is it communicating with you?
In the next moment we are both walking in circles around the tent, sliding our nails across the roof. The scratching noises weave together with the chime and the underlying soundscape, a wickerwork of sense-impressions.
We allow the chaotic stream of sound to cease. We return to the simple ground of the soundscape and the scratch of pencils.
Then we tell them to listen to their breath. What is it like, to breathe? How does it sound? How does it feel?
The questions and sentences are coming from both of us, alternately – an intense, improvised flow.
Now, as you listen to your breath, please ask yourself: Who is listening? Who is listening to the breath? Of course, it is you. But who is this “you” that is listening? What are you?
Please write the listening.
And as you continue to listen to your breath, please ask yourself: How does the breathing happen? Who is doing it? Is it you? Or are you being breathed by something else? How does the air move in and out of your lungs?
How is it to be the breath?
Please write the breath.
The rollercoaster is rolling in on the station. The ride is over. Uncommon sounds, movements and thoughts still churning inside bodies.
Afterwards, we ask the students and the teacher how the experience was. When none of the students speak, The Keeper of Undisturbed Thoughts takes the word. He reflects upon the experience of “being the breath”. As a philosopher, he has probably experienced many different ways of how we can perceive ourselves. But this was new to him. His reflections make me think about the ancient Greek word for soul, Psyche, which means exactly that: Breath.
Still none of the students speak. Maybe they are overwhelmed. Maybe they are frightened - or even bored. Perhaps their experience was not that strong, not that coherent. We do not know. My own impression is that this was still not a fully formed poetic meditation. The sound-impressions were too chaotic and our guidance a bit too forceful. But in this session we developed our first sensuous writing “tools”, which we would refine further on.
In addition, this was a significant step for The Mongrel, because this was our first experience of operating as a collective poetic self. Stimulating the writing practice with our voices and our “instruments”, we were lifted into a sort of trance; an altered state, where words (thoughts) and a heightened sensuous sensitivity (to sounds, touch, feelings, atmosphere) co-existed. Where we coexisted. Not in the ordinary way, but in the way where boundaries between separate selves become less solid. Maybe The Mongrel is steadily evolving from merely an organ into a more complex and cohesive being?
In a small, dimly-lit room with walls of red velvet, we are sitting cross-legged on the floor. The Sister lies on her small sofa.
This is the meeting, where we “explain” to her the kind of “work” we do.
Instead of giving a report, we find ourselves taking her through a poetic meditation. It is without writing, we are just speaking.
Why have we come here? What has brought us to this kind of work? To manifest as exactly these beings?
At some point during the meditation it seems appropriate to tell the story of The Shepherd.
The Shepherd was not always The Shepherd. Once, he was in the world: acting, writing, speaking, communicating. He used to seek? What was he searching for?You could say, that he was searching for the ultimate word. The ultimate stream of language. A way of saying that, which is so close, that it is impossible to see. That which is so loud that you cannot hear it. That which is so much there, that you never notice it.But each time he tried to speak the unspeakable, a veil was spread out over it. It hid itself, instead of coming forth. The connection between language and reality remained a secret. And with every attempt to uncover it, the world as we know it dissolved more and more. The names for the things lost their meanings. Beneath the Shepherds feet the ground crumpled away.
At last he stopped speaking. He gave himself over to silence. Setting out on the panoramic hills, tending to it, but with all words left behind. His occupation became that of taking care of his herd, letting them roam and play, but caring for their growth and well-being. His primary skill became to let that-which-is be and flourish.
But time passed. Out of the silent perception of nature and her doings, strong states of concentration and vitality started to enter the picture. States of sensuous thinking. He did not know from where they came or what they meant. But out of them, words started to form. Soon, sentences took shape on paper.
In this way The Shepherd found his way back into the world. Back into the words. He were no longer directly pursuing the ultimate stream of language. Allowing the mysterious connection between reality and language to remain a secret, he started tending to the state, in which the secret shows itself. The state of poetry. This state does not belong to The Shepherd. Not at all. It does not belong to anyone. But still, it is open to every single human being. To prepare the ground for people to enter this state - or rather, for it to enter them - this is the work of The Shepherd.
As the story comes to an end, The Sister has sunken deep into the sofa. Her breath comes is long, powerful strokes. Is she sleeping? Or is she still here, in some deep state of dwelling?
