Sandra Beasley: “Flint and Tinder – Understanding the Difference Between ‘Poetry of Witness’ and ‘Documentary Poetics'”

One person’s “Documentary Poetics” may overlap, to a large degree, with another person’s “Poetry of Witness.” Does it matter why? Does it matter how they differ? To-may-to versus to-mah-to, pe-can or pe-kahn: a hungry man scoffs at such distinctions. But pronunciation tells us about place, which denotes origin, and origin has any number of stories to tell.

Robert Hardgrave | "Badlands"

Robert Hardgrave | “Badlands”

The myopia of a young graduate student is such that in 2003, when I purchased Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, with its midnight-blue cover and the yellow USED sticker on its spine, I accepted it unquestioningly as an extension of the Norton anthologies that had anchored my English 380-series survey courses. I did not grasp the task Carolyn Forché had faced: to curate a world’s worth of poetry, often in translation, grouped around fifteen cultural conflicts spanning a century, complete with historical sketches and author biographies. I did not notice the significant if perhaps inevitable omissions (sorry, Allen Ginsberg; sorry, Audre Lorde; sorry, Australia).

Reading Against Forgetting was a revelation. My lack of interest in “foreign” poetry had been fostered by a diet of banal poems, rendered in stiff translations. For the first time, I considered how a poem could conserve sanity, or save a life, or lead to a death, or preserve knowledge of death that might otherwise be lost. And I learned that the description to use in citing such works was “poetry of witness.”

Where does that phrase originate? Czeslaw Milosz delivered a series of lectures at Harvard University on “The Witness of Poetry” in 1983. Forché has noted that she first published a call for “poetry of witness” in 1981, but she is understandably reticent to wrestle credit from a Nobel laureate. Either way, Muriel Rukeyser emphasized the importance of “witness” in commentary surrounding her 1938 book-length poem, The Book of the Dead, which describes the death of over 200 mining workers from silicosis. A larger framework of philosophical reference includes the theories of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Emmanuel Levinas, and George Steiner.

Poetry of witness occupies a third realm between the “personal” (lyric acts) and the “political” (oratorical acts). Forché opts to call this the “social” realm of our lives. While all three realms can house resistance, social resistance incites a peer—whether a character in the poem, or its reader—to connect, and finds strength in connection. The social act is one of conversation; Forché uses the example of Miklós Radnóti’s speaker, in “Forced March,” engaging the man who will “move an ankle, a knee, an arrant mass of pain, / and take to the road again.”

Poetry of witness cannot transcend the trauma that marks it. All “after” is aftermath, though there may still be blessings and joys. Forché mirrors this assertion in her own experience, after a correspondence with Terrence Des Pres sent her to Spain to translate Claribel Alegría, which sparked a journey on to El Salvador, where she would witness the human rights violations that shaped “The Colonel” and other poems. Trauma and extremity may be embodied at the level of syntax and line, through fragmentation and what Paul Celan called “death-bringing speech.”

“Witness” occurs not in the poet, but in the reader, meaning that the craft emphasizes transitive energy rather than mimetic narrative. “In poetry of witness,” Forché wrote in a 2011 essay, “the poem makes present to us the experience of the other, the poem is the experience, rather than a symbolic representation…we are marked by it and become ourselves witnesses to what it has made present before us.” Once Anna Akhmatova’s immediate circle of readers memorized her draft, she burned the scrap of paper, fearing persecution.


A master of fine arts program creates practitioners as well as professors. Every discipline we studied—translation, journalism, sonnets and ghazals—extended an implicit invitation, bring this to your own writing. So after a time, I began to ask: how does one, as a contemporary American writer, compose poetry of witness?


I looked for examples of those who had done it successfully. Derick Burleson spent four years volunteering in Rwanda with the Peace Corps before he wrote Ejo, which won the 2000 Felix Pollak Prize from the University of Wisconsin Press. Margaret Szumowski’s poems in I Want This World, published by Tupelo Press in 2001, includes an account of being taken into custody, alongside her husband, while passing through Uganda. (I had no points of comparison; I had lived within a two-hour driving radius of my parents’ home in Virginia for the entirety of my life.)

