Monday, June 27, 2011

Documentary Poetry course for UNO low-res program in Edinburgh, Scotland

Syllabus [click for info]

Susan M. Schultz


We will be reading and constructing documentary poems in this workshop. These are poems that combine the virtues of lyric, journalism, history, and eye-witness accounts to create work that is at once intimate and public. I will make time to meet with students to discuss poems they are already in process of writing, but our class periods will be devoted to the documentary projects.


Allison Cobb, Green-wood, Factory School, 2010 [a cemetery in Brooklyn provides the focal point for this book]

Craig Santos Perez, from unincorporated territory [saina], Omnidawn, 2010 [second in a prospective series of books on Guam]

Kaia Sand, Remember to Wave, Tinfish Press, 2010 [the hidden histories of North Portland, Oregon]

William Carlos Williams, Book One of Paterson, 1946, New Directions [WCW's muse was Paterson, New Jersey]

CD Wright, One Big Self, Copper Canyon, 2007 [poems about Louisiana prisons, prisoners]

(Strongly) Recommended Readings:

Muriel Rukeyser, Book of the Dead, 1938 [On a mining disaster in West Virginia]

Susan Howe, Singularities, Wesleyan UP, 1990 [on the Puritan settlements in New England]

Claudia Rankine, Don't Let Me Be Lonely, Graywolf Press, 2004 [response to 9/11]

Kristin Prevallet, I, Afterlife: Essay in Mourning Time, Essay Press, 2007 [about her father's suicide, in public context]

Susan M. Schultz, Dementia Blog, Singing Horse Press, 2008 [about the fall of the author's mother into Alzheimer's] More recent entries can be found here: search under key words "dementia blog" and "Alzheimer's" to find these entries.

Mark Nowak, Shut Up, Shut Down. Coffee House Press, 2004; Coal Mountain Elementary, 2009 [collaged poems on union busting, coal mining disasters, and more]

Joseph Harrington, Things Come On, An Amneoir, Wesleyan UP, 2011 [a book about the author's death and the resignation of Richard Nixon on the same day]

This list is hardly exhaustive!

Items to bring with you

--photocopies of documents that are important to you: birth-certificate, passport, marriage or divorce certificates, college transcript—anything related to your life that is also an official document.

--book/article/websites about a historical event that is important to you; bring photocopies or pdfs.

--materials on a place important to you, your home town, a school, a house, blueprints, a feature of the land, topo maps, bird-watching or fish-watching manual, etc.

--photographs of any of these items.

--a copy of a good dictionary (again, on-line is fine), preferably something really good, like the OED, which can be accessed through university libraries.

--any other materials (written or otherwise) that relate to you and to which you are attached, however miniscule.


--Attendance: unless you have a valid excuse, come to all meetings of the workshop. It's there we will do a great deal of our work and have a great deal of our fun.

--Blogging: write to the blog five days a week. On two of those days, write a detailed response to the readings and/or to issues that are raised by the class. On the other three days, do a poetry experiment (see the "calesthenics" page). You may adapt these experiments to suit your own purposes, if you wish, or simply do them.

--Readings: have them done at the beginning of the week, so that we can see each work as a whole, as well as a series of parts. Bring the day's reading to class, so that we can read closely.

--Workshops: not all of our meetings will be devoted to workshopping your poems, but some will be. Come prepared to talk about each other's work, not as writing that you like or dislike, but as work that can become more effective. Questions to be asked will include: What are the demands that the work is making on us? What are its ambitions? How can it better address and meet those ambitions? The readings will provide us with a toolkit for talking about each other's work. So as you read the books, think consciously about what each poet is trying to accomplish and what techniques they are using toward their ideas, their expressions of feeling, and so on. Get your work in on time!

--I will write you comments and send them via email. I'm also available for one on one consultations and conversations about your work and about poetry, publishing, whatever you want or need to discuss. I will also chime in on the blog, making suggestions for readings and research.

--Guests: please prepare to meet our guests: I'm assuming they will include Hank Lazer, Adam Aitken, and Dorothy Alexander, though again, scheduling is fluid. Look them up on-line, read some of their work, come ready to ask questions and to tell them about your own projects.

