Selections from an essay by Jill Magi, published in Chicago Review 59:1/2.
A Preface in January 2016
Years ago I invited a colleague, an historian and an African-Americanist, to present on the historical context around Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. What I learned about American history in that fifty-minute session was huge. It seemed to me, from my notes, that about every three minutes he lectured on some aspect or event of history for which I had no previous knowledge. I was going to school.
Yet I had claimed to be race-aware and to have a well thought out theory of why the literature I was teaching should cut across a wide section of race and ethnic identifications in the United States. It was a core humanities class at a public, urban university. The books on my syllabus were works that would have some confluence, I thought, with the lives of my students. I wasn’t wrong about that, but when my colleague came and lectured, I saw just how much I did not know about race and American history, or that the history of the U. S. was a history of race. The intellectual segregation of black and white “histories” is built on false notions of lived experience and structures of power.
I think this knowledge may be important for poetry now. Aesthetics are never apolitical. Learning about the literary debates circulating inside black art and representations—how to write the African-American experience, or how not to have to take up the task—reveals an anxiety not necessarily present for white writers. Literature, so long as structural racism exists, is going to be sociological even in its rejection of that mandate.
A second classroom story: I invited another colleague to present on W. E. B. Du Bois and “double consciousness.” The most memorable moment of the lecture was when she asked the class: “Who might not need to have this double consciousness—or triple consciousness if we are talking also about women of color?” The answer, of course, is “white people.” As a shifting category, whiteness is characterized by a naturalized subjectivity that makes invisible the dynamics of its own construction. So once a person is “white,” they mostly do not have to sort through the multiple and painfully incongruous ways in which they are seen by others. Put another way: sometimes my mom used to say “just leave me be” when she was tired. Whiteness is being able to say this and pretty much know that you are going to get “OK, sure” as a response.
For those who reach across race and color lines in making literature: the point is not to not reach, but that in so doing, to understand that your subject position as author is not neutral, it never was, and if you have not devoted some time to the study of race in America and African-American historiography, then your representations will likely pull up “flat” at the least, and “harmful” and “offensive” at the worst. Yes, the work may be “true” because it reflects or embodies the persistence of structural racism. But after post-structuralism, I hope we can go further into questions of context and ask, of the literature we make, “whose truth?” and “what is needed now?”
These questions of context, process, and product have applications beyond race and across many subjects. Perhaps the visibility of racism in the U. S. American context now is pressing on poets to take note, learn, instruct, nourish themselves with new methods, and to try to do better than the context they find themselves in. Self-censorship should be part of a writer’s revision process. And a certain kind of censorship should be part of a critic’s work—censorship as judging and appraising, rather than preventing. The idea is not to patrol literature. But the kind of freedom to say or make anything is a very simple freedom that has never been extended to everyone anyway.
Perhaps the questions I raise and the theory I explore in “Poetry in Light of Documentary” can help contemporary poets read and make work across race and color lines. In this essay, I engaged documentary theory and took its application to poetry as far as I could. I wanted to see how writing non-fiction “problem-based” material and depicting subjectivities other than my own didn’t have to be accompanied by debilitating fear or a cavalier compositional method that would excuse me from serious study and self-reflection. I wanted a framework for an investigation of the relationship between the product and process of my work. I hope this essay opens up the idea that it is important to admit that poems have subjects, and those subjects are worth studying. Documentary theory articulates, above all else, that knowledge and form is never neutral. I hope sharing this theory can help others read and make new work.
Poetry in Light of Documentary
It is now well known that abstraction in painting was supported and encouraged by CIA initiatives in the 50s with the intent to steer artists and audiences away from social realism and aesthetic practices that took up “reality. ” Even so, since the mid century, and especially in the 90s and into the 2000s, artists and critics have engaged aesthetics and reality with a post-structural apparatus, building a theory of documentary ﬁ lm and theorizing “the documentary turn ” in visual art. In a 2008 article published in Frieze entitled “Reality in the Age of Aesthetics, ” critic and art historian Mark Nash traces the history of this turn back to documenta 11 in 2002. He writes, “Exhibitions such as these sought, among other things, to explore a range of artistic practices that, in one way or another, attempted a connection with social and political reality. ” Nash continues,
It is certainly true that there is no longer any mileage to be gained from the opposition between ﬁ ction and reality…. At the same time documentary has become a means of attempting to re-establish a relationship to reality. The pertinent question, perhaps, is what kind of social, political or personal reality is being proposed.
