Embodied Poetics as a Mode of Spiritual Resistance in the Capitalocene

Sally-Shakti Willow

Student Panel – 14 June 2018

Naropa Summer Writing Program

Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics


Embodied Poetics as a Mode of Spiritual Resistance in the Capitalocene

This talk draws on my own experiences of finding a path as an embodied spiritual poet in a challenging intellectual/social/cultural environment that is/has been dismissive of both bodies and spirituality. I will make links to Trace Peterson’s talk yesterday about recuperating embodied knowledge and outline the possibility of an embodied poetics as a mode of resistance, with reference to the learning in Tracie Morris’s workshops.

This panel is a response to my experience of the relentless attack on spirituality that I often feel exposed to in the contemporary academic/poetic context – the second-nature of throwaway comments that reveal the unspoken and, often unconscious, assumption that spiritual ideas and ideals are vacuous and uncritical.  I offer a general working definition of spirituality as any practices including, but not limited to, working intuitively, working with energies, working with natural energies and spirits, yoga, meditation, healing work, mantra, and any practices designed to awaken and sustain higher vibrational human/planetary consciousness.  I am aware that some of you may have a spiritual practice and feel differently from me, and some of you may not have a spiritual practice at all, so I’m speaking from my own experiences of studying poetry and poetics in English Higher Education institutions and their wider associated linguistically innovative poetic communities over the past four years while taking my MA and PhD.

I would like to begin by setting out my position that the spiritual community can be seen as an oppressed minority community in this era of the Capitalocene.  However, those of us in the spiritual community who identify as white, cis-gendered and heterosexual find ourselves on the more privileged side of this oppression, with relative freedom to practice our chosen paths and relatively high-profile visibility within spiritual communities. This is an issue that the mainstream spiritual community as a whole has perhaps not taken the opportunity to identify and challenge, by holding a mirror to the various ways that spiritual communities often reflect the lack of diversity and oppressive relationships that characterise dominant culture in the Capitalocene, to which we otherwise see ourselves in oppositional resistance.  The spiritual community is, however, open to any and all who choose to pursue a path of awakening.  As a global spiritual community, identifying with ancient and contemporary spiritual practices, what many of us do share is a painful empathy for the oppression and repression of our spiritual ancestors and contemporary cousins around the world, ≥ who have known violence, persecution and murder as the punishment for their wisdom, beliefs and practices.  The values of the Capitalocene are anathema to practices of non-violence, compassion, emptiness, sustainability, creativity and community. So these values have been eradicated or incorporated as a matter of routine systemic oppression and repression. Thus, the first step towards cultural empowerment for spiritual practitioners from the twentieth century onwards – Beloved Allen Ginsberg being a forefather and role model – has been to seek and assert an identity as a spiritual subject in a Capital world – finding oneself and others in the process, finding strength in numbers and forming communities of resistance to the values, beliefs and practices of violent capitalism.  Naropa is a shining example of the kinds of empowerment that can be embodied within such communities as a locus of resistance, attracting like-minded practitioners.

In the wider Anglo-American academic context, however, the unspoken and unconscious repression of spirituality is still the mainstay of academic rationalism, and I have experienced the trauma of that unconscious oppression throughout my studies. What I am suggesting, here, is that it is necessary to first recognise the spiritual community as an identifiable minority community that comprises people from all walks of life and yet is distinct to itself.  Within that community are infinitely diverse humans with infinitely diverse beliefs, practices and subjectivities, and what has typically characterised that community in mainstream culture has been the strong assertion of an identifiable subjectivity in opposition to predominant cultural values.  This has been a necessary first step in taking ownership and embodiment of one’s own life path, and still needs to go further towards the recognition of a distinct minority community, but it also invites its own complexities and problems, not least the assertion of an autonomous subjectivity that reproduces and perpetuates the problematic mode of dominant ego-driven structures of society and thinking.

Contemporary poets working in the mode of spiritual resistance, working in interdisciplinary forms, exploring their own identity and subjectivity – at the intersections with embodied poetics – include: Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, Diane di Prima, CA Conrad, Cecilia Vicuña, M. Nourbese Philip, Bhanu Kapil, Gloria Anzaldúa, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Maggie O’Sullivan, Nisha Ramayya, Nat Raha, Verity Spott, Dolly Dollycore, and many more…

Trace Peterson, in her panel on Monday, spoke about the urgency of recuperating embodied forms of knowing as a mode of resistance – challenging the dominance of theory (objective knowledge) over experience (subjective knowledge) that characterises the rationalist academic context that has led to the invalidation, erasure and injustice experienced by trans poets and academics.  I would like to suggest that a similar mode of recuperation as resistance is required for the spiritual community.  Spiritual practice can take many diverse forms, but it is often experienced as an intuitive, or embodied, form of knowing that cannot be defined or limited by the dominant modes of rationalist objective empirical knowledge. This is a form of knowing that is experienced bodily, with spiritual practices designed to reawaken one’s connection to one’s own body and breathing that have been lost through socialisation into the Capitalocene.

