Yesterday afternoon, Juliana Spahr and I spoke at a graduate student symposium on “Documentary Poetry and the Long Poem” at the University of Utah. The students, primarily from Paisley Rekdal’s class on the subject, presented their own dynamic “documentary” projects on topics ranging from labor and LGBT politics to Appalachia and Chernobyl. Afterwards, Juliana and I read from our works and participated in a Q&A on the subject of the gathering.

Several weeks earlier in DC, I also participated on a panel on “Documentary Poetics” (organized by Francesco Levato) at the Split This Rock Poetry Festival—to my thinking, one of the most consistently engaging gatherings of poets and activists I’ve been to in recent years. Philip Metres, Martha Collins and I discussed wide-ranging tendencies in doc-po for a packed and enthusiastic room at the inimitable Busboys & Poets (which has, in case you haven’t been there, both one of the better bookstores in the mid-Atlantic and one of the greatest wait staffs in North America—there wasn’t a session I attended in the back room where one of the waitresses or waiters didn’t grab the microphone during the Q&A and level the audience with insights from outside the often too narrow poetry Beltway).

During my reading at yesterday’s symposium, I began by talking about documentary poetics as not so much a movement as a modality within poetry whose range I see along a continuum from the first person auto-ethnographic mode of inscription to a more objective third person documentarian tendency (with practitioners located at points all across that continuum).

Documentary poetics, it should be said, has no founder, no contested inception, no signature spokespersons claiming its cultural capital; its practice is not limited to the pre-modern, modernist, or post-modern moments (it is as comfortable in musty historical archives or conversations with actual live individuals as it is with Google). Documentary poetry tends to pack a lefter-than-liberal, social-Democratic to Marxist political history (grounded largely in WPA-era poems ranging from Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead to Langston Hughes’ “Johannesburg mines” and photo-documentary texts such as Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices). As Martin Earl mentions in "Documentary Poetry and Language Surge,"documentary poetry has a deep international tendency (I’d additionally add to Earl’s list works by writers such as Ernesto Cardenal, Alfred Temba Qabula, Nancy Morejón, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and others). And documentary poetics, though present in poetry, is currently more widely and, in my view, fully leveraged in visual culture (film, photography) than the language arts (which has a lot to learn from its praxis in other fields).

Finally--and I claim this only for my own documentary practice and not to the tendency as a whole--I believe that documentary poetics needs to participate not only in the social field of contemporary Poetry but—as has been its historical trajectory—in the larger social movements of the day. It needs to find its feet outside of AWP and art galleries and instead locate itself (or organize its potential location) on factory floors, in union halls, at political rallies, in collaboration with institutions and organizations working to shift the Draconian policies under which conservative school boards, Tea Partiers, and neoliberal politicians of the world (unite!?!) seek to police the rest of us.

Originally Published: April 17th, 2010

Mark Nowak is the author of Revenants (Coffee House Press, 2000), Shut Up Shut Down (Coffee House Press, 2008), and Coal Mountain Elementary (Coffee House Press, 2009). His writings on new labor poetics have recently appeared in The Progressive, Virginia Quarterly Review, American Poets in the 21st Century: The New...