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(More) News from Poems: Investigative / Documentary / Social Poetics On the Tenth Anniversary of the Publication of “From Reznikoff to Public Enemy”[1]

“It is difficult / to get the news from poems / Yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”[2] These familiar lines from William Carlos Williams’s “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” so often summoned in the defense of poetry’s value, argue against viewing poetry as reported news. Yet Williams, most notably in Paterson, and many other modern and contemporary poets—from the “Objectivists” to hip-hop artists—have sought to marry poetry with the news, to translate that “news” into a wider history of human struggle for liberation. Drawing from the ballad tradition, modernist experiments with collage, documentary photography and film, jazz riffing, and hip-hop sampling, contemporary poets have increasingly begun to employ documentary materials to amplify the voices of people and movements that mass media journalism has tended to ignore or misrepresent. In this sense, they embody less-known lines from “Asphodel”: “my heart rouses / thinking to bring you news / of something // that concerns you / and concerns many men.”[3]

In 2007, my essay “From Reznikoff to Public Enemy” appeared on the Poetry Foundation website. Since then, documentary poetry has become an increasingly widespread mode of poetic production, not only in the United States but around the world, with translations of the original essay appearing in Russian, Spanish, and Arabic. Given the interest of poets and readers of poetry in documentary poetry and the outpouring of documentary poetry, I’ve revisited the original essay here by revising and expanding it to include works that have appeared in the past ten years. As both a critic and practitioner of such poetry, I hope that this intervention might clarify and complicate the stakes in documentary and investigative poetics.

That begins, of course, with the question of naming. The poetic practitioners themselves vary in what they call this engagement with other texts and textualities: documentary poetry, investigative poetics, poetics of inquiry, research-based poetics, or social poetics—all overlapping labors, each with its own figuration of the poet: poet as alternative historian, detective, philosopher, radical text-worker, etc. These practices—which revolve around the conscious (and socially conscious) appropriation and adaptation of other texts—are not merely modernist, though the dominant methods tend to privilege these techniques. Though documentary poems sometimes echo and mimic legal discourse, historical accounts, or victim testimonies, what makes them vital is how they call upon the ancient and primal role of the poet in the community. Whether a poem such as a cento or a poem of “witness” would count as a documentary poem matters less than how it situates itself within its imagined community, the conversation of poetry itself. For me, the best documentary poems draw us back to the headwaters of poetry, where tribal elders, griots, troubadours, holy fools, tricksters, medicine men, witches, and shamans all do their work, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

Yes, my list of precursors simmers with contradiction. An elder may have one sort of story to tell, a trickster quite another. The work of a historian might open us to what Emerson called “the mind of the past” in a way entirely different from a shaman’s practice and access point to the spirit world. Yet this is the range represented by the broad band of documentary poetics and its aims—from historical recovery projects to rituals of healing trauma, from reasoned political interventions to subversive deconstructions.

I’d like to make three propositions, then, about documentary poetry and investigative poetics. First, to use Muriel Rukeyser’s words, the poem can “extend the document,” thus giving second life to lost or expurgated histories, yet still finally remaining a poem. In this outcome, the documentary poem offers its readers a double-movement both inside the life of the poem and outside the poem. Documentary poetics arises from the idea that poetry is not a museum-object to be observed from afar but a dynamic medium that informs and is informed by history. The investigative poem opposes the idea of a poem as a closed system, inviting “the real life outside the poem” into the poem, offering readers a double-journey—one that takes them further into the poem and beyond its limits. It is the place of meeting between materiality and the imagination. Because of this double-movement, documentary poems constantly court their own collapse, testing the tensile boundaries of a poem in the face of what Wallace Stevens called “the pressure of reality,” by which he meant “life in a state of violence, not physically violent as yet for us in America [sic], but physically violent for millions of our friends and for still millions of our enemies and spiritually violent, it may be said, for everyone else.”  Stevens never sounded so much like Martin Luther King. The successful documentary poem withstands the pressure of reality to remain a poem in its own right: its language and form cannot be reduced to an ephemeral broadside ready-made for its moment and then for the recycling bin. While it may be that such poems will not “stand up” in a court of law, they testify to the often unheard voices of people struggling to survive in the face of unspeakable violence.

Second, the poem itself can be extended through the document, given a breadth or authority that the lyric utterance may not reach on its own. Documentary poetry comes out of a desire to break open what has often been seen as the monology of the lyric. While the lyric at its best can be subtly dialogic, negotiating self and other in nuanced ways, documentary poets are drawn to the chorale effect, employing multiple voices and voicings that merge into a larger (but often dissonant) symphony. Documentary and investigative poems that don’t simply “contain multitudes,” as Whitman boasted, but breathe and seethe multitudes. One reason for the dramatic rise of documentary and investigative poetics may be that this poetry calls us back to poetic modes that twentieth- century poetry had appeared to have abandoned—the epic and the dramatic. At its most fundamental—and here, I will gloss only briefly what is an enormously varied and complex tradition—the epic poem emerged from the oral tradition of poetic storytelling, in which the sweeping narrative of a nation or people would be told. The early epics were amalgamations of poetry, politics, and history, and at their best, they offered both heroism and reflection. They didn’t merely transmit history or heroic values; they offered a mirror on the culture, inviting their listeners to pose questions that the poems themselves could not answer. By contrast, in American poetry, as in American society, too often the lyric became privatized—that is, not merely private, but sealed off from the social and political realms. The intimacy of the lyric voice, fused with the narrative scope of the epic mode, has offered poets a way to envision and articulate their bodily and textual experiences in dialogue with the communities and societies in which they find themselves, their nations.

Third, and finally, the practice of investigative poetics extends the very idea of poetry, enabling a rethinking of what poetry is and what it can do; in this sense, it returns to a more fundamental and primal relationship to its audience. Documentary and investigative poetries come out of the sense that we are called to be co-creators of history through language and action: at times we wrestle with it (Jacob); at times we are consumed by it and then thrust out of it (Jonah); and at still other times we try to outlast its madness (Job). I employ these biblical allusions not to delimit the scope of documentary poetry but rather to evoke how the practice of documentary poetics—that is, what leads us to dive into the detritus of the past or into repressed or oppressed moments or people or creatures in dominant narratives—necessarily places the poet into primal relation with otherness (angels and creatures and the divine), the otherness of others, the marginalized, the silenced, alongside or within the agents of empire, colonization, and erasure. In the words of Donovan Kūhiō Colleps: “Documentary poetics has ways of inverting the colonial/imperial power of documents.”

