The video begins with a street scene shot from above, a few men gathering on the sidewalk as seen through crosshairs. You hear snippets from the voice-over:
“Are we free to engage?”
“Once you get on them just open up.”
There’s the sound of gunfire then silence and stillness on the screen marking the time it takes the bullets to reach their targets. A cloud of dust rises. Men drop to the ground, one tries to flee the cloud of smoke, the viewfinder follows him. The viewfinder shakes with the vibrations of gunfire until the man falls still.
In 1936 Wallace Stevens wrote, “in the presence of extraordinary actuality, consciousness takes the place of the imagination.” Noting a turn toward the documentary in a variety of arts including poetry, Stevens explained the Great Depression had focused everyone’s attention “in the direction of reality, that is to say in the direction of fact.”
At a time of our own “extraordinary actuality” when we are engaged in several wars as well as an almost unprecedented economic crisis, we witness a new fascination with the “fact”— the 9-1-1 tape, the unscripted interaction, status updates, diplomatic cables, the raw footage from the Apache helicopter of a massacre in New Baghdad.
The WikiLeaks website, from which the video I just described was culled, contains more than two-hundred and fifty thousand leaked United States embassy cables, nearly four-hundred thousand “reports” from Iraq and Afghanistan as well as videos. Still the facts of these conflicts can be difficult to discern.
Raw footage needs explication. We need the voice of infantryman Ethan McCord to tell us that the men fired upon were not combatants but included two unarmed journalists. That the van that approached to collect the wounded and was later fired upon included two children. That the soldier running with a dying child toward the tank was McCord himself—in a moment when he declares he was returned to his “humanity.”
Most documents need context. In the United States, poets have a long tradition of doing what Muriel Rukeyser calls “extending the document,” not just drawing inspiration from the “events of our day” or giving the document new life in a poem, but providing it with context and humanity. Rukeyser was working on a long sequence of poems on the Gauley Bridge Mining Disaster in West Virginia. That tragedy resulted in the silicosis poisoning and deaths of as many as 2,000 mostly African-American miners. Rukeyser’s poems utilize testimony from doctors, employees, and victims’ relatives gathered in a congressional investigation as well as from interviews conducted by the poet on a visit to Gauley Bridge. The result is a series of poems that map out a web of power and responsibility behind the tragedy.
A contemporary generation of poets takes up Rukeyser’s watch in mining towns, behind penitentiary bars, and at the barricades highlighting social injustice and creating new modes of lyric activism.
Lesson 1: Sampling the Document
Perhaps Rukeyser’s closest descendent thematically is Mark Nowak, who writes about contemporary mining disasters. In Coal Mountain Elementary, Nowak interweaves testimony from the survivors of a West Virginia mine disaster that claimed the lives of 12 men with newspaper accounts of mining disasters in China, photographs from West Virginia and China (taken by Nowak and British photojournalist Ian Teh) as well as excerpts from the American Coal Foundation’s curriculum for schoolchildren. The result is masterful in its sheer relentlessness, a chilling portrait of a global system of danger and exploitation.
The book opens with text in italics gathered from Chinese newspaper reports describing the Sunjiawan mining disaster that took the lives of 210 miners on Chinese New Year (creating a “slant” parallel with the Sago disaster that occurred on January 2). But while the story of the Sago disaster unfolds over the course of the book, the italicized text swiftly records another Chinese mining tragedy then another, offering a grim body count (“203 miners had died in the blast at Sunjiawan pit,” “an explosion in northern Shaanxi province killed 166 miners,” “a blast in central Henan … left 148 dead”) as well as testifying to the pervasiveness of such disasters. To the reader unfamiliar with China, the names—Xinhua, Sanhuiyi, Shangyukou—blend into one another making it difficult to keep the disasters straight. Yet the details of the tragedies linger, such as the story of the 14-year-old girl who “stopped tearing pages from the calendar hung on her broken wardrobe since Monday when her father did not return” from the mine. The blurring of disasters offers one example of a productive disorientation that the reader encounters in this book.
