Staff Writer Sofía Trujillo attended Peter Coleman’s and Pádraig Ó Tuama’s ongoing workshop on Conflict through Poetry at the Center of Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Teachers College, in collaboration with Columbia’s Earth Institute.

When Peter Coleman, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia, received a message from renowned Irish poet and conflict mediator Pádraig Ó Tuama, he initially did not think much of it. Ó Tuama had reached out about wanting to read the newly published “The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice”, which Coleman had helped author. In his mind, it was nothing more that an intellectual’s curiosity in a peer’s work and so Coleman happily obliged and sent him a copy. What he did not expect, however, was for Ó Tuama to reach out again, a week later, having read the whole book and with a proposal in hand. Thus, the six-part workshop series: “Exploring Conflict Intelligence through a Poem” came to be. Every week, Ó Tuama selects a poem that explores a particular emotion: ambivalence, rage, lament, resistance, and regression, all of which can be found in the essence of conflict resolution, and both engage in conversation and discussion about it.

This Friday afternoon, the first poetry lab, held over Zoom, was conducted, with about 100 people in attendance. As defined by Professor Coleman, Conflict Resolution can be loosely understood as the “Informal or formal process that two or more parties use to find a peaceful solution to their dispute”. This area of scholarship and professional practice is relatively young, having emerged as a discipline after World War II. 

Conflict mediation usually works by navigating the tension between power, trust, and truth, to find cooperative, mutually beneficial solutions to issues. Similarly, since the dawn of time, poetry has opened up doors to understanding important questions regarding our behavior during conflict. Questions such as: What does it mean to be one of ‘us’? And therefore, what does it mean not to be one of ‘them’? Are ‘us’ and ‘them’ mutually exclusive?Questions that concern art inherently concern themselves with the human experience. Thus, Ó Tuama argues, art drives huge factors of conflict.

This intersection between art and science is where Ó Tuama introduces us to the first poem of his series: “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings” by Joy Harjo. Harjo is a member of the Muscogee Nation and a three-time poet laureate, the first Native American woman ever to receive that honor. The piece itself is divided into chapters, with each chapter titled after prompts that seem straight out of a conflict resolution handbook. The poem opens with the first chapter: “1. SET CONFLICT RESOLUTION GROUND RULES:’ It swiftly after does away with corporate language and continues to explore the topic of conflict in more emotional and poetic terms.

Harjo’s piece concerns itself with issues of land, time, truth, and ties each to an incisive question: What if the conflict you are dealing with is sewn onto the land you are on? What are you doing with the time you are given? and, How are you using truth for a purpose?  

Issues of land sovereignty, settler-colonialism, and Native American erasure also come through in this poem, thus bringing to the forefront a conflict which some characterize as irresolvable. Above all, the poem is a call to action and reflection. As Ó Tuama presented in his analysis, it is effective in raising us to our higher selves and aims to close the fundamental gap between ‘me’ and ‘you’. A member of the workshop highlighted her favourite line: “You must speak in the language of justice” and reflected upon how Harjo uses art in a way that creates extraordinary engagement. It appeared as if, unbeknownst to many, poetry has carried the same inquiries and concerns found in the standard conflict resolution textbooks.

Nevertheless, what Coleman and Ó Tuama will make clear is that there is no resolution without collaboration. This first workshop aimed to make the audience understand that we are all a part of a two-step process. No matter if you read the textbook or read the poem, you must then take the words on the page towards action. Conflict resolution does not just occur in lecture halls but in bookstores, and in the safety of one’s own bed. 

With the promise of meeting again and in a strong northern Irish accent, Ó Tuama gave his closing remarks. Another week, another poem. 

poetry via Pixabay