Discovering Poetic transcription

Neetha Joy, University of Birmingham.

The data collection phase of my research was immersive. I was enthralled by experiences participants shared within interviews, the incidents they narrated, the emotional trajectory within the interviews, the expressions, the gestures, the ‘tells’ each participant had, the unique way they spoke, the language they used. During interviews participants controlled the narrative and shared what they felt comfortable with. I treated the semi-structured interview questions like guidelines to ensure every aspect of that period in participants life was covered in the interview. The data collected through timeline interviews (4 interviews per participant one hour per interview- total 4 hours approximately) was rich, in-depth, vast, and engrossing. I used Reflexive thematic analysis (Clarke & Braun, 2021, 2017) to analyse data.  Participants’ individual narratives were somewhat lost, in the identified themes.  Themes lacked the uniqueness of each participant. The immersive feeling, I had listening to participant’s lived experiences multiple times was somehow diluted. I felt responsible for not authentically representing participants narratives. I guilty of not doing justice to participants poignant human experience. I looked at the themes I had identified, and they made perfect sense if I looked at them through theoretical lenses I had chosen. Yet, there was something missing, the themes lacked the soul, the essence of participants individual voices.

I had listened to each interview multiple times, read transcripts multiple times, I felt like I had ‘walked in their shoes for a mile’. I felt their struggle, I heard their voices tremble as they spoke, or laugh when they shared something funny. I heard the pauses and the silence. I observed emotional faces, the gestures, the uncomfortable shuffles, the smiles, the nods, the eye contact, or lack of, multiple times. I watched them struggle to remember every nuance of an incident, the reliving of it all, multiple times. All this is what I found missing. The themes I had identified helped answer my research questions yet seemed devoid of human emotions. The themes were derived from my participants collective experiences yet somehow, they didn’t seem to represent individual participants completely. I wanted my data analysis to authentically represent every participant’s individual experience, without losing their voice. How do I do that? I needed something that allowed individual participants voice to be included authentically to complement themes I had identified. I was stuck at an impasse with myself.

A Serendipitous moment

I was at this juncture in my research when, I attended a webinar (because of PESN suggested by Sharon Smith) on 3rd. November 2021 organised by University of Bath, School of Education. The session was titled “Exploring podcasting as a new action research method” presented by Simone Eringfeld a PhD student at University of Cambridge. She spoke about her participatory action research wherein she turned a podcast she had started during covid called ‘Quaranchat’ into her thesis. She presented her data in music and poetry format. I had never heard of poetic inquiry but the idea of representing participant voices while presenting data seemed like an answer to the conflicts I was facing. So, I decided to research further into existing literature about it and discovered that this was a legitimate art-based research method which has been used for many years. I am neither a musician nor a poet, but the representation of participant voices in data analysis and presentation was intriguing. I read extensively on the subject, whatever I could find and present what I understood in the next section.

What is Poetic Inquiry?

“Poetry is chosen to re-tell participants stories, because it allows the heart to lead the mind, rather than the reverse and is aimed at authenticity” (Owton, 2017, 3). Poetic inquiry method originated in early 80’s (Prendergast 2009) in arts-based research with evidence of it in research studies across various fields like anthropology, nursing, social work, psychology, sociology, counselling including education and social sciences. ‘Poetic inquiry’ has become an umbrella term (Haberlin, 2017) for poetry associated with research, Pendergrast (2009) has defined 29 different ways it can be achieved. Using poetry allows researchers to think more clearly, with richer expressions and make research more accessible (Haberlin, 2017). It allows researchers to honour the pauses, rhythms etc while transcribing interviews to accurately represent participants lived experiences in the poems rather than quoting snippets from the transcript in prose (Sparkes 2003). Applying poetic inquiry allows researcher to move away from dichotomous thinking to more divergent thinking (Görlich, 2016), accessing more complex depth and breadth of data, resulting in deeper understanding of human motivation and experiences (Haberlin, 2017).

Literature suggests researchers mainly use Poetic inquiry in three ways.

  • Researcher-voiced poems (Vox Autobiographia/ Autoethnographia) written from field notes, journal entries or autobiographical autoethnographic reflective writing created using researchers own words.
  • Literature-voiced poems (Vox Theoria) written from or in response to existing literature or theory in any field or sometimes poems about poetry.
  • Participant-voiced poems (Vox Participare) created from interview transcripts or sometimes elicited from the participants in an action research format. Another term for participant voiced poems is Found poems/ Poetic transcription. “Found poems take existing texts and reorder them and present them as poems”, often used to represent the lived experiences of research participants.