--Final projects: you will make a chapbook of your project, one long documentary piece (10 pages or so) or several sections written toward a longer sequence. You'll need to give evidence that you've revised poems you wrote for the workshop, and that you've conceptualized your work as a whole, or a sequence, rather than a series of discrete poems. Note off the Wikipedia entry the following:

  • The National Library of Scotland holds a large collection of Scottish chapbooks; approximately 4,000 of an estimated total of 15,000 published. Records for most Scottish chapbooks have been catalogued online.
Also find here instructions on how to make a chapbook (there are other such sites on-line). There are lots of publishers who make chapbooks, including my Tinfish Press. See here for details on our series.

Here's the official calendar, subject to frequent and constant changes.

NOTE: we will also have visitors, so some of what follows may become "homework." At that point, use the blog to communicate with the rest of us, and feel free to see me outside class.

Week One

Reading: WCW, Paterson, Book One

Assignment: Take one of the documents you've brought to Edinburgh and write a poem off of it. In other words, don't touch the document itself, but put it in contact with a poem. Experiment with writing a poem that is either very close to the subject of the document, or seemingly far away. Think of yourself as creating a channel in which the reader can operate as mediator, interpreter, actor, fellow composer of the poem/document.

July 4: Introductions, exercises, close-reading from WCW.

July 5: Discuss in detail how WCW uses documentation in relation to more lyrical passages of poetry. What happens in the interstices between poem and document? Think in terms of spatial relations as well as those composed of meaning or language only. Take the larger view, too. What is Paterson? Why Paterson, New Jersey? What are the poem's ambitions, its effects? What would you like to emulate in WCW's work? What might you rather avoid?

July 6: First workshop: exchange work with other students in a round-robin; read and critique each other's poems after we set up a series of questions, expectations, values. Once we've finished looking at each other's poems, we'll have a more global discussion of issues raised among you. Also come to class prepared to talk about the project you've chosen to work on this month. (It's damn quick, I know.)

Week Two

Reading: Kaia Sand's Remember to Wave & Craig Santos Perez's from unincorporated territory [saina] Photographs of Sand's walk can be found here (among other sillies):

Assignment: Take one of the documents you have with you and compose a poem on or with the document. Use the document's language, use its space, appropriate it for your own purposes.

July 11: Talk about the ways in which Sand uses documents in her work. How does she construct a kind of narrative out of these discrete documents (as if to create linearity out of syncopation)? What is her work's ambition? What would you like to take from her example? What might you rather leave behind?

July 12: Talk about Santos Perez's argument, how he makes that argument through documentation, use of space, research? What is the process you learn that makes it possible to read this book (and Sand's, WCW's)? How does the book teach you to read it, in other words?

July 13: Second Workshop. See July 6 for the workshop plan. If you have concerns about your own work that you would like to have addressed by the group, please note those on the blog in preparation for the workshop.

Week Three

Reading: finish Sand, Perez, & read Allison Cobb's Green-Wood

Assignment: Do some research on your subject. Use whatever resources you have at hand, mostly the internet, but anything else you can find or remember (memory is always an excellent resource). Build a poem/section out of the building blocks of research, using Cobb as a model.

July 18: Talk about the claim Cobb's book makes on its reader, and then about the form she uses to convey information & meaning to you. Concentrate your attentions on a section of the book, and be prepared to walk us through it in class. How does the poem work, formally and conceptually?

July 19: Think about the poems in the text, found and composed by the poet. What is their purpose? Why are they placed where they're placed? Think about the notes. Why include them? (If you hate them, say so, but also say why.) Think about the poet's use of italics. Think about the empty spaces between paragraphs, poems. Think about the white space.

July 20: Third Workshop. By now the method should be clear, and we should have tweaked it to our own purposes.

Week Four

Reading: C.D. Wright's One Big Self
Assignment: Write a poem/section based on an image, video, photograph, painting. Be sure it's related to your topic, but use the image however you wish.

July 25: Talk about Wright's use of photographs (there are more in the original edition, but this is what we've got). Also think about how she uses voices, how she makes sure they sound local, how she works to avoid appropriating persons into art. (OR: is that a problem? OR: how do we negotiate the seeming divide between art and life, between other people and our own work as poets?)

July 26: Fourth Workshop: This will cover your poem on an image, as well as your final projects, so expect to be busy today!

July 27: Final session. Bring your chapbooks to class and be prepared to read, perform, present them. You don't have to do a formal reading: you may also do a power point or a performance using someone else in the class as another voice. Whatever works. Then we'll adjourn for lunch, drinks, whatevaz.

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