An Introduction to Documentary Poetry

It’s an age-old question with various iterations: what is “political art”? Is there room for activism in art? What is the artist's social responsibility when making art? Attend any AWP Conference and you’re sure to find numerous panels discussing these same questions in a stuffy convention center with even stuffier ideas. The truth is, these questions are a form of political rhetoric from the get go.

Lurking in the shadows of these conversations is alway the potential policing of creativity and expression. The questions are divisive. Art matters. Community matters. As writers, we are witnesses to the world at large, often documenting what we see, hear, smell, touch, and feel. From setting to climax, the mechanics of society are ingrained in our practice. What I am concerned with is the conversation surrounding the difference between poetry that “witnesses” and poetry that “documents.”

Without this being the opening to a long and drawn out manifesto in which I propose that all poetry contains “documentary elements” in one way or another, I want to delineate the current conversation in the writing world between “poetry of witness” and “documentary poetics.”

In a 2015 article for Poetry Northwest, poet Sandra Beasley says, “poetry of witness occupies a third realm between the “personal” (lyric acts) and the “political” (oratorical acts).” This “third realm” as Beasley writes, is what poet and activist Carolyn Forché, in the introduction to her anthology “Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness” first called “the social,” a term “that can describe the space between the state and the supposedly safe havens of the personal.”

So, if “poetry of witness” searches for the middle of ground between the personal and the political, where does documentary poetry happen? According to documentary poet Mark Nowak, “documentary poetics, it should be said, has no founder, no contested inception, no signature spokespersons claiming its cultural capital; its practice is not limited to the pre-modern, modernist, or post-modern moments.” This ambiguous singularity aside, Nowak does go on to say that, “documentary poetry tends to pack a lefter-than-liberal, social-Democratic to Marxist political history.” While I’m inclined to agree with Nowak, I think it’s fair to say that documentary poetics leans more toward the political than personal, however slight.

In her article, Sandra Beasley continues cracking open this question of “witness” versus “document”: “What distinguishes “poetry of witness” from “documentary poetics”? The tempting answer is, “very little.” Both “document” and “witness” are syntactically flexible words. In conversation, someone who self-identifies as writing poetry of witness might speak of “documenting” a traumatic event. Or a practitioner of documentary poetics might speak of helping readers become virtual “witnesses.”

Portuguese writer and journalist, Martin Earl takes Beasley’s notion of a step further: “Of course, when most of us think of lyric poetry, there is still a facet of self-expression that plays a strong role in both the ambition and the methodology of poetic creation. Earl, speaking of Nowak’s own documentary poetry, says, “[he] eliminates, to the extent that this is possible, “self expression” from the equation.” This elimination being where “witnessing” ends and “documentary” begins. However, I am not so inclined to agree with Earl’s assertion that documentation need to be completely void of the personal in order to enter the realm of documentary. Returning to Carolyn Forché, she reminds us that, “if we give up the dimension of the personal, we risk relinquishing one of the most powerful sites of resistance. The celebration of the personal, however, can indicate a myopia, an inability to see how larger structures of the economy and the state circumscribe, if not determine, the fragile realm of the individual.”

So, what do I consider documentary poetry? Well, taking into account that there is plenty of debate on what “documentary poetry” is and how it differs from “poetry of witness,” the following is not a hard-set definition by any means. For the purposes of this (small) list of recommended poets working in the documentary mode, the guideline I followed was poetry that takes historical events and the communities/people involved in them as its primary subject. I emphasize “primary” because, like Forché, I believe moments of self-reflexivity should be a part of the documentation, consequently secondary, but present nonetheless. One reason is because while working on my own documentary projects, I found myself asking (and being asked) questions like: what are the implications of documenting someone else’s experience from the position of a (potential) outsider; what can poetry constructively offer to this situation; why am I doing this? Poetry (and, in reality, all art) is inherently a truth-seeking exercise. This component bears the weight of authenticity. This is why I regard the personal as an integral part to any documentation (or witness for that matter).

That being said, here is a list of books that I believe engage in documentary poetics. Some lean more toward the political. Others work to weave the personal/autobiographical narratives with more traditional documentary modes such as exposition, interview, persona, collage—ultimately culminating in active political dissent. Because isn’t that what we are really asking: what is our history—and why does it matter?

