“What Kind of Poem Would You Make Out of That?”

“What Kind of Poem Would You Make Out of That?”:
Transformation at the Source: From Document to Poem

Hosted by ArtWrite Collective, facilitated by Lauren Russell.

Johannesburg Mines

In the Johannesburg mines
There are 240,000
Native Africans working.
What kind of poem
Would you
Make out of that?
240,000 natives
Working in the
Johannesburg mines.

–Langston Hughes

Documentary poetry “arises from the idea that poetry is not a museum-object to be observed from afar, but a dynamic medium that informs and is informed by the history of the moment,” Philip Metres writes in an essay on the Poetry Foundation’s website.[1] As such, the documentary mode invites socially conscious approaches to poem making. For purposes of our workshop, we are thinking in terms of poems that use documents, not just poems that document. While it can be a site for political intervention, poets’ work with documents need not be confined to recitations of facts and evidence. Through the found language of documents, poets may arrive at the lyric, the narrative, the investigatory, the confessional, the dissident, or even the language poem.

Intended for both experienced poets and people who do not think of themselves as writers at all, this six-part workshop will open participants up to new possibilities for poem making while raising discussion about authorship, influence and quotation versus appropriation, the construction of “fact,” and how we can make new statements with/through/into/around old language. Participants will be invited to arrive with a particular event, question, topic, or concern they wish to write from. (For example, in the poem above, Hughes is working from a statistic about the Johannesburg mines that speaks to larger issues about colonialism and exploitation; in M. NourbeSe Philip’s ZONG!, the point of entry is the legal decision in the Zong massacre; in Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead, it is a West Virginia mining disaster; in Tyehimba Jess’s Leadbelly, it is of course the mythologized figure of the great bluesman Lead Belly).

Is there a particular life or death, innovation, disaster, struggle, condition, triumph, or crime you wish to write into or out of? Participants will use that as a point of entry to work with found texts of their choice. Found texts might include histories, genealogies, studies, news items, articles, ads, obituaries, lists, diaries, statistics, court transcripts—or whatever else sparks a writer’s curiosity and imagination. Through weekly in-class and outside activities, we will engage with those texts in a variety of ways. We will also read and discuss a range of models, which may include excerpts from Philip’s Zong, Jess’s Leadbelly, Rukeyeser’s Book of the Dead, Mark Nowak’s Shut Up Shut Down, Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary, Amaud Jamaul Johnson’s Red Summer, Daphne Gottlieb’s Kissing Dead Girls, and others. Participants will have the opportunity to read and discuss one another’s work each week and to contribute to a zine and public reading after the conclusion of the workshop.

The workshop will be a series of six three-hour sessions, meeting every Sunday 2p-5p from January 31st through March 6th, with a zine release and reading later in March. Workshops will be hosted at the Arts + Literature Laboratory (ALL) at 2021 Winnebago St, Madison, WI.

$150-$250 sliding scale. Scholarship funding may be available upon request. Applications due January 15th, 2016. Attendance cap: 10. 


Lauren Russell has taught writing courses at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and at the University of Pittsburgh, where she received a Distinguished Teaching Award. She currently coordinates the Diversity Internship in Public History at the Wisconsin Historical Society. Russell’s first full-length book, What’s Hanging on the Hush, will be out from Ahsahta Press in 2017. She is the author of the chapbook Dream-Clung, Gone (Brooklyn Arts Press), and her poems have appeared in Better, boundary 2, jubilat, Ping•Pong, and Tarpaulin Sky, among others. Her reviews may be found in Aster(ix), The Volta, Jacket2, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships from Cave Canem and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and she has been named the 2016 VIDA Fellow to the Home School Miami. Russell is currently in the middle of a book-length poetic hybrid work, tentatively entitled “Descent.” The project began when the poet acquired a copy of the diary of her great-great grandfather, a Confederate veteran who fathered twenty children by three of his former slaves, black women who have been silenced by history. “Descent” is at once an investigation, a reclamation, and an insistence on making history as a creative act.

[1] Philip Metres. “From Reznikoff to Public Enemy,” 5 Nov. 2007, Poetry Foundation, 14 Dec. 2015. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/article/180213&gt;


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