In contrast to certain tendencies in the conceptual poetry movement, which parallels and often overlaps investigative poetics, most practitioners of documentary and investigative poetics advocate for an ethical treatment of texts that carry the traces of lost or othered voices. In Tracking/Teaching: On Documentary Poetics (Essay Press, 2015), Camille Dungy writes of explorations of nineteenth-century American history for Suck on the Marrow in the context of the plagiaries of popular historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose; the question of ethical sourcing drove her practice.[4] Similarly, Craig Santos Perez notes that documentary poetics “feels like a way to humbly enter into this immensely deep tradition mo’elelo, today.”[5] Adrian Matejka puts it this way: “It’s a matter of negotiating their spaces [of prominent African Americans and their stories] with respect and awareness, of honoring their lives.”[6] Kaia Sand talks of “inexpert investigation,” alongside Allison Cobb’s resistance to what Ed Sanders calls “the air of mastery.”[7]

It’s for good reason that these poets worry about the exploitation of texts. At the heart of documentary poetics—as at the heart of modernism—is the question of appropriation. The modernist notion that “good artists borrow, but great artists steal” cannot but sound like rationalizing exploitation and colonizing, given the modernist backdrop of European empire. So many disciplined, disappeared, and dismembered bodies. A recent outrage in this line of exploitation is Kenneth Goldsmith’s conceptual poem “The Body of Michael Brown,”[8] an edited version of the autopsy of Michael Brown, whose murder by police led to months of protest and has been part of a wider social movement to reform policing in African-American communities and to expose institutionalized racism in law enforcement. In the words of Rin Johnson, “What I mean is there are political realities from which art cannot hide. To take a document like this and attempt to make it into a form of art is blatantly not engaging with the issues at hand.”[9] Other critics have linked Goldsmith’s conceptual piece with white supremacy itself.

The documentary poet who attempts to represent or “give voice” to the other (with all well-meaning and liberal intentions) necessarily must confront the epistemological limits that Gayatri Spivak articulates in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Western attempts to represent “the other” almost invariably contain an epistemic violence. The very claim of a universality reinstantiates the subaltern position of the subaltern.[10] To put it another way: there is an ethical bind at the core of any documentary poetry project that attempts to reclaim history as some totality, or that says, This is the body. The writers of investigative poetry must constantly confront both their epistemological limitedness and their positions of privilege as text-workers, as makers in the language of contemporary empire.

Documentary and investigative poetics situates itself on the dialectic between historicity and the transhistorical, between the local and the synechdocal, between the propaedeutic and the deconstructive, between the raw facticity of texts and bodies and the violence of the frame. The strengths of documentary poetry (its attention to preserving a history, its instructionality, its architectures) also risk the violence of silencing, naming, excluding that the documentary poetry attempts to redress. Yet to refuse to engage in a dialogue with the silenced, to refuse to engage with the past, is also problematic for its own reasons. There is no getting around the past. James Baldwin once wrote, “To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.”[11] In the process of exploring the trauma of the Iraq War, and of the Palestinian struggle, I myself have felt too often like I’m drowning in the trauma of history, when the point is to learn to tread water, swim back to shore. History itself is a repository not only of the atrocious, but also of the just and the beautiful. As Howard Zinn proposed:

If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.[12]

In Allison Cobb’s words, “Investigation is not only a way of looking back, a retracing…. Investigation is a way of asking how, now, to be alive.”[13]


So, where to begin? What is the point of origin for this tradition?

In the beginning is the beginning of the Frame. In Mark Nowak’s words, “the basic form is the frame.”[14] Wherever one begins, something is cut out. The first lesson of documentary and investigative poetics is that we should pay attention to what is being left out, shorn away, effaced, suppressed. I’ve proposed earlier that documentary poetry draws upon the scope of the epic. But one could also begin with the ballad tradition as a starting point for a list of documentary poetry, particularly if one opens a space for rich topical verse as preservers of a historical moment. Or, for example, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “The Cry of the Children” (1842), an exposé of the human costs of child labor, which led to labor reforms in England. Or, to take another example, Longfellow’s verse epic Evangeline, A Tale of Acady (1847), which chronicled the story of the expulsion and diaspora of the Acadian people; its huge popularity led to an Acadian cultural renaissance as a quasi-national identity (and even its own flag). Arguably, Ezra Pound’s Cantos (1915-1962)—that epic poem “containing history”—could also fit the bill. But Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony (1934) and Holocaust (1975) offer an apt if provisional point of departure. One of the great “Objectivists”—poets known for their poetry of strict description and unswerving attention to the world, including Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, and Basil Bunting—Reznikoff worked in a legal publishing house summarizing court records.

This labor led to his major works, Testimony (1934, 1979) and Holocaust (1975), two book-length docupoems that derive their lines from court proceedings (often highlighting racial crimes) in both the United States and Germany. Testimony, originally published as prose in 1934, became a massive two-volume poetic meditation on America that was completed in 1979. For Reznikoff, as for the nineteenth-century balladeers, the story of America unfolded in often shocking acts of violence—acts that demonstrated the dark sides of American life: racism, patriarchal violence, and petty hatreds. (Holocaust, similarly, compresses twenty-six volumes of courtroom testimony from the trials of Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg and Jerusalem; Reznikoff self-deprecatingly offers himself as a poetic medium, a secondary witness to the horrors of the Shoah.)

From the beginning of Testimony, Reznikoff dramatizes violence and details racial and sexual oppressions with raw understatement. Take for example, “VII: Negroes”:


One night in April or May,
his daughter saw someone’s hand
make the curtain which was drawn tightly across her window bulge
and ran to the adjoining room in her night clothes
where he and his son were sitting.
He ran around the house one way
and his son ran the other way
and they found a Negro
under a workbench
within six or eight feet of the window
holding a piece of plank before his face—
begging them not to shoot.


The Negro was dead
when the doctors examined him.
They found upon his belly
he died, the doctor said, of peritonitis.

The jailer testified that the Negro had been brought to the jail
charged with burglary;
but no warrant for his arrest was produced
and the jailer did not know—or tell—
who brought him.
The Negro said that a crowd of men
had taken him from a store to the woods
and whipped him
with “a buggy trace.”