Another example comes in the bold-faced sections of testimony from the Sago disaster that provide a chronological narrative of the tragedy. We follow miners in the mine (“I said, we’ll just ease down out of here nice and slow. We’re alright… And he said, well don’t leave me”) and get reports from workers and family above ground trying to coordinate their rescue (“call the state, the federal, get the mine rescue teams, get the emergency squad get everybody out here”) as well as confront brutal calculations as to how much air might be left for the trapped miners (“one cubic yard per hour per man at rest”). Faced with these unattributed quotations the reader must continually reorient herself like the witnesses to and victims of the disaster who must constantly respond to new conditions and information.
The last piece in this braid of source texts comes from the curriculum for the American Coal Foundation, which provides a grimly ironic counterbalance in the form of assignments designed to familiarize children with the mining industry. (The text excerpted from the curriculum is the only text that appears with line breaks; the reports from China and Sago testimonies are presented in prose sections.) For example, one lesson teaches children corporate practices through a “simulated ‘mining’ of chocolate chips from cookies.” In light of the mining disasters described, one gets a chill reading the Discussion Question “What do you think are some of the costs associated with mining coal?” positioned opposite a photograph of a sign from Sago exhorting “Pray for our Families.” (The uncaptioned photographs provide another site for productive confusion as the viewer confronts similar images from the mining industry in both the United States and China.)
While the three sources are compelling in themselves, juxtapositions prove insightful. Readers learn of a Chinese family struggling financially after their father was killed in the mine forcing the children to drop out of school. The story ends with the quote: “My dad didn’t live a single day of a happy life, but I will try hard to earn a happy life for my mother.” What follows is an excerpt from the Coal Mining Curriculum on an “historic craft among coal mining families.” The curriculum begins: “In this activity, students will make their own coal flower,” but in conjunction with the testimony that appears just before it, the activity suggesting a dark blossom and tragic possibilities for the actual children of coal miners. The words of the Chinese widow whose husband died in the mines (“Time has not dimmed the pain of losing my husband”) meet their gloomy echo in the words of the Sago families (“Ms. Boni …said her own father died in a coal mining accident when she was a teenager. ‘It’s something you never get over,’ she said.”) In addition, the lack of standards and cover-ups in China becomes mirrored by incompetence and negligence in U.S. corporate mining practices.
The interweaving of sources (Nowak calls it “sampling”) gives new life to the document, connecting a series of agents and outcomes. Like McCord’s testimony, these poems humanize the mining tragedies as the voices of the miners and families dominate the text as well as offer insight into how we are all implicated. In interviews, Nowak reminds us that, when we purchase goods made in Chinese factories powered by the coal industry, we become intimately linked to the miners and their fates.
Nowak has long moved his activism beyond the page, and this is also the case with Coal Mountain Elementary. He has staged readings of his work with union members across the country and offered writing workshops for laborers here and abroad. Nowak also chronicles coal-mining accidents on his blog. In this way not only does Nowak create a poetry that connects the documents surrounding mining practices—he extends his activism to actual labor communities and on the web.
Lesson 2: Make the Document
“The popular perception is that art is apart. I insist it is part of,” explains C.D. Wright in the preface to One Big Self: An Investigation. The poems in this book come from Wright’s travels to three Louisiana prisons with photographer Deborah Luster. The book’s subtitle “An Investigation” implies a resistance to the idea of documentary that’s worth mentioning. Investigation emphasizes the speculative nature of the lyric and results in a documentary that knows its own subjective limits and actively pushes against them.
When Wright records snippets of conversations, anecdotes, and observations from both inside and outside of the prisons, she forges links, such as those that exist between incarceration rates and local economies. Ultimately, she writes beyond the language of crime and punishment, to chart a history frequently untold.
The poem begins with a series of commands to the reader:
Count your fingers count your toes count your nose holes count your blessings count your stars (lucky or not)
The gesture references the prevalence of numbers inside these prisons as a way to mark time and to inventory possessions—as well as alludes to the “count” as a mechanism of control for each of the prisoners. “There are five main counts in the cell or work area. 4:45 first morning count. I/m must stand for the count. The Count takes as long as it takes. Control Center knows how many should be in what area.” This is just one example of how prison life influences the forms Wright chooses for her poems. In addition to the count, Wright uses the epistolary form throughout the book to highlight the importance of letters to the inmates.
The book-length poem garners its strength through quotes from prisoners (“See what I did was, I accidentally killed my brother,”) from guards (“Some have their baby and are brought back on the bus the next day and act like it doesn’t bother them a bit. Some cry all the way. And for days”) as well as from the poet herself (“That’s hard. / I don’t go there”). There are also quotes from writers on prison: “Solitary confinement, Mr. Abbott wrote, / can alter the ontological makeup of a stone.”