One of my mentors, Richard McCann, had written poems in response to the AIDS epidemic’s effect on family and friends. This had become the collection Ghost Letters, published by Alice James Books in 1994. Kyle Dargan’s The Listening, winner of the 2003 Cave Canem Prize, embodied his reaction to the 2001 shooting death of a young African-American male in Cincinnati, and the ensuing riots, described in “Combustion” with its epigraph “For Timothy Thomas…for us.” Dargan was a friend and onetime classmate, and I was embarrassed to realize we had never discussed the riots in person. The first book I ever bought at an AWP Conference, the annual gathering of creative writers from across the country, was Sherry Fairchok’s 2002 collection The Palace of Ashes, published by CavanKerry Press. The book depicts a childhood in Taylor, Pennsylvania, inflected by the coal industry: “[t]he men’s nails were rimmed with it, / their hair on the pillow gritty with it, / their laughter hoarse with it” (“A White Lampshade”). I was beginning to understand that one’s social identity could provide grist for poetry of witness. I was also beginning to understand that I carried the privilege of a heterosexual white woman from an upper-middle-class background. No one, in contrast to Fairchok’s account, had ever questioned my use of a word like “patina.”  

But to envy someone’s difficult life experience because it makes for a compelling poem is to miss the point entirely. “If asked when I returned from El Salvador for the last time in those years, I have said March 16, 1980,” wrote Forché in 2011. “After thirty years, I now understand that I did not return on that date, that the woman who traveled to El Salvador—the young poet I had been—did not come back.”

There was one experience to which I yearned to bear witness. On September 11, 2001, my father was at the Pentagon, in an area immediately adjacent to where American Airlines Flight 77 crashed. Others in the office were killed. That morning I had operated under the misimpression that he was in Minneapolis, where his command as a Brigadier General for the Army was located; by the time I knew otherwise, he had already begun sealing his experience from our view. I never heard What Happened. The only external sign of trauma was his shaded gaze—he wore prescription sunglasses indoors for a week, because the glasses he’d worn at the time had been lost in the blast.

I tried writing poems that spoke to this experience. I failed at writing these poems. Around this time, I’d begun working in nonfiction, and one editor’s rhetorical question brought me up cold. Always ask, he suggested, is this your story to tell?


“Documentary poetics, it should be said, has no founder, no contested inception, no signature spokespersons claiming its cultural capital,” Mark Nowak declared in a 2010 essay defining “Documentary Poetics,” which “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).”

“[Documentary Poetics’] power resides in their negotiation between language of evidence and language of transcendence,” Philip Metres said in his 2007 essay, “From Reznikoff to Public Enemy.” For his team of exemplars he goes on to recruit Rukeyser, Ginsberg’s “America,” and Forché herself—though with the qualified praise that “The Colonel” “contains both a documentary veneer and plenty of hints of literary artifice.”

What distinguishes “poetry of witness” from “documentary poetics”? The tempting answer is, “very little.” Both “document” and “witness” are syntactically flexible words. In conversation, someone who self-identifies as writing poetry of witness might speak of “documenting” a traumatic event. Or a practitioner of documentary poetics might speak of helping readers become virtual “witnesses.”

Yet “poetry of witness,” as a paradigm, had acquired a whiff of hierarchy by the mid-2000s. As emphasized by Forché’s inclusion of biography, the one thing every poet in Against Forgetting had in common was participatory authenticity. The poet had been there, wherever there was. What was meant as a celebration of oppressed perspectives had become, perhaps involuntarily, an exclusionary measure against voices wishing to join in the chorus. Besides, in the internet age, what does there mean anyway?

Documentation, sourced from existing material or created en route to the poem, now provides an alternative foundation for authenticity. Pick a year of the last decade and one finds evidence of this trend. Take 2006: In Blue Front, Martha Collins dredges the depths of historians’ accounts, local museum archives, and contemporaneous newspaper coverage, to reconstruct her father’s experience, at age five, of witnessing a lynching in Illinois. Jorie Graham’s Overlord splices the language of World War II soldiers with a critique of military activities in Iraq. C. D. Wright’s One Big Self, which won Duke University’s Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize for Documentary Studies, collages interviews from three Louisiana prisons alongside photographs and epistolary fragments.