He was not treated by a doctor, the jailer, or anybody:
just put into the jail and left there to die.
The doctor who saw him first—on a Monday—
did nothing for him
and said that he would not die of his beating;
but he did die of it on Wednesday.[15]

One is struck, first of all, by the silence between the first and second sections. Like a play, in which all the violence happens off-screen, the poem witnesses both to the initial trespass (an African-American man is alleged to have been looking in a white family’s window) to its consequences, written on the body. He dies from being punched many times in the stomach. The poem’s tone is quiet, almost hushed. It tells us by not telling us so much—who the killers were, and why the doctor “did nothing for him.” Reznikoff’s adaptation of spare legalistic language makes the poems vibrate with incommunicability. By setting side by side such episodes, he sutures seemingly disparate situations of American violence, both personal and structural—the African American who was beaten and killed after allegedly looking into a white family’s window, an Irish woman who disappeared and later was found murdered, going by an alias and running a whorehouse, and the death of a town where the railroad never came—and invites us to reconsider what America is, after all.


Perhaps the great touchstone of documentary poetry is Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead” (1938), an unforgettable long poem that tells the stories of mine workers afflicted by silicosis in West Virginia during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Having joined friend Nancy Naumberg, a radical journalist and photographer, for a trip to Gauley Junction, West Virginia, Rukeyser includes court records, first-person interviews and poetic narrative to create a poem that is evocative of “The Waste Land,” if it had been written by Rosa Luxemburg. This poem has, for too long, been one of the least well-known, great poems of the twentieth century. Employing a range of poetic forms (from blues to sonnets), alongside court language, testimonies, and interviews, Rukeyser honors the voices and stories of West Virginia mining families who struggle to make sense of their individual and collective losses. In this labor, Rukeyser becomes a poetic Isis, piecing together the Osirises of Gauley Junction.

Like Reznikoff’s Testimony, Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead” is an attempt to include those voices not typically part of poetry, which stand at the margins of American life. It’s impossible to summarize the breadth of her poem’s achievement in a few short paragraphs. Its ranginess is what distinguishes it from anything that came before and has made it a touchstone for so many other poets. For example, “George Robinson: Blues,” a pivotal dramatic monologue from “The Book,” sets an African-American miner’s experience in the blues form; by contrast, “The Disease” takes transcript from a doctor’s testimony about silicosis. In contrast to Reznikoff’s terse objectivism—which stands at a distance, as in a courtroom—Rukeyser’s “Absalom” is dynamic in both form and tone, collaging interview snippets with selections from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and actively engaging our imaginative empathy. Here is part of the poem:

When they took sick, right at the start, I saw a doctor.
I tried to get Dr. Harless to X-ray the boys.
He was the only man I had any confidence in,
the company doctor in the Kopper’s mine,
but he would not see Shirley.
He did not know where his money was coming from.
I promised him half if he’d work to get compensation,
but even then he would not do anything.
I went on the road and begged the X-ray money,
the Charleston hospital made the lung pictures,
he took the case after the pictures were made.
And two or three doctors said the same thing.
The youngest boy did not get to go down there with me,
he lay and said, “Mother, when I die,
I want you to have them open me up and
see if that dust killed me.
Try to get compensation,
you will not have any way of making your living
when we are gone,
and the rest are going too.”

I have gained mastery over my heart
I have gained mastery over my two hands
I have gained mastery over the waters
I have gained mastery over the river.

In this collage, Rukeyser bears the voice of the mother, who bears the voices of her sons; rather than seeking pity, Rukeyser honors the woman’s struggle to care for herself and her children and links it to the “mastery” that the Tibetan text invites of its practitioners. The final lines of “Absalom,” spoken by a mother on behalf of her dead son, come to represent Rukeyser’s own reclamation project: “He shall not be diminished, never;  /  I shall give a mouth to my son.”[17]

Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead” is one of the great documentary poems because of its combination of visionary capaciousness and formal technique. It demonstrates a fierce ethical integrity in how it honors a battered people, and yet it reimagines what poetry can do. One can draw a straight line between Rukeyser’s poem and practice and the work of C. D. Wright, Mark Nowak, Claudia Rankine, Martha Collins, Susan Tichy, Juliana Spahr, Bhanu Kapil, Erika Meitner, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Susan Briante, Tyehimba Jess, Solmaz Sharif, Layli Long Soldier, my own writing, and many others. What is haunting about it to me is that Rukeyser never wrote a poem quite like it again; already, poets today are writing not one, but a series of books employing the basic principles evident in “The Book of the Dead.” Was it because she’d mastered this new form and decided to move on to other poetic challenges? I have yet to find out.


If Reznikoff and Rukeyser have come to signify a sort of Founding Father and Mother of documentary poetry, I’d nominate Allen Ginsberg as its Court Jester. Specifically, the Ginsberg of “America” (though Ed Sanders’s America: A History in Verse merits serious consideration as well). While Ginsberg is famous for “Howl” and its earnest anaphoric lamentation for the lost geniuses of his generation, his polyvocal and historically saturated “America” (1956), brings a subversive delight to documentary poetry. In contrast to his oracular poems, Ginsberg’s tragicomic “America” queers the news of the repressed 1950s by linking it to the radical zeitgeist of the 1910s-1930s, referencing the Wobblies, Sacco and Vanzetti, and the Scottsboro Boys. In so doing, “America” becomes a monument to its own historical moment, with the mainstream’s outsized fears of Communist Russia (“her want to take our cars out of our garages”) and his own clownish “beat” resistance to that culture (“It occurs to me that I am America. I am talking to myself again”).[18] A poem of rich tonalities and voices, alternately hilarious and angry, “America” feels more liberating than “Howl,” and it’s a lot more fun to read (and hear):

America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
America two dollars and twenty seven cents January 17, 1956.
I can’t stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.
I don’t feel good don’t bother me.
I won’t write my poem till I’m in my right mind.
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?[19]

The famous recording of “America” from 1956 shows Ginsberg at his comic best, intoxicated in all the right ways, and the audience leaning into every word, ready to recognize themselves and laugh. In addition to being a remarkably rich poem that documents its time—albeit in a way that queers or travesties both the 1950s and the 1930s—“America” may well be the closest link poetry has to stand-up comedy, thus satisfying the Horaces of poetry readership, seeking to be delighted far more than instructed.