Muriel Rukeyser - Book of the Dead (within U.S. 1)

The Book of the Dead was published as a long sequence in Rukeyser’s book U.S. 1 in 1938. It is a text that could be considered a hybrid work; it is polyvocal, part factual document, part investigative journalism, and part lyric. The series is a collage of source text that includes stock market quotes, congressional reports, and trial transcripts. The poems host a polyphony of voices: doctors, contractors, close family members of miners, and most prominently, the victims themselves who were little more than exploited, and certainly nearly invisible, during the aftermath of the exposure. In doing so, the text provides a powerful exploration of who is empowered by speech, and whose speech acts have been mediated for various reasons. The Book of the Dead, in making the dead visible, also exposes and implicates the classist, racist, and capitalist structures that allowed such a tragedy to occur.

Patricia Smith - Blood Dazzler

In minute-by-minute detail, Patricia Smith tracks Hurricane Katrina as it transforms into a full-blown mistress of destruction. From August 23, 2005, the day Tropical Depression Twelve developed, through August 28 when it became a Category Five storm with its “scarlet glare fixed on the trembling crescent,” to the heartbreaking aftermath, these poems evoke the horror that unfolded in New Orleans as America watched it on television. Assuming the voices of flailing politicians, the dying, their survivors, and the voice of the hurricane itself, Smith follows the woefully inadequate relief effort and stands witness to families held captive on rooftops and in the Superdome. She gives voice to the thirty-four nursing home residents who drowned in St. Bernard Parish and recalls the day after their deaths when George W. Bush accompanied country singer Mark Willis on guitar:

The cowboy grins through the terrible din,


And in the Ninth, a choking woman wails

Look like this country done left us for dead.

An unforgettable reminder that poetry can still be “news that stays news,” Blood Dazzler is a necessary step toward national healing.

C.D. Wright - One Big Self

Inspired by numerous visits inside Louisiana state prisons—where MacArthur Fellow C.D. Wright served as a “factotum” for a portrait photographer—One Big Self bears witness to incarcerated men and women and speaks to the psychic toll of protracted time passed in constricted space. It is a riveting mosaic of distinct voices, epistolary pieces, elements from a moralistic board game, road signage, prison data, inmate correspondence, and “counts” of things—from baby’s teeth to chigger bites:

Count your folding money

Count the times you said you wouldn’t go back

Count your debts

Count the roaches when the light comes on

Count your kids after the housefire

A. Van Jordan - M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A

In 1936, teenager MacNolia Cox became the first African American finalist in the National Spelling Bee Competition. Supposedly prevented from winning, the precocious child who dreamed of becoming a doctor was changed irrevocably. Her story, told in a poignant nonlinear narrative, illustrates the power of a pivotal moment in a life.

Adrian Matejka - Big Smoke

The legendary Jack Johnson (1878-1946) was a true American creation. The child of emancipated slaves, he overcame the violent segregationism of Jim Crow, challenging white boxers--and white America--to become the first African-American heavyweight world champion. The Big Smoke, Adrian Matejka's third work of poetry, follows the fighter's journey from poverty to the most coveted title in sports through the multi-layered voices of Johnson and the white women he brazenly loved. Matejka's book is part historic reclamation and part interrogation of Johnson's complicated legacy, one that often misremembers the magnetic man behind the myth.

Tyembia Jess - Olio

Part fact, part fiction, Tyehimba Jess's much anticipated second book weaves sonnet, song, and narrative to examine the lives of mostly unrecorded African American performers directly before and after the Civil War up to World War I. Olio is an effort to understand how they met, resisted, complicated, co-opted, and sometimes defeated attempts to minstrelize them.

So, while I lead this choir, I still find that

I'm being led...I'm a missionary

mending my faith in the midst of this flock...

I toil in their fields of praise. When folks see

these freedmen stand and sing, they hear their God

speak in tongues. These nine dark mouths sing shelter;

they echo a hymn's haven from slavery's weather.

Maggie Nelson - Jane

Jane tells the spectral story of the life and death of Maggie Nelson’s aunt Jane, who was murdered in 1969 while a first-year law student at the University of Michigan. Though officially unsolved, Jane’s murder was apparently the third in a series of seven brutal rape-murders in the area between 1967 and 1969. Nelson was born a few years after Jane’s death, and the narrative is suffused with the long shadow her murder cast over both the family and her psyche.

