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Photo illustration by Mark Riechers. Original image by Matthew Henry (CC0).

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January 13, 2024

Rooted in reality, written with a keen observer’s eye, and shaped with a sense of song, documentary poetry tells the truth in an artist’s voice. For generations, through wars, crisis, and political upheaval, documentary poets have helped make sense of some of our most difficult moments – by expressing what might otherwise be impossible to say. So what are they writing about today?

This episode was produced in partnership with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.


We asked Arab-American poet Philip Metres to write an original poem in the style he’s known for — documentary poetry — a genre that blends techniques from journalism and poetry to offer a fresh way of hearing today’s news.

Boots at right angles.

Kaia Sand is a journalist whose day job is executive director of the community newspaper Street Roots in Portland, Oregon. She’s also a poet and she uses both lenses – journalism and poetry – to write about the people she knows and things she sees firsthand in her city. 


As a documentary poet, Camille Dungy writes not just about headline-making news, but about news on a more intimate scale — about motherhood, marriage, and her garden. It’s an approach she says was very much inspired by the "godmother" of documentary poetry, Muriel Rukeyeser. 


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January 13, 2024
Full Transcript 📄

- [Anne] It's, "To The Best Of Our Knowledge." I'm Anne Strainchamps. I'd like you to meet Suncere Ali Shakur.

- [Suncere] All right, let me see here. All right, okay, I got it.

- [Anne] A community activist, currently based in Cleveland, Suncere, has worked to feed people in poverty, to fight human trafficking, and to heal trauma caused by gun violence and Hurricane Katrina.

- [Philip] I feel a little embarrassed reading it it in my voice, 'cause this is Suncere's words.

- [Anne] And this is Philip Metres, a renowned Arab-American poet. He teaches English and Human Rights at Ohio's John Carroll University.

- [Philip] I'm not gonna do justice to the voice, this is,

- [Suncere] Well, a lot of people say, I sound like Batman.

- [Philip] All right, I'll work on that, I'll work on that.

- [Suncere] You can read it like this.

- [Philip] Okay.

- [Anne] For this episode of, "To The Best Of Our Knowledge," we asked Philip to write an original poem in a style he's known for: documentary poetry. This is a genre that uses techniques from journalism, interviews, archival material, primary source research. It's been around for a long time, but might seem new, and it offers a fresh way of hearing today's news. Philip chose to interview Suncere for the poem, and we got the two of them together to talk about what that was like. Here's what they came up with.

- [Philip] This is called, "The Gospel of Suncere Ali Shakur," by Philip Metres and Suncere Ali Shakur. In July 2023, Suncere Ali Shakur and I met outside Wilson Towers, a public housing apartment in Cleveland, where Shakur has lived for a decade. Born and raised in Washington D.C., Shakur is a lifelong activist, who walks in the footsteps of the Black Panthers. He made history in New Orleans when, providing aid for people after Hurricane Katrina, he and other activists saved the oldest Black church in America from closure. In 2019, he was named one of Cleveland's most interesting people for his many projects to love and care for his people and to challenge the powerful. These words are his.

- [Suncere] My name is Suncere Ali Shakur. I'm a career activist, things around police brutality, housing, food. I started when I was 13, 14 years old, providing food for low-income communities, including one of the largest open-drug-air market in the United States. I'm a proud Washingtonian and Sagittarius, and Phil came out to sit down with me to see if we could formulate a poem, and it is the poem I'm about to read today. Okay, number one,

- [Philip] What, My elders,

- [Suncere] My elders,

- [Both] Taught me to do the work.

- [Suncere] Not because I want someone to tap me on my back, or admiration, or money, but because it's my job.

- [Philip] Two, one of the attributes of the Five Percenters is to be sincere.

- [Suncere] And the sun comes out whether you like it or not, it has a job to do, so I put both of them together.

- [Philip] Suncere Ali was a name loved by the people,

- [Suncere] A man loved by the people.

- [Philip] Shakur, I had to earn.

- [Suncere] Took me about a year to get it.

- [Both] Three.

