Poetry and Peacebuilding on a Personal Level

A dialogue between Aya Rice and Sumeet Grover. Aya Rice is a clinical psychologist and poet from Israel; Sumeet Grover serves as the director of Global Poetry.

How can poetry enhance peacebuilding on a personal level and bring out other positive qualities in us?

Aya Rice: For me, poetry is an outlet for the unknown. Often when I have a stormy mood or deep despair, words begin to form; that is my way out. Below is a poem, called Sliver, that I wrote:

I am in the space
The emptiness beyond emptiness
The sliver in between
The crack where the light comes through,
Where words make sense, where connection is prevalent
Where the moment feels pregnant with new life
And I am enough.

I am past the crying, the sadness, the self-pity
The longing and the despair.
I am in the free zone, but
I only notice the crack when I am already crawling out of it.
And then I know it will soon be gone,
And the sadness
To settle

So for me the positive qualities it enhances is a new-found sense of connection to myself and to the world, after I feel disconnected. It recreates meaning for me. I think as human beings we are constantly meaning-hungry.

Sumeet Grover: I agree. I think this is also one of the most important forces behind myself writing poetry – to connect to the world. Right from a baby who wants to reach out and smile at the stranger on a train to get a smile and some affection back, to adults walking on the street and wanting to look at who is walking in front of us. These are very day-to-day and perhaps out-of-habit encounters, but I have always felt they deeply affirm to the fact that as human beings, we want to be connected to others.

This affirms my belief in the Japanese word ‘Ningen’. To paraphrase, ‘Nin’ means ‘person’ and ‘gen’ means ‘in-between’. Meaning that human beings truly exist when they exist in connection with others.

You have actually thrown light upon a very profound fact: All of us in some way or the other, at the deepest level desire to be peacefully connected to other people. And I believe, what you mention as the ‘newfound sense of connection’ can be viewed as the ‘healing’ aspect of poetic expression. The thought of having formed a connection makes us feel human, ‘Ningen’.

Rice: I felt like a plant with no roots for many years, and my sustenance is always spirit, in whatever form – through the arts, through deep connection with others, through connecting to God. I believe that if you dig deep enough in any direction you will find the same gold.

Grover: I would begin by mentioning that I found a gem. It is a line from the 20th century British historian Dr. Arnold Toynbee. In one of his writings, he said: ‘The subconscious is undoubtedly the source of poetry’1.

I see poetry as a tool:-

(a) Through poetry, I can untangle various mysteries and thoughts in the mind. What I might spend thinking for hours, poetic rhythm can capture it once the words start flowing. It can help me discover experiences and thoughts that were hiding deep inside the subconscious but were difficult to understand.

(b) Through poetry, I can heal dark or sad experiences in my mind, which can otherwise be very overpowering. The fact that poetic thought gives you the freedom to ‘imagine’, you can use creativity to imagine lots of positive experiences or dreams for the future. It can therefore be used to enrich our feeling of the self.

(c) Philosophically, I believe and have experienced that there is a deeper conscious below the subconscious: a basic energy that drives and keeps life moving forward. My experience is that poetry can be used as a tool to tap into this energy, perhaps what the Transcend: Art & Peace motto refers to as tapping into the ‘human potential’. Poetic imagination can help me as an individual to think of ways of tapping into it and giving form to it through writing and then using it in enjoyable daily living.

(d) Poetry also helps me in the process of self-affirmation. It is like a declaration to the wider world, as if to say ‘Watch me succeed!’.

Through poetry, I have been able to bring these qualities: The ability to understand others (through imagination); it makes me feel calm once I’ve written it; it helps me connect to others and; it adds energy, excitement and hope to the everyday experience.

Rice: I think there is a paradox in writing, in general. On one hand, it expresses a longing to connect to another human being, and I love that Japanese word “Ningen”, but on the other hand it is something very private and solitary, to sit and write.

Grover: I agree, there is a paradox in writing, but I think the two opposite ends can form a connection:

(a) The starting point of any peace-building endeavour is to make a decision to heal or make peace within oneself. This is where the solitary act of writing opens up the power of creative imagination – fresh dreams are formed and hope is generated within the self.