If we accept Ginsberg’s “America” in the halls of documentary poetics, we can widen our sense of what tonalities and approaches might be possible for such poetry; though the dominant tone of documentary poetry has been elegiac, some poems working with “the news” have adopted a tone that melds parody and ferocity. From Flarf and conceptualism to Tyehimba Jess’s OLIO (2016), which reconstructs the voices of black men and women who participated in minstrel shows, poems employing documentary modes or intervening in investigative ways have ranged far beyond elegiac solidarity and into a field where transgressive comedy and fiery reclamation coexist. With just a small leap, we can include rap-poems like Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (1970) Public Enemy’s “911 is a Joke.” Chuck D, the mastermind of Public Enemy, the rap group who in the late 1980s stormed onto the popular music scene with Fear of a Black Planet, once called rap “the CNN of the ghetto.”[20] Sung by comic sidekick Flavor Flav, “911” (1990) called out the miserable performance of emergency services to respond swiftly to calls made from black neighborhoods. Though it’s funny, the song is a blistering indictment of the failed social contract. Yet there’s plenty of poetry here, in its relentless allusions, both musical and linguistic; when Flav compares the loss of limbs to “compilation,”[21] he uses the metaphors of the music industry to lay bare the brute economics of emergency medical treatment. I can’t help but think of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” in which the poet juxtaposes the selling of a quadroon girl to the amputation of a diseased limb that “drops horribly in a pail.”[22] For Whitman, as for Flav, black people have been reduced to expendable appendages. Whitman’s juxtaposition, it seems to me, participates or at least anticipates the kinds of fierce suturing of the investigative poem.


Because documentary poetry has some roots in the ballad tradition, then we should not ignore how popular music has contributed to this poetic tradition. Consider the recent Nobel Prize for Literature awardee, Bob Dylan. Early Dylan is rife with acerbic and newsworthy topical songs that captured the racial and class contradictions of life during the years of unprecedented prosperity after the Second World War. Harry Smith’s famous Anthology of American Folk Music (1952), one of Dylan’s seminal influences, contains a record of ballads that demonstrate the tradition of the balladeer who adapts lurid news stories, such as the sinking of the Titanic (“When That Great Ship Went Down”) or the assassination of a president (“Charles Guiteau”),[23] and telling them from an outsider’s point of view. The ballad, after all, has long been admitted into the poetry canon, from ballad songs like “Barbara Allen” to the hymn-based poems of Emily Dickinson.

Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (1964) departs from some of the strictures of the poetic form, but its use of rhyme and compressed storytelling places it within this tradition. It tells the story of politically connected and wealthy William Zantzinger’s killing of a fifty-one-year-old black kitchen maid Hattie Carroll and his subsequent sentence of six months in jail.[24] The sentence came in August 1963, and just two months later, Dylan had recorded the song and would play it regularly during live shows and on television. Bringing to light not only the gruesome story, but the sentimentalizing coverage of the event in the mass media (“now ain’t the time for your tears”),[25] Dylan intervened in the case in a way he would repeat years later, when he took on the case of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in “Hurricane”—a song whose selective shaping of the events of a murder has been as debated almost as much as the case itself.

Dylan is one of a whole raft of lyricists whose work extends and humanizes the news. It’s funny for me to remember that I first learned about South Africa’s apartheid system from Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” (1980), about US foreign policy in Latin America from U2’s “Bullet the Blue Sky” (1987), and about the Mothers of the Disappeared from Sting’s “They Dance Alone” (1988). Consider, for example, how Mos Def’s “New World Water” (1999) lays bare the connection between global climate change and the commodification of water:

Tell your crew use the H2 in wise amounts since
It’s the New World Water; and every drop counts
You can laugh and take it as a joke if you wanna
But it don’t rain for four weeks some summers
And it’s about to get real wild in the half
You be buying Evian just to take a fuckin bath[26]

In light of the contamination of Flint’s public water supply in 2014, in which people have been exposed to massive lead poisoning and compelled to shower with bottled water, Mos Def’s song has been prophetic. In an age of global climate change, the push to privatize drinking water threatens to increase inequality, while lining the pockets of the wealthy.

Cause foreign-based companies go and get greedy
The type of cats who pollute the whole shore line
Have it purified, sell it for a dollar twenty-five
Now the world is drinkin it
Your moms, wife, and baby girl is drinkin it
Up north and down south is drinkin it
You should just have to go to your sink for it
The cash registers is goin “cha-chink!” for it
Fluorocarbons and monoxide
Got the fish lookin cockeyed
Used to be free now it cost you a fee
Cause it’s all about gettin that cash (money)[27]

Documentary poetry is not merely an American phenomenon; examples of documentary poetics abound throughout the globe, part of a tool kit of avant-garde and radical poetic practices to recover and restore repressed voices, stories, and histories from the scrubbed public records of the powerful. A Jesuit priest and former minister of culture after the Sandinista Revolution, Ernesto Cardenal wrote the title poem to Zero Hour and Other Documentary Poems (1980) in the mid-1950s to dramatize the Nicaraguan struggle for economic and political independence from the United States and the eventual assassination of revolutionary Nicaraguan guerrilla Carlos Sandino. Other poems in this collection, inspired in part by Pablo Neruda’s Canto General (itself another touchstone of documentary poetry) chronicle the 1979 revolution as it is happening—a hectic and ecstatic, though not always successful, revolutionary poetry. This moment, from the poem “Zero Hour,” gives us both a broad economic analysis of the situation on the ground for campesinos during the Somoza regime:

And the farmers are put in jail for not selling at 30 cents
and their bananas are slashed with bayonets
and the Mexican Trader Steamship sinks with their barges on them
and the strikers are cowed with bullets.
(And the Nicaraguan congressmen are invited to a garden party.)
But the black worker has seven children.
And what can you do? You’ve got to eat,
And you’ve got to accept what they offer to pay.[28]

Some have noted how Cardenal’s poetry detailing the past served a critical historiographical function in a society where dissent was suppressed; some of the poems written in the heat of the revolution occasionally lapse into an uncritical celebration of all done in the name of revolution. Translator Robert Pring-Mill, who first called Cardenal’s poetry “documentary,” notes in his introduction that these poems use filmic techniques such as “crosscutting, accelerated montage, or flash frames . . . [which] is aimed at helping to shape the future—involving the reader in the poetic process in order to provoke him into full political commitment.”[29] As his readers put together the fragments of history, they participate in its telling and offer their own versions of where their common future might lead.


