Writing Poetry as Witness

 “What three things can never be done?

Forget. Keep silent. Stand alone.”

            Muriel Rukeyser, “The Book of the Dead” (1938)

Poetry’s imperative, to speak and remember, calls on writers to stand witness to the struggles and crises around us. One technique that poets can employ was pioneered by Muriel Rukeyser in “The Book of the Dead”: the documentary poem.  

Rukeyser’s poem takes as its subject the Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster. She traveled to Gauley Bridge, WV with a photographer friend, intent on documenting the widespread incidence of silicosis among miners, and the power companies’ attempts to cover up their role in the disaster. The resulting long poem assembles medical descriptions, interviews, court transcripts—even stock market data—alongside lyric poems about the West Virginia landscape, to capture the effects of corporate greed on both the people and the land of West Virginia. It is in part because of Rukeyser’s work that the Hawks Nest disaster received the attention it deserved.

In this talk, award-winning poet Rebecca Dunham will discuss models of documentary work being done by poets today, the way in which this sort of work might influence a poet’s creative process, and share ideas for how any writer might incorporate some of these techniques into their own writing.

This project is funded in part by a grant from the Madison Arts Commission, with additional funds from the Wisconsin Arts Board.


Wisconsin Poet Rebecca Dunham

Rebecca Dunham's most recent collection of poems is Cold Pastoral from Milkweed Editions. She is a professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 

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