Saturday, February 20, 2010

Talking Documentary Poetics with Ian Demsky

Ian Demsky and I, digital friends, have been having some conversations over documentary poetry, as we each investigate its possibilities and limits.

A recent email of mine begins:

--- On Mon, 12/21/09, Philip Metres wrote:

Thanks for your poem, which is doing some very interesting things with voicing the other, but also moving into more poetic language.

Apropos of this strategy, I'm going through another serious revision of SAND OPERA, which needs some help. I had a good talk with a friend and poet, an editor at a good press, and he wanted me to "cool down" the stridency of the work. In our talk, I got to the place where I could understand a dilemma of documentary/investigative poetry--that the poles are 1) objective and cold as Reznikoff, and 2) aestheticizing and exploitative, but self-consciously so, in a way that threatens to destroy the aesthetic impulse. I suppose that SAND OPERA began as an attempt to be #1, but rapidly has moved to #2, or at least alternates between those modes. In any case, if
it tries to split the difference, what happens is that you rely on documentary without moving beyond the facticity, or you exploit the documentary without questioning your own positionality...

Ian Demsky:


Happy New Year!

Revisited your PMLA article ["Remaking/Unmaking: Abu Ghraib and Poetry," October 2008] on the train -- and once again found myself pondering those same questions you raise. How can one document injustice without exploiting it or partcipating in it? (I'm thinking here beyond just war to any of the myriad corners an investigative poetics might explore.) I like the notion of a "disturbatory" art -- though perhaps one that makes real not a subjective reality, but that from which we turn away in the normal course of leading our Western industrialized lives... or, as you say, one that makes the invisible audible.

I'm still grappling with the proper relationship between documentation and creation, between artist and subject. It seems to me that the actual, real thing (event, injustice, etc.) is necessary to such an enterprise... but equally necessary is some artistic movement beyond it.

My wife found this quote in the book Remix by Lawrence Lessig which seems to address at least part of this issue -- he's quoting from Negativland's Mark Hosler on why the band uses sampled clips:

"We could have taken these tapes we got of Casey Kasem and hired someone who imitated Casey Kasem, you know, and had him do a dramatic re-creation. Why did we have to use the actual orginal... the actual thing? Well, it's because the actual thing has a power about it. It has an aura. It has a magic to it. And that's what inspires the work."

Clearly, these documentary artifacts we've been working with have a power of their own, a currency. What power then does the poet bring? (And what responsibilty?) How is that power different? What relationship do they have?

I'm thinking here of images like the following where cultural commentary, satire and further exploitation get blurred:

I'm OK with not having immediate answers to these questions and letting the artistic process itself -- the search for the answers -- be enough for now.

Hope you're well.


More from Ian:

Date: Sun, 10 Jan 2010 15:48:44 -0800 (PST)
From: Ian Demsky

Rereading Brian Tuner's "Here, Bullet" after reading your essay and after reading "Poetry & Ethics: Writing About Others" by Natasha Saje in the December Writer's Chronicle, I'm hyper-sensitized to the projection onto and objectification of the Iraqi (and sometimes American) Other in many of the poems.

In my reading response notes, for example, I wrote:

Ethical questions raised by “In the Leupold Scope.” Turner (in the voice of the poem, at least) seems to not recognize his objectification of the woman viewed through the scope. The woman hanging laundry is “dressing the dead,” he tell us. “She is welcoming them back to the dry earth” as “[s]he waits for them to lean forward / into the breeze.” There is nothing here that betrays the soldier/narrator’s awareness that he is romanticizing the woman (her vulnerability, her poverty, her experience of war) even as he trains his weapon on her. The deadly power dynamic is not only unremarked, but seems beyond the conscious thought of the speaker. The disappearance of the I after the second line is too convenient and prevents the speakers from acknowledging his role/relationship to the (objectified) woman.

It is one thing to record the actions of others, to bring to life anecdotes and incidents. It is another to give voice to the other, to show them in the full depth and breadth of human lives, to pull them into relief in opposition to flat, objectifying portrayals (insurgents, etc.). But it is yet another for the outsider to impose romanticized, idealized, stylized thoughts and feelings on this other. The narrator stands in place of that person, fills them in, rather than standing in relationship to them. Is this not another form of Western hubris? Of occupation? In many of the poems, the role of the American observer in the misery and suffering he sees is deflected or unacknowledged.

My reply:

Ian, I couldn't agree more; because Turner accepts the frame of the "war poem," the poems from HERE, BULLET--even when they are beautiful, even when they are humanizing--nonetheless perform a parallel cultural labor to military occupation. That's not to say that they are the same as military occupation, but they do not worry the frame of occupation. Yes, we might need war poems, but I have never taught this book because it doesn't challenge the frame. (If you've read my critical book, BEHIND THE LINES, I discuss why I did not include soldier poets in my study--it goes along these lines).

