April 27, 2021

Docu-poetry and Investigative Poetry

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

According to Poetry River, "Documentary poems combine primary source material with poetry writing. Myriad sources inspire documentary poetry, including news articles, letters, photographs, dairies, court transcripts, medical records, and a variety of public records."  

It is similar to poetry of witness which expresses lived experience and direct observation by the poet. Muriel Rukeyser's Book of the Dead addressed a coal mine disaster in the 1930s. During WWI and WWII, Paul Celan is a poet of witness. In the 1970s, Carolyn Forché's book The Country Between Us left a strong mark on our culture. The Colonel is a prose poem example of this. It is reportage, her encounter with a colonel in Nicaragua who had collected the ears of people who had been tortured.  Investigative poetry similarly stems from a journalistic impulse, but the poem uses the tools of poetry: compression, image, sound, pattern.  When she published her book, it was sometimes criticized for being political. Attitudes toward political poetry have changed since then. In an interview published On the Seawall she says:

What I find now is that there’s been a great opening in the last 20 years, and poets are almost expected to address contemporary concerns. It’s almost the reverse of what it was before. We have emergent poetics among communities that were suppressed before: African-American poets, Asian-America poets, Indigenous poets of the First Nations, Latinx poets. I find that that’s where much of the most exciting work is being written, and they are quite politically aware in that work, although the work is not always expressive of political views.

There are many ways to address contemporary concerns. Layli Long Soldier's book Whereas, engages with a single document. A declaration made in 2007 by the US Congress, addressing the atrocities committed against Native Americans in the 1800s.  It is poetry in conversation with the document, reflecting and responding to its language and to the events which it refers (Graywolf Press) Her poem "38" is from this collection.  

Philip Metres, in the Kenyon Review, wrote: 

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."

First, to use Muriel Rukeyser’s words, the poem can “extend the document,” thus giving second life to lost or expurgated histories...

"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."

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.

Language and action. In her book of essays, Sister Outsider, Audré Lorde wrote about the necessity of transforming silence into language and action.  She wrote:

And of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger. But my daughter, when I told her of our topic and my difficulty with it, said, “Tell them about how you’re never really a whole person if you remain silent, because there’s always that one little piece inside you that wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don’t speak it out one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth from the inside.”


In the cause of silence, each of us draws the face of her own fear – fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgment, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation. But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live. 

Poetry could very well be as powerful as any form of political or social activism, and perhaps more so. The language is powerful and unforgettable. Writing is an act of claiming one's own experience and voice. Whatever one writes about makes it stronger. Does lobbying, protesting, writing to legislators, voting, writing letter to the editors, etc do as much? 

At this time, we are increasingly aware of disruptions caused by climate change: wildfires, drought, intense storms, insect infestations, viruses and disease, extinctions, and the loss of habitat. We know about the changes occurring with ice at the North and South Pole, and how this melting will raise sea levels and damage cities and landscape along the coast. Talking about climate change, Amitav Ghosh in The Guardian writes:

In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities such as Kolkata, New York and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what can they do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognising the realities of their plight? Quite possibly, then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.

To write about these things is to reflect the real issues that we grapple with every day. Poetry is succinct. It brings clarity. Poetry engages the five senses and the physical body, making it immediate.  Let us do everything we can to work with the matters at hand. Let us change the world into a better place.   

Change, Change, Rearrange: A Writing Workshop


This in-person generative writing workshop will meet in Cook, Minnesota

Tuesday, July 13 1:00 – 4:00pm

presented by Sheila Packa, author of Night Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range.  

What moves you? What has marked you? Come to this half day workshop. During the 3 hour session, we will do guided writing exercises that use personal memories, family history, and even music to create a piece of writing: a memoir, a poem, or a story.  We will play and experiment with writing in order to discover good material.  While the focus is on generating new work, participants will also consider some tips that make a piece of writing more vivid, immediate, and powerful. This workshop is for beginners and more advanced writers. At the end, participants will have time to share their new work if they like.  

To register: 

Contact Alberta Whitenack

Gallery Manager, Northwoods Friends of the Arts



Sheila Packa served as Duluth Poet Laureate in 2010-2012. She has an MFA in Creative Writing and taught writing at Lake Superior College. She leads poetry and writing workshops in the community and performs her work in music and media installations. She received a Minnesota Arts Initiative Award, a Finlandia Foundation grant, two Loft McKnight Awards (in poetry and prose) a Loft Mentor Award, and grants from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council. She has four books of poetry and edited Migrations: Poetry & Prose for Life’s Transitions, an anthology of Lake Superior writers.

February 4, 2021

A Book Club for Poetry

In Duluth, since 2018, I have facilitated a book club for poetry at Zenith Books. The bookstore was kind enough to host us in between the stacks. In the past year, due to the pandemic, our book club moved online.  Zenith Books still orders books for us, and they sell them to book club members at a 15% discount.  Zenith Bookstore is a fantastic local bookstore, and they have continued to help the readers in Duluth get through the pandemic. You can order books online to be mailed or for curbside delivery.   

The book club has been meeting for over two years. Lately we gather together on Zoom (contact me if you would like an invite). The discussion is wide-ranging. We discuss the topic or theme and also examine voice, metaphor, images, sound patterns, and forms. Members often do more research to learn biographical or other related information about the poets.