I agree. Projects in the documentary mode engage reality—but more importantly, they require attention to representation as a non-neutral practice. As a poet and critic, I want to move discussions of “poetry and documentary ” away from deﬁ nitional concerns such as “what makes a poem documentary? ” and into this complex and generative space that considers representation—“what kind ” of reality, and whose reality, is being represented.
A Brief Nominal History of “Documentary Poetry ”
In the mid-90s the poetry journal CHAIN published an issue on “documentary and poetry. ” Around that same time, at the University of Buffalo, Susan Howe taught a graduate course called “Documentary and Poetry. ” In peer-reviewed literary studies journals of the late 90s, discussions of Muriel Rukeyeser began to describe her work as “documentary. ” These, according to my research, are some of the ﬁ rst instances of “documentary ” and “poetry ” used in the same breath. Poets writing at the present time use the term “documentary ” both in practice and by profession: poets call themselves “documentary poet s ” in bios and university courses, and panels at professional conferences have explored the term and practice. Since 2011 alone, publications ranging from the Poetry Foundation website, Coldfront magazine, and Jacket2 have published essays devoted to the topic; the 2007 Wesleyan anthology American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics uses the terms “documentary poetics ” and “documentary poetry ” without explanation. They appear to be naturalized terms: a 2011 review in The New Yorker describes C. D. Wright’ s poetry as governed by “documentary impulses. ”
Despite this activity in the ﬁ eld of poetry, most of the critical discussion of documentary poetry begins and ends with the question, “What is it? ” This repeated deﬁ nitional concern—a kind of nominal wheel spinning—may indicate that poets have assumed that theories of documentary are inapplicable to poetry. It might be the case that those who are interested in documentary poetry deﬁ ne it as “other ” to lyric poetry and ﬁ nd that difference satisfying enough. Fi nally, maybe no one has thought of exploring documentary theory and poetry, or had the time. For whatever reason, I feel there is more work to be done, and so this essay sets out to move past deﬁ nitions and into a discussion of poetry and representation.
The introduction to the documentary special issue of CHAIN offers a question that may be typical of the assumptions that poets make about the purpose and function of documentary: “What does it mean to create an objective text, a document that records supposedly without comment? ” The word “supposedly ” reveals that the editors are not certain that writing “objectively ” is even possible, and in an era of increasingly corrupt journalism practices, it is understandable to want poetry of objective reportage. But to even imagine that poetry could be devoid of “comment ” ignores post-structuralist thought on language, ﬁ ction, reality, and representation. It also ignores the critical history of documentary ﬁ lm, as well as documentary ﬁ lm theory that neither dismisses the desire for non-ﬁ ction truth, nor simpliﬁ es the complications of authorship, gaze, and frame in pursuit of truth. In the ﬁ elds of ﬁ lm and visual arts, to claim that any ﬁ lm or work of art might be objective and may be devoid of editorial comment and point of view, even as a non-ﬁ ctional system of representation, is an impossible claim and as a paradigm of analysis, useless. Also missing the post-structuralist mark, the Poetry Foundation’ s “Documentary Poetry and the Language Surge ” (2012) claims, “The documentary poem is meant to ‘testify to the often unheard voices of people struggling to survive in the face of unspeakable violence. ’ ” This deﬁ nition eclipses the fact that ﬁ ctional systems can also do this work, and eclipses the range of documentary approaches that authors utilize. There is Beloved by Toni Morrison—a ﬁ ction—and there is Emile de Antonio’ s “In The Year of the Pig, ” a documentary ﬁ lm where the voices of the powerful are in fact strategically featured in order to reveal suppressed historical truth. It is therefore more accurate to say that how the violence and voices of the people are chosen, framed, and represented is key in documentary practices.
