Martial Poetry OR Tae Kwon Do, Creative Writing, and Digital Humanities Walk into a Bar

Martial Poetry OR Tae Kwon Do, Creative Writing, and Digital Humanities Walk into a Bar



Gather the breath of the atmosphere in your lungs. Mold the fire of the Earth into the energy of your soul. Pulse with the lifeblood of lightning, ice, and stone. Then, and only then, will you know the swiftness of the pouncing tiger; the silence of the floating swan.


Sound like a monologue from a bad Kung Fu movie yet? Of course it does.


Those are exactly the kind of nonsensical and exociticed sort of meditations I wanted to steer clear of when I began this project. Unfortunately, like most artists or scholars, I failed at first attempt. Mostly I’m still failing…mostly. But that’s a good thing, I think, because it means I’m challenging myself to learn something new.


Hi, I’m Spencer Bennington and sometimes I don’t know how to effectively start a blog post. This time I decided to begin with a parody of the work I’m currently doing in a Digital Humanities project. The project doesn’t have a name yet, but it has a goal: combine filmed versions of Tae Kwon Do forms with original poems inspired by those forms. If you’re confused by the term “forms” think of them as choreographed dances. Maybe you’ve seen people practice Tai Chi? Perhaps you’re familiar with yoga poses? All of these bodily practices are ways to encourage active meditation, develop focus and balance, and forge a muscle memory for new techniques. If you’re confused by the term “poetry,” maybe you’d like my definition: words that feel like music and color at the same time. I guess I could call the project something really on the nose like “Poetry in Motion,” but I haven’t drowned completely in a sea of my own puns yet so…


Anyway, I wanted to use the space of this blog to track my progress so far and to get some feedback from the wider digital humanities community. If there are others out there in the internetz doing similar work with martial arts I’d love to hear about that as well. First, let me back up and give you a little explanation of what I’m doing and where I’m coming from.


I’ve been practicing Tae Kwon Do for twelve years. In that time, I’ve seen many styles of Tae Kwon Do, met many masters, and learned a great deal about the art’s contested history. During all of that time, I’ve also been a writer. I used to prefer fiction, then I found out how fun poetry can be, then I started spending all my time writing like an academic (boo!),  so now I have to carve out time to flex those creative muscles. If you’re wondering why this blog post isn’t overly formal, that’s part of the reason.


What’s interesting, I think, is that in the twelve years I’ve been  training and writing creatively, the two parts of my identity never intersected. Recently I decided it was time for that to change. When I became a HASTAC scholar a few months back, I decided to use this position as an excuse to develop my pet project into an ongoing investigation into Digital Humanities scholarship. So this project is equal parts encouraging myself to keep practicing Tae Kwon Do, continue writing creatively even when I think I don’t have time for it, and tinkering with digital AV equipment and technology. Is that Digital Humanities? I think so. I hope so.


If it’s not, at the very least it’s interesting. Here’s why: Tae Kwon Do is the most popular martial art worldwide. The majority of the Tae Kwon Do population practices the same eight forms (the Tae Geuk Poomse) popularized by the World Tae Kwon Do Federation. Each of these eight forms has an underlying philosophical interpretation or meaning drawn from eight ancient Confucian principles. And yet, each of these forms are embodied slightly differently depending on the practitioner’s cultural background and way of viewing the world. This project aims to juxtapose the standardized and more traditional meaning of the forms against the very personal interpretation I embody. That’s where the poetry comes in.  


The poems I’ve written are inspired by these Confucian principles, but they’re supposed to represent how those principles manifest in my own life. I think I was really successful in accomplishing this goal in the second poem I wrote. The embodied principle in the form is “joyfulness” and the poem simply features a bunch of moments in my life where I felt joyful. The first poem I wrote was, as I alluded to earlier, less successful I think. The underlying principle is “heaven” and is supposed to encourage the practitioner to consider their own mortality as well as their own power. Once the martial artist fully realizes that practicing combat can lead to death, then they are ready to begin. The first form is a way of accepting the gravity of beginning a martial journey and responsibility for the actions you take after acquiring powerful knowledge.


Heady stuff, right? I thought so too. I suppose that’s why the first poem is less personal and more abstract. You can read more about it/watch it here . Compare it to the second one here and the third one here and feel free to let me know what you think.


As far as digital humanities work goes, I have a lot to learn. The video quality with these first drafts is pretty rough because I’m composing them in Windows Movie Maker. Yeah, that’s issue number one. Thoughts on editing software to look into for revising this project or future work? I’m lobbying to get Camtasia for work and that’s happening slowly, but I’d be curious to hear about alternatives. Also, I’m filming the forms with a Sony HandyCam and I’ve noticed that some of the motions blur. Is that because I’m actually Barry Allen or is it a camera issue or an editing thing?


Another technology I’ve learned a decent amount about in doing this work is Audacity. It seems like this is still the most popular free audio editing program but, again, I’d love to hear your thoughts on good programs. Also, I’m no master at audio recording (clearly) and would love some tips on how to beef up my voice recordings for later revisions.


My plan is to finish the next five forms the way I’ve been doing them and then go back and tinker. Some videos might feature poetic revisions (like the first one) and some might only feature sound tweaks (the audio in the second one is really quiet for example). But, along the way, I’m hoping the HASTAC readers and larger Digital Humanities community can help me improve these presentations. In fact, next week I’ll be attending John Barber’s Digital Storytelling seminar at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in Victoria, British Columbia so I’ll be sure to report back after that with any tidbits I learn.


Until then, I appreciate your eyes and ears as I fumble through the awkward process of trying to combine my hobbies and my scholarship into one beautiful, beautiful butterfly. If you have any questions or suggestions please comment below. If you’re doing any sort of work with martial arts, please share!


Thanks so much 🙂