Outside the US, poets such as Neruda and Cardenal, Aimé Cesáire, and Mahmoud Darwish, documented national struggles against colonialism in their poetry, while inside, poets such as Peter Dale Scott, Denise Levertov, June Jordan, and H. L. Hix made visible the often-invisible extension of American empire. Documentary poetry as anti-imperialist, anti-war practice emerged with ferocity in the late 1960s, with notable books such as Daniel Berrigan’s dramatic trial-poem The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (1970), Robert Bly’s The Teeth-Mother Naked at Last (1970), Levertov’s To Stay Alive (1971), and John Balaban’s After Our War (1974), tracing the political and psychic dimensions of war resistance in the United States, a movement derided and misrepresented by mass media.

When literature scholar Tracy Ware argued that “Coming to Jakarta is in a way the long poem that [Noam] Chomsky never wrote,”[30] he captured the essentially radical nature of Peter Dale Scott’s odd and compelling epic poem, published in 1989. Yet Chomsky, the linguistic and political anarchist known for his unruffleable rationalism, never demonstrates the subjective terror that Scott summons in this nerve-bundled recounting of the poet’s heady encounters with international political intrigue.

In this poem, Scott records the process of uncovering his personal, familial, and political relationships to the subterranean machinations of the CIA in the 1960s. The first in a trilogy of long poems, it tells the previously untold history of CIA involvement in Indonesia, particularly during the 1965 massacre of a half-million people. Scott turns to poetry partly because no one will publish an unexpurgated version of the CIA’s role in Indonesia and elsewhere during the cold war. Poetry, for Scott, flies under the radar of the censoring apparatus still in place in prose.


And now East Timor
          where in 1977
   the Indonesian minister admits

perhaps 80,000 might have been killed
          that is to say one person out of eight
   by his own government’s paracommandos

these gentle midnight faces
          the beetles which crowd their eyes
   From 1975 to 1977

the New York Times index
          entries for East Timor
   dropped from six columns

to five lines[31]

Though the poem occasionally lapses into (or perhaps thrives upon) conspiracy theories, it also embodies how poetry can become both a medium for and matrix of unspoken histories. Yet this work also raises an unresolved and little-discussed implication of investigative poetics—the question of facticity itself. In other words, investigative poems such as Scott’s or, more infamously, Amiri Baraka’s “Somebody Killed America”—which, among its long catalogue of Western imperial depredation, also included an anti-Semitic rumor about Israeli foreknowledge of 9/11—compel readers to question the very truthfulness of the work as a whole, or whether the poem’s ultimate truth is not as simple as a lesson in Western imperialism, but rather, as I have suggested elsewhere, also a dramatic rendering of the pitfalls of conspiracy thinking.


Though Levertov’s To Stay Alive marked her most intense engagement with documentary poetry, her “News Report, September 1991: U.S. Buried Iraqi Soldiers Alive in Gulf War” collages a back-page journalistic account of the US mass “burial” of Iraqi soldiers.[32] Levertov performs a “cut-up” of the original article, fragmenting its language to render the traumatic effects of a US military operation, which involved bulldozing trenches during Operation Desert Storm, thus burying alive the Iraqi soldiers inside:

“His force buried
about six hundred
and fifty
in a thinner line
of trenches.”
“People’s arms
sticking out.”
“Every American
“The juggernaut.”[33]

Repeating and juxtaposing the words of the US military spokesmen, the poet highlights the limited media access to the war (and hence, the impossibility of non-military witness), and underlines the war’s connections to capitalism. Phrases like “carefully planned and/rehearsed” or “the tactic was designed” easily could have emerged from a corporate board meeting.[34] The terrible limit of corporate thinking is captured in Colonel Moreno’s assertion that the US burial of Iraqis was justifiable because the possibility of American casualties while burying Iraqi bodies individually is not “cost-effective.”[35]

June Jordan’s multi-sectioned “The Bombing of Baghdad” (1997) ranges from a catalogue of the bombing to the lovers’ bed to an address to a leap to Native American history—as if to mark the trajectory of the war in a longer history of oppression, one which attempts to reach into our very bedrooms. The poem’s first section begins with a litany that pummels the audience with the particular human catastrophe of a war that was largely unrepresented in mass media, despite its being the first simulcast war:

began and did not terminate for 42 days
and 42 nights relentless minute after minute
more than 100,000 times
we bombed Iraq we bombed Baghdad
we bombed Basra/we bombed military
installations we bombed the National Museum
we bombed schools we bombed air raid
shelters we bombed water we bombed
electricity we bombed hospitals we
bombed streets we bombed highways
we bombed everything that moved/we
bombed Baghdad
a city of 5.5 million human beings.[36]

In contrast to the triumphalist media reports of the time, Jordan’s poem acts as an alternative news source, faithfully documenting the extent of the bombing—which attacked basic infrastructure in ways from which Iraq could not recover, particularly during the period of economic sanctions. Further, her employment of the “we”—which US news outlets used to describe the lack of distance between the military effort, the media, and its American audience—now cuts back against us, rendering our complicity visible, admonishing us and herself.

Finally, in God Bless (2007), H. L. Hix composes a series of mathematically formal poems culled from speeches, executive orders, and other public statements of George W. Bush, then interleaves them with poems based on the letters and speeches of Osama bin Laden. The poems comically, and frighteningly, render Bush’s language into forms as elaborate and exotic as the sestina and the ghazal. By taking these men at their word—literally and figuratively—Hix demonstrates how aesthetic attention becomes a kind of ethical and political attention, a close reading of the first order. In “September 2001,” Hix culls from Bush’s speeches during that pivotal month to create the following:

Our country will . . . not be cowed by terrorists,
by people who don’t share the same values we share.
Those responsible for these cowardly acts
hate our values; they hate what America stands for.
We can’t let terrorism dictate our course of action.
We’re a nation that has fabulous values:
as a nation of good folks, we’re going to hunt them down,
and we’re going to find them, and . . . bring them to justice.
Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.
They’re flat evil. They have no justification.
There is universal support for what we intend.
Americans are asking: What is expected of us?
I ask you to live your lives, and hug your children.
Go back to work. Get down to Disney World.[37]

Rather than merely deriding the president, selectively quoting malapropisms, Hix distills his representative language. And what does it mean to have a president voiced into sonnets? What does it mean not only for the president, but also for the sonnet? In contrast to Pieces of Intelligence, a book that works the language of Donald Rumsfeld into poetry, Hix’s poems do not extend or ironize political rhetoric. On the contrary, as Susan Schultz has written, “Rumsfeld wants to get people off his scent so he can do things. [Poetry] is the scent, you could say—it’s really trying to get you deep into a cultural moment or political moment, or just into how language works.”[38] Harvey Hix does precisely that—he brings us more fully into the political moment and shows how language is being used, and misused, in the War on Terror.