Attempts at deﬁ ning “documentary poetry ” ignore complex positions in contemporary art about intention, objectivity, representation, and what the function of art is and should be. They also ignore a robust body of theory that already exists in the world of documentary ﬁ lm. In Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, ﬁ lm theorist Bill Nichols proposes four modes of documentary: expository, observational, interactive, reﬂ exive. A mix of critical and ﬁ lmmaking categories, says Nichols, “each mode deploys the resources of narrative and realism differently, making from common ingredients different types of text with distinctive ethical issues, textual structures, and viewer expectations. ” 1 Under the heading “Documentary Modes and Ethical Accounting ” Nichols outlines the “axiographic questions regarding the stance of the ﬁ lmmaker, the way in which he or she occupies space and negotiates the distance of the camera’ s gaze ” in each mode.
An exploration of these modes sheds light on their particular ethical challenges. I believe the same exploration would help poets at least begin to explore the questions of a work’ s technique and composition, intention, and potential effects on its audience and even its documentary subjects themselves. According to Nichols, “The camera reveals not only the world but its operator’ s preoccupations, subjectivity, and values .” Replacing “camera ” with “page, ” I want to offer three preliminary proposals for “documentary and poetry, ” which may help readers and practitioners of documentary poetry to ask, “Where is the author in relation to this subject matter? ”
Fi rst, there is an established practice of poetry as an art form that engages non-ﬁ ction—reality and history—and in this way, poets may look toward “documentary ” as a discourse rather than try to draw deﬁ nitional borders around the term “documentary poetry. ” Second, a poem engaging non-ﬁ ction reality, no matter what its approach or style, will always pivot on an ethics; ethics may be explicit or implied, intended or not. Third, working in “the book, ” a medium distinct from ﬁ lm and visual art, documentary poetry has the potential to illuminate aspects of documentary theory and practice. For example, where voiceover drops out and text is projected—not an uncommon move in video work and short ﬁ lms by visual artists—how does the act of reading alter the subject position of audience, ﬁ lmmaker, and the ﬁ lm’ s subject and content? How might a deliberate consideration of multi-directional reading, the self-deﬁ ned pace of reading, and a reader’ s ability to reread and review inﬂ uence the way a ﬁ lm is composed? Might documentary poets, at times wary of lyricism’ s potential to lull or “beautify ” reality, yet attuned closely to the sound of language, present ﬁ lmmakers with an expanded aural lexicon and a variety of scripts? If works of documentary poetry often come with an extensive notes section, what might the equivalent addendum or supplement be for a work of ﬁ lm?
There may certainly be ways that Nichols’ s theories, applied to poetry, fall short. Can’ t poetry spawn its own distinct documentary modes? Why rely on ﬁ lm theory? This might indeed be a terrain for future critical work. As I read through Nichols’ s categories, I begin to see shared compositional approaches between documentary ﬁ lm and poetry. But poetry’ s differences from ﬁ lm might also contribute to the documentary discourse. The act of reading a book is quite different from viewing a ﬁ lm, and though I elaborate on this point later in this essay, I will allude to it now. Not being bound to time and linearity, as ﬁ lm is, a documentary poem has the potential to confront power in a way that ﬁ lm will always struggle with—by activating a reader who is free to choose her pace and sequence. A reader can, while reading, back up, reread, annotate and research at will. This is not politically insigniﬁ cant for non-ﬁ ction representation.
What I like about Nichols’ s book is that his exploration of ethics is complete and attentive; he offers up a complication to the simpliﬁ cations that are the danger of ethical debate. He suggests, “Rather than relying on ethics as the means whereby we can evaluate and rank documentary ﬁ lm practices, an alternative tack would be to defamiliarize this very practice and implant it within another one: the attempt to challenge and subvert the dominant ideology of oppositions and hierarchy and the ethics that underwrite it .” I want to echo this proposition, and suggest that delving into ethics is only useful for a poetics if we are conscious of the limitations of the good-versus-bad binary, and willing to consider political and ideological contexts for a work of art and its reception. “Beyond good and evil lie the dialectics of a social practice grounded in differences that do not coalesce into Them and Us, Self and Other .” This practice doesn’ t mean ignoring ethics and the actions of individuals, but it does denote a ﬁ eld of critical activity beyond rhetorical claims such as “this art is preferable to another. ”
I want to activate this “ﬁ eld of critical activity ” in contemporary poetry as a response, in part, to something I have heard in our discourse: that it is an act of hubris to take on a subject matter “outside ” yourself, such as history, or to engage political, social, and macro- realms in poems. Some have posited that it is a disservice to poetry to believe that poetry can change anything, and that the aesthetic surfaces of such work are clunky and show a forgetfulness of what poetry can do: transcend reality. I do not necessarily disagree; there are valid points to engage in these critiques. But this essay comes from my interest in the “and ”: the sense that both kinds of works are important and may, in fact, overlap at times.