The Vibrator picks up the wind chime. He hovers it gently over The Sister. Subtle changes to her facial features.
All three of us are dwelling. Sensuously. Poetically. In a shared space.
Spontaneously I open my notebook, flip to the first empty page, punch the pen ready and let words flow into existence:
The Vibrator plays the chime
over the sleeping Sister.
In the red room
we make time a long instrument
resonating softly through the skin
of the cold ocean
bowl of light
in raw darkness.
Let’s dwell with no
and raise the wind
into the stones
of the future
The meditation closes slowly. Let’s not speak anymore right now, The Sister says, from her deep state of relaxation. Quietly, we leave. Blown out of our minds, into our bodies. I believe we have just exposed ourselves and The Sister to the first poetic meditation. A state of intense sensuous thinking. Transcending ourselves deeper into our senses through imagination, words and togetherness.
Closing in, closing in. On The Mongrel. And the art of poetic meditation.
“Okay, let’s run!” The Flow yells and three students set off after her down the stairs. And up again. Down and up they go until they – panting, red-cheeked – throw themselves down in front of the poetic stick, each of them seizing a notebook. They close their eyes. Put pens to paper. We ask them to listen to their breath. And then to write it. Write the breath.
The same morning over breakfast we have talked with Maja, The Flow, about doing a collaboration. Her primary field is body movement and expression and I appreciate her child-like playfulness and warm-hearted energy. Sitting at the long table stuffed with marble animals and peculiar cutlery, while the first students saunter into the welcoming hall, her face lights up as we propose the idea.
The Mongrel is curious about what happens with the writing, when the body is activated, when it is brought alive, before or during the writing process. Is it possible to write as the body? For the body to be more than just the fingertips on the keyboard, or the grip of three fingers around the pencil? Let’s see. Let’s find out.
Up and down the stairs they go. Breaths getting heavier. Footsteps harder. Then, four pulsating bodies throw themselves down in front of the poetic stick. The Flow sprawls on the walkwayin her white coveralls, the notebook all the way up in her face. The three students in their uniforms - the black pants and white Sisters Academy shirts – are sitting hunched over their notebooks beside her, panting heavily. Eyes closed, red cheeks, fingers clutching pens. “Listen to your breath. Listen to the air going in and out. How does it feel? Please write!”
The next level of questions tries to move the writers deeper into – and perhaps beyond – the immediate sense experience: “Who is doing the breathing? Is it you? But what are you? What is this “you” that is breathing? Please write.”
Here is what one of the students, The Secret, wrote:
“My body is burning up inside. It can’t breathe. I feel the death (coming?) but still so alive. I will always be how I am. (Burning and burning?) My breath is like lava from a volcano when my lungs keep fighting for their best work. But I never feel more alive than I do now.”
(From notebook 3)
Immediately after that, the students get up and do the same thing all over again. Up and down they go, bodies exhausting themselves. But this time, when they lift up notebooks and pens, we ask them to listen to the blood gushing through their bodies. And then to write the flow of blood.
“My body is fighting. Fighting for its survival. No one can say to me what’s right. Like the moon are shining from the sun, my body and mind are fighting for living. The blood are pumping through my veins fast and warm and no one can stop me from it. I am the Secret and my body is a way of living.”
(From notebook 3)
Here is what one of the other students (so far nameless) wrote:
“I can feel.
I can feel everything.
And maybe I don’t want to feel, because I feel stuck in this body. I may not feel I am a girl, but it’s the body I was born with and this body loves me and takes care of me. And when I run and (move?) and can feel every breath I feel happy because even though –
This body that I always try to hide, it forces itself to be heard
I laugh and I grunt and sigh.
The warmth comes from my core and spreads out.
My head feels warm and fuzzy and it distracts me from the pain and haunting thoughts.”
(From notebook 2)
What can be said of this? What is being expressed here? In the following I would like to share a few of my own thoughts. These reflections are not to be seen as a decryption of a riddle, though, but rather as an extra layer, an expansion of what is already there.
In both quotes the body is written as a battleground, as something that’s fighting, or being fought against. At the same time there seems to be an acceptance of the body as it is, despite tendencies to deny or dislike it. Also, a certain self-assertion is taking place, which is directly linked to the body: I am this body, no one other than myself can tell me right from wrong, my body takes care of me (despite our difficulties). Is this acceptance and self-assertion something that these students normally express? Or is it the activity of the bodily writing meditation that makes them feel and hear themselves as their bodies, in such a way, that the acceptance of being the body which I am happens in the very moment of writing? It is impossible to know for sure, but the environment at Sisters Academy points to the latter.