- [Suncere] D.C. taught me to survive. when I was a kid, my dad sent me to the store, but it was closed, had to walk eight blocks to another. Went up to the counter, seen this oil painting of these dudes in berets and pump shotguns, and I asked who it was, and he said, "Black Panthers, "the Black Panther party," and from that moment, I fell in love.

- [Philip] Four, I was a throwaway.

- [Suncere] My family threw me away, and they wanted the streets to kill me, but somehow, I survived. I'm a product of everyone I met along the way. Wound up in a shelter, met a renegade from the underground, and learned at the feet of a former Black Panther. Number five.

- [Philip] It was a White woman from West Virginia, got me hooked.

- [Suncere] Her name was Bork Loughner, by the way.

- [Philip] Taught me to do a building takeover, got me hooked, knew I had a big mouth, so she took what I had. Franklin School Building was supposed to be the site for a hypothermia drop.

- [Suncere] Two people froze to death, and the mayor hadn't opened it, so we took it over. I was the outside guy because I had a big mouth, right? And got the crowd all hyped in front of the news.

- [Philip] And when the people went in, when they broke in and brought them out in handcuffs, it was the looks of defiance they had on their face, the handcuffs on and surrounded by police.

- [Suncere] It was that look of defiance on their face that did it for me. I said, "I'm going in, next time."

- [Anne] Defiance. Not a bad way to describe docupoetry, which is all about bearing witness and seeking justice, finding beauty in hard truths. Shannon Henry Kleiber wanted to hear both their voices reading this poem.

- [Shannon] I have to ask, Suncere, how does it feel, what do you think when you're hearing your words?

- [Suncere] I guess the word I'm looking for is, "surreal." It's not so much the words, you know, that I'm hearing my own words being repeated back to me, it's the relationship and the connection me and Philip had when we was on the bench, and the look on his face, and his understanding about what I was doing and why I was there. That was more impactful to me, but to hear someone else say it, it reminds me that it's real, because I've totally committed myself to this work, 100%, no frills, I'm dedicated. So, it means a lot to me just to have you guys, all together, stop and pay attention to, not so much myself, but the work and the human condition.

- [Shannon] I love how you talk about how Phil sat down with you on the bench. I can totally picture that. You met each other on a bench and you talked to each other.

- [Suncere] Yes.

- [Shannon] And this poem came from that conversation.

- [Suncere] It really was a test if I wanted to do this or not, because I was like, "If you're willing to come to me, "and sit in this mess that I have to sit in every day "so you can get a better understanding of who I am "and what I do, and get a chance to meet people," and they knew why he was there, and for a little while, it was actually quiet.

- [Shannon] You both did it in a little bit of a different way, which I also loved. I thought that you kind of had a little bit of your own personality in them both, and Philip, what did it feel like for you to hear Suncere reading it?

- [Philip] Well, first and foremost, all I wanted to do with the poem was to try to capture some bit of the tone and the voice that Suncere brought to our original conversation. So, I think that it just brings me back to that time that we shared together in that space at Wilson Towers. We were outside. You know, I live just up the road, and I've passed by where Suncere lives, many, many times, going to events in the city, but I had never stopped there.

- [Shannon] It felt like to me, Philip, that you're kind of a witness to Suncere's work.

- [Philip] Yeah, I think that one of the jobs of a poet is to be a medium for other voices, particular voices that are often erased by power structures and by racism, and other structures of violence, so my job, in that moment, was to try as best I could to transmit, just be the antenna of that place, and his voice, and that struggle.

- [Shannon] Suncere, what did you think when Philip called you and said, "Hey, I'd like to talk to you and write a poem"?

- [Suncere] I was a little leery. I was a little leery of it, only because I write poetry myself, and most of my poems come from, like, trauma and pain that I've been through, and I was a little worried, 'cause I'm like, "How are you gonna be able to get "the essence of what I have to say "if you haven't experienced any the things "that I've been through?" Great loss, abandonment, you know, and so forth, but I went through it anyway, and to my surprise, I met a pretty good human being, you know, that I didn't mind sharing my story with. I like to think of myself as a good judge of character, because I have to, because of where I live, it's a part of your survival. It's the being able to read people, and I saw how sincere and beautiful this brother was, and 'cause I am an .