Poets’ embrace of interpolating photographs, film stills, maps, and signage into one’s work is a major component of this paradigm shift. Although visuals would not be unwelcome addendums to “poetry of witness,” hybrid texts do not have the same ability to be stored and reproduced in the mind of the reader as Akhmatova’s slips of paper or matted pages from Radnóti’s Bor notebook.

The documentary imperative is to be suspicious of the poet’s interference. What one person considers “process,” another considers to be “packaging.” So documentary poetics explicitly welcomes undigested texts. Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary, published by Coffee House Press in 2009, juxtaposes photographs by Ian Teh against regional oral testimony of mining disasters, and news coverage from China about mining catastrophes. The collection is wrenching. There are no breakaways to a comforting voice; instead, Nowak turns lesson plans from the American Coal Foundation into mediating exercises that engage and disturb us simultaneously.

“Documentary poetics,” with its emphasis on specific testimony, questions the authorial subjugation of subject. Proponents have been skeptical of poets welcomed under “poetry of witness.” Carolyn Forché opts to include poems by Vietnam War veterans in Against Forgetting. But in an open correspondence with Ian Demsky, Philip Metres expresses concern that Iraqi War veteran Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet, published by Alice James Books in 2005, contains poems that “even when they are beautiful, even when they are humanizing—nonetheless perform a parallel cultural labor to military occupation….I have never taught this book because it doesn’t challenge the frame.”

Some, in embracing the document, lose sight that mere paraphrase is not sufficient as poetry. In March 2015, during a reading at Brown University, Kenneth Goldsmith attempted to present “The Body of Michael Brown” based on the autopsy report of an 18-year-old African-American youth slain by a police officer in St. Louis, Missouri. He opined that “[t]he document I read from was powerful. My reading of it was powerful. How could it be otherwise?” He belatedly recognized that as a white man he had made a haphazard assumption, and donated his speaking fees to Brown’s family.


In September 2011, I was on the road with my father for a pair of poetry readings in Charleston, South Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia. On the eve of September 10, near midnight, I returned from the restroom of a Charleston pub to find my dad telling his story of ten years earlier to my friends. Here were the details I had longed for: the corridor he was located in, the general he was supposed to meet, the time of his appointment—9:30 AM—and how the fact that meetings were running late saved his life, since the plane hit seven minutes later while he still waited in a secretary’s lounge.

I knew these details would help locate government reports. Later I spent hours scrutinizing typescript, confirming timestamps, looking for his name. But the real act of witness had been over a cheap beer at the Blind Tiger, “to be judged, as Ludwig Wittgenstein said of confession, by its consequences,” Carolyn Forché reminded us in 1993, “not by our ability to verify its truth.” No poem I could write would compare to my father’s image of the general’s office, cut open and lopped to one side like a layer cake, the plane’s wreckage stopping just short of the reading desk with a bible on it.


In a May 2015 essay for Poetry boldly titled, “Against Witness,” Cathy Park Hong wonders if “witness” is productive in an age when “there are more writers who write with transparent compression, knowing that their phrase could be atomized into tweets.” She asks, “Is it enough that a poem ‘remembers’ when we are now entrenched in an era of total [digital] recall?’” Hong tempers her frustration by admitting, “perhaps I feel this way when I’m writing this because the witness seems more powerless than ever,” referring to recent legal failures to prosecute civil rights violations on behalf of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and other African-American victims. The essay ultimately turns to praise of visual artist Doris Salcedo and her sculptures of “secondary witness,” which Hong believes have the ability to “ignite silence.”

“When a poem becomes commemorative, it dies,” Hong says. Perhaps this is something we can all agree on. If we can temporarily lay aside the burdened verbs of “witness” and “document,” to ignite silence becomes a wonderful description of the social act. “A poem as trace, a poem as evidence,” Carolyn Forché once wrote.

A poem as flint, I would add. A poem as tinder.

