A lot of poets write from research, and there are myriad ways to explain why. Just a few of the reasons, for me: because the past presses at me as a citizen and as a human being. Because my particular history–of my current region or my ancestors–needs puzzling through. Because I want to look outward and escape my own head already. Because I have a PhD and research is an ingrained habit. Because I’m distancing myself from some difficult subject (responsibility or identity, often) by analyzing material intellectually. Because those documents/ objects/ photographs are just sitting there being fascinating and no one’s telling their story.
All this is on my mind especially because research–including traditional archival work–is a big driver of the poetry book I’m currently refining, with the working title “L.” (I’m infatuated with the weirdness of a single-letter title–of which 50 is just one of the meanings–but I’d be interested to know if you think that’s a bad idea. My second choice so far would be “Chronic Locomotive.”) I’m also planning a senior capstone seminar on Documentary Poetics for winter 2018.
So, as I often do when worrying a problem, I assembled an all-star team to talk to me about it. The panel I ran at the recent Poetry by the Sea conference was called “Poetry and the Archives,” and included Nathalie Anderson, Cynthia Hogue, and Cheryl Savageau. I can’t recap the whole rich experience, but here are a few thoughts, as well as a prompt from one of my brilliant co-panelists.
First: there are many kinds of archives. The term most narrowly refers to public records kept by institutions, but this little four-day conference was full of poets (well beyond my panel) working with parallel but different document collections. Claire Rossini is inspired by calls of extinct birds available through the audio archives of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Cheryl, Nat, Cynthia and I talked about drawing inspiration from inherited objects, old newspapers, interviews, photographs, site exploration, museum exhibits, maps, dreams, and more.
Second: the research itself is challenging in ways one expects (sifting through massive arrays takes time and luck–there can be an enormous amount of chance involved in what one finds and when), and in ways that can take a person off guard. Nat told us of an assignment she uses with her undergraduates to research the day of their own birth, using two newspapers, and then, further on, to reconstruct family histories using census rolls and other public records. What if you hit a wall, an absence? Or what if you find more than you’re ready for in those papers–say, an ancestor’s bill of sale? Impersonal documents can become terribly personal, and at the same time, no matter how much research you do, the archive is always bigger and stranger and less coherent than one researcher can comprehend, as Deborah Miranda explores in her poem “When My Body Is the Archive.” It’s terrible when other investigators get things wrong and thereby distort our histories, and we have a responsibility to do better–but getting things wrong, or at least understanding difficult truths only partially, is upsettingly inevitable.
Related to this: how does one transform what one learns without betraying complicated, fragmented, multivoiced sources? Answers from last week included collage, notes sections (possible in books but rarely in journals!), and writing oneself into the poem as a flawed, uncertain quester. Clearly the panelists do a lot of thinking about the ethics of what and how one writes. There’s more to say on this subject than I can shoehorn into one blog post, but see this older post for starters. I was teaching the controversy over Raymond McDaniels’ appropriation of Katrina-related materials at the time–a controversy all about ethics, power, and race.
Yet invention–an activity that would appall many scholars–is part of what a poet does with archival materials. I would argue it’s part of what any writer does, whether or not she admits it, but invention is certainly more obvious in historical poetry and fiction than in scholarly writing. When authors invent/transform archival materials well, I’m enormously grateful for their help in reconstructing a vanished past (Natasha Trethewey’s work is a touchstone for many of us here, and I would love to hear Camille Dungy talk someday about Suck on the Marrow). When authors do it badly, however, I get much more angry than I do reading your average personal, meditative lyric. The stakes feel higher.
And on that note: the ability to even access an archive can involve a lot of privilege. I was reminded of this when a friend outside of the academy’s protocols was recently worried about the letters of introduction some archives require. It also takes money to travel to a historical site or park yourself in an excellent library for even just a few days. Freedom from caretaking responsibilities, too. Sometimes I’ve had that money and freedom, sometimes I haven’t, but I do know privilege must be part of this conversation. Hurrah to all the librarians and others who are increasing our digital access to rare materials–it really helps.
Our panel ran out of time to give out prompts we’d designed, just as I’m pushing length limits here. For what it’s worth, my prompt was to write a backwards poem–start with the present and end with the distant past speaking for itself. Keep track of your sources and give them credit.
I’ll leave you with another from Cheryl Savageau. Sleep on it!
- Choose a natural object.
- Spend a couple of hours researching everything you can find out about it: its physical characteristics, its chemistry, physics, biology, ecology. What odd stories or facts can you find? Are there any correlations to folklore, mythology? Is there a history? Take it all in. Make notes.
- Then dream around it. Let the associations happen.
- Write a short poem that synthesizes your research through association. Work in images. Avoid abstract words.
- Write a longer poem with a narrative.