While Luster’s photographs offer close-ups of individual inmates, Wright vacillates between recording the singular voice (“Behind every anonymous number, a very specific face”) and referencing the landscape and larger contexts that surround them: “Church marquee: AFTER GOOD FRIDAY COMES EASTER / GOD ALWAYS WINS / Drive-in marquee: Lenten Special / poboys fries drink.” And she reminds readers how profitable the privatized prison industry can be: “The good news is: / Corrections Corporation of America increased its inmate mandays by 12% From 15.1 million in 1998 to 16.9 million in 1999…The increase in mandays in 1999 led to a 19 % increase in CCA’s revenues…”
Wright never presents herself as an impossibly objective observer. She draws attention to her own circumstances, constantly re-affirming the connection and distance between herself and the inmates. “If I were you,” she writes. “Screw up today and it’s solitary, Sister Woman, the padded dress with the food log to gnaw upon.” Then later: “If you were me: If you wanted blueberries you could have a big bowl. 2 dozen bushes right on your hill.” The book is full of contrasts and commonalities, slips and reversals between “you” and the “I,” images of the incarcerated and the economic system supported by prison walls.
To render the circumstances of those vastly different than ourselves takes a careful consideration of our own positions. It takes an ability to think and write across divides of culture, gender, and class. In her preface, Wright explains: “Not to idealize, not to judge, not exonerate, … Not to demonize, … What I wanted was to unequivocally lay out the real feel of hard time.” It is an act of compassion and imagination.
Wright tells us: “If we go there, if not with our bodies then at least with our minds, we are more likely to register the implications.” At a time when more African-Americans are under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began, this is more than an act of sympathy. To get anywhere with our minds requires that we actively investigate our own circumstances and ideologies, our own part in a web of power and capital, our relationship to history and language.
Lesson 3: Document Your Activism
In Practical Water, Brenda Hillman offers another kind of testimony, as well as political engagement, which she calls: “Reportorial Poetry, Trance and Activism.” As Hillman explains: “Reportorial poetics can be used to record detail with immediacy while one is doing an action and thinking about something else.” While Nowak and Wright consider disenfranchised or marginal groups, Hillman documents the center of U.S. military power creating poems out of her experience protesting against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a member of the anti-war group Code Pink as well as attending Congressional hearings in what Hillman calls “meditative states” or “trance.” The idea was to create a record “both collective and personal” as well as to “cross material boundaries” experiencing more than one reality at once. For example, in the poem “In a Senate Armed Services Hearing,” Hillman records: “the prickly intimate hairs…behind (the General’s) ears,” a fly circling the room, and a vision of the goddess Ishtar from Babylon “before they smashed her country.”
In doing so, Hillman provides another view of the war in stark contrast to Infantryman Ethan McCord’s description of carnage on the streets of New Baghdad—a view to the bureaucratic machinations that perpetuate combat. And from where we sit, as citizens and taxpayers, it is vital to pay attention to both. The Senate hearing is so similar to our board meetings, faculty meetings, and PTA meetings that the reader may struggle to reconcile its description with the number of civilian and military lives that hang on its outcomes. Thus Hillman’s desire to cross material boundaries—to be open to more than one reality at once—proves fruitful and offers an interesting counter to the testimony from those orchestrating the war, who seem to live divorced from the realities on the ever-expanding battlefield or the concerns of citizens who do not support these conflicts. Hillman writes:
…& I forget who asked what isn’t even in the same syntax of this language I’m trying to make no progress in, asked how the army would unoccupy, by north or south? A voice beside my insect ear said, these Senators all have lives: kids with stuff to do, folks with cancer, some secret shame…
Hillman lays bare the corruption of language in a phrase such as “unoccupy” demonstrating the stark difference between her intentions in a language in which she aspires to make “no progress” compared to the manipulation of language by a group of government officials whose words determine the fates of so many. The poem remembers “the soon-to-be-smashed goddess as in/Babylon” as well asks, “how do the dead breathe, Senator.” Yet, the poem also manages to “humanize” even the Senators who “all have lives.”
