‘Poetry as illumination’: using creative writing to explore how gender and sexuality shape our work

A self-described ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’, Audre Lorde wrote of the power of ‘poetry as illumination’ to ‘give name’ to our ideas and transform them into knowledge and understanding. Here, Tucker Landesman reflects on how a group of IIED colleagues are using creative writing to explore how gender and sexuality shape their work – and to express their lived experiences as researchers and development professionals.

Tucker Landesman's picture
Insight by 
Tucker Landesman
Senior researcher in IIED's Human Settlements group and member of IIED’s Gender Equality Champions Network
13 April 2023
Street art with a queer theme. A woman walks by pushing a pram

Queer street art (Photo: Thomas Hawk via FlickrCC BY-NC 2.0)

I knew asking my colleagues to write a poem about their gender might make them squirm. I imagined a couple of eyerolls too. But I did it anyways, because I believe that poetry, even bad poetry, can make us better at our jobs.

A few months ago, a small group of IIED staff, convened by IIED’s Gender Equality Champions Network, committed to a creative writing experiment. The challenge: to make time and space in our busy schedules and use creative writing as a tool to explore how gender and sexuality shape our research, action and experience in the international development sector.

A queer-feminist approach to creative writing is aligned with gender and sexual liberation. It embraces ‘queer’ for its queerness – its searching questions seeking to unsettle dichotomies, insisting on time and space and attention for sexuality and subversion – and for its playfulness, fuzziness, and unpolished politics and practices.

Feminist traditions have long understood the personal as political, examining how our identities influence our analyses and shape our relationships to research and practice. Feminists and other scholars on the margins have normalised writing in the first person, insisting that our lived experience is valid, and have embraced the objective of using our research to challenge patriarchy and other forms of oppression based on race, class, sexual orientation, ability and place of origin. 

Why should researchers and practitioners engage in creative writing?  

Creative writing is both imaginative and analytical, allowing the author to bring inspiration and experimentation to ‘normal’ research outputs or break the bounds of traditional research language and formats. Doing so can create opportunities to embrace complexity and the messiness of overlapping experience and intersecting identities. 

When undertaken with intention and commitment, creative writing can help us: 

  • Develop a fuller understanding of gender and sexuality in our work 
  • Make space for people who experience exclusion, discrimination and other forms of oppression based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and expression, and 
  • Provide opportunities for reflexive analysis and discussions of positionality. 

Every couple of weeks, I would send a creative writing prompt based on queer-feminist traditions and tailored to those of us professionally researching and advocating for a more sustainable and just world. When we had time, we came together to discuss our writing and share reflections.  

Some things we learnt along the way

One of the things we discussed is that it can be hard to find time to write and to write consistently. It is tautologous, but busy people find it hard to make time. It might be useful to know that Audre Lorde wrote that ‘poetry is not a luxury' (PDF) but rather a ‘vital necessity’ and ‘the revelation or distillation of experience’ of black women.

Let’s continue to explore the example of poetry, especially because many readers might think it’s the form of writing least capable of organising and presenting data, generating knowledge or communicating policy.

We agreed that poetry can be a form of writing to express feelings, thoughts and experiences that otherwise don’t ‘fit’ in more traditional forms of writing. Because poetry and verse operate with very different standards to academic and professional prose, it is easier to break the rules that confine our thinking or ignore our feelings. The form is better at holding contradictions connecting with readers at an emotional level rather than convincing a ‘target audience’ through well-reasoned arguments and data.

In addition to expressing the lived experiences of activists and scholars, poetry has been used in medical and social sciences to generate, analyse and present data. We noted that scholars have used a method called poetic inquiry to disrupt hierarchies and centre research participants’ lived experiences. This can add new dimensions of reflexivity and open new pathways to engaging with stakeholders.

Would you like to try out a creative writing exercise?

Let’s consider the body as a place of inquiry.

Women and feminist scholars reclaimed the body as a theme of academic investigation in the latter half of the 20th century. Black feminists and critical race theory importantly named bodies as sites of intersectional experience. More recently disabilities studies, migration studies, trans studies and queer studies have also theorised embodied knowledge and experience as critical to our understanding of how power and inequalities operate in everyday life.

Well before social scientists started talking about ‘embodiment’, the body was and still is a fundamental subject of art. It almost feels silly to point out how bodies are painted, sculpted, photographed and choreographed – or how break dancers, opera singers, drag queens, trapeze artists and mimes rely on their bodies as the primary instrument of artistic practice and performance.

On the periphery of international development studies, some scholars have considered the embodied experiences of development workers and volunteers (PDF), especially to consider how complex gendered and global power dynamics play out at micro levels.

OK – now for the writing

We start with some speed writing. Set a timer for five minutes. Write 10 complete sentences that start with the phrase ‘My body is...’ and each sentence should be on a new line. Go…

  • After you have written 10 sentences, read through them. Which ones resonate most with you? Which ones fall flat? Cross out three sentences you don’t like – your three least favourite
  • Consider the seven sentences remaining. Underline the three you like most
  • Choose one of those three sentences and work on it. Rewrite it. Maybe combine it with another
  • You can work on that one sentence until you are happy with it. Read it out loud. Take note what and where you feel in your body. Breathe into that space. Consider how your writing connects, disconnects, runs parallel or in tangent to your work, your research, your activism.  

How was that? If you found it valuable, consider starting a reflective journal. Block out 15-30 minutes as often as you can spare in your diary for writing. Write with intention and try to make explicit how your intersecting identities – race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, age, body type and size, and so on – shape your experiences.  

Keep a look out for more creative writing pieces on gender and sexuality from IIED. In the coming months we plan to publish a collection of more writing prompts and creative pieces in the style of a DIY zine, a form of publishing pioneered by artists, writers, activists rooted in communities and writing from the margins.