Documentary Poetry: a workshop with Simone John

By Ma’ayan D’Antonio

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Simone John photo by Ma’ayan D’Antonio

With the sky overcast, we gathered at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library to the sounds of soft music playing. Simone was busily getting ready for the workshop, on the table lay books of poetry. Among them was Testify, Simone’s debut poetry collection, that revolves around the murder trial of Trayvon Martin. Olio by Tyehimba Jess and Blood Dazzler: Poems by Patricia Smith were also among her examples of documentary poetry.

Simone went around the room asking how everyone was doing, based on a scale of 1-5. Simone said that she was a 4.75, because the sun was not yet shining that day. She then preceded to explain in depth what is documentary poetry. A lot of it is researching an event or issue that is on your mind or that you like, get to know it.

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Workshop photo by Ma’ayan D’Antonio

For Simone it was mostly what was being said during the murder trial in the death of Trayvon Martin, as well as what people where saying on the social networks. There still are poetic libraries within this form, yet you can pull things from court documents, testimonies, court transcripts, comments that people left on news feeds and so on.

This form of poetry she explained, comes from a place of obsession. It is a way to reflect on the world in a poetic way. “A machine of words.” she said. Find what moves you, hunts you, dig deep into it then write about it.

Simone offered some techniques to consider when writing this or any other kind of poetry:

– Think about tension and how you play with the white space. What is the white space saying, or not saying.

– Think about the view or lens that the poem is taking on.

– Diction and word choice.

– You can have multiple voices in the poem.

– Juxtaposing, comparing things or placing them in conversation with one another.

– Form.

– The writer as the camera, Maggie Nelson does this well.

– Layering texts/ texture. This is a way to use statements that others have made that seem important to the poem.

– Interviews. Olio is an example for what she meant.

With the sun coming out, the poets shared what they had come up with during the workshop. Nothing complete, yet true beginnings.

 

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