I am also concerned that this blanketed critique of documentary poetry assumes a naturalized subject for whom matters of politics, matters of the outside world, are of no concern because they don’ t have to be: in other words, the subject who occupies a position of privilege, who has no need to navigate W. E. B. Du Bois’ s idea of a double (or triple, or quadruple) consciousness. As Nichols points out, knowing is not neutral; neither, I would argue, is the ability to look away, to not have to know. I write this essay not to say that one kind of poetry is better, more relevant, and more needed than the other, but that a deep engagement with the ethics and modes of documentary may help more readers and writers unpack complexities across many kinds of poems. As a writer who has been called documentary at times, I write this essay also to suggest that, rather than defend that identity and pit documentary against other kinds of poetry, or to ignore critiques coming in from other “camps, ” it is far more interesting to seriously engage the issues that documentary raises by giving such works a thorough, critical read.
[. . .]
The Observational Mode in Fi lm
Sometimes called cinema vérité, or direct cinema, observational documentaries stress, as Nichols says, “the non-intervention of the ﬁ lmmaker. Such ﬁ lms cede ‘control ’ over the events that occur in front of the camera more than any other mode .” The observational documentary eschews voice-over, music external to the ﬁlm, and other devices such as reenactments and interviews. “Observational ﬁlmmaking, ” posits Nichols, “gives a particular inﬂ ection to ethical considerations, ” including “whether or not the author has received permission to ﬁ lm, whether they are just furthering their career on the backs of others, whether the exposure of their subjects will harm or help them, and should the ﬁ lmmaker’ s own opinions ﬁ nd a place in the ﬁ nal product .” In other words, of all the modes of documentary, the observational brings ethical questions undeniably to the fore. Instead of a focus on a problem/solution narrative, as expository works emphasize, observational ﬁ lm most often attempts to capture the everyday and the typical. A close cousin to this mode is ethnography, with its desire to suspend authorial argument in order to more fully expose and describe.
Whereas ﬁ lmmakers who work in this mode might intend to disappear as authors, and to make something impersonal, the effect of this tactic is often the opposite. Nichols articulates this irony: “Since the mode hinges on the ability of the ﬁ lmmaker to be unobtrusive, the issue of intrusion surfaces over and over within the institutional discourse .” Attempts at invisibility or non-intervention highlight, for the viewer, the author who has decided to turn the camera on. Rather than an impersonal ﬁ lm, observational documentaries are often in fact quite personal—viewers are allowed to see, window-like, into the life of the social actors who are framed, and they may believe that the person behind the camera has gained seemingly complete access.
The Observational Mode in Poetry: Goldsmith’ s Soliloquy, a Reading by Place, Reznikoff’ s Holocaust and Fitterman’ s Holocaust Museum
Perhaps poetry that uses found or appropriated text may be thought of as an equivalent to the observational mode in documentary: an equivalent, to some extent, of turning on the camera and walking away as an author. The author who ﬁnds another author’ s text and arranges it correlates, in intention or premise, to the ﬁ lmmaker’ s notion of framing what is already happening with or without a ﬁlmmaker’ s presence.
Kenneth Goldsmith’ s Soliloquy comes to mind. Goldsmith composed the work by recording everything he said for one week in May, and transcribing it as one long text divided by days labeled “Acts. ” Any of Goldsmith’ s texts could be called observational, but because Soliloquy is so intimate I ﬁ nd it a particularly strong example of documentary: Goldsmith, as author, comes up against the politics of the historical moment so directly. The juxtaposition of observational documentary (where the author only turns tape recorder on) and the lyric (where the life-in-language of the individual poet is the subject matter) is what interests me in this work.
