“Contemporary Documentary Poetry” argues for the political efficacy of poetry and demonstrates how documentary poets carve out an ethics of witnessing. Although documentary poetry has a history that stretches back to the nineteenth century, it has emerged with new energy in the twenty-first. Recent scholarship tends to focus on differentiating documentary poetry from related genres. My work shifts the conversation from debates about terminology toward a rigorous account of documentary’s effect on poetic form. Taking up Muriel Rukeyser’s claim that “poetry extends the document,” I demonstrate how poets like Claudia Rankine and Tyehimba Jess use poetic forms to make lyrical arguments. From the lover’s plea in the sonnet to the epic poet entreating their muse, poems have always persuaded. Documentary poetry combines the persuasive power of lyric address with material evidence, absorbing nonliterary texts and discourses like court cases and medical records. By showing how poetic forms work rhetorically in documentary, my dissertation accounts for a recent wave of socially engaged poetry that foregrounds experimental aesthetic practice, while still communicating political aims.
In order to analyze the persuasive power of form, I turn to classical rhetoric, which has always treated form as ideologically motivated. I map Aristotle’s branches of rhetoric onto specific poetic forms, placing ceremonial rhetoric in relation to elegy, courtroom rhetoric in relation to ekphrasis and prosopopoeia, and legislative rhetoric in relation to anaphora. For example, I argue that elegy triangulates the apostrophic encounter as an act of hospitality to the dead in Anne Carson’s Nox. I also theorize the lyric series, a popular form critics tend to ignore. I propose that the series is an archipelagic formation––experienced as a visible totality one moment and entropic fragmentation the next––that enables documentary argument. Bringing in Wai Chee Dimock’s deep time and Rob Nixon’s slow violence, I suggest documentary fabrication empowers poets to reframe the archive, as well as represent unrepresentable phenomena like the Middle Passage. Ultimately, my project demonstrates the power of poetic discourse to make claims and offer a legitimate counternarrative to legal and historical discourses. Research for my dissertation has led to articles forthcoming in Callaloo and Word & Image.
“Ekphrasis as Evidence: Forensic Rhetoric in Contemporary Documentary Poetry,”
forthcoming in Word & Image: A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry.
“Archive as Underworld in the Modern Long Poem,” forthcoming in Callaloo.
Book Review on Contested Records: The Turn to Documents in Contemporary North
American Poetry by Michael Leong (Iowa University Press, 2020) for Contemporary Literature, forthcoming.
Presentations and Workshops
“Unraveling Elegy in Anne Carson’s Nox,” Panel on American Elegy, Now, American
Literature Association Symposium on American Poetry, Washington, DC, February 2020.
“The Poetics of…Poetics?” Panel on Metatexts, English Graduate Student Organization
Colloquium, Cornell University, March 2019.
“Speaking a Cemetery: Alice Oswald’s Memorial: an Excavation of Homer’s Iliad,” Emily
Dickinson International Society’s panel on Poems of War, SAMLA 90: Fighters from the Margins: Socio-Political Activists and their Allies, Birmingham, AL, November 2018.
“Narrating Napping in Mrs. Dalloway,” graduate workshop with Rebecca Walkowitz,
Novel Theory: Society for Novel Studies Conference, Cornell University, May 2018.
“‘A spectacle to which there is no end’: Narrative Looping as Self-Crossing in The
Prelude,” Panel on Forms of Knowledge Production, The Global Nineteenth Century Colloquium: Overwhelming Pessimisms, Cornell University, March 2017.
“Heteroglossic Monologue in ‘Annie Pengelly,’” Panel on Poetry and Poetics, PAMLA
Conference, Portland State University, November 2015.
“Heteroglossic Monologue in Lorna Goodison's ‘Annie Pengelly,’” Panel on Caribbean
Voices, Human Terrains: Identity, Geography, Politics Conference, The University of Virginia, April 2015.
My research on documentary fictions will provide the basis for my next project on mockumentary television. Initially popularized by The Office, mockumentary continues to find success in shows like Documentary, Now! and What We Do in the Shadows. Mockumentary combines familiar documentary conventions with subversive humor to make political interventions. I have already begun thinking about mockumentary in my classroom, examining the poetics of humor in my cultural studies course “Dramedy from Ancient Greece to NBC” and the contours of contemporary documentary in my upcoming course “Documentary, Now?” Extending my research on seriality in poetry, I will examine the specific affordances of serial forms for mockumentary. How does the series’ cadences of repetition and return, its navigation of the empty space between episodes, and its stretched-out temporal scope create unique opportunities for both political commentary and punchlines?