Saturday, October 6, 2012

Documentary Poetry & Being in the World

Several years ago, when we still walked our kids to the neighborhood school in the morning, my husband did a photography project he called "sidewalk blog." Each morning he took a photograph of the sidewalk, one of those concrete suburban walkways that runs parallel to the asphalt road. Looking back nearly at random I find these photographs, some of which he thinks I took. No matter:

--A soap bubble
--A bic lighter
--A worm
--Some leaves
--Metal cover
--Pre-paid movie card

And then are the photos that he printed out and hung on the wall, among them:

--A red curb, fluted cement gutter, leaves
--Manhole cover filled in with multi-colored leaves, twigs
--What appears to be a moon crater

The term isn't used in this way, but these are "found photographs," images in which the world rises to meet us, unmediated (except in the angle of the shot). Photographs like these may prove a corrective to what happens when introductory level poetry students are asked to "write a poem." Even after setting up topics that accentuated the documentary nature of the course (English 273: Docuwriting), most students succumbed to the lure of "Poetry." Instead of looking at the world as it is, they did dervish dances of mediation, remediation, imposing their thoughts, feelings and (alas) cliches on their subjects.

But when my Ph.D. apprentice, No`u Revilla, asked these students to take their own photographs of walks they'd been on, they came up with many stunning images.  The ratty stuffed bear who lives under a bench beside Kuykendall Hall, the stylized image of a man's face at the bottom of another bench. They see the world, but can't describe it.
We've set to work removing the veil of anxious subjectivity and clotted multi-syllables from their writing. Having asked them earlier in the class to write verbal portraits of each other (an exercise that caused great consternation), we more recently asked them to compose "verbal portraits or photographs" and to post them on the class blog. I asked them to go for a walk and to take nothing (no phone, no iPod, no iPad, nothing) except for a pad and pen. When they saw an image that they would otherwise take a picture of, they were to stop, sit down, and write the image as they saw it. No commentary. The ticket should emerge from the sidewalk not as evidence of "a lonely night," but as a ratty piece of paper with the numbers 1446-2023 on it.
The results have been good, sometimes stunning.  One that begins with two women talking about pronouns (yes, sound images work, too) includes this series of vivid lines:

Red flowers in clusters, no in umbels,
Behind a brown, rusting fence,
Beneath black lamp posts.
Rows of shrubs line the boundaries of the grey building.
A man in pink picks a leaf.

There are tables shaped as hexagons; there's a girder; there are roofs, pigeons, canoes, a baseball field, motorcycles, a woman in a tank top. Suddenly, we see what we see when we look at the world without so many distractions (such as our electronic devices, our monkey minds). 
Alfred Corn asked on facebook the other day whether we read Stevens or Williams. I responded that I read both, but teach Williams more. In college, when I took a couple of courses from Alfred, I was enamored of Stevens. My poems were full of blue musical instruments, fluttering ideas, lots of ifs. He told me to try to write a poem so utterly like Stevens that I might cure myself of the tendency; at another point, he pointed to Chieftain Iffucan as my muse. I learned later on to appreciate the value of writing about the world as something that was not so much an hallucination behind the eye, but (scary thought when you're 20) a place that confronts the eye, is not the I.
That this is a spiritual, as well as a quasi-scientific, discovery brings the opposition into focus for me, if focus is a kind of synthesis, as I believe it is. This is what I learned best in writing about my mother, that to watch her and to describe her decline as it happened, was difficult precisely because it meant pulling away the veils of my own emotions, memories, desires. Talking yesterday to a colleague in Family Resources with whom I will be teaching a class next semester on Alzheimer's, I was gratified to hear her talk about this act of witness (of a parent's dementia) as one that involves pulling away from personal desires, and of settling into the present tense. Meaning comes after, but only when words themselves can be seen as precisely as that bear who sits under the concrete bench, a companion for the black cat who eats there.

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