I felt that I was being asked not to read Soliloquy, and because this seemed like a dare, I read every word. As a reader, that is my power: to read regardless of what the author assumes, and as the pages went on, I felt closer and closer to Goldsmith’s personal life. The text’ s early critiques of identity politics and art, as well as Goldsmith’ s discussions of his own poetics and projects, became more interesting as he mixed the two: the personal and the life of the artist in the art world. For example, I note the incredible intimacy in this passage in Act 6:
Do you want a drink Grandma? I’ ll get it for you you want? Blow your nose. No, I’ m giving you a tissue. Did you get my letter? Good. Max, I got a present for you. Here you go, honey. That’ s from your Uncle Kenny. You like that present? Ok, I will wipe them off. Ma, here you go. Let me, uh, I’ ll wipe the chairs down. You enjoy it? Good, I’ m glad I’ m glad you got to see it. Yeah, well the others, the others are not interesting. Did you understand the article? You got the idea though? Did it give you an idea a little, uh, a little idea of what I’ m up to? Good. We’ ll talk more about it. Let me wipe down the chair for Grandma.
As an untamed narrative, composed by a very transparent procedure, Soliloquy is one of the most romantic autobiographies I have ever read. With access so direct, we contemplate almost nothing other than Goldsmith himself. Soliloquy is incidentally confessional. Nichols’ s idea that the observational mode in documentary centers on the missing and appearing ﬁ lmmaker holds up. So while Goldsmith might argue that he doesn’ t “write, ” certainly Soliloquy is about the author entirely.
Reading through the lens of documentary, one might think of some of the work of Vanessa Place as confessional and observational, as well. This is to read Goldsmith and Place against the conventional grain, for they together have been called, and call themselves, “conceptual writers ” who oppose what they consider the naively self-expressive mode of Romantic lyric poetry. But I am not convinced of the critical value in importing the term “conceptual ” from the visual arts into writing and poetry; it may be a good way to generate text, but not a very interesting way to revise and read. As both authors are interested in non-ﬁ ctional representational systems—not the work of the imagination or the expressive work of the individual poet—I ﬁ nd it generative to think about Goldsmith and Place’ s work within the realm of documentary. When I do this, I can burn through what I feel is conceptual art’ s useless preoccupation—as far as poetry is concerned—with institutional critique and get to more interesting issues of ethics, representation, and reception.
In the winter of 2011, I heard Vanessa Place read at the University of Chicago from two projects. The ﬁ rst featured court proceedings that recount the details of a child sexual abuse case. It is important to pause here to acknowledge that this discussion of Place’ s work centers on listening at a reading—so, in a sense, I experienced the work almost as I would experience a documentary ﬁ lm. Because I was not able to reread, reconsider, or seek out ancillary texts, the time-based nature of the poetry reading intensiﬁ ed some of the ethical issues emerging from Place’ s work. The record appears to be unedited, and as Place read the transcript, she also read cataloguing or identifying numbers that accompany the court record. The inclusion of this metadata ups the ante for the author’ s claim on behalf of the veracity of the documents. The numbers also provide a bit of a reprieve: acoustically, their banal lack of information was, for me, a welcomed relief from the terrifying and terrible details of what allegedly happened to a girl.
As Nichols suggests of the observational mode, Place presents us with “the sense of unmediated and unfettered access to the world .” Because Place does not intervene, compositionally, we are left with three options from this authorial stance as Nichols identiﬁ es them, and I felt them to be highly applicable in this case: “empathetic identiﬁ cation, poetic immersion, or voyeuristic pleasure .”