Jacques Derrida cautioned against “archive fever,” our relentless effort to create structures that are “authoritarianly transparent and authoritatively concealed.” Even a well-intentioned archive enacts violence on its contents in the form of circumscription. Or, as Joseph Harrington puts it in a 2011 essay for Jacket, let’s just chuck all these terms, proclaim the age of “Creative Nonpoetry,” and be done with it.

But I am interested in any structure that helps me understand the execution of a concept, and any terms that help me teach that concept to others. So for me, the tension between “poetry of witness” and “documentarian poetics” is useful. Many of this past decade’s most interesting collections cycle between the two impulses. In Patricia Smith’s account of Hurricane Katrina, Blood Dazzler (Coffee House Press, 2008), Smith appropriates Federal Emergency Management Agency emails in “What to Tweak.” Yet she resists the available detail of victims’ names for the polyphonic “34,” which depicts those who died at St. Rita’s Nursing Home. She does not incorporate information from later news reports that corrected the body count to 35, and clarified the extent to which the drowned were abandoned by nursing home owners. Why? Once one engages “documentarian poetics,” is one ethically obliged to use available documents?

In Seam (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), Tarfia Faizullah looks outward to render the testimony of birangona, sexual assault victims in Bangladesh, using a fractured lyric line. But a close reading of Faizullah’s “death-bringing speech,” points to an earlier trauma and aftermath that suffuses the book. The title poem, “Instructions for the Interviewer,“ asks us to consider what it means to be “hollow.” Is it nihilism of the spirit, a vacuum that begs for abuse? Or can it be a positive attribute, as potential for negative capability, which is closely linked to “poetry of witness”?

Weighing respective terminologies should never overpower our attention to the rewards of the work itself. One of the most memorable poems I have read in the past year is “Placement,” by Natalie Scenters-Zapico, which appears in The Verging Cities (University Press of Colorado, 2015). Scenters-Zapico describes herself as from “the sister cities of El Paso, Texas, USA & Cd. Juárez, Chihuahua, México,” which has experienced hundreds of female homicides since 1993. The poem opens by articulating, in six sections of unrhymed tercets, outsiders’ failed attempts to appropriate, document, or provide witness to these murders:

In the New York gallery the shoes hang by red ribbons. A storm
of high heels, of wedges, of flat sandals. This is for the women
gone missing. This is a tribute, the artist says, this is awareness.

A book of poems about the women found in pieces. The line breaks, dis-
jointed like severed limbs across the page. I ask the author if she’s ever been
to Juárez, She says, It’s terrible what’s happening. She doesn’t face me.

In the film, opera music bellows over photographs of women found
beheaded. The documentarian says she’ll solve the mystery of the murders.
She says she only spent a year in Juárez and never returned.…

Only in the final section does the speaker activate her own firsthand grief, over a loss that may or may not be related to this larger crime wave:

I write of the boy I loved gone missing, his father found with no teeth
in an abandoned car. Some say, you have no right to talk about the dead.
So I talk of them as living, their bodies standing in the street’s bend.

The pathos of these lines resonates with Anthony Hecht’s “The Book of Yolek,” which I first encountered in Against Forgetting. “You will remember, helplessly, that day, / And the smell of smoke, and the loudspeakers of the camp,” Hecht wrote, in his sestina of the Shoah. “Wherever you are, Yolek will be there, too…Though they killed him in the camp they sent him to, / He will walk in as you’re sitting down to a meal.”

Scenters-Zapico recognizes—as Hecht did—that text is an inadequate form of resurrection. Yet she must try. “Some say, you have no right to talk about the dead. / So I talk of them as living, their bodies standing in the street’s bend,” she writes. The poet’s words, like flint and tinder, ignite the silence.

Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections: Count the WavesI Was the Jukebox, winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize; and theories of Falling, winner of the New Issues Poetry Prize. Honors for her work include a 2015 NEA Literature Fellowship, the Center for Book Arts Chapbook Prize, and two DCCAH Artist Fellowships. She is also the author of the memoir Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life. She lives in Washington, C.C., and is on the faculty of the low-residency MFA program at the University of Tampa.

“Flint and Tinder” appears in the Summer & Fall 2015 issue of Poetry Northwest.