Like so many of us, I didn’t see a global pandemic coming when I started my PhD in 2019. I was going to use oral history and creative methods to document refugees and asylum seekers’ experiences of everyday life in Scotland. I planned convivial zine-making sessions, walks across the landscape of Glasgow deep in conversation, celebration events, interviews in people’s homes or cheerful, bustling cafes and community centres. I pictured my research as looking and feeling like my past work in refugee integration – fast-paced, warm, messy, full of noise and laughter and community meals.
By May 2020 however, the month I received institutional ethics approval for all my optimistic and decidedly in-person plans, the idea of visiting someone in their home to conduct an oral history interview was laughable. As the year and the lockdowns continued, I began to search for alternative ways of doing research which might still allow space for experimentation and creativity, despite the restrictions. I turned for inspiration to the freelance work I was doing alongside my research, working with Open Book and Maryhill Integration Network to run shared reading and creative writing sessions.
Since 2018 I’ve had the pleasure to work with the Oasis women’s group, a large, close-knit, at times raucous but always intensely welcoming group of women who meet weekly in an old school turned community centre in the northwest of Glasgow. As we were unable to meet in person, Open Book pivoted to online creative writing sessions where this suited the members of the groups, and so I had been working for several months with the women, reading and writing poetry through Zoom.
Having seen from the Open Book sessions how powerful prompt poetry can be, I saw the potential to use shared reading and creative writing workshops to develop the research in conversation with some of the people whose lives and experiences I was seeking to record. With the crucial support of Maryhill Integration Network, and particularly the organisation’s then-director Remzije Zeka Sherifi, herself a poet and longstanding advocate of the power of creativity, I programmed a series of online writing workshops to read and write poetry exploring refugee, asylum seeker, migrant, and local women’s experiences of everyday life.
These took place over the spring of 2021 and, as a basis, used some themes I hoped to explore in my research: belonging, language, food, transport, histories. We read poems by Agha Shahid Ali, Roshni Gallagher, Jackie Kay, Semezdin Mehmedinović. We discussed the language used by the poets and explored the memories and emotions people felt in response to the poems. In my role as facilitator, I tried to create a space for people to connect, to share their own thoughts and experiences and to engage with those of other participants.
Out of these discussions, we crafted a collaborative poem, a process Zoom lends itself to surprisingly well. Using the Whiteboard function I typed up lines and images as people shouted them out, while the chat box provided a kind of back channel for anyone who preferred to type out their contributions. After each session, I typed up the poem, and at the beginning of the following session, we would read it over and discuss any further changes. This process of editing contributed to an ongoing process of ethical responsibility; taking a feminist approach to the ethics of representation by providing a space in which people could request wording be changed, moved or edited, or removed entirely.
I have used the poems, and the ethnographic notes I made during that time, to help me think about the directions my PhD is taking. I became interested in the themes beyond the themes, the experiences of time and temporality which were particularly acute in the lives of asylum-seeking participants. I got excited thinking about the wealth of material sitting in the archives of community arts organisations in Scotland, the poems and films and outputs from other creative projects which provide unique insight into everyday life for refugees and asylum seekers over the years. I thought hard about authorship, and ethics, and radical citational politics.
While I was thinking about the poems and what they meant for my research, I was also thinking about ways to share this writing and insight with a wider audience. Thanks to the perseverance of MIN’s Rose Filippi, the idea of publishing the poems in a book became a reality. Working with a creative team including Rose, Anastasia Maria Tariq, illustrator Sara Abdelnasser, and fellow SGSAH researcher (and current blogger) Garry McLaughlin, we shaped the collection into a book, published in March 2022. The contributors are listed in the back of the book with their own bios, some under pseudonyms and some not. Their words are celebrated and read by hundreds of people. My PhD research has been enriched by the generosity and creativity of the women who participated in the workshops, but their impact extends beyond that. The poem “A Guide to Glasgow Buses”, framed as advice to newcomers mystified by the unspoken rules of public transport, inspired this commitment in the Glasgow Green Party manifesto for the local elections
I feel more than ever that poetry is a powerful force, that it is, in the words of Audre Lorde, “the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” Collective poetry is a way of narrating multiple perspectives and experiences, incorporating the voices and words of people who do not feel safe to speak under their own name. It is a way of visualising networks of support and solidarity between members of a group, weaving together the experiences of each individual to create a chorus of voices that say: this happened. This is what life is like for me, and for us.
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(Featured image By Les Chatfield from Brighton, England – Volvo bus Uploaded by Ultra7, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6520637)
A guide to Glasgow buses
Doors open and close. The bus driver’s face depends on the weather.
Be careful you are going in the right direction,
there is no sign. The bus stop doesn’t tell you where you are.
The bus driver and passengers may not welcome you.
They look at you as a stranger, as if you came from another planet.
You might once see the artist, with short white hair
and tattoos on her neck. One day you might see her again.
You might see early workers with laptops out, occupied.
An old man will call you pal, if you take your cat to the vet
everyone loves to speak to it. Be ready to chat. Keep your ticket. Wear a mask.
It’s different languages that are spoken on the bus, slang
banter, jokes. People have arguments sometimes, talk on the phone.
In Glasgow it’s always raining. Babies are crying. Dogs
afraid of being on the bus, shaking.
Remember the importance of coins. You don’t get any change.
You might feel uncertainty.
Bus drivers tend to speak really fast. You should know your destination,
and the timings. If you don’t click the bell the bus
If the first floor is full and you have to go upstairs
be careful of the stairs. Say:
thank you driver,
when you are leaving.
You sometimes need to wait for
the next bus. A lot depends on the driver.
Katherine Mackinnon is a part-time PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow working on an oral history of refugee lives in Scotland from the 1970s to the present day. She is also a writer and workshop facilitator working with groups to read and write poetry and explore creative ways of documenting everyday life. Follow her at @KAMackinnon on Twitter