Skip to Content

Memory and Perception in Contemporary Documentary Poetics

«Back To Seminars

Organizer: Claire Grandy

Co-Organizer: Whitney DeVos

Contact the Seminar Organizers

How, following the “documentary turn,” have contemporary poets utilized investigative research to interrogate an increasingly urgent present? A number of recent texts intersperse data, reportage, and visual and archival materials in complex explorations of facticity, intimacy, and (in)visibility surrounding histories of structural violence and transgenerational trauma. This seminar takes as its starting point the imbrication of politics and aesthetics, as well as the conviction that documentary (investigative, archival) poetics strategically questions the verisimilitude of recording and describing, even as it engages in methods of observation and research. The application of lyric technique to extra-poetic discourse instantiates various relational—and often oppositional—historiographic experiments in which identity formation becomes inseparable from local, national, and geopolitical circumstances. In the words of Craig Santos Perez, “The docupoem emplaces voice within the historical and textual materiality of other contexts—highlighting the tension between voice and historiography.”

Poets such as Susan Howe and Robin Coste Lewis, for instance, adopt collative and curatorial archival practices to call into question the presumed transparency of a fact, or a historical artifact. Their work underscores the discursive methods employed in dominant narratives and quotidian logics by which access to power remains unequally distributed along lines of race, class, and gender. Claudia Rankine, Dionne Brand, Terrance Hayes, and others figure racialized exposure and erasure in relation to visuality, a term Nick Mirzoeff adopts to signify the work performed by images, information, and ideas to make history perceptible to authority.

This seminar considers documentary or quasi-documentary tactics that undermine or are otherwise ambivalent to the logic of documentation itself, especially as it functions within systems of archival biopolitics. “Ironically,” write Jena Osman and Juliana Spahr, “documenting of the ‘real’ seems to rely on defamiliarization, a shift in the angle of perception/reception/expectation … [by which] the alienated word or image is the most effective means for communicating that which is true.” How do poets use images and modes of data collection to transfigure historically-situated memory and perception? How does a non-narrative, historico-material poetics challenge existing hermeneutics of pasts—and futures? How can poetry reterritorialize hegemonic imaginaries structuring global neoliberal capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and neocolonialism? 

We invite papers on post-45 poets and their works, as well as theoretical or metacritical considerations on documentary poetics more broadly.

«Back To Seminars