What is also interesting is that in both quotes the body is on the one side something other than me: my body is fighting, I feel stuck in this body etc. But on the other side, the body is written as me: When I run and can feel every breath I feel happy, the blood is pumping through my veins and no one can stop me from it. Also, in one place, these two body-experiences seem to merge into one: I am The Secret and my body is a way of living. The body as both my subjective and poetic self-experience (I am The Secret) and the vessel for this experience (my body is a way of living).
Has the poetic meditation given the writers access to their own experience of embodiment? A becoming-aware of the inevitable bodily way of being that is the fertile ground of all emotional-cognitive human experience?
Afterwards we ask the students how they experienced the meditation. The third student (from which there is no quote above), a girl with short black hair and big, vivacious eyes, presses the palm of her hand hard against the floor. “It was like bleeding down on the paper,” she says. Then she slides her hand across the carpet as if to illustrate the stream of blood trickling forward.
HOUSE ON FIRE
Overwhelmed by the powerful experience of the previous meditation, the Mongrel takes a deep breath. The fresh flow of air spreads in its dual-body, grounding the nervousness, fuelling the excitement. What now? What comes next?
Flocks of birds fly by the window-ceiling overhead. The walkway is teeming with life, students and staff members moving, talking, engaging with each other. It seems to be a good place for the poetic stick to reside. Our tableau is growing roots into the red carpet.
The black-haired girl (from now on called The Earth4) returns with two other students. They sit down beside us with curious faces. After a short introduction, we begin to unfold the second poetic meditation of the day.
We do not begin by the poetic stick. We do not start with the words. We stand in a circle, all five of us. Then we open up our voices. First it is just the two-headed Mongrel, but soon the three students join in. We sing, shout, utter gibberish. Then we find our way onto the floor. Crawling back and forth across the carpet, we gradually turn into strange creatures. Sometimes we let out inarticulate noises. With only few words and gestures of guiding from The Mongrel, we all become more and more animalistic. At last the creatures pick up white, squared things and small pointy sticks.
The journey moves to another level. Please write.
“Flashing colours, a field with flowers, busy...
Coffee that’s too sweet bitter tea
of a tree
a train in raindrops
on your window...
I feel like the centre of the universe...
the flight of a bird
I’m flying higher than I’ve ever done before
close to the ground
I am the bird breath
is my winds spreading
I can fly how high I want
Higher than any other bird
In my own direction
(From notebook 1)
Knock on wood. Feverish scratch of pencils. The ambient soundscape. Clutter of near and distant voices. Listen to the sounds.
The wind chime, like an extension of my hand, rotating its ripples in space, along the wide ears of the three creatures. “Do the sounds take you somewhere? Where are you? Please write.”
“The air have smiles like small round balls
It gets in and fills my space the
the (sheet?) a red
with eyes my
old house. the
gate the fire
smell the flowers
I run grass green
I hear musik
I have a question
where are u going
(From notebook 1)
The Child has been writing tirelessly. When she was little, her house burned down. Apparently the wind chime brought her back in front of the garden gate, once again watching her home in flames. The question: where are u going, why? is directed at her parents, who got divorced when she was younger. Before that, in the first quote, she explains how she was soaring over London as an enormous female bird-figure. A rich imagination, swirling strong memories down onto the paper.
The Earth’s experience has been quite different. “I don’t really think I can put it into words...” she begins. Then, after a moment of silence, she adds: “I am one who believes in past lives. But in the sense of, I was here before, as something else. Everything is connected. I’m not separated from everything that came before.”
She seems both excited and content, as she elaborates on her experience: Apparently, during the writing, her self-experience became so organic that she felt connected to everything that is, has been and will be. Out of this sense of belonging she started writing on her own body, because the white paper seemed more and more foreign to her. The words simply moved from the notebook onto her hand, like ants crawling back to the anthill. Eventually, she stopped writing words altogether, drawing patterns on her own skin instead. But before her way of expression left language behind, these words manifested in one of our notebooks:
“I need to feel the earth. Because when my mind is in places, I don’t even know if they exist, I need to feel the solid earth.
