Ed Sanders, PeaceEye glyph

“Refuse to be burnt out.” Ed Sanders

Who is the I in Investigative Poetry? The eye that observes and absorbs nature as in Emerson’s transparent eyeball or the I as an actor or agent of the work?

Thinking of the eye as an icon, as an Eye of Horus glyph a la Ed Sanders’s style.

The I as in Private I

I as in Eye Witness

I as in Instigator

The eye that glazes upon another, or an object, or moment and the eye that investigates. Gathering, gathering, to create a data cluster around the subject of the gaze or as Sanders might say “the big D” (center of the data cluster, the target glyph). Always wanting to go deeper, to know, to dig down into the layers, to quote Sanders quoting Charles Olson, “Know the FACTS EARLY.”

I consider myself a practitioner within this linage of investigative poetics. I received my transmission from New York School (all generations), San Francisco Renaissance, Language, Beats and other outrider traditions. My process involves looking at an object or event and connecting the hidden strings or the patterns within. And as Sanders wrote in regard to shy investigators, “approach the target/ again, again, again.” Investigative poetry is a container for the material and threads I find through observation, memory, and research into lost and found histories. Piling up layers of associations, memories, gossip, official and unofficial histories, as well as physical matter, as a way to know the nature of what I am gazing at. The data midden, a heap of straws, sticks, (facts, perhaps fiction, ESP, and ear candy) to be spun into “lyric beauty.”

Back Story

In 1976, the legendary Ed Sanders (founder and leader of The Fugs, a folk-rock poetry satire group, and author of many books including Tales of Beatnik Glory, The Family, and most recently in verse Broken Glory: The Last Years of Robert F. Kennedy; A Life of Olson, With Glyphs (forthcoming); and Peace Eye— a History in Glyphs) published his lecture entitled “Investigative Poetry” for The Visiting Spontaneous Poetics Academy of the (then) Naropa Institute. 

Directly and indirectly, this lecture and its publication unleashed a flood of poetry and prose private eyes upon the world. In 1991 or so at Naropa, I was Ed Sanders’s teaching assistant. I remember talk of Olson’s advice to plan a 50-year project, talks of The Party, an investigation into the Trungpa Rinpoche and W.S. Merwin incident conducted by Ed’s class in the mid-70s. I remember Ed’s advice to always carry a paper and pen, to open a case file on a friend: and, in those print days, store your files cross-indexed in legal boxes so that a file could be retrieved within five minutes.

I remember Sander’s line “for the poets are /marching again/upon the hills/of history.” And some other Ed lingo:

High energy verse grids

Time tracking


Love zaps

Indictment Verse (poems that indict such as “Howl”)

Tone triggers (one is able to create noises by touching trigger points on the body, I remember Ed’s musical tie)

So the seeds of Investigative Poetry in me were sown.

Advice From the Field

1. Sometimes you should take a friend with you. In my public experiments, I had a friend with a video recorder, for documentation and it was good to not go it alone, good to have a simpatico friend for safety (even though I was never threatened), it gave me more freedom to fully engage if I didn’t have to watch my backpack.

2. Create a data midden, digital or physical, maybe it’s a collection of interesting (to you) rocks, stickers, broken pottery, squashed paper cups, empty cigarette packs, and if your roommate or partner complains, tell them it’s your data cluster. What’s the difference between a data midden and hoarding? I say: “Watch the TV show Hoarders and you’ll see the difference, for you are hoarding with purpose!”

3. Investigate online and on foot. Burn up shoe leather or pleather by walking a site. Listen to what the landscape/streetscape/that bluestone sidewalk/that compost heap is saying to you.

4. I recently had a coffee with Ed and asked for more advice for poet investigators.

Tighter and neater you keep your files, the easier to use later

Keep a quarterly system

A file you opened in 1974 can be valuable in 2020

Always annotate your sources. Otherwise, you may mistake someone else’s words as your own

5. Read Bernadette Mayer’s Experiments in Poetry and Allen Ginsberg’s Mind Writing Slogans; you can find both online.

6. Read everything and read widely. The impetus for The Abolition Journal, from The Marvelous Bones of Time (Coffee House Press) came from reading a Naropa Summer catalog on the theme of borders. So I began to think my own upbringing and how divided the Ohio Valley was during the Civil War. I knew of  Indiana’s reputation for historic KKK activity, so I sought to find evidence of what Abe Lincoln called “our better angels.” Compared to the underground railroad history of Southern Ohio, there was scant scholarship on Hoosier activity; I found evidence that led me to a rumored underground railroad stop in the process of being devoured by a coal mine.

7. Trust yourself. As a native of southern Indiana, I am always curious about gothic heartland stories. I heard about the trial and conviction of a serial killer in Terre Haute, Indiana, the childhood home of novelist Theodore Dreiser, for kidnapping two young women and holding them captive in his attic; one was murdered and the other spared because he liked her eyes. After starting a data midden, I realized that I couldn’t live in that darkness. There was nothing I could add, I could only exploit the grief that remained. Allen Ginsberg said the purpose of poetry is “to ease the pain of living, everything else, drunken dumbshow.” I closed my file of clippings and buried it in a filing cabinet.

8. Sometimes, boredom or hitting a wall works wonders. My poem A Gaze came from writer’s block; I began staring at a Poland Spring bottle, studying the image of a flowing stream on the label. And thinking about fresh springs and water scarcity. At the time, fracking in New York state was on the table, and the city’s water supply in the Catskill mountains, a hundred miles of nineteenth-century pipes and reservoirs, under risk of fracturing by tremors caused by pumping fracking fluid into shale and splitting it apart.

9. “Everything is permitted,” as William Burroughs said.

10. Don’t let anyone take your joy.


*Special thanks to Ed Sanders for permission to use the image featured at top.

Originally Published: November 1st, 2018
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Brenda Coultas is the author of the poetry collections A Journal of Places (online, Metambesen Press, 2015), The Tatters (Wesleyan University Press, 2014), The Marvelous Bones of Time (Coffee House Press, 2007), and A Handmade Museum (Coffee House Press, 2003). Her poetry can be found in anthologies, including Readings in Contemporary Poetry: An Anthology (2017), What...