Experts recommend that researchers who wish to use Poetic inquiry need to express clearly why they are drawn to it (Faulkner, 2007). Keeping that in mind, I position myself as an emerging qualitative researcher who is in the process of completing a multiple case study. Though I am not a poet neither is literature my field of study, though I have published few poems and stories (not so good ones) in college magazines during early student years, I wouldn’t consider myself an expert. I enjoy reading literature. Yet, I realised once I began poetic transcription that I was comfortable and at ease transcribing data into poems. I acknowledge that writing poetry requires specific skills, yet I took the advice given by Leavy (2015) that emerging poetic inquiry researchers should be fully present and fearless to develop the knowledge and skill required. Here I am taking on the role of a writer/composer of found poetry. I am using the words of my participants to formulate found poems to analyse and represent data (Patrick, 2016).

I have decided to use participant voiced poems specifically Poetic transcription/ Found Poetry for my research. Participant-voiced poems sometimes referred to as Poetic transcription/ Found Poems (Prendergast 2009, Leavy, 2015) is a method of using poetry in research both as a representation and analysis of data. It is a way to represent participants’ speaking styles and giving participants ownership of their own stories (Patrick 2016, Prendergast, 2009, Leavy, 2005). The procedure for poetic transcription involves reading the transcripts multiple times, to familiarize with the data, like while doing thematic analysis. It involves highlighting exact words from an interview transcript and using the participants own words to create poems that capture the ‘what’s’, ‘whys’ and/or the ‘how’s’ of experience (Owton, 2017). The researcher looks for phrases, emotional statements, strong sentiments, eloquent expressions in the transcript that capture the feelings and emotions of the participant. The process essentially requires the researcher to sift ‘intuitively’ (Haberlin, 2017) through the transcript, sorting words, phrases, sentences that encapsulate meaning (Glesne, 1997, Haberlin, 2017)

Process followed to Craft Found Poems

I read and listened to all the transcripts meticulously multiple times, highlighting phrases, emotional laden terms, paid attention to the laughs and the pauses in the voice so I don’t miss anything, and I have formulated some data poems which I have included below. Although it is me the researcher who crafts the poems, they are still the participants original words, utmost care was taken not to change or distort the meaning of the participants experience. I have maintained anonymity, editing out any names, locations, or gender identity. To demonstrate the process, I am using a paragraph from my data analysis journal.

I looked at the themes I have identified, and they make perfect sense if I look at them through the theoretical lens I have chosen. Yet, there was something missing, the themes lack the soul, the essence of my participants individual voices. I have listened to each interview multiple times, read the transcripts multiple times, I felt their struggle, I heard their voices tremble as they spoke, or laugh when they shared something funny. I heard the pauses and the silence. I watched the emotions on their faces, the gestures, the uncomfortable shuffles, the smiles, the nods, the eye contact, or lack of, multiple times. I watched them struggle to remember every nuance of an incident, the reliving of it all, multiple times. All this is what I find missing. The themes I have identified help answer my research questions yet seem too technical devoid of human emotions.

Guided by the rhythm of the language, I highlighted key words that resonate the experience. I then copied the identified highlighted portions in a Word document, and like a patchwork quilt merged the portions together to form a coherent ‘found poem’.

Themes seem devoid of human emotions

Themes identified

Make perfect sense

Through theoretical lens.

Yet, something missing

Lack soul, essence of individual voices.

Listened to interviews multiple times

Read transcripts multiple times

Felt their struggle

Heard voices tremble

Laughter sometimes

Pause and silence at times

Watched emotional faces, gestures, uncomfortable shuffles

The smiles, the nods, the eye contact or not

Watched the struggle to remember

The reliving of it all.

Themes identified help answer my research questions

Yet, seem devoid of human emotions

(Few found poems will be shared during my presentation at the Inaugural PESN conference on Tuesday 21st January 2022)

As you can see, I have not altered any words neither have I added any words staying true to the narrative. The title is crafted from the found poem, selecting the best fitting phrase that resonates the experience that is being shared. A similar process was followed to craft found poems from participant transcripts. I re-read the found poem a couple of times repeating a word for poetic effect, until I was confident that the final poem conveyed the essence of the shared experience and would engage the reader. I took a break of a day and returned to the found poem for a final check. It was important for me that while crafting participant-voiced found poems, the words used were the participants’, and that I did not change the meaning of the experience in any way. I shared drafts of the found poem with the participant to get their approval.

What exactly am I planning to do?