- [Shannon] Well, he said so in the poem, right? And and when he read it, you were nodding, and when you read it, you were smiling. Yeah.

- [Suncere] Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

- [Shannon] This genre is so interesting to me, as a journalist. So, I've been a journalist for 30 years, and there's a great responsibility in telling someone else's story.

- [Suncere] Right.

- [Shannon] And you're not just reporting on something that happens down the street and not caring about it. When you're talking about people's lives, and you're interviewing people, and you're portraying them, whether it's about their legacy, or a project, you are representing that person, and it is powerful. So, what makes a poem a documentary poem, Philip?

- [Philip] I take the definition from Muriel Rukeyser, who was an incredible poet, who, in the 1930s, did an investigative reporting project, going to talk with miners who had been affected by silicosis in the mines in West Virginia. What it ended up being was this incredible, long poem in which Muriel Rukeyser gathered through a series of interviews, and going to court testimonies, and talking with doctors, and talking with people who've been impacted by the mine disaster, this incredible poem called, "The Book of the Dead." So, I think of it as a kind of investigative, quasi-investigative journalism.

- [Shannon] Is there a poetic way of interviewing that you do when you talked to Suncere, and when you talk to other people?

- [Philip] So, it's really important for me that I am not gonna be one of these journalists, or poets, or writers, who comes to somebody, extracts their wisdom, and pain, and their beauty, and then shares it with others. To me, that's something that journalism, literature, and poetry have done far too often. So, that, to me, was the most important thing. What can a poem do, really, is to capture some kind of essence of a spirit, in motion in the world, and with all of its longing, and all of its past, and all of its hope,

- [Shannon] I think that speaks to the trust, as Suncere was saying, that you had to have with each other.

- [Suncere] Trust is the most addictive drug in my life, and the thing that got me really addicted to doing community work is the fact when I showed up, people trusted me. Not only did they need me, but they trusted me to do exactly what I said I was gonna do, and when I tell you I'm gonna be there at 4:45 AM, in the morning, I got the food, water, and other things that you needed, and the look on people's face when you arrive, and you show up, and you are about what you say that you are about, it's addictive, and it makes me wanna do more, and more, and more, so, yeah, trust is very, very important to me.

- [Philip] Six.

- [Suncere] Wound up in New Orleans after Katrina, not to toot my own horn, but at 53 years old, I'm not in good health, but I went down there and made history there, made history by loving people.

- [Philip] Saved St. Augustine Church, oldest Black church in America.

- [Suncere] The St. Aug Twelve, look it up.

- [Philip] Seven. This place is like a university. I get to get over myself and see people for who they are. If you don't deal with the trauma, the food, and the clothes, and the shelter is important, but you know the Pyramid of Life?

- [Suncere] We brought in 2,500 pounds of food. This is a historic movement, but I did it with alcoholics, dope fiends, people that make bad choices, but they love me, brother.

- [Philip] We living life, but can't think about education and politics. If you don't deal with the trauma, they gonna rip all that ish down.

- [Suncere] All I want to see is one, that one out of a thousand, to replace me.

- [Shannon] Suncere, it makes me think that we might not have heard that story from you if Philip hadn't written this poem. This is an example of why these kinds of poems are powerful, and influential, and the truth that comes from these might not come from any other kind of art.

- [Suncere] Absolutely, and giving a voice to everyday people, who you may not hear from, you know, and if it's done in the right way, it can connect on so many levels of so many different people. I don't want the slaps on the back, "Oh, Suncere," Nah, man, it ain't about me, it's about us. I can't change the abuse of women without us. I can't change the abuse of children without us. I can't change the abuse of men and change their focus without us, together. You know, one day I'm gonna be dead and gone, but I wanna leave something behind, just like somebody left something behind for me.

- [Shannon] We only live so long, so when we're gone, what is our life remembered by? And this is something,

- [Suncere] Right.