On empathetic identiﬁ cation: if I began to identify with the victim of the transcript, then I felt short of breath and victimized, perhaps ﬂ ooded with my own unpleasant memories, or worried about the memories of others in the room. I also felt empathy for the possibly abused subject: if I began to catalogue any similar wrongs committed against me, then my response did not feel like a way to honor the subject’ s speciﬁ city and individuality. On poetic immersion: if I became immersed in the poetic language and Place’ s performance, then I was abandoning the subject matter, which felt like an inhumane abandonment of the subject. On voyeuristic pleasure: if I rested on voyeurism, then I was possibly identifying with the alleged perpetrator, whose own visioning mind allegedly committed the ﬁ rst objectiﬁ cation of this girl. Or if I found pleasure identifying as the girl, abused, then I was reframing the power dynamic between adult and child via my own erotics—again, resituating the reality altogether. On the words “alleged ” and the language of the law: if I tried to focus on the possibility that the accuser was fabricating every incident, then I became frustrated with the dominant narrative. If I was supposed to be frustrated with the narrative and disbelieve the accuser, then, ill-equipped to make any judgment, I still ran the risk of silencing a possible victim of abuse.
Listening, I went through these choices very quickly, which indicates to me that perhaps we are (many of us) very well aware of these problematics of law, narrative, guilt, and innocence, and might not need to go to poetry to have them replayed without subtlety. Sitting, listening to Place, watching her read, my choices, if I stayed in the room, which I did, were either to withstand the discomfort of all of these choices, or to exit the trap of “no good choice ” by beginning to wonder about Place herself, running through a list of her possible intentions. Therefore, in the room at least, Place’ s authorial presence loomed quite large.
Splitting off from the subject matter at hand, I also began to ask some things of poetry, some questions that viewers of ﬁ lm typically ask of the observational mode: “Why choose this subject matter? ”, and, “What new light is being shed on this subject matter? ” In Place’ s work, I came up with two possibilities, one having to do with poetry itself, the other having to do with the law.
Fi rst, Place obviously wants to say something about poetry—that a poetry reading could be this, that one need not be lulled by beauty, that instead poetry could smack you with intense realism. Second, Place’ s work displays the problematics of legal discourse and processes. As the feminists have warned us, the victim gets revictimized in court. As Place has argued elsewhere, feminism has made only the victim believable. And so a victim can be revictimized at a poetry reading, a perpetrator assumed guilty, which places a severe wedge in our idea of poetry and art—as well as the law and justice—as enlightenment constructs that are supposed to be good for us.
Yet these ideas, both about what a poetry reading can be and the failures of the law, are not new to me. What was most pressing, in terms of my own learning, was the issue of representation and subjectivity. I kept asking myself, what entitled Place to use these “other ” voices to make arguments about poetry and law? Was that story being addressed, told, confronted? Additionally, when Place read from another work based on a legal document that quotes a conversation between inmates, including a transcription of rap lyrics, the complexity of the use of the word “nigger ” was made ﬂ at, made intellectual by Place’ s whiteness and the poetry reading setting—a classroom in a neo-Gothic building on the campus of a prestigious university. I crave complex poems about race written by white poets, but I believe that ﬂ attening this word via pure quotation pulls up short, unless the poet’ s primary goal is to say, “I can say this word, ” which then seems to be much more about reinscribing a certain mainstream art stance of unmediated power and access: everything is fair game for the artist regardless of social context, the author’s own identity, or audience reception.
So if it is not me, who, then, would Place’ s ideal audience member be? Maybe the irony is that she would likely never get invited to read in those places where her work could have the most impact: a traditional poetry venue like the 92nd Street Y in New York, or downtown, at a class at NYU Law. But maybe NYU Law School is not ideal because of critical race theory, a theory whose origins are in race-based critiques of the language of law. Perhaps her work would shake the ground in a class on feminism?
If Nichols claims that an observational mode gives viewers “revealing views, ” what is to be revealed via Place’ s work might hinge entirely on who her audience is. And if this is her project—to make poetry audiences uncomfortable and to critique the institutions that present poetry—she may very well achieve it.
But art is usually never only about one thing. The goal of institutional critique does not trump the ethical problems her work poses. The central problem, I believe, is that Place herself is not made vulnerable by her work on the page or at the poetry reading. If what is interesting is Place’ s biography—she is a public defender who defends accused rapists—then I wondered if there were other narrative strategies that could get at the complexity of her job, strategies that would not use a victim of violence to explicate Place’ s own experience, perhaps, of the violence of her workplace discourse. Perhaps if Place had used her own name in her work, putting herself into those rooms, a complexity of ethics would have been presented, admitted.