(b) But for what purpose should one heal or create peace within oneself? Our lives are constantly connected to the people and environment around us at the deepest level. A simple proof of this philosophical belief is for example when a poet looks at the sharp rays of the sun piercing from behind the hills, emotions are stirred. Given that we constantly live between people where our experiences range from pleasant to challenging, can self-contained peace last?

From time to time, it will be challenged as we face different circumstances and the tasks that would lie ahead is to form a connection with people at the level of that self-peace towards healthy relationships. In my view, poetic writing can therefore be used as a dress-rehearsal for what we dream to happen, which would of course be enacted out in the middle of the real world.

Rice: Another paradox is that I find that when writing, I often have a potential audience in mind; it is so hard to let go of that. I am already seeking the connection when sitting alone in front of a piece of paper (or a screen), and yet the most authentic writing comes when I am able to let go of that imaginary audience; when I can really dive deep within.

Grover: I can relate to the experience that the most authentic writing comes when we simply follow our inner-self and dive into the depths of our own lives as we write. In the process of using poetry for healing, I have experienced that poetic imagination, force and energy can be used to draw forth an awakened inner nature that clearly understands reality within and without. This is what I relate to when you talk about diving deep within.

Indeed, the voice that you hear from within in this process, or metaphorically, the gem that you find from the sea after diving in, is the most precious. It is more valuable, candid and empowering than the gem we would find to merely please someone outside. However, this does not rule out the fact that a lot of times I also have a scene set up in my mind when I am writing my poetry. Depending upon how profound the answers I am exploring within, the scene moves from clear to blurred. When I need to concentrate on this inner-journey even more powerfully, I can blur the scene or the target audience, whereas equally, when I possess already discovered gems, I can make the target audience or the scene more clear to share these discoveries with them.

Rice: And then what comes out from that sometimes rather lonely place inside is often what others connect to the most. So that is the paradox – when I allow myself to touch my darkest most solitary corners within, I am actually allowing others to see me there, which I think allows their deep dark corners to be touched, and there is a meeting. It is not easy to do this at will, for me. It usually happens when I kind of have no other choice and I am pushed to the wall, nowhere to run but deep inside.

Grover: This is actually a very beautiful paradox. It shows that poetry can throw bright light to reveal the human condition. What you describe as a ‘meeting’ of the solitary corners of the poet and the reader, confirms to the fact that irrespective of who the reader is – ethnicity, gender or other visible differences – the state of being human as well as the reality of human experiences and suffering deeply connect us together on an invisible dimension.

Rice: I think it is so tricky what we decide to put on the page, what part of ourselves we expose and don’t expose? Do we wait to feel something specific before we write? Or is anything okay? It also has to do with the kind of poetry we write.

Grover: Yes, indeed. Since the source of poetry is attached so deeply into the author’s life, it is a personal decision about what we decide to write. However, given that poetry and creativity go hand in hand, the same thing can be written from different perspectives without exposing our inner thoughts or vulnerabilities.

Rice: I like writing straightforward poetry that can be easily understood.

Grover: I agree with you in writing poetry that can be easily understood. But on the same hand, I think it requires a lot of effort to understand it, i.e., to travel into the poet’s view of the world and see the words from there. A simple way of getting started at reading poetry could be viewing it as a ‘storytelling’ exercise.

Rice: I think poetry offers the writer the ability also to escape, to hide in between elusive metaphors or in general remain misunderstood and hidden between the lines.

Grover: That is indeed the playfulness and privilege enjoyed by the poet to weave a story and leave the readers to think.

Rice: Yet at the same time, there is poetry that I find I cannot totally understand, yet something aesthetic about it appeals to some unconscious emotions and there is a moment where I am touched. Do we want to use poetry to reveal ourselves to ourselves and others in a clear coherent way, are we trying to “figure something out”, or perhaps we want to remain in a dream-like state and share that with others? I think both are valid.

Grover: I agree. Both are valid: Poetry can be used for self-affirmation as well as self-exploration.


1Toynbee, A. and Ikeda, D., 1976. Choose Life. London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd.


This article was originally published by the Transcend: Art & Peace Network in May 2011.

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