After careful consideration I have decided that I would place the found poems in a separate chapter within my data analysis presentation. All the found poems identified will be presented in a chapter before I present the chapter on themes, I identified using Reflexive Thematic Analysis. So, essentially the reader will first read all the found poems presented under the four interview categories: early childhood & schooling experiences, university & higher education experiences, employment/teaching experiences and suggestions for the future. By doing so I am presenting anonymized individual participant experiences allowing the reader to ‘feel’ and ‘get inside’ individual narratives, to familiarize themselves with individual stories in poetic form. By presenting found poems separate to the thematic analysis will maintain the interpretive integrity of both approaches. This way participant stories will not be ‘overshadowed’ (Ward, 2011, pg. 7) by collective interpretation and analysis of their accounts. This also addresses authoritarian aspect within traditional data analysis, found poems enables the representation of participant voices making them central to data analysis and is not overwhelmed with my own narrative (Evelyn, 2004).

Currently trying to learn more about Poetry in research

I have joined a group that meets once a month to discuss ‘Poetic Inquiry in Research” organized by Dr. Nicole Brown and  Aine McAllister. Trying to network on Twitter with people associated with creative arts-based research methods. I follow Dr. Helen Kara who has created #CRMethodsChat and advocates for creative research methods.

Neetha Joy is a third year full-time PhD research student at the University of Birmingham. Her research study aims to explore the narratives of disabled teachers, highlighting the role their life experiences have had on their choice of profession. This will hopefully lead to an understanding of their interaction with environments around them and the biopsychosocial impact these environments have had on their disability identities. She is an alumnus of University of Mumbai; she began her career as a Mathematics and Science teacher progressing to become a teacher educator. Her research interests include Teacher Education, Race and Education, Inclusive Education and Disability.

Neetha Joy


Braun V.  & Clarke V.  (2021). Thematic Analysis A Practical Guide. 2021 Sage Publications

Brown, M.E.L., Kelly, M. & Finn, G.M.(2021). Thoughts that breathe, and words that burn: poetic inquiry within health professions education. Perspect Med Educ 10, 257–264 (2021).

Clarke, V., & Braun V. (2017). “Thematic Analysis.” The Journal of Positive Psychology 12 (3): 297–298.  doi:10.1080/17439760.2016.1262613.

Evelyn, D. (2004). Telling stories of research. Studies in the Education of Adults, 36(1), 86-110.

Faulkner, S. L. (2007). Concern with craft using ars poetica as criteria for reading research poetry. Qualitative Inquiry, 13(2), 218–234.

Glesne C. (1997). That Rare Feeling: Re-presenting Research Through Poetic Transcription. 1997 Qualitative Inquiry Sagepub; 3; 202 DOI: 10.1177/107780049700300204

Görlich, A. (2016). Poetic inquiry: Understanding youth on the margins of education. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 29, 520–535.

Haberlin S. (2017). The butterfly whisperer: representing a gifted student’s connection with nature through poetic inquiry, Journal of Poetry Therapy, 30:4, 209- 217, DOI: 10.1080/08893675.2017.1351702

Leavy, P. (2015). Method meets art: Arts-based research practice. New York, NY: Guilford Publications.

Owton, H. (2017). Turning Data into Poetry. 10.1007/978-3-319-64577-3_4.

Patrick L. (2016). Found Poetry: Creating Space for Imaginative Arts-Based Literacy Research Writing. 2016 Sage pub Vol 65.384-403 DOI: 10.1177/2381336916661530

Prendergast, M. (2009). “Poem is What?” Poetic Inquiry in Qualitative Social Science Research. International Review of Qualitative Research. 1. 541-568. 10.1525/irqr.2009.1.4.541.

Sparkes, A. C., Nilges, L., Swan, P., & Downing, F. (2003). Poetic representations in sport a physical edu- cation: Insider perspectives. Sport, Education and Society, 8(2), 153–177.

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8 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Thank you for this, Neetha. I found it fascinating and I’m already thinking about how it could be useful in my own work. I particularly appreciated you sharing a worked example and I found the resulting poem quite moving.
    I was also drawn to your comment about being “fully present and fearless to develop the knowledge and skill required” to complete the task. I know I’m not alone when I say that being fearless in my doctoral studies is something I struggle with. Can I ask how being present and fearless has manifested for you while in this phase of your research?
    Thank you,

    1. Thank You Jo.
      To answer your question.
      It has been an ongoing conflict to be honest. I had lot of self doubt, coz I am not a poet in anyway. The only thing that kept me going and helped me develop fearlessness is the responsibility I felt towards my participants. Their trust in me, their belief in my research and their generosity in sharing their life experiences. I felt I owed it to them frankly and that made me fearless. That helped me make a case for using this approach.
      My supervisors were initially unaware of this approach. yet they encouraged me to try this approach out at a in-house conference to gauge the reactions of the audience. Because even they agreed that the found poems were very powerful. Positive audience reaction at the conference reinforced my belief in the approach.
      I feel more confident, and appreciative of my own research. I am optimistic of the value of my research. I has made me fearless in applying creative methods in research and advocating for the same. In simple terms, my participants poignant experiences, their trust, and feeling responsible to represent them authentically made me fearless.

