Saturday, February 18, 2012

Documentary poetry and tenderness: teaching update

Some questions about documentary poems, misremembered from the white board in my Friday afternoon classroom:

--What genre(s) do we find in the poem?  [Use values?]
--What claim is being made on the reader?
--What is the relationship between the speaker and the documentation?
--Is the poet trying too hard to persuade us?  Not hard enough?
--Talk about the movement between images and words, about lay-out, about empty space.
--Should there be notes?  How should they be presented--in the text, at the end, with or without prose commentaries?

These are mainly technical questions, the kinds you use to investigate poems as if they were word machines set up on blocks, and the workshop members were a group of apprentice mechanics itching to turn their wrenches and loosen (or tighten) some screws.

But what's been most fascinating about my English 713: Documentary Poetry course this semester has been the amount of time spent talking about pain.  I'm as interested in pain as anyone, even have a few things to say on the subject, but my poetry classes tend to be more rollicking, less engaged with tenderness than with "how to do things with words."  I'm as surprised as my students that this class has ventured into such territory: the dying grandfather, the homeless woman, the diabetic, the angry father, the exiled prisoner, the man saved by his art, the mother who died of Alzheimer's. (These questions are quite personal to me, having devoted so many years to writing about my mother's last years)

And so our primary sense of hurt is for others, locates itself as empathy, is the act of bending over at the sight of events on television (Claudia Rankine) or in the streets of Honolulu.

Where pain lives, ethics cannot be far behind, however.  And so one after another, students (a wide ranging group in age, experience, work history) say they do not want to write what they're driven to write.  What if their subject is hurt by their attention to him or her?  What if they reveal bad behaviors in their workplaces or even themselves?  What if their ethnic community feels shame over one of its own?  And on and on.  What if thinking is itself a problematic activity?  What if knowledge is intrusive, not to be trusted?  All of these are real concerns, made stronger yet by living in Hawai`i, where everyone seems to know everyone else, where those who study others have often demeaned them, where our skin is necessarily thin.  Who was it said that William Carlos Williams was a "non-cutaneous" man?

And so my role, more than that of introducing the texts we read, or shepherding the class through the questions at the top of this post, is to pester them to get closer to their subject matter, to this tenderness.  It's not a role I've often assumed in the classroom, where I push students to think harder about their analyses, about their uses of language, about their writing.  Now I find myself pushing writers to get closer to the bone, to use the document not as a way to write about their subject, but to enter a wormhole that may resemble an abyss.  A course about documentation has become one much more akin to self-examination, albeit less confessional than confrontational.  Who might be hurt?  What are you protecting her from?  Are you also protecting yourself?  Are there other goods than privacy?  Is curiosity consumerist, materialist, or can it lead us elsewhere?  What is dignity and why does it feel so necessary to preserve it? What do we publish, and what do we keep to ourselves in this fourth floor classroom?  Or, as Norman Fischer asks in his new book, Conflict: "what's worth protecting / to what extent // & // when // does protection // exceed that worth / its cost in pain[.]"  A rhetorical question without a question mark suggests there is no answer, rhetorical or otherwise.

There are at least two paths out, through.  One is the path Fischer takes in this new book, where he writes down the voices of traumatized vets, those he sits and walks with, but does not identify by name or station.  "we     bear / what we     bear" he writes, and those words belong to all of us.  The other path is by way of the projects the students are discovering themselves starting work on; these projects are far less limited in scope than they'd feared.  It's not grandpa, or the homeless woman, or the angry father: it's these characters in the world that constructed them.  It's not grandpa, though it is grandpa, but it's the journal he kept in his final illness, and it's the cancer that killed him, and it's the doctor who treated him, and so on until the nested eggs--the good ones and the bad ones alike--line up in front of you like the soldiers of Xian.  The poem is order, but it doesn't try to cover the earthly chaos, conflict.

Documentary poetry is perhaps not my favorite form, even now.  But it is the way I love to teach poetry, as it leads further afield and further in-field, engaging questions as large as national identities and as small as the plans for the addition to a house.  And they do that in layers, which attract more layers.  The answer to "a knot ,     is there something // I should be dying for ?          Can I     choose it?" (Fischer, 57) may not be immediately apparent, but we might discover work to live for.

Thanks to Lynn Young for showing us the Jenny Holzer book, whose cover is at the top, where she works with redacted National Security documents.  The first I spotted in the book was a "wish list" for torture methods.

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