The poem “Dragonskin” provides another example of Hillman’s technique as she documents a salesman addressing a subcommittee about a new fabric used to make body armor. But the poem is literally punctuated by Hillman’s own reaction to the hearing including her notations that become represented textually as punctuation marks. She writes:
There’s a useful panic like the secret script sent between women in villages. Right now It’s a series of marks I’m making :::: :: :: during a subcommittee hearing
As the poem unfolds, Hillman not only provides quotes from and commentary on the hearing (“Has Dragonskin / been shown in tests to be more lightweight…”), but she records on her own note taking (“I write this in my notebook as DRAGONSKIN / slash slash slash slash”) describing her notations at one point as “fairly art-deco.” This provides a stunning reminder on the mediated nature of representation that confounds ideas about “objective” documentary. In addition, Hillman’s notations record her emotional states, “the useful panic” she feels throughout the meeting. When Hillman likens these notations to the abovementioned “secret script” invented by women in remote Chinese villages that “men couldn’t read,” their inclusion raises the question: why is there no panic in this talk of body armor and battlefields in the (male dominated) voices (“calm in adult talk”) of government officials and defense contractors?
These contrasts highlight the difference between frontlines and homefront as well as offer an example of how we might refuse the narratives created about our wars. As Hillman explains:
Whether or not you have the strength to resist official versions that are devastating the earth and its creatures, you could in any sense send back reports. If political parties will not provide solutions, the good can occur when people gather in small groups to work for justice in each community using imagination without force.
Imagination offers not just an opportunity for sympathy and recognition of complicity but also emphasizes the important role of poetry in resisting “official versions” by reclaiming the language of bureaucracy and visualizing new possibilities. Hillman explains: “Shelley wants you to visit Congress when he writes / a violet in the crucible & when he notes / imagination is enlarged by sympathy.” It is important to remember that writing a poem is distinct from a political act, like protesting or occupying. Hillman admits, “There are no results in poetry.” And yet the exploratory, speculative nature of many contemporary political poems provide an important counter discourse to official versions from the state or the media devoid of subtly or complexity. Hillman demonstrates how poetry offers a medium at once imaginative and sympathetic in which to investigate relations of power, language, and complicity.
Lesson 4: “Theories, Systems, Workmen”
Poetry cannot stop a bullet, feed the hungry, or sway an election. But there is something to be said for positing new narratives. Take for example our current economic crisis. Beyond the rhetoric of the 1% and 99%, it becomes hard to understand one’s place (working class, middle class, upper class) in a new economy fraught with new vulnerabilities. Our economic crisis, the perpetual crisis, also signals a representational crisis. As critic Lauren Berlant explains in her book, Cruel Optimism, we have reached the end of “the social democratic/liberal fantasy of mass upward mobility, meritocracy, and a reliable social safety net.”
What stories will we tell ourselves before we go to sleep?
By the time Rukeyser set out to write her long sequence of poems about the Gauley Bridge mining disaster, she had already earned a place as a poet and an activist. At the age of nineteen she was arrested while protesting the racially charged Scottsboro Boys trial in Alabama. She would witness the start of the Spanish Civil War in Barcelona the same year she traveled to West Virginia to document the mining tragedy. Rukeyser wrote “The Book of the Dead,” a series of poems constructed out of testimony from doctors, employees, and victims’ relatives gathered in a congressional investigation as well as from interviews. She offered descriptions of the town as well as excerpts from regional histories, dizzying equations for falling water (the project included the construction of a dam), and a stock market ticker for the project’s parent company Union Carbide. In a note accompanying the series, Rukeyser explains her desire to demonstrate how “theories, systems and workmen…factors, which are in the end not regional or national” created this community and how, in the end, they lead to its devastation. And in the end Rukeyser created a blueprint for how to “extend the document” to the poem as well as established an important connection between documentary investigation and activism.
Like Rukeyser before them, Nowak, Wright, and Hillman all sketch out broad maps of responsibility, connection, complicity, affect, and agency. These poets offer us reminders of what is real as well as more than a few strategies for how to represent those realities in our own work and remain aware of them in our own lives. Beyond serving as a site for witnessing, their poems provide a space of thoughtful speculation, a call for action, a place where the imagination can activate sympathies, where we might recognize connections and complicities, learn how to read the raw footage, where we might, like Infantryman Ethan McCord, chart a return to our own humanity.