      Thank you.

  2. Hi Neetha,
    I love your creative response towards analysis and the way in which you have worked to respect and represent your participants. I had a couple of thoughts when reading that you might like to think about before Friday’s discussion.
    – What was it about the nature of the poem texts that you felt made them ‘more representative than snippets’? Was it that the whole response was presented in one place, or something else?
    – Do you think, as researchers, that we can ever ‘authentically represent participants’ narratives’?
    – Do you think that the ‘divergent thinking’ that you mentioned is welcomed in academia?
    Thank you.

    1. Thank you Una.
      To answer your questions.
      1. What was it about the nature of the poem texts that you felt made them ‘more representative than snippets’? Was it that the whole response was presented in one place, or something else?

      The found poems, I feel highlight individual participant experiences sometimes lost while editing into a snippet in prose format. In the poetic transcribed form it maintains the rhythms, language of the participant as well as holistically represents the incident participant shared in a way retaining the participants original narrative as closely as possible. Personally, I think reading found poems evoke emotional connection with the reader, makes research accessible even beyond academia.

      2. Do you think, as researchers, that we can ever ‘authentically represent participants’ narratives’?

      To answer this question I would like to use two quotes
      “In our work as researchers we weigh and sift experiences and make choices regarding what is significant, what is trivial, what to include, what to exclude . . . by doing so, we craft narrative; we write lives” (Richardson, 1990, p. 10).

      Researchers have an ethical obligation “to present the stories of participants in ways that cleave as closely as possible to the essence of what and how they shared” (Ely, 2007, p. 569).
      I feel using poetic transcription allows me to some extent successfully represent authentic participant narratives.

      3.Do you think that the ‘divergent thinking’ that you mentioned is welcomed in academia?

      This is an interesting question. There was some hesitation from my supervisors when I first mentioned using poetic inquiry. Many researchers have successfully used creative arts based methods in qualitative research, which has created acceptance of divergent creative methods in academia. There will be resistance when we as researcher move away from traditional forms, but when you strongly believe in what you are doing then one has to try and push boundaries.
      Thank you for your reply. All the best with your research.

  3. This is a very interesting read Neetha. I have never been interested in poetry, but I feel this is a nice accessible way to listen to people’s voices. It doesn’t feel clinical which some research can feel like. I think traditional research deserves the successful mode of creative artistic methods. I am looking forward to the discussion this afternoon.

    1. Thank you Lucy.

      I agree with you that traditional research definitely deserves further boost in terms of making research more accessible and engaging by using creative artistic methods in combination with traditional approaches. I thoroughly enjoyed the discussions we had during the conference. thank you once again , your comment is very encouraging to a novice researcher like me.

      All the best with your studies.

  4. I am absolutely in love with your method here (Retired English Literature Lecturer!) Have you met any resistance to this from other academics? Do you feel that some of these fabulous creative methods are sometimes difficult for others to understand/accept?

    1. Thank you Rosie.

      To answer your first question, yes there was initial resistance, when I did broach the subject of poetic inquiry. My supervisors were not familiar with the method. I had to make my case by explaining my rationale for using this method. After initial hesitation , they were more on board after reading the found poems and further approval by fellow pars and academics at an in-house conference. I think that to break traditional understanding and fixed ideas of research , there will always be resistance when one tries to do something away from norm. But I feel creative researchers are pushing the boundaries and rebelling against such fixed expectations and boundaries, if one believes strongly in what they are doing, one gets the strength to rebel and take a stand :).

      To answer you second question, I don’t feel that creative methods are difficult to understand, in fact the opposite there are so many creative methods that actually make research more accessible to larger audiences, more engaging and representative. Acceptance of creative methods , is a bit challenging as mentioned earlier, but I think its is changing with more researchers now wanting to push boundaries, rebel and make a case for using creative methods in mainstream research.

      Hope this answers your questions. Thank you once again.

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