A document of close listening, God Bless aptly demonstrates the profound lack of listening at the heart of the Bush administration’s decision-making process—in ironic contrast to bin Laden’s obsessive study and reply to US policy. Take, for example, bin Laden’s reply to the events of 9/11: “Again and again he claims to know our reason, / and tells you we attacked because we hate freedom. / Perhaps he can tell us why we did not attack Sweden.[39] In contrast to Bush’s sound-bite speeches, bin Laden’s speeches used a formal rhetoric and richly complex argumentation that was almost impossible to form into poems. It is terrifying to realize that, despite bin Laden’s obvious deficiencies—his anti-Semitism, his fundamentalism, his selective reading of history—his arguments have a logic that our own president’s frequently lacks. In Hix’s rendering, God Bless becomes a kind of history lesson, a way of reading into the archive and thus extending the archive into poetry—poetry that works to extend the document.


Documentary poets have also opened up ways of seeing and listening to those who have experienced oppression in the United States because of their gender, and class. Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004) and Citizen (2014) have been acclaimed, rightfully, for their granular explorations of racism—from microaggressions to police brutality—including the well-known page in Citizen that, with each new printing of the book, continues to add the names of black people killed at the hands of police. Similarly, and worthy of further attention, Martha Collins’s Blue Front (2006)—the first of a trilogy of documentary poetry books, including White Papers (2012) and Admit One (2016), meditating on race—engages in an act of poetic historiography, in which she reconstructs her father’s experience, who, as a five-year old, witnessed the lynching of a black man in the small town of Cairo, Illinois. Collins sets in motion the contradictory and overlapping accounts of what happened on that fateful day to probe the difficulty of telling the story of traumatic events.

C. D. Wright’s One Big Self (2006) culls statements and stories from her time interviewing inmates with photographer Deborah Luster in three prisons in Louisiana, following in the tradition of Muriel Rukeyser’s trip to Gauley Junction with photographer Nancy Naumberg. Wright juggles these voices and images in ways that create “one big self” that contains author, reader, prisoner, and the prison industrial complex.

Though moments of the book quote and collage prisoner’s voices, Wright’s work is not primarily composed of them. Certain glimmering moments, like golden threads, weave through the fabric of the work, as when a prisoner confesses to Wright, “The last time you was here I had a headful of bees.”[40] The language of the prisoners is not embodied, but rather gleams, hauntingly, among the language of everything and everyone else; the One Big Self of the title is not necessarily the mystic’s dream of communion with all souls, but the disorienting and painful fragments of incomplete selves, broken into cells.

In “Dialing Dungeons for Dollars,” an explicitly “documentary” section, Wright indicts the capitalism profit-making embedded in the criminal justice system, which Michelle Alexander famously termed “the New Jim Crow”:  “The good news is: / Corrections Corporation of America increased its inmate mandays by / 12% From 15.1 million in 1998 to 16.9 million in 1999   A manday is one / inmate held for one day for which the company bills government a per / diem  The increase in mandays in 1999 led to a 19% increase in CCA’s / revenues for the year to $787 million.”[41] Wright’s “good news” is, of course, the opposite of good news except for CCA shareholders. She documents here not only the profit margin, but also the way a new Orwellian language is created by the prison industrial complex, where profits require prisoners and their lives, counted in “mandays.”

In “Dear Prisoner,” Wright addresses the prisoners themselves as a collective subject, trying to bridge the abyss between their reality and hers, admitting:

I too love.  Faces.  Hands.  The circumference
Of the oaks.  I confess.  To nothing
You could use.  In a court of law.  I found.
That sickly sweet ambrosia of hope.  Unmendable
Seine of sadness.  Experience taken away.
From you.  I would open.  The mystery
Of your birth.  To you.  I know.  We can
Change.  Knowing.  Full well.  Knowing.

                                                                          It is not enough.[42]

Wright’s use of punctuation chops the sentences into broken units, as if to suggest the pressure of outside forces, the fact of this distance between her and the prisoners embodied by these interruptive periods. Despite the particularity of the prisoner’s portraits taken by Naumberg, Wright senses her distance from these lives, and that all her well-meaning attempts to bring those faces and hands and lives to the outside world is blocked by systems and institutions larger than the arts. She knows “it is not enough,” but that doesn’t stop her from the work of showing what cannot be shown, of speaking what cannot be spoken. Throughout One Big Self, Wright’s documentary poetics ride the ambiguity of that enjambment of the second to third lines—that her poetry is between a “nothing” and a something that could be used. Their power comes from their negotiation between the language of evidence and the language of transcendence. She would continue to explore the possibilities of documentary writing in Rising, Falling, and Hovering (2008) and explicitly in One with Others (2011).

With Wright’s death in 2016, Mark Nowak—whose Shut Up Shut Down (2004) and Coal Mountain Elementary (2009) became instant classics for their exploration of working-class lives facing capitalist depredation at home and abroad—has become the contemporary documentary poet whose efforts have worked to overcome the divide that Wright’s work brings to light, between her own witness and the lives of others. Shut Up Shut Down embodies, on the level of form, the brutal speed by which global neoliberalism has gutted whole ways of life in the industrial Rust Belt; the title intimates how the shuttering of good union jobs has devastated a whole generation of working people, stealing not only the livelihoods but their very ability to speak their truth. In Shut Up Shut Down, Nowak’s poems work through active jump-cutting or sampling, braiding three voices or discourses. Take this example from “Capitalization,” a long poem braiding the voices of workers, news reports of the 1981 Air Traffic Controllers (PATCO) strike, and grammatical rules for capitalization:

In spite of those tough times,
There was a feeling of solidarity.
If a family was put out of their house,
People would gather there to stop the eviction.
As the “host,” he occupied a more defensible position.
It was Reagan who ended each show
With the famous slogan,
“Here at General Electric,
Progress is our most important product.”
When gas and electricity were shut off,
Unemployed workers would go around
And turn them back on.
Do not capitalize the following
When they stand alone: judge, justice
Capitalize President . . .[43]

Throughout, as if to underscore his solidarity, Nowak bolds the voice of the laborer and italicizes the ironically placed news report. Only the grammar rules appear in normal typeface. In this passage, the laborer recalls a time of collective effort, where people pitched in and helped each other through hard times. This is contrasted with the dazzle of Reagan on television, touting the “progress” of General Electric, the same company shutting off the lights of workers who have fallen on tough times.