I believe that Place faces ethical questions central to the reception of every observational documentary: quoting Nichols, “To what extent and in what ways shall the voice of people be represented? ” and, “Does the evidence of the ﬁ lm convey a sense of respect for the lives of others or have they simply been used as signiﬁ ers in someone else’ s discourse? ” In the work that I heard Place read, the people she represents seem simply to provide content for her own argument about what poetry is. That question about art does not measure up, ethically, to the weight of the content she presents.
In contrast, it is not possible to mistake Charles Reznikoff’ s intentions in Holocaust, a work that transcribes and slightly edits historical records of the Holocaust into poetry. We might also think of this work as observational in that Reznikoff has re-presented documents, his own editing role quite downplayed. In terms of historical information and authorial intention, the message is quite clear: not to forget, and to make this historical record available, presentable.
The effects, however, of his text are worthy of consideration, and they echo the concerns that Nichols outlines for this mode: what of the people represented? As the details of the historical events unfold to the reader, the primary identity of the subjects of the text is that of victim. When I have taught this book, some students have responded that they found it too painful to read every detail and they put the book down. This is perhaps the problem of art-as-witness and too much pathos; a reader turns away in order not to feel. In contrast, at least to some extent, the documentary ﬁ lm Night and Fog differs because its argument says not only “look, this happened ” but “this happened because of scientiﬁ c rationalism. ” The ﬁ lm is as much about the structures of ideology that lead to victimization as it is about presenting photographic evidence of atrocity. Night and Fog employs voiceover—so it may be thought of as expository—in order to ensure that this message of causation comes through. So where Reznikoff’ s text may run the risk of suppressing causation and presenting a too-narrow portrait of victimology, Night and Fog, I would argue, does not.
Holocaust Museum by Robert Fi tterman is an interesting text to consider in light of Reznikoff’ s Holocaust. Fi tterman also works with found text, utilizing the captions, labels, and identifying marks of slides archived in a museum, presumably the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. The ﬁ rst chapter of the book is entitled “Propaganda ” and moves sentence by sentence to catalogue the public relations campaigns that contributed to victimization. For example,
Eugenics poster entitled “The Judaizing of Berlin 1932. ” The text of the pie charts reads (clockwise from the top): Jews were 42% of all physicians, 52% of all insurance physicians, 45% of all hospital directors, 35% of all dentists, 28% of all pharmacists, 48% of all lawyers, 56% of all notaries, and 80% of all directors of theaters. [Photograph #94185]
In chapters that include “Family Photographs, ” “The Science of Race, ” and “Gypsies, ” Fi tterman expands Reznikoff’ s project, and turns the museum, which shares with ﬁ lm its privileging of the ocular, into a complicated text featuring the oppressor and those structures of knowledge foundational to understanding the cause of the Holocaust. Fi tterman is present as “one who transcribes ” and so his project is observational, but unlike Reznikoff, his chosen frame contextualizes the social actors portrayed as well as a whole apparatus of ideology that led to the events of the Holocaust.
Of course Reznikoff was saying something not just about history, but also about poetry: that it is possible for the poem and the poet to face and present history and to work with non-poetic texts. Especially at the time, in the landscape then of American poetry, Reznikoff’ s work was expansive and didactic. I am not sure that Fi tterman cares to make any argument about poetry, but has found, in poetry, a community of readers and publishers who have the capacity to understand the merits of his project and what a book can be. In contrast to Place’ s works, whose content is too heavy for her questions about art, Fi tterman presents the language of how things came to be, exposing an entire institution of prejudice, scientiﬁ c rationalism, and racism. In so doing, the “victims ” of the ideology, a heavy history indeed, are not simply subjects in events we are to be shocked about, or subjects we are to pity. In presenting a whole context, readers can ask questions of themselves: In light of this material, who would I be? Would I also be a person who believed the propaganda? Thus the division between Us and Them is complicated via the text; intersubjectivity is forged.
[. . .]
