“The test of any documentary / historical / investigative poetry” is whether it “ends up teaching the new reading public things that they did not know already.” Tracking/Teaching, Joe Harrington, quoted by P. Metres in (More) News from Poems.
The central learning objective of the documentary poem project is to demonstrate that you have understood the basic ideas and methods of the literature we have read. Your project will present your research into a topic important to you. As with the documentary poems we have read this semester, your poem will bring together language from a variety of sources into a single form marked by the structural and ethical concerns of poetry. I encourage you to find language in different places – news, social media, books, historical documents, film, TV, plus your own creative imagination. As you research your topic, formulate a thesis much like you would for a regular research paper. What are the sources or causes of the problem? Who are the central participants? What are the results, in the short term and the long term? What is the solution you would implement if you could?
Once you have a firm idea, look closely at your thesis or solution. Are you biased? Is your research limited? Is there really no good solution? Attempt to imagine other viewpoints on the issue.
Finally, begin to select and compose language from your research. By “compose” I mean put into place. Juxtapose different text types or different viewpoints in a single context. Search out the natural repetitions in your materials – how can you replicate that repetition in your poem? Search out individual voices, people affected by the situation, people who are invested in it. How can you represent their point of view? Search for images that stand out – found metaphors or symbols people like to use. Are they more complicated than they seem? Are they more vague? Think about the boy that Kendrick Lamar talks to in his song “Momma.” He might be a little Kendrick, or he might represent the whole Compton district, or he might represent Lamar’s visit to Africa to seek out his roots. As the composer, the poet, you don’t have to know what things necessarily mean, but you sense a formal or emotional relationship between them.
Your poem can have chapters, section, poems, paragraphs, acts, scenes, whatever you need it to have, or it can be one long rap.
Formal Requirements
Your final submission will be a PDF document. If you don’t know how to make one, please let me know. MS Word now produces PDF easily.
Your project will have three sections, an introduction, a poem, and documentation.
A. Introduction: This section should be about 2 pages double spaced, but could be longer. It will state the topic/focus of your research and provide a rationale for why you selected that topic. It will describe your research process. Did you interview people? Did you hunt down documents? Did you exchange emails or text messages with people? Explain why you selected certain materials for the poem. Were they compelling? Unusual? Outrageous? Describe the effect you intend for the poem. What do you want people to learn, understand, or feel as a result of reading it? Evaluate its success – do you think it manages to do what you hope it does? How might the project have been improved or changed with additional time or resources? Marthe Reed died before she could write her introduction to Ark Hive, but the book includes an afterword by Brenda Iijima that functions much the same way, so you can look at it for an example.
B. The poem will take whatever form or forms you want it to take. Since you probably aren’t an experienced poet you might rely on your source material to dictate your form. That is, you might include prose paragraphs of narration, or you might list quotations, or quote directly from court reports like Reznikoff does–—a brutal technique if you find the right sources. You will probably want to create a spatial organization on some pages, like a collage. One important element of this composition is that everything be integrated carefully into a single format. You cannot simply cut and paste into a document and leave it at that. If you include graphics or photos they must be integrated carefully into the text (dealing with photo distortion can be quite difficult). This will be a big part of the challenge of this project. You can’t just take screen shots of text messages then paste them into the document. Ideally, you will type out the text but use a format such that it suggests a text message. If you use a screen shot it needs to fit neatly into the format of the poem. I will be interested to see how you manage your layout. The goal is to make the whole text display appear to be controlled.
One thing that you will include in your poem is at least one section, a minimum of 14 lines long (yes, sonnet length), that has some rhythmical or metrical structure. It might be iambic pentameter, or mixed trimester and tetrameter ballad stanzas. Or it might simply be a rap with a 4 beat line. The point of this section is for you to force some of your language into a restricted form, which helps you pay close attention to the natural poetic elements of your source language. This part can be made up by you or adapted by you from source documents. You can point out the section in your introduction and describe what you have done if you like. (Hint: if this part is a problem for you, think about song lyrics—they usually have a rhythm. Adapt them, add some things of your own, or break it up with a different text, and you will have something.)
C. The References section. Using MLA format, you will provide citations for all of your sources so that I can find them (if it’s possible). The Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab) has a comprehensive list of documentation formats for any kind of document. This part is important –see the footnotes in Ark Hive. Even if you don’t explicitly use a document, it might influence your thinking, so include it. You want people to dive deeper into the archive of your topic.
The overall project should be 8-10 pages double spaced. The introduction should be about 2 pages, and your documentation may take 1-2 pages. You can use space as you need it in the poem. This may be long for a composition at this point, but I trust you to make good judgments about how to know that you are fulfilling the goals of the assignment.

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