Thursday, August 5, 2010

Teaching Documentary Poetry in Two Hours to Non-Native Speakers

Tomorrow I'm giving a two hour seminar on Documentary Poetry to a group of visiting teachers from Asia (Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Singapore are represented in my group). So the first question is how to engage a group of people who do not readily speak out loud in English. (When they did yesterday, when I attended to get the lay of the land, they indeed had things to say.) The second question is how to present the material, both for listeners who have difficulties with the language and for listeners who do not have an entire semester to read and think about the subject.

Background texts and some of the reading can be found at a website I created for the seminar. A more extensive syllabus for such a course, taught by Prof. Dee Morris at the University of Iowa, can be found here.

Tentative outline:

Ask participants to bring up one historical event that they find meaningful. Ask them to write it down (5 minutes)

--Ways in which certain situations--political, economic, cultural, historical--make documentary poetry necessary.

--The question of what happens to poetry when it includes documents: medical documents, photographs, testimonies, and so on. Examples.

--Ways in which documentary poetry creates a new kind of historical writing. Finally, I want to talk about what might happen to historical writing when it is rendered in poetic form.

Begin from definitions of poetry: write on white board.


Brief examples of what has been done with these forms, especially epic and lyric. "I wandered lonely as"; "How I love thee, let me count"; "You left, and I'm bereft," etc. And "there were some wolves and they made Rome"; "a couple people appeared and ate the wrong fruit and that's why your life sucks now."

Then, turn to what each form of poetry cannot do. Epic and lyric have a single omniscient speaker. The epic speaker knows everything about a nation's origins and development (or a religion's). The lyric speaker knows everything about his or her feeling at a particular moment in time. Periodic omniscience? The epic is about time; the lyric about getting away from time. (God do I love generalizations!)

What happens when you write about an event about which you know very little, about which there are many narratives, many moments in and out of time? What happens when you want to make a statement about the past, but without using polemic? What happens when you are the detective and the historical record is scanty?

Documentary Poetry.

Discuss subjectivity, the province of the traditional poem. Then talk objectivity, the province of a certain kind of 20th century poem. William Carlos Williams, Charles Reznikoff. Ask students to consider the difference between describing the garden out back of the building subjectively or objectively.

Bring out xeroxes of Charles Reznikoff's "Negroes." Brief biographical blurt. Read out loud. Talk about what he leaves out (both out of what you expect in a poem and what he leaves out of the narrative). What are the effects on you? (Note to self: make the xeroxes!)

Muriel Rukeyser's "Book of the Dead," which I asked you to read before today. The Hawk's Nest Incident in W. Virginia in late 1920s and early 1930s. Congressional testimonies in 1936. Read a few lines from the testimony of Philippa Allen, and then read Rukeyser's rendering of it.

[Click to enlarge; note the use of "camera" in the "Gauley Bridge" poem]

Cha's DICTEE: the way she engages poetic form, historical documentation, memoir, letter, and so on. Also her uses of Korean, English, French, to get at the colonial (and educational) contexts of her own life.

So what is it that documentary poetry does?

--It is based on documentation, but it leaves things out.
--It points: references to "there" in Rukeyser.
--Sometimes mediated by photography: the camera as actor in Rukeyser, the camera as witness in CD Wright, Mark Nowak, Kaia Sand
--The tone is dispassionate; the reader's response is intended to be passionate. How does this work?

Different ways to use documents: Lawson Fusao Inada and Kaia Sand use Japanese-American internment notices in Legends from Camp and Remember to Wave, respectively.

[Inada's "Legends from Camp"]

[Sand's "Remember to Wave"]

How Inada's poem lives inside the camp as his family had, and how his document inhabits the poem. By contrast, Sand's poem is about taking a walk, so the walk's stitching covers the document, as do some of her words typed on top of it.

Other uses of documentation:

Maps, as in Craig Santos Perez's from unincorporated territory [hacha]:

Map by Ben V. Guam as Perez's subject: brings together documents about the achiote plant, early Catholicism, his grandparents' stories and cultural instructions, family narratives, and so on. Documentation helps him put together a colonial history (of disjunction, multi-lingualism, and so on) and to make connections between himself (who does not know the language as well as he wants to) and Chamorro culture.

Photography and found language, as in Mark Nowak's "June 19, 1982," from Shut Up Shut Down, about the murder of Vincent Chin:

C.D. Wright's One Big Self based on photographs from prisons in Louisiana:

Questionnaires, as in my Dementia Blog use of an intake questionnaire for an Alzheimer's home, one that I filled out on behalf of (so nearly as) my mother:

Government & medical documents, as in Joseph Harrington's forthcoming memoir of his mother's death and Nixon's resignation, Things Come On: An Amneoir

To the participants: Stop for five minutes and write down a document you would use in composing a poem about the historical event you chose at the beginning of the seminar. Discuss briefly.

How would you want or expect your reader to react to the document you've chosen? How else might you help them, by "pointing" to something significant in the document or in your experience of it?

Also think beyond this seminar of how you might put the information and the poetry on the page; how you might weave back and forth between information and poetry, visual documentation and language.

In summary(!):

What happens to history when it's read through documentary poetry?

--The reader becomes an investigator, historian, witness, interpreter, rather than merely an absorber of a pre-existing narrative;

--History, like the self, is seen as being multifarious, with many voices, many outcomes, many versions;

--Feelings are not imposed upon the reader--though often encouraged upon her!--but engendered in him;

--History is a creative process, just as poetry uses materials that are not considered creative, but informational.

Now to try to get my slides together. I would really like to get the participants cutting and pasting and writing around their found items, but I fear there's not enough time.


Andy Godefroy said...

I love how your passion for the work is at war with the necessities of teaching/time limitations. This may be the best, concise, description of how to create a poem I've ever seen.

a.k.a. "Joe" said...

Ooo - I'm a steal this, Susan - 'sgood! (and thanks for including my stuff)


Sherri Arnold Mehta said...

AWESOME!!!!! Thanks for sharing! This is a wonderful and simple description and introduction to documentary poetry.

susan said...

Thank you, Ms. Arnold. Your courses look wonderful! Keep up the good work, and enjoy those snow days . . . aloha, Susan