On Black Literary Influences and Documentary Poetics

I first encountered documentary poetics at a workshop during my low res MFA program. A portion of the description read, “Participants [will] use pre-existing documents, such as  newspaper articles, public testimony, and family artifacts to produce poetry that  blurs the line between facts and fiction, the personal and the political. We will be led by the question: How does my work need to be arranged and written so that it can make powerful statement—a gesture outwards?”  These days I’m asked to talk about TESTIFY’s origin story often. I always return to this workshop, and the poets I discovered because of it.  When I’m asked about my influences, or which works of documentary poetry I’d recommend, two writers come to mind.

I found a type of literary kinship with cotemporary black poet A. Van Jordan. In MacNolia, Jordan writes about native Ohioan MacNolia Cox. In her youth, MacNolia participated in the 1936 National Spelling Bee—the first black person to do so. It is rumored that a southern judge sabotaged her winning streak by giving her a word that wasn’t on the official list. Ironically, that word was nemesis. The collection consisted solely of persona poems. The poems offer an eclectic range of perspectives: MacNolia and people in her life, black icons of the era (for example, Josephine Baker). One poem is even written in the voice of the word “nemesis,” in which the word sympathizes with MacNolia and regrets being involved in MacNolia’s loss. In the text Jordan created a form that involved structuring the poem around particular word’s dictionary definitions. The resulting poems are block-like and dense with information. The form suits the subject matter impeccably—dictionary definitions in a book about a spelling bee champion.

Frank X. Walker, another modern black poet, also writes unique persona poetry. Turn Me Loose is Frank X. Walker’s poetry collection about the circumstances surrounding the murder of Medgar Evers. Medgar Evers was a civil rights activist who was murdered by a Klansman in 1963. Though the identity of the murderer was known, he was acquitted after two trials in 1964. He was later found guilty in 1994. Turn Me Loose is largely comprised of persona poems. Walker uses voices of people close to the case: Byron De La Beckwith, Evers’s murderer; Thelma and Willie De La Beckwith, Byron’s wives; Charles, Evers’s brother; and Myrlie, Evers’s wife. In the foreword Spelman College’s Michelle S. Hite identifies a “sixth voice that works like a Greek chorus.” Throughout the book this “chorus” accounts for approximately a fifth of the poems. Because these poems were not attributed to any character or persona, they were able to serve various unique functions in the collection.

Walker’s deft use of haiku and his “Greek chorus” poems gave me tactics to bring back to my own work. Though people are often introduced to haiku in the context of nature/ natural imagery, Walker used them in a way that was contemporary and relevant. Haiku provide enough structure to demand some restraint, while being flexible enough to let the poet render subject matter organically. The chorus poems allowed Walker to be almost omnipotent, which remedied the occasional conflicting tones . In Testify, I occasionally combine these techniques to insert my own perspective in the form of haiku.

These poets influenced my work in many ways, and it’s threaded throughout TESTIFY. A. Van Jordan and Frank X. Walker are both black poets writing explicitly about racism, employing and inventing forms to do so. Rather than thinking about race in the abstract, these poems are anchored by moments in history that illustrate the poet’s themes. I’m grateful to have come in contact with these texts-turned-teachers in the process of creating TESTIFY.

Simone John, 2017 WROB Fellow

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