- [Shannon] Throughout history, poets have done, right, Philip? I mean this is a tradition of, a poetic tradition of recording history in many ways, and what are some of the hallmarks of this kind of documentary poetry in addition to interviewing people, like, Suncere, so there's archival work, there's primary sources, fact-checking data, the human condition, but then you go back to the person you talked to, and you check the facts, or you interview somebody, and you think, "Okay, well, maybe there's "an archival Black Panther story "that can come into the poem." How does that work as you're creating?

- [Philip] Well, in this case, obviously, it was a fairly unmediated, you know, Suncere special. It's all Suncere, but in a lot of documentary work, there are, interspersed within narratives, all kinds of other language. So, for example, with a poem that I did around homelessness, that's related to post-incarceration, inability to get housing and a job, I juxtapose the story of a man named Joseph, who was from Cleveland, who was unable to find a place to stay because of his felony conviction, and ended up sleeping on a bus, and ended up kind of petitioning over and over again to have his rights restored to him, and there was a judge in that case, Judge Boyko, who has lived a very privileged life. Let's just say once he became a judge, it was Easy Street, and so I juxtaposed the Easy Street story of Boyko, alongside Joseph, for whom Boyko was, you know, a nemesis, I juxtaposed their two realities, and I brought them together in the space of the poem. I think, to me, what documentary poetry does well, and what probably all revolutionary poetry does well is it's not simply about voices, it's also an examination of systems and structures, which keep some people in situations of absolute oppression, and other people who benefit mightily from those same systems and structures. So, there's a way in which the use of archival evidence magnifies voices into more than merely individual stories, but becomes social portraits, portraits of our wider society, that speak to the predicament in which we all find ourselves, in layers of complicity and oppression, you know, always.

- [Shannon] Does it ever become personal from the poet in your experience, Philip? Do you ever write your personal experiences in documentary poems?

- [Philip] I have to be honest that I think that what the initial point of curiosity for me is the world, is the, "we," that Suncere's talking about, and what always invariably happens though, Shannon, at the end of the day, it has to come home to me in some respect. I have to make that story, that predicament, that world that's being talked about, connect to my own lived experience, as well.

- [Shannon] Well, it has a different level and layer of emotion, and relatability, and you can report on something, and kind of be on a very surface area of reporting, and then you can go deeper, and deeper, and deeper, and documentary poetry strikes me as the deepest form of reporting that I've experienced.

- [Philip] That's beautiful of you to say. I'm glad to hear that from a journalist. I just have to say one more thing, like Suncere said, you know, in a way, this poem doesn't happen without either of us, and I'm hoping that I smuggle into the discourse of poetry and I'm very grateful that we've smuggled into the radio show some of these stories, because they deserve to be heard, and to sort of help us reconceptualize how we're connected.

- [Suncere] We're definitely all connected. We're definitely all connected.

- [Philip] 12, this would be my dream, get restaurants to do meals. Not no beans and rice and , but good food. We got 17 police for housing projects, and we can't give the people three meals a day?

- [Suncere] My love comes through my food. I cook 100 steaks Maggie sent from Trader Joe's for the homeless, at the Ramada and Independence. Homeless deserve to eat good food, West African stuffed peppers, et cetera.

- [Philip] But what we need is revolution.

- [Suncere] Fidel Castro was a hell of a cook, but nobody was talking about his cooking. Music and food builds community. I would love to build a village here and feed them first.

- [Anne] Shannon Henry Kleiber, talking with Suncere Ali Shakur, a community activist based in Cleveland, and with Philip Metres, the renowned poet, writer and translator. His most recent book of poems is called, "Shrapnel Maps," and he has a new book coming out in April, "Fugitive Refuge," about searching for home, migration, climate change, and nationalism. Coming up, Poet Kaia Sand gets real.

- [Kaia] Address expressed as cross streets and a tent. Arms outstretched in the mist. An insistence on life. An archipelago of brightly colored tents. Cars rush by on either side. Boots set at right angles. Careful not to overstay. Charge your phone from the fairy lights. Crows crowd the bronzy dusk. Bolts, and breaks, and brackets, and bearings. Burnt to the ground again.

- [Charles] You said, "again," the word, "again," and that's the heartbreaking word for me, like, is there hope?