I need the breath of the earth, just like I need my own breath.
When the night is filled with noise I flee into the darkness of my mind.
Like stars I find glimpses of light, but they disappear in the sound of reality.
There is a road that I follow, but I never stop to greet the ones that are on the same journey.
I am in the middle of a space that can’t decide how it wants to torment me.
I need to feel to know
if I really exist
I need the earth, my space,
to remind myself that
I am more than just a human.
That every breath I take
is made of
(From notebook 4)
In this meditation it was fascinating to see how the physical “work”: moving the body in animal-like ways, opening up the voice and letting out noises, paved the way for the writing to be self-explorative. But self-explorative in quite different ways.
In the case of The Child the sensuous writing moved her into significant childhood memories. Maybe because the body vividly remembers the sense-impressions in experiences like hers? Maybe they had a wind chime in her childhood home? Also, there was a strong element of imagination. Being more bodily present, writing with eyes closed and being guided by peculiarly philosophical and otherworldly questions, it is not surprising that the imagination is highly activated. Many body therapists and artists point at a connection between body awareness, imagination and memory. The extraordinary thing about this experiment was that this “state” was given a direct voice in form of the writing, because it happened in the moment, in the trance, not afterwards.
The Earth went on a very different journey. Here, the meditation brought her into a state where the traditional boundaries of the self - the self limited to the subjective body-mind - seemed to evaporate. Feeling the earth (the carpet) and becoming a creature opened up a sense of self that expanded to everything living. To the breath of the earth itself, to use her own words.
She was not the only one who had experiences of connectedness and self-expansion. In fact, it became the central theme of our last meditation as well.
FULLNESS AND EMPTINESS
“This is the most important exercise for writers.” The Vibrator proclaims in between a jump and a squat. The Youngster5 smiles, but is not freaked out by squatting with two weird performers in front of his fellow students. Or at least not too freaked out not to do it.
We squat and jump, squat and jump. We do push-ups. We plank.
Finally, the warm and strong bodies that we are sit down around the stick and the Vibrator starts guiding the young man with the mild, intelligent look in his eyes into a poetic meditation.
Firstly, he asks him to feel the air going in and out of his lungs. To pay attention to his breathing.
I have also picked up a notebook and begun writing, eyes closed, alongside The Youngster.
Who is doing the breathing? Who is making the air flow in and out of your lungs?
A long pause. We write. I write my lungs, the sounds around me, strange images before my inner eye.
Where do you begin? The Vibrator says softly.Where do you end? Please write.
I move into a darkness, a place far far back. I write that as well. Then I’m back, “Hallelujah”I write. A door cracks in my lungs. I listen. Listen for myself, inside my skin. I see red. I see elephants.
As I come out of the trance, my cognitive faculties immediately set in, analysing everything that just happened. In fact, this rational voice was with me the whole time through the meditation. But it was not dominating, it was quietly observing from the corner of the room. Most importantly, it was not alone. Here is what it said afterwards, what I said to myself: I moved in and out of three (inner) dimensions. I was in my body (lungs in particular), in an imaginative space and in the far away darkness (what was that?). Good that we got that cleared up, son.
When The Mongrel asks The Youngster how the experience was for him, he looks up from the notebook in his lap, his eyes beaming. Struggling to put his experience into words, he courageously reads his writing aloud for us:
“The air is everywhere. I am inhaling everything. I can expand my lungs.
Just as my heartbeat, it is constant. The wigt (weight?) is light, everything in me is part of my (living?). It all have a purpose. And a meaning.”
(From notebook 5)
In the conversation we have with him afterwards, it becomes clear that he has had a lot of experiences in his short life that are difficult to put into words. So we circle around the ineffable, the three of us. As we do, I experience this very moment that we share as something that cannot be put into words. There is a sort of radiance to it. A state of togetherness that I only experience with close friends. Actually I have felt this with all of the groups of students we have met through this day. Maybe this is why I feel that they are a “success”? Here with The Youngster, though, is where I experience it the strongest. That we enter this state at all has a lot – if not everything – to do with the environment of Sisters Academy. It is one of the strongest qualities of this performative space: That it allows humans to break through the barriers that usually make it difficult to connect with strangers. The main source of the heightened sensitivity and strong connection with each other, which all three of us obviously experience, is the intimate space opened up by Sisters Academy.