Perhaps even more important than his formidably experimental work, Nowak’s cultivation of audience (or rather, rethinking what audience actually might mean) has been his most noteworthy achievement. After seeing his first book receive attention only from poets, he went about “consciously attempt[ing] to construct a new audience, a new social space, for the potential reception of [his] work and other new works that might emerge in this vein.”[44] One poem, the verse play “Francine Michalek Drives Bread,” Nowak recounts, “premiered at UAW Local 879 union hall across the street from the Ford plant in St. Paul. The audience, uniquely, was split half-and-half between people from the literary community (and those split evenly among poetry and theater people) and workers from the Ford plant, along with activists from various unions.”[45] Nowak found ways of reading his work for labor audiences in the midst of union fundraising, unionizing, and striking, for labor radio shows, and in publications that specialize in labor. If Shut Up Shut Down initiated that practice, it became even more explicit when Coal Mountain Elementary—a book-length dramatic poem setting the Sago Mine disaster, Chinese mining reports, photographs by Nowak and Ian Teh, and elementary school lesson plans created by the US coal industry—was staged in the Boilerhouse Theater at Davis and Elkins College in 2009, just miles from where the Sago mine disaster had occurred; the active involvement of people in the community who experienced the disaster has pointed toward his ongoing work doing the Worker Writers School, about which I’ll say more below. While Shut Up is more “poetic” in its treatment of language, the line, and syntax, Coal Mountain Elementary is, in some sense, more “dramatic” or even “novelistic”—particularly in the way that the whole book could be read as a single work broken into chapters, in which the page itself is a unit of measure. Nowak’s poetic trajectory has moved from the lyric (in his first book, Revenants) to the narrative, polyvocal, intertextual, and multimedia.

Documentary poems are not meant to be merely objets d’art. They are signals in the dark, compilations of the possible. For Craig Santos Perez, documentary poetics is “the act of weaving history, poetry, myths, legends, tradition, tale, record, anecdote (certainly more) into something that both amplifies each of them while it also contributes something new to a collective continuance.”  The labor of documentary poetry moves toward the articulation of a collectivity with its own language, its own stories. And now, new generations of documentary poetry have emerged, conscious of this sudden tradition. My reading of Jordan, Rukeyser, Nowak, and Jen Bervin, for example, informed how I approached the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Sand Opera. The legacy of Jordan’s melding of fiery authoritativeness and vulnerability undergirds Solmaz Sharif’s LOOK (2016), just as the deconstruction of legal texts in M. Nourbese Philip’s Zong! (2008) inspires Layli Long Soldier’s WHEREAS (2016), as it writes back to the 2010 apology by the US government for its violent treatment of native people. And these two poets, both of whom employ the legal term “whereas,” should be read alongside each other and within documentary poetics, obsessed as it is with the way power camouflages itself in the language of law.

I need to return to Mark Nowak’s work one last time. Nowak actually dislikes the term documentary poetry, preferring Langston Hughes’s “social poetry.” Rather than writing about his own personal struggles, Hughes chose to write about the struggle of ordinary people for a good life amid racial and economic oppression. In his essay on social poetry, Hughes noted that this radical practice must be powerful, because “when poems stop talking about the moon and begin to mention poverty, trade unions, color lines, and colonies, somebody tells the police.”[46] Nowak’s unease about the very term “documentary poetry” parallels his own work since the publication of Shut Up Shut Down and Coal Mountain Elementary. Despite the critical success of these books, Nowak always saw his work as a departure point for empowering, rather than representing, others and othered voices. Leaping from his consideration of the struggle of industrial workers in Shut Up Shut Down, Nowak conducted workshops with autoworkers from Ford plants in Detroit and South Africa. Since then, in recent projects, and in his Worker Writers School, rather than merely representing the struggle of domestic workers in his own writing, he has conducted workshops with domestic workers and gathered their poems as part of an international campaign to create a domestic worker bill of rights. According to Nowak, “These workshops create a space for participants to re-imagine their working lives, nurture new literary voices directly from the global working class, and produce new tactics and imagine new futures for working class social change.”[47] Nowak’s work revisions the basic idea of the poem and the writing workshop for the masses of people who have been excluded both from literature and from creative writing; he’s the closest we have to a Wobbly (IWW) poet, a true radical culture worker.

Inspired by Nowak and others, Anthony Shoplik, Zachary Thomas, Rachel Schratz, Michalena Mezzopera, and I began a poetry workshop program at Cleveland’s Juvenile Detention Center in 2016, called Carroll Writers in Residence. On the first day, after playing basketball with about a dozen African-American teenagers, we repaired to the library and talked about Mos Def’s “Umi Says” and Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Mother to Son,” writing about advice we’d been given and what we’d give to siblings or to our younger selves. I can’t tell you how beautiful it was to be in their quiet as they worked on their lines and then listened to them share them, one after another. The students gave them a survey at the end, and the teens said they wanted more, so we’ve begun a full-time program. What they said about poetry restored my faith in the possibilities of the art: “Helped me to express myself.” “Allowed me to get stuff off my chest.” “I learned something new about myself.” “Let me know that no matter what happened, there’s always another chance.” “Helped us bond like family.” “I felt like I had a family again.”[48] Part of our program will be education for our students and the residents about the prison-industrial complex, and I’m hoping they will be empowered to use their voices to tell their experiences and also to transform the systems in which they find themselves.

We need to ask ourselves, as poets, workers, and citizens, whether our labors are merely self-replicating, or are we building something new? Are we and our poetry assisting in the perpetuation of unjust systems? Has it become robotic assembly-line production? Does it offer, in its partial sight, some way forward through the eclipse-dark of our contemporary moment? As Paul Goodman invited activists in the last century: “Suppose you had the Revolution you are talking and dreaming about. Suppose your side had won, and you had the kind of society that you wanted . . . how would you live, you personally, in that society? Start living that way now.”[49]

In the introduction to Tracking/Teaching, Joe Harrington proposes that “the test of any documentary / historical / investigative poetry” is whether it “ends up teaching the new reading public things that they did not know already.”[50] Certainly, documentary poetry offers us not only a new method of poetry, and not only a new way of telling history, but also a new way of making history. The aim of making poetry to make change, to make history, is what makes Nowak’s work most radical and most daring, moving into the realm where knowing is a kind of collective being and doing. In the end, I am not concerned with defining or guarding the borders of documentary poetry, or marketing it as an exciting subgenre to teach young poets. Our telos as poets should not be to preserve the sanctity or avant-garde credentials of documentary poetry but to transform and be transformed by the radical possibilities of creating spaces for poems to happen, by widening the idea of authorship beyond the academy, finding poetry where it always existed: in the mouths of those who have been shut up and shut down, from the pens of those whose lives have been written out of history and must make their own.