Book as Documentary Form: A Conclusion
What can documentary ﬁ lm theory gain from a discussion of documentary and poetry? As I began to apply Nichols’ s documentary modes to books of poetry, I realized that a book moves sometimes easily across documentary modes. So while documentary ﬁ lm may help articulate the ethical challenges that a certain text faces, and while such articulations may serve to present poets with new ways to think about their projects, the information about making art ﬂ ows in the other direction: documentary discourse can learn from “the documentary poem. ” I believe poetry can offer the ﬁ eld of documentary an important form to think about: the book. Readers of poetry have access to non-ﬁ ction by an embodied means. Reading poetry is a participatory practice of perception involving breath, pause, white space, music, fragment, excess, even illegibility. The poetry book as form opens up documentary possibilities on these fronts: time, directionality, privacy, touch, and a particular visuality.
Fi lmic works, particularly short videos in galleries and museums, have limited timeframes within which to present complexities. Because the book is a form that is not time-based, it is multiple with regard to time, and readers can take their time or go quickly in total absorption or avoidance, giving documentary poems some advantages over documentary ﬁ lms. There are opportunities, within the covers of a book, to present many narrative and reﬂ exive “textures, ” including source documents, poetics, purpose. Here it is interesting to note that within this essay, my reception of Vanessa Place’ s work may have been substantially impacted by the fact that I saw her in performance—at a reading, a time-based event. The event’ s constraints meant that I did not study her work; I only studied the performance of the work.
A printed book also functions in multiple directions. There is the possibility to reread, to revisit previously read passages, to skip, to skim. Authors can only suggest a set sequence, so reception may be multi-directional and beyond the author’ s control. Though of course ﬁ lms may be viewed in private, they are often available via screenings: in theaters, at cultural organizations, in classrooms, and in museums. The fact that one often sees a ﬁ lm in the company of others—in public—reinforces the authority of the ﬁ lmmaker who has created an experience that relies on performed attention: everyone else is looking, and so should you. Readers of books don’ t ﬁ le into a movie theater together, looking at who is there, who isn’ t. Reading a book does not require submitting to the regime of the white cube, the gallery. A book is encountered privately, where there is no pressure to participate, to perform as audience. Authorial credibility occurs and recurs as a series of attempts. While this may also occur in ﬁ lm, a reader’ s trust and mistrust is allowed to ebb and ﬂ ow privately, and not only in the time-space created by the ﬁ lmmaker.
On touch: reading is tactile. I think about “the feel of paper ” and the size of the book—“made to ﬁ t the body, ” as poet and publisher Brenda Iijima has articulated. Therefore, a reader enters physical proximity to the work—even repeating some of the same actions the author performed in writing the book—by touching paper, noticing the way paper might give back creases, stains, marks which indicate a certain amount of reader participation. This is a signiﬁ cant part of the power of the book; the link between paper and skin is known. In order to continue inside a book, readers must hold the page, lift, and turn. So they are quite close to whatever content is delivered, and they literally hold this content in their hands. Books, for the most part, are portable. And so a book travels with a person into different locales, and its attraction must stand up to various environments: public transportation, a doctor’ s waiting room, a bedroom, an ofﬁ ce, a library, a park bench. Readers are not captives of the text unless they are willing to be. Readers may always choose to leave the book behind, and writers know this.
Documentary discourse asks us to reconsider the ways in which poetry is also visual. Poetry uses the space of the page itself to call attention to language. The visuality of poetry reminds us that the viewers of images, as W. J. T. Mitchell articulates in Picture Theory, offer back as much resistance to an image as they do acceptance. The image has always been a site of interpretation and message-other-than-intended. At its base, poetry enacts the beautiful resistances generated by language and foregrounds interpretation; it pivots on the desire to know as well as the methodological intricacies, challenges of knowing.
In art and in life, ethics, politics, ideology, and representation will always matter. I keep writing and reading because I believe in the unique capacity of the documentary poetry book to give us a deep sense of reality—pointing toward “hidden transcripts of resistance ” perhaps better than any other art. And despite how ethically fraught it is to represent the realities of others and to engage in content that points to the world outside an individual poet’ s life, poetry, linked to the tradition of the book, offers up language that not only reveals but, crucially, also conceals: the most intimate of acts without which revelations—about self, other, the world—would not be possible.