The Youngster, like The Earth, also wrote of a connection with everything living. Our questions (“where do you begin and end?”) combined with the focus on the breath, or the work of the lungs, seem to have prepared the ground for this.
To The Youngster, it all seemed purposeful; the mere act of breathing and the fact that the heart beats. If The Youngster’s feeling of connectedness was the same as that of The Earth’s, no one can say. The fascinating thing about The Youngster’s words is that they point at an experience of fullness. Did The Youngster experience the fact that everything is and breathes as something inherently meaningful, despite not being able to explain why?
This brings me back to the three creatures on the blood carpet. Where one was merging with the earth and another standing at the gate of her burning childhood home, a third soul went on a different journey.
The Observer6 smiles as she tells of having been trapped inside a confined space. Squeezed inside her own organs, it was like her consciousness was “observing” from inside her torso. When, later in the meditation, the wind chime started sounding, she was neither brought back into memories or closer towards the ground. She found herself floating in a vast, empty space, with no beginning and no end. We asked her what it was like.
“In the first space [inside her own body] I felt alone, but in the way, when you’re surrounded by people. You’re in a crowd, but you feel isolated. That’s how I felt there. In the totally open space I also felt alone, but very differently. I felt... lonely. I was really all alone. But then it was good to focus on the breath. It helped me to relax in that big space.”
As an interpretation, I would say that the Observer also experienced a sense of self-expansion, though for her this was not accompanied by a feeling of fullness or connectedness. On the contrary, she experienced a void, a loneliness that seemed to have no end. Full of fear, she floated in a wide emptiness.
Maybe it was the same experience of stepping out of the everyday self as the others had: realizing that this body, which I am, is connected to everything else, in it’s breathing presence, in its warm and fleetingdecay. But The Observer saw the other side of the coin. When we peek out of the secure confines of our socially constructed everyday self, we can be exposed to an intoxicating sense of unity with the world. But we can also be confronted with the crushing loneliness of embodied existence. I am small and ultimately without purpose. This is one interpretation. From another perspective it could be that it is the confrontation with the vast empty space itself, and not the loneliness, that is crushing. That becoming aware of the vastness, in which I float, is simply terrifying - and in everyday life we are sheltered from this, because our awareness is guided by the structures of societal existence.
The Observers text is so unreadable (due to the closed eyes) that she cannot read it aloud to us. Instead, she shows us a drawing she made (see on the left).
The Vibrator and I are struck by the honesty, the whole-hearted participation and the ability to reflect and self-explore that these young individuals have expressed. I feel that we have, in the three sessions of the second day, come very close to what poetic meditation is and can do. The Mongrel has become more than an organ for reflection - it has become a multidimensional being and a bodily-writing practice at the same time. Its manifestation in the realm of Sisters Academy is the poetic meditations. These meditations have been a certain form of lingual transcendence, where body awareness, imagination and self-understanding have been explored in different ways.
Besides the gratitude we both feel, a heavy sense of responsibility has settled on our shoulders. We have been taking these young explorers on intense existential journeys. Not only do they connect (with) and reflect (on) their bodies. Not only do they take poetic dives into their imagination and personal history. They also explore the boundaries between self and reality, sometimes even experiencing that these boundaries fall to pieces, leaving them totally connected with everything that is; allowing them to experience that the wall between inside and outside might not be so solid after all - or at least not the only way of relating self to reality (or the other way around). But this can also bring forth a stripped down sense of existential emptiness, of feeling small and insignificant in a vast and cold universe. It might also leave us face to face with this vast space, in a devastating state of fear. All of this we may be confronted with when we step out of our everyday routines. When we allow ourselves to meditate poetically.
The Mongrel, and anyone else that guide young people on such journeys, have a great responsibility. We must take care of each other, as we expand and explore our fragile selves. Luckily, in Sisters Academy you are not alone as you bleed on paper. Sisters Academy is about stepping into a heightened sensuous awareness, a poetic state, from which we can explore the experience of existence in new and powerful ways. But it is about doing that together. It is about sharing an intimate, caring moment in a space where age, position and background leave the picture; where human beings meet as nothing less than – their selves.
And we did.
This morning I walked in the strong wind
and the wind played the chime
more beautifully than I’d ever heard.
This is how everything sounds.
This is how I want to speak.
The individual word is not it.
The individual sentence is not it.
One experience of being alive communicating with another.
- The Mongrel.