[1] Thanks to Kazim Ali, David Baker, Marilyn Hacker, and Laura Wetherington for their useful comments on this version of the essay, which not only quotes generously from the original essay “From Reznikoff to Public Enemy,” but also borrows liberally from my afterword to Joe Harrington’s “Tracking/Teaching: On Documentary Poetics” (Essay Press).

[2] William Carlos Williams, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” in Journey to Love (New York: Random House, 1955).

[3] Williams.

[4] Camille T. Dungy and Adrian Matejka, “Full of Many Stars: Pushing Past (and Pushing the Past into) the Heliocentric Poem,” in Tracking/Teaching: On Documentary Poetics, curated by Joseph Harrington (Essay Press, 2015).

[5] Craig Santos Perez and Donovan Kūhiō Colleps, “Two Pacific Decolonial Docu-Poets Walk into a Tiki Bar,” in Tracking/Teaching: On Documentary Poetics, curated by Joseph Harrington (Essay Press, 2015), 4.

[6] Dungy and Matejka, “Full of Many Stars,” 31.

[7] Kaia Sand and Allison Cobb, “A Small Encyclopedia of Life, Death and Other Investigations,” in Tracking/Teaching: On Documentary Poetics, curated by Joseph Harrington (Essay Press, 2015), 50.

[8] Kenneth Goldsmith, “The Body of Michael Brown” (poem presented at Interrupt 3 conference, Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, Brown University, March 12-15, 2015).

[9] Rin Johnson, “On Hearing a White Man Co-opt the Body of Michael Brown,” Hyperallergic, March 20, 2015,

[10] Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Wedge 7/8 (Winter / Spring 1985).

[11] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Dial Press, 1963), quoted in Collected Essays, vol. 2 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998), 333.

[12] Howard Zinn, preface to Twentieth Century: A People’s History (New York: HarperCollins, 1980), x.

[13]  Kaia Sand and Allison Cobb, “A Small Encyclopedia,” 50.

[14] Mark Nowak, Shut Up Shut Down: Poems (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2004), 2.

[15] Charles Reznikoff, Testimony (New York: Objectivist Press, 1934), quoted in Testimony: The United States, 1885-1915 (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1978), 40.

[16] Muriel Rukeyser, “The Book of the Dead,” in U.S. 1 (New York: Covici-Friede, 1938), quoted in Out of Silence: Selected Poems by Muriel Rukeyser, ed. Kate Daniels (Illinois: Triquarterly Books / Northwestern, 1994), 19.

[17] Rukeyser, 20.

[18] Allen Ginsberg, “America,” in Howl and Other Poems (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1955), 41.

[19] Ginsberg.

[20] Chuck D quoted in Teresa Wiltz, “It’s Still a Party, but Hip-Hop Is Testing Political Waters,” Los Angeles Times, June 28, 2002.

[21] Flavor Flav, Public Enemy, “911 Is a Joke,” in Fear of a Black Planet, compact disc, Def Jam Recordings, 1990.

[22] Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” in Leaves of Grass (New York: Dover Editions, 1855), 30.

[23] Harry Smith, Anthology of American Folk Music, vinyl, Folkways Records, 1952.

[24] Bob Dylan, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” in The Times They Are a-Changin’, vinyl, Columbia Records, 1964.

[25] Dylan.

[26] Mos Def, “New World Water,” in Black on Both Sides, compact disc, Rawkus Records, 1999.

[27] Def.

[28] Ernesto Cardenal, “Zero Hour,” in Zero Hour and Other Documentary Poems, trans. Robert Pring-Mill (New York: New Directions, 1980), 3.

[29] Cardenal, ix.

[30] Tracy Ware, “Shifting Sand of a Son’s Radical Faith in Peter Dale Scott’s Coming to Jakarta: A Poem about Terror,” University of Toronto Quarterly 7.4 (2002), doi: 10.3138/utq.71.4.827

[31] Peter Dale Scott, Coming to Jakarta: A Poem about Terror (New York: New Directions, 1988), 140.

[32] Denise Levertov, “News Report, September 1991: U.S. Buried Iraqi Soldiers Alive in Gulf War,” in Evening Train (New York: New Directions, 1992), 82.

[33] Levertov.

[34] Levertov.

[35] Levertov.

[36] June Jordan, “The Bombing of Baghdad,” in Kissing God Goodbye: Poems 1991-1997 (Norwell: Anchor Books, 1997), quoted in “The Bombing of Baghdad,”

[37] H. L. Hix, God Bless: A Political/Poetical Discourse (Wilkes-Barre, PA: Etruscan, 2007), 21.

[38] Christine Thomas, ed., “What I’m Reading: Susan Schultz,” The Honolulu Weekly, May 20, 2007, accessed August 27, 2010,

[39] Hix, 23.

[40] C. D. Wright, One Big Self (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 2007), 5.

[41] Wright, 28.

[42] Wright, 42.

[43] Mark Nowak, Shut Up Shut Down (St. Paul, MN: Coffee House Press, 2004), 36.

[44]  Nowak, interviewed by Philip Metres, “Poetry as Social Practice in the First Person Plural: a Dialogue on Documentary Poetics,” Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 12 (2010), 14,

[45] Nowak.

[46] Langston Hughes, “My Adventures as a Social Poet,” Phylon 8.3 (1947), 205.

[47] “Worker Writers School Collaboration,” The Ed Factory, LLC,

[48] Informal anonymous survey, taken November 2016.

[49] Paul Goodman, quoted in Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), xxiv.

[50] Dungy and Matejka, v.

Philip Metres
Philip Metres is the author of The Sound of Listening: Poetry as Refuge and Resistance (2018), Pictures at an Exhibition (2016), Sand Opera (2015), To See the Earth (2008), and other books. A recipient of the Lannan, two NEAs, and two Arab American Book Awards, he is director of the Peace, Justice, and Human Rights program and professor of English at John Carroll University.