- [Kaia] Yeah, I mean, I'm ridiculously hopeful.

- [Anne] It's, "To The Best Of Our Knowledge," from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. Do you ever wish there was a different way to get the news? Kaia Sand is a journalist whose day job is Executive Director of the community newspaper, "Street Roots," in Portland, Oregon. She's also a poet, and she uses both lenses, journalism and poetry, to write about the people she knows and the things she sees firsthand in her city. Charles Monroe-Kane caught up with her, and so let's begin with an excerpt from the original poem that Kaia wrote for this episode. It's called, "This is How I Drew You."

- [Kaia] Filed your taxes. Garbage bag of belongings. Geriatric medicine in middle age. Grandmother's ashes in your tent. Green slip posted to your RV. Ground scores of dropped jewelry. Handed a swaddled cat named Ghost. Hands cupped over a can of flames. "Have a good weekend," you called from your tent. Hazardous to just stop cold turkey. High-pitched grip of tires, the crash. Housing voucher lost in the sweep. "I hope you can understand and forgive me," keep acting like it's worth it until it is. A quilted nest of clothes. Red-gray forest-fire air. Rock cairns where the tent once was. Ruckus around the body about to be brought back to life. Scratching your scaby-chewed skin. Scrum of officers occluding your view. Shared your apartment despite rules that forbid it. Shots fired into this dusty city heart. "Show me you are alive by moving." Situation that could easily have gone wrong. Six people sleep upright in a sedan.

- [Charles] Wow, those are powerful lines, and each one, of course, is on their own as this powerful line. As I hear them, I'm just thinking of one question, is this poetic license or do each one of these lines represent someone you actually know?

- [Kaia] Each one of these lines is collaged in from things I hear, things I see. I, you know, spend most days walking around in a neighborhood in Portland called, "Old Town," and that's the place where the most people who experience homelessness here live, the most folks who experience homelessness die. It really is just kind of gathering, gathering, gathering.

- [Charles] Do you mind if I ask you about a few of the lines?

- [Kaia] Sure, yeah.

- [Charles] A couple of 'em that really struck me, one, because it's beautiful, and the other one, because it's so not, "Show me you are alive by moving," do you remember when you heard that?

- [Kaia] You know, that's actually something I say a lot. Portland, the West Coast, I think we've been hit a little later with the poisonous supply of fentanyl.

- [Charles] Mm-hmm.

- [Kaia] We are losing a lot of people at this point to death from fentanyl poisoning, and so, you know, when I, even six years, when I started working in this neighborhood, if someone weren't really moving, I would think that they were sleeping, but now, oftentimes, it might mean that they are dying, and so,

- [Charles] Right.

- [Kaia] I carry Naloxone with me, which is a pretty miraculous drug that allows me, if I inject someone, that it can reverse their overdose, if it's done early enough, so it's a really common thing, just to walk around the neighborhood, and I just say, "Show," you know, maybe I don't say that fully, "Show me you're alive by breathing,"

- [Charles] No, I understand.

- [Kaia] But something like that, and one of the things that really strikes me is how kindly people receive that, and people often just move a little bit, and that's the exchange, just kind of like this commonplace conversation, because, you know, most of the folks aren't trying to die, so having someone check in, and most of the folks who are crowded together, a lot of folks now are carrying Naloxone, too, so it's just kind of this communal effort to keep people alive.

- [Charles] And, I'm gonna pick another one out, "Grandmother's ashes in your tent." Can you tell me about that line?

- [Kaia] Yeah, that is, it's a woman I'm thinking about. It's a stand-in though for, I think a lot of times, when people have ashes and other valuable things in their tents. So, as in other cities, our city sweeps tents that displaces people, right, takes their tents, takes their belongings,

- [Charles] Yep.

- [Kaia] And folks lose really precious things, and I have heard from people who have lost ashes.

- [Charles] Wow.

- [Kaia] It's where they've got their stuff.

- [Charles] You're also a journalist.

- [Kaia] Yeah.