Our list of books (in the order that we read them): 

Ocean Vuong: Night Sky with Exit Wounds
Natalie Diaz: When My Brother Was an Aztec
Natasha Tretheway: Native Guard
Danez Smith: Don’t Call Us Dead
Tracy K. Smith: Duende
Joy Harjo: Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings
Tom Sleigh: House of Fact, House of Ruin
Jane Hirshfield: The Beauty
Forrest Gander: Be With
Ross Gay: Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude
Ada Limon: The Carrying
Maggie Nelson: Bluets
Sharon Olds: Odes
Hanif Abdurriq: A Fortune for Your Disaster
Saeed Jones: Prelude to Bruise
Sarah Ruhl: 44 Poems for You
Farzana Marie: Load Poems Like Guns: Women’s Poetry from Herat Afghanistan
Sun Yung Shin: Unbearable Splendor 
Andrea Jenkins: The T Is Not Silent
Robin Coste Lewis: Voyage of the Sable Venus
Marilyn Chin: A Portrait of the Self as Nation
Louise Glück: Poems 1962-2012
Jericho Brown: The Tradition
Tomas Tranströmer: The Great Enigma.
Lorine Niedecker: Granite Pail or Selected Poems



January 24, 2021

Watched All Things Change


A Birth

by Muriel Rukeyser

Lately having escaped three-kinded death

Not by evasion but by coming through

I celebrate what may be true beginning.

But new begun am most without resource

Stupid and stopped.      How do the newborn grow?

I am of them.        Freshness has taken our hearts;

Pain strips us to the source, infants of further life

Waiting for childhood as we wait for form.

So came I into the world of all the living,

The maimed triumphant middle of my way

Where there is giving needing no forgetting.

Saw now the present that is here to say:

Nothing I wrote is what I must see written,

Nothing I did is what I now need done. –

The smile of darkness on my song and my son.

Lately emerged I have seen unfounded houses,

Have seen spirits now opened, surrounded as by sun,

And have, among limitless consensual faces

Watched all things change, an unbuilt house inherit

Materials of desire, that stone and wood and air.

Lit by a birth, I defend dark beginnings,

Waste that is never waste, most-human giving,

Declared and clear as the mortal body of grace.

Beginnings of truth-in-life, the rooms of wilderness

Where truth feeds and the ramifying heart,

Even mine, praising even the past in its pieces,

My tearflesh beckoner who brought me to this place. 

from Poetry, January 1952


Muriel Rukeyser's poems are powerful and political. I used a line from her poem as an inscription to the book of poetry about the Iron Range.  "Let these roads take you into your own country,"  Rukeyser once said that the poem is like a theater. A line of a poem is a line of energy. 

This poem captures an awakening, a new birth, and expresses awe in the moment its happening. The voice is personal, narrative. The form very much epistolary, a letter.  One thing that I find very interesting in the poem is the rhythm. It's conveys the sense of impediments. This is how one feels after coming through huge change or trauma that she names as a "three-kinded death."  In the first stanza, she conveys a sense of feeling stunned:  

But new begun am most without resource

Stupid and stopped.      How do the newborn grow?

I am of them...


            Pain strips us to the source, infants of further life

            Waiting for childhood as we wait for form. 

There is a need to understand the new shape of life, a pause.  We wait for form.  

In the middle stanza, "So came I..."  is a reversal of the usual word order, and the first two syllables are emphatic. It's claims, declaims.  The voice is powerful.  After these words, two prepositional phrases, each with a longer breath line.  The second line of the poem has alliteration, the repeated m sound and the long a sound at the start and end are memorable.  There are stops and starts in the ensuing lines, syncopated rhythms, disruptions that seem to echo the content of the poem. 

Nothing I wrote is what I must see written,

Nothing I did is what I now need done. 


The anaphora structure, the same beginning on each line, and the end stops make this stand out. Often I've felt that the pandemic, the huge public health disaster, has changed the context of all of our lives. Lives are at stake.  Actions matter. Former worries seem paltry to the new worries: severe illness, possible job loss, loss of a loved one, isolation.  There is a need to evaluate one's normal activities up until January 2020, to reassess and change.  The world is a different place. It requires something different.  

The last stanza conveys the sense of amazement and wonder. A dream grows and becomes real:  

Watched all things change, an unbuilt house inherit

Materials of desire, that stone and wood and air.  

New meanings arrive, a sense of relief or reckoning, another sense of connection to pieces of the past that brought one over obstacle or barricade. The ramifying heart: great word choice. It beats. No it is a battering ram. It breaks through.  "My tearflesh beckoner" is such a powerful image of grief and desire.  

Beginnings of truth-in-life, the rooms of wilderness

Where truth feeds and the ramifying heart,

Even mine, praising even the past in its pieces,

My tearflesh beckoner who brought me to this place. 


It is a poem that expresses the moment, amid the long pandemic, a political victory hard won that brings integrity and compassion back to the White House. 

Yet, citizens witnessed an attack on the US Capitol by our own citizens, people who have been fed fear-based propaganda and a lie about the election and it led to violence and five people dead, windows broken, lawmaker's threatened by white nationalists and extremists. What does it take to maintain a democracy?  It is not polarization, not propaganda, not efforts to ignore the voice of the people, the voters.  It takes the rule of law and leaders who have a commitment to the democratic institutions and to integrity. Transparency. Dialogue. Egalitarianism. It takes the truth. 

Republican leaders now must decide how they will govern. They are at a crossroad. Fascism has been stopped, and they seem disoriented. "Stupid and stopped."  Will they remain silent? Will they go back to hostility, verbal attacks, red herrings, whataboutisms, oversimplifications and generalizations? 

 It's time for some critical thinking. "Nothing I wrote is what I must see written."  It's time to name the lie. Is it possible for them to confess how they spread the propaganda for their own profit or power?  They seem to be stuttering, fighting with each other for power, and anxious to put it behind without affixing consequences to Trump, without accepting responsibility for their own complicity. They must decide whether to operate under a mass delusion or to break that delusion.  I hope they get through this and return to egalitarian efforts. I hope they want to engage with voters of all races, of both genders, and understand that a government plays a necessary role to help the poor, to empower people, encourage each person to build skills and embrace opportunities.