Jane explores the nature of this haunting incident via a collage of poetry, prose, dream-accounts, and documentary sources, including local and national newspapers, related “true crime” books such as The Michigan Murders and Killer Among Us, and fragments from Jane’s own diaries written when she was 13 and 21. Its eight sections cover Jane’s childhood and early adulthood, her murder and its investigation, the direct and diffuse effect of her death on Nelson’s girlhood and sisterhood, and a trip to Michigan Nelson took with her mother (Jane’s sister) to retrace the path of Jane’s final hours.

Each piece in Jane has its own form, and the movement from each piece to the next—along with the white space that surrounds each fragment—serve as important fissures, disrupting the tabloid, “page-turner” quality of the story, and eventually returning the reader to deeper questions about girlhood, empathy, identification, and the essentially unknowable aspects of another’s life and death. Part elegy, part memoir, detective story, part meditation on violence (and serial, sexual violence in particular), and part conversation between the living and the dead, Jane’s powerful and disturbing subject matter, combined with its innovations in genre, expands the notion of what poetry can do—what kind of stories it can tell, and how it can tell them.

Tarfia Faizullah - Seam

The poems in this captivating collection weave beauty with violence, the personal with the historic as they recount the harrowing experiences of the two hundred thousand female victims of rape and torture at the hands of the Pakistani army during the 1971 Liberation War. As the child of Bangladeshi immigrants, the poet in turn explores her own losses, as well as the complexities of bearing witness to the atrocities these war heroines endured

Throughout the volume, the narrator endeavors to bridge generational and cultural gaps even as the victims recount the horror of grief and personal loss. As we read, we discover the profound yet fragile seam that unites the fields, rivers, and prisons of the 1971 war with the poet’s modern-day hotel, or the tragic death of a loved one with the holocaust of a nation.

Moving from West Texas to Dubai, from Virginia to remote villages in Bangladesh and back again, the narrator calls on the legacies of Willa Cather, César Vallejo, Tomas Tranströmer, and Paul Celan to give voice to the voiceless. Fierce yet loving, devastating and magical at once, Seam is a testament to the lingering potency of memory and the bravery of a nation’s victims.

Craig Santos Perez - from Unincorporated territories (series)

FROM UNINCORPORATED TERRITORY is a series of interconnected books that I have been writing for ten years. My homeland, the Western Pacific Island of Guam, is an “unincorporated territory” of the United States, and one of the last remaining colonies in the world. My poetry is about the history, politics, culture, and environment of Guam, as well as the more personal stories of growing up on an island, migrating to California and Hawaiʻi, and protesting against the militarization and colonization of my home.

The first book, [hacha], was originally published in 2008,

and the major poem in that book shares the story of my grandfather life and my memories growing up on Guam. The second book, [saina], was published in 2010, and revolves around my family’s migration story and a long poem about my grandmother’s life and several poems about food. The third book, [guma’], was published in 2014, and shares the story of my return home to Guam for the first time after 15 years away. Some of the poems continue across books, and the themes of colonization, militarization, tourism, migration, family, and indigenous activism thread the collections together.

Robin Coste Lewis - Voyage of the Sable Venus

Robin Coste Lewis's electrifying collection is a triptych that begins and ends with lyric poems meditating on the roles desire and race play in the construction of the self. In the center of the collection is the title poem, "Voyage of the Sable Venus," an amazing narrative made up entirely of titles of artworks from ancient times to the present--titles that feature or in some way comment on the black female figure in Western art. Bracketed by Lewis's own autobiographical poems, "Voyage" is a tender and shocking meditation on the fragmentary mysteries of stereotype, juxtaposing our names for things with what we actually see and know. A new understanding of biography and the self, this collection questions just where, historically, do ideas about the black female figure truly begin--five hundred years ago, five thousand, or even longer? And what role did art play in this ancient, often heinous story? Here we meet a poet who adores her culture and the beauty to be found within it. Yet she is also a cultural critic alert to the nuances of race and desire--how they define us all, including her own sometimes painful history. Lewis's book is a thrilling aesthetic anthem to the complexity of race--a full embrace of its pleasure and horror, in equal parts.

Carolyn Forché - Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (Anthology)

Bearing witness to extremity―whether of war, torture, exile, or repression―the volume encompasses more than 140 poets from five continents, over the span of this century from the Armenian genocide to Tiananmen Square.

Credit is due to these sources for inspiration, fact checking, and reference:

&, where most of the book description blurbs and photos were taken from.

#documentary #poetry #documentarypoetry #poetics #history #politics

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