- [Charles] Journalism, I'm a journalist, right? I got who, what, when, where, why? That's our job, right? What can poetry do that a formal journalist can't do?

- [Kaia] Yeah, I know, it's such an interesting question, because, in some ways, I've gone in a convoluted manner. I mean, I grew up with journalists, but I started out as a poet, and then my mentor, a poet named Carolyn Forche, and she really did a lot of poetry of witness and documentary poetry, but she kept moving between those two things. More in Central America, she would go down, you know, during the war in El Salvador, and kind of move between being a journalist and a poet, and I've always been really interested in how we can try to get at the same content using different forms, or even different materials, 'cause I also work, do installation art, and I think, you know, "What is the form "and what are the materials that give something meaning?" Right now, honestly, I write columns a lot more than I write poetry. It's always been a way of moving into what I don't understand, and I think that poetry allows that more, it allows me to try to discover something. This poem itself, I didn't know until I wrote it that it was a love poem.

- [Charles] Hmm, I wanna push back. I'm a journalist, I like poetry, I get it, okay? You've picked a pretty tough vehicle of communication in poetry to tell an important story. What do you think of that?

- [Kaia] I just keep trying.

- [Charles] That's good.

- [Kaia] What I mean is I actually, I am interested in just doing everything, if that makes sense. I write a column every week. I mean, this morning I actually held a news conference on the number of people who died on the street, so I don't pick one vehicle, but I think, ultimately, maybe I'll just admit, like, this is the deepest for me, right? This is my essence, when I think everything else falls away, I'm still pretty much a poet.

- [Charles] Are you ever afraid that when you see one of these details, and you don't document it, no one ever will, that it never happened if you don't write it down?

- [Kaia] I don't know if I have as lofty of intentions. I do know it's how I make sense of the world, and I do know that I have a way of seeing that is particular, and so I think I have a strong sense that I should be communicating that way of seeing, because someone else might not have that same vantage point.

- [Charles] Hey, can you read another part of your poem?

- [Kaia] Sure. You are trying, that's the message to take home. You knew Crow could fix it. You might move your camp to the river until, "it all blows over." Your mother died last year; You never got the message. Your black eye healed to pearly amber. Your mood, more optimistic. "You wanted to be a cloud, so I turned you into a cloud," by drawing you that way.

- [Charles] Okay, I, emotionally, I just, "'You wanted to be a cloud, so I turned you into a cloud,' "by drawing you that way." That's one of the best lines of poetry I've heard in many years. Where did that come from? Oh, my God, that hit my heart like a, "Boom!"

- [Kaia] The fact that through whatever resources we have, through our imagination, we can find possibilities. I think that's, for me, with poetry, and grappling with homelessness, its seemingly intractable problems. Poetry, you know, forming content always get exceeded, right? We always exceed them with something more, something possible, and there's a leap of faith with that. Behind that line is a gentleman I knew who was an artist. We actually did a street fair, where we wanted unhoused and housed people to dance together, got a deejay, it was a really fun day, and he started doing street art of people, and so that was something he said to me about someone that he was, he was basically trying to draw people in terms of what they would want to be, and I love the idea that that was what he saw his role was, as he was standing there. You know, those kinds of pictures, where someone's head is too big and their,

- [Charles] Yeah.

- [Kaia] Bodies are small, he was doing those kinds of pictures. Yeah.

- [Charles] Yeah, "'You wanted to be a cloud, "'so I turned you into a cloud,' "I did it by drawing you that way." I think that's very powerful, actually. Well, thank you very much for talking with me today. I really appreciate it, I love your poem, and I know we'll tell this to listeners, but the whole poem, which is much longer than this, will be on our website, and you reading it, and I think if people can have that, and they can share it, and it's great, thank you very much.

- [Kaia] Thank you so much, Charles.

- [Anne] That was poet and journalist Kaia Sand, talking with Charles Monroe-Kane. Next up, the godmother of documentary poetry.

- [Muriel] Slowly, I would get to pen and paper, make my poems for others, unseen and unborn.

- [Anne] It's, "To The Best Of Our Knowledge," from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. When you start talking with people about the idea of poetry of witness, there's one name that comes up a lot.

