What is Documentary Poetry? 5 Contemporary Works to Get You Started

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Julius Lobo

Staff Writer

Julius Lobo is a teacher, writer, and parent to a gaggle of kids and a lab/shep pup. Swept up by a love of books, he earned a Ph.D. in English Literature and has held a variety of teaching positions. He and his family currently live in the Baltimore area. He is partial to a strong cup of Assam black tea.

In popular culture, the documentary genre is usually associated with film and photography. It is easy to see why: documentarians attempt to capture the world around them and camera technology provides a powerful and immediate means to do so. Yet, there is more to the documentary universe than just visual media. Poets, too, experiment with documentary forms, merging verse with nontraditional elements to create searing works of art. Starting in the early 20th century, poets such as Muriel Rukeyser and Williams Carlos Williams incorporated newspaper excerpts, government reports, political pamphlets, eyewitness testimony, and other documentary materials into their verse to create socially engaged poetry. Instead of wielding the camera, documentary poets spliced and transformed the textual trace of reality. Their poetry not only entertained, but also inspired their readers to action.

The poets listed below continue this documentary trend, pushing it into new directions. Do yourself a favor and check out these volumes today!

Olio by Tyehimba Jess

In an interview with Lightbox Poetry, Tyehimba Jess described Olio as “explorations of documentary, fiction, verse, musicological research, Euclidian space, theater and song.” This dynamic mix of fictive and nontraditional elements is at the heart of Jess’s Pulitzer Prize–winning work. In Olio, Jess recreates the turbulent, violent, and brilliant world of the first generation of Black artists after abolition. Such notable people include Scott Joplin, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Edmonia Lewis, and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Throughout the volume, Jess shows how these individuals carved out their careers and resisted exploitation by white audiences. Furthermore, the poetry is dazzling, and the book has the weight and feel of an encyclopedia. Olio manages to reclaim and sharply define a historical moment that is too often forgotten. Grab this one today.

Coal Mountain Elementary by Mark Nowak

In Coal Mountain Elementary, Mark Nowak presents a blistering account of the coal industry told in the words of its workers. Nowak acts as a poetic editor, paring down massive amounts of testimony to create found documentary poetry. Additionally, Nowak teams up with photographer Ian Teh to include an important visual component to his text. His book moves from the recent mine explosion in Sago, West Virginia, to numerous mining disasters in China told through newspapers. Furthermore, Nowak’s focus on the United States and China is intentional. Coal Mountain Elementary shows the global reliance on coal and the devastating effect that the industry has on its workers.

One Big Self: An Investigation by C.D. Wright

In One Big Self, C.D. Wright and photographer Deborah Luster document the Louisiana prison system and the lives of its incarcerated people. Wright’s poetry is both detailed and fragmented, capturing a panoply of voices and experiences within the prisons. Throughout One Big Self, Wright weaves her documentary evidence with deliberation and care. Yet, while giving shape to what she records, she also lets the stories and conversations of the incarcerated individuals breathe on the page. That is a difficult thing to achieve, and the result is haunting. Certainly, Wright and Luster’s documentary account lingers long after reading.

Public Figures by Jena Osman

Jena Osman’s fourth volume of poetry opens with an interesting premise: “photograph the figurative statues that populate your city…and shoot their points of view. What do they see?” To answer this question, Osman tracked the gaze of 19th century military statues in her home town of Philadelphia by attaching a camera to a mop handle. The resulting series of pictures forms the basis of Public Figures, in which Osman explores how war shapes and frames American society. Additionally, she extends her investigation into the 21st century by including transcripts of drone pilots as a running, secondary text. While the choice is jarring at first, the lethal work of these operators — which largely involves the sighting of targets — adds a disturbingly prescient dimension to Osman’s poetic study. Ultimately, Public Figures is an innovative work of documentary poetry that should not be missed.

Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith

Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler is an immersive and gripping account of Hurricane Katrina as it ripped through New Orleans. Fusing lyric modes with eyewitness accounts of the storm, Smith offers the reader a meticulous account of the city’s devastation. Within Blood Dazzler, we see the effect Katrina wreaked upon New Orleans inhabitants juxtaposed with the cruel inaction by the Bush administration. We witness people huddled on rooftops and packed into the Superdome. Finally, Smith shows how prevailing racial and socioeconomic disparities deeply affected the lives of those who lived through the aftermath. Pick this book up now: Blood Dazzler is truly marvelous.