Thanks to Ian Demsky for permission to reprint our conversation. Let's continue, and add some voices!


Lyle Daggett said...

A poet who seems to me to have made some useful inroads into documentary poetics (to use the term you've used here) is Muriel Rukeyser, in some poem sequences she wrote in the 1930's, derived from Congressional hearings and testimony about work-related illnesses (miners with silicosis, etc.)

I think one of the issues here is that (in the United States at any rate) the aestheticizing and exploitative qualities you refer to here are a by-product of the underlying assumptions in many MFA programs, and English departments generally, about what poetry is, what it's legtimate to write about, and how to write it.

I haven't (as far as I know) seen or read any of SAND OPERA, though my initial instinctive reaction to the editor, your friend, wanting you to "cool down" the stridency of the work (as you've said it here) was, "Oh, this again."

Every poet I know who has made a serious effort to write explicitly about politically relevant subject matter has at some point encountered an editor or publisher or critic who wanted them to cool down the stridency. I may be misunderstanding what your friend was saying, and again I'm viewing this from outside the context. It did have a familiar ring to me though.

In general my feeling is that in order to write effectively about the urgent realities of the world around us, and at the same time to avoid both the cold objectivity (e.g. of Reznikoff) and the self-conscious astheticizing exploitation that you speak of here, it's necessary to take a hard critical look at the basic notions our culture has inherited of what poetry (or other art) is, and what it's for, and what it's "permissible" to talk about.

I guess I'm just stating the obvious here. Much of this leaped to mind when I read your and Ian's remarks about Brian Turner's Here, Bullet. I have many of the same misgivings about the book, even while I found some of the poems in the book highly effective and deeply moving.

For me also, part of the context of Turner's book is a very large amount of poetry I've read over the past several decades about the war in Vietnam, both by poets who were in the military, in Vietnam during the war, and by non-poets who wrote a little poetry about their experiences there, as well as by poets who were not in the military (maybe never had been) and had not been in Vietnam. Behind Turner's book, for me, lies a large literary history to help provide context. And I'm speaking here only of the history of the past few decades, to say nothing of similar poetry of earlier times.

Some time back I wrote in my blog about Brian Turner's book, here, if you care to have a look. In particular Turner's poem "In the Leupold Scope" raised questions for me similar to those Ian talks about in one of the emails you've copied here, and I talked briefly about the poem in my blogpost.

Thanks for posting this.

Philip Metres said...

Thanks for your thoughtful addition to these questions. I love "Book of the Dead," which to me is something like a "third way" in documentary/investigative poetry, between Reznikoff and, say, Forche's poetry of witness.

As for SAND OPERA, I'm beginning to circulate it now--and though the feedback that I received was initially troublesome, I've tried to take advantage of it and really strip the poem of unnecessaries. Some of the most important questions were still to be answered, and perhaps now they are.

My sense about Turner's first book is that, only in a few moments does it ever trouble that frame established by Owen, Jarrell, and others. In other words, if I had a problem with the book, is that it felt too beholden to the tradition of war poetry.

Ian Demsky said...

I see that "third way" as the sweet spot of my documentary, or, as you rightly call it, investigative, enterprise. (My approach is certainly colored by having spent eight years as an investigative-minded newspaper reporter.)

In "Book of the Dead," I feel like there's an undercurrent of trying to elevate the language to a poetic register that won't be challenged as art. To me, the most lofty parts of the piece, like the long, last poem, are the least interesting.

I would put Turner closer to the "witness" side of the continuum. His project seems to be documentary more in the filmic sense of observation -- though I think a few poems, like the title poem and "Sadiq" do break through to a different register.

Recently, I revisted C.D. Wright's "One Big Self," which is subtitled "an investigation." Here the poet enters into a relationship with an other and coveys the voices of Louisana prisoners back to us, but to borrow from Philip's Behind the Lines, there's not an obscuring identifiation with the other -- it's an identification that acknowledges difference and distance.

One of the questions I've been going back and forth about with poet Bob Wrigley (the instructor I'm working with in a directed study of the genre) is whether documentary poetry has a wider or narrower strike zone than other types of poetry. On the one hand, because of its reliance on artifact and historical context, it doesn't have to be as "artful" as, say, the 10 millionth poem about snow in order to be "sucessful." One the other hand to stand up as a "lasting poem," it would seem that the dance is even more difficult.

Philip Metres said...

Hey Ian!

I really like that C.D. Wright book quite a bit.

Brian (Turner)'s second book is out, and I'm almost certain he'll be working through some of these impasses.

The openness of investigative poetry is what makes it exciting--the rules don't seem so ossified, the frame is itself always under question. Not to say that any of poetry's rules have been made to be broken....