Seeds for Starting a Docupoetic Project

Last week I wrote in this post about the Docupoetic tradition, drawing on lecture notes and reading lists from a graduate seminar I taught last year called Docupoetics & Lyric Research. I thought folks might be interested in borrowing some of the generative writing exercises the students and I did in that course.

Exercises 1 & 2 were requirements in my class and I asked students to choose 3 or more of the others to guide the development of their projects. Those can be completed in any order and often work best when repeated over many days.

1. Docupoetics is, by its nature, project-based research and writing. To begin you’ll need to identify or create an obsession. If you weren’t a writer, what would you be instead – biologist, conservationist, lawyer, wedding planner? Your answer may point you towards a fruitful area of study. What kinds of non-literary art do you keep going back to – the song you still put on repeat after a decade,  a work of art you like to visit at the museum every time, the niche filmmaker you love? Try looking through the classes offered by your community center and think about which ones might be fun to take and imagine learning flower arranging or self defense through a process of poetry instead. My students chose topics that included the slow food movement, orchids, puppetry, beekeeping, and superfund sites.

2. I encouraged everyone in the class to develop a (soma)tic practice to go along with their obsessions. A (soma)tic is a kind of ritual designed to engender poetry, though the rituals themselves can feel like poems or performance art pieces in their own right. CA Conrad developed the idea of (soma)tic poetry practice and Conrad’s descriptions of the (soma)tics as well as the poems that emerge are absolute favorites of mine. You can see some great ones here. When writing my poetry collection RUE my (soma)tic exercise was to take a walk in my meadow every morning and meet a plant (when possible I would sustainably harvest it for food or medicine or bouquets) and  then go home to research its medicinal, botanical, and folkloric background. Brenda Hillman kept notebooks while attending the congressional hearings, which could be described as a (soma)tic exercise. The book Practical Water was one of the results of this practice. Students of mine chose (soma)tics like preparing and savoring food in mindful ways, taking aerial acrobatic classes, taking a foreign language class, and undertaking daily photography projects.

3. Locate visual materials – photographs artworks, archival documents, advertisements, etc. Alter these primary sources in a lyrical way. Consider how Solmaz Shariff makes government documents tell the truth despite themselves with erasures here. Or how Nance Van Winckel transforms the encyclopedic absurdities of western capitalist patriarchal hegemonies into an encyclopedia of absurdity by erasing, collaging and altering a Book of Knowledge encyclopedia set into Book of No Ledge. (You can see excerpts here.)

4. Collect quotes – scholarly, difficult, jargon-rich – on index cards. Write what the quotes mean to you or what memories they call to mind on the back. Keep and grow this collection as you work on your docupoetic project. Later you may collage these index cards into dialogues like Anne Carson’s in Men in the Off Hours (especially in “Thucydides in Conversation with Virgian Woolf on the set of The Peloponnesian War”). Or check out Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s work for ideas about how to write in conversation with the texts you find most resonant – in our class we read M Archive, where each page of the book is written in response to a line from M. Jacqui Alexander’s Pedagogies of the Crossing.

5. Conduct or locate oral histories and/or affidavits related to your obsession. Muriel Rukeyser in Book of the Dead  and Mark Nowak in Coal Mountain Elementary brilliantly incorporate the voices of those directly harmed by mining practices into their book-length docupoetic projects.

6. As you compile all of these documents and learn more through various primary and secondary sources, keep a process journal where you describe and observe yourself as a researcher. How does your learning feel? How does the library feel? What are the sounds and smells in the archives or out in the field? What kinds of conversations do you have with librarians, scholars, fellow researchers, yourself, your friends, your family as you dive ever deeper into your subject? Keep track of the sensory details, the conversations, the feelings, and the memories that come to you as you research. Let these daily pages become poems that infuse the rest of your docupoetic work.  For examples, see Marwa Helal combine the archival and the personal to incredible effect in Invasive Species.

7. Would persona poems be appropriate for your project? There are questions of cultural appropriation and savior complexes to consider when approaching a persona poem – Alexander Chee’s article here for fiction writers poses some really useful questions in this essay that can help guide docupoets too.  In The Afflicted Girls, which recounts stories of the Salem witch trials, Nicole Cooley creates speakers with deep historical knowledge about the trials, but who also step back and reflect on how that knowledge has been acquired, as well as what it means to try to imagine a way into another person’s torment. Creating a specialist persona can be an effective way to integrate your researched material with more personal elements. Dominique Christina’s Anarcha Speaks is a collection of poems that give voice to the enslaved women who were brutally tortured as part of J. Marion Sims’s human medical experiments that are the basis of modern gynecology.  Christina’s work provides extraordinary examples of how a poet can imaginatively or spiritually call forth other people’s voices in poetry.

8. Go through all of your notes with a highlighter and identify the most evocative passages and the passages with the most exciting language. Look for recurring images, sounds, characters, and concepts. Think about how fragments can be ordered to create coherent or disrupt narratives. Try to find an idea or two that you come back to again and again. How does the rest of your research, knowledge, and experience form a watershed of streams that feed that central river? Collage your favorite passages together together while creating new material to create greater fluidity or to amplify the fragmented nature of the work.

Published by Kathryn Nuernberger

Kathryn Nuernberger's latest books are THE WITCH OF EYE (Sarabande), an essay collection about witches and witch trials coming out in February 2021, and RUE (BOA, 2020), a collection of poems about plants historically used for birth control and pissed off feelings about patriarchal bullshit. The End of Pink (BOA 2016) won the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Her collection of lyric essays is Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (The Ohio State University Press, 2017). A recipient of fellowships from the NEA, American Antiquarian Society, Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, H. J. Andrews Research Forest, She teaches in the creative writing program at University of Minnesota. Recent work appears in 32 Poems, Cincinnati Review, Copper Nickel, Gulf Coast, Paris Review, The Southern Review, and Waxwing.

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