In Tracie Morris’s workshops on Embodied Poetics this week we have been exploring physical practices that help us to reconnect to an experience of our own bodies and our breath – to an experience of embodied knowing, to being present as an embodied and empowered subject in relation to all other living subjects.  In being embodied, I step into our own empowerment, yet in so doing I see through the lie of the Capitalocene, which teaches me that self-empowerment equals the domination of the other.  Coming into my body as a physical, spiritual practice, I (re)make the connection between my head and my body, grounding my intellect into the physicality of the material world and energising my body with the light of awareness – both intellectual and spiritual.

Reed Bye made clear in his Dharma Arts lecture yesterday that in the art of the Dharma, the voice mustbe polyvocal – that is, it must be open to multiplicity, possibility, and open to the other.   Whilst the assertion and performance of an embodied subjectivity as a spiritual practitioner is a necessary first step towards equality and recognition, to assert an autonomous identity as a spiritual subject is to perpetuate and reproduce the structural mechanisms of the ego-dominated culture of the Capitalocene.  In writing a spiritual poetics, do I stop at the level of content – expressing the conceptualisations of what it looks liketo be spiritual through the use of an esoteric language and vocabulary – or am I performing a dharma practice that can be entered into in the moment of encountering the poem?

To perform the latter, I propose an embodied poetics as one potential approach to a poetics that intends to move beyond ego-identity and the traumatic separation of mind and body and/or mind and spirit.  An embodied poetics may explore the material manifestations of language in its sensory interactions with our bodies in terms of its visual appearance on the page, its sonic and rhythmic structures both on the page and in performance, and in its connection with and invocation of the breath through the use of space and positioning.  In each of these ways the embodied poem has the potential to impact on the physical body of the reader, writer, performer or listener.  Charles Olson’s Projective Verse tends to be interpreted in terms of the materiality of the poem on the page, whereby he calls for a poem to activate

the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE

the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE

but his essay ‘Proprioception’ makes clear that he intends poetry as an embodied practice beyond the materiality of the page.  Olson defines proprioception as ‘the data of depth sensibility […] SENSIBILITY WITHIN THE ORGANISM BY MOVEMENT OF ITS OWN TISSUES’ (1).  For Olson, proprioception, the sense by which a human being apprehends one’s own ‘corpus’, is specifically the sense of one’s own internal depth in relation to external objects.  Such knowledge of one’s own internal depth is implicitly connected to the heart and other internal organs, which Olson states is accessed and activated by the breath.  Similarly, Ginsberg’s poetry draws on the use of rhythmic and pranic breath structures to activate certain states of spiritual consciousness in the mind and body of the reader/listener as an embodied poetic practice.

>> Slides here

Nat Raha – British Trans Poet of Colour, who self-identifies as working through magic, activism, other worlds, queer love, subject life and cosmic longing…

> visual materiality is visceral through her use of slashes, strike throughs, erasures… – you can feel it in your own body as you read the poem

> sonic structures such as

‘yur lavish/ious divisions

& devaluations’

claiming of spiritual subjectivity – ‘we divine femmes’

openness to the other through fragmentation, experimentation, incompletion…


Theresa Hak Kyung Cha – Korean American artist and writer, influenced by a range of embodied spiritual practices including Buddhism, Daoism, Tai Chi, and Korean Shamanism – whose entire body of work was interested in exploring the openness of subjectivity to the other, which she called ‘the interfusion of subject and object’ in her MFA thesis – energises the gestural response to material poetic text objects in her artist books and mail art.

>>>> End slides

Thus, I suggest, a productive embodied poetics as a mode of spiritual resistance will both energise language’s material components – such as the visual, the sonic, the spatial and the gestural in their relationship with physical bodies – and perform a polyvocality that questions the assumption of a fixed and autonomous subjectivity, as a manifestation of spirituality in practice.


Sally-Shakti Willow researches and writes utopian poetics and performs poetry as ritual to open up [r]evolutionary space for positive transformation.  She is a PhD candidate and visiting lecturer at the University of Westminster. Her first chapbook, The Unfinished Dream,was published by Sad Press in 2016 and her second, Atha, is forthcoming with Knives, Forks and Spoons.  Sally-Shakti is currently editing an anthology called Writing Utopia Now for Hesterglock Press.


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