- [Muriel] I lived in the first century of World Wars.

- [Anne] Muriel Rukeyser, widely considered the godmother of documentary poetry.

- [Muriel] Most mornings, I would be more or less insane. The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories.

- [Anne] Her 1938, "Book of the Dead," was a long investigative poem about a mining disaster.

- [Muriel] The news would pour out of various devices, interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.

- [Anne] Over the years, she covered race riots, Supreme Court trials, war, and violence, all inverse.

- [Muriel] Slowly, I would get to pen and paper, make my poems for others, unseen and unborn.

- [Anne] Many of today's best known docu-poets see themselves as continuing in Muriel Rukeyser's footsteps.

- [Camille] I feel like she should always be in the, "Top 10 Women Poets in the 20th Century" list. She often isn't.

- [Anne] Meet Camille Dungy.

- [Camille] She often was recording really horrible aspects of America's history.

- [Muriel] In the day, I would be reminded of those men and women, brave, setting up signals across vast distances. As the lights darkened, we would try to imagine them, try to find each other.

- [Camille] It's not what we expect to confront when we read a poem.

- [Anne] Mm-hmm.

- [Camille] I mean, when I teach her work, I still have students sometimes, who are like, "this is not what I came for." It doesn't feel like poetry.

- [Muriel] To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other, ourselves with ourselves.

- [Camille] There's parts that are really ugly and brutal, and oftentimes, that witnessing itself is really difficult for people to handle, and they'd prefer just not to see it, not to talk about it.

- [Anne] Yeah.

- [Muriel] I lived in the first century of these wars.

- [Anne] Camille Dungy lives in Fort Collins, and she teaches at Colorado State University. She's the poetry editor for Orion Magazine and a new memoir out called, "Soil: The Story of a Black Mother's Garden." As a documentary poet, Camille writes not just about headline-making news, but about news on a more intimate scale. She writes about motherhood, marriage, and her garden, an approach she says was very much inspired by Muriel Rukeyser.

- [Camille] There is a quote of hers that I do keep near me from a letter to a student, and she said, "What I am telling you is very important. "It is not something learned or taught, "it is a matter of concentration, "bringing your whole life "to the moment of the poem, everything. "This is the secret."

- [Anne] That's beautiful.

- [Camille] Right? My whole life, the whole life, everything that is happening, all of it is material for the poem, and I just don't believe in creating boundaries or barriers, and saying, "This isn't for poetry, "this is for something else." I think,

- [Anne] Right.

- [Camille] My whole life is material for the poem.

- [Anne] Yeah. I was thinking about your poem, "Ceremony," which is in your new book, "Soil," published in September 2020, so I guess written during the first year of the pandemic, under lockdown.

- [Camille] Right. It was written in that first month, when we were trying to figure out what was going on, and so I referenced two singers, John Prine and Bill Withers, and then what was happening in the neighborhood, and what was happening in my house. Headlines, gossip, phone conversations, what my husband and I are doing in terms of childcare, all these things. "Ceremony." No one can fly down to bury his aunt. The sickness is already there. That's what took her, and anyway, we are stuck at home. The moon swelled, then emptied into its shadow. We learned this week, the Black singer died. Days later, the White one, a man in the neighborhood, young father of four. Lifted over the sink, our child stood on the ledge and cleaned the kitchen windows. It is bright outside most days. Grass is greening up the yard. An uncle died, another aunt was taken to the hospital. The moon swells again. This feels like the early days of parenthood. We swap watch, focus on raising the child. "We've seen times like this before," we say, also, "These times are like nothing we have ever seen." When I came downstairs today for breakfast, he was playing, "Lovely Day," a song we danced to at our wedding. We danced there in the kitchen, all of us, howling, "those high and happy days," "Lovely day," we sang, "Lovely day, oh, lovely day."

- [Anne] Oh, Camille, I love that so much, and it captured for me, just, the way we actually experienced the pandemic from inside these small, domestic bubbles that we had, and to me, it says something larger about the way we experience big historic events. Do you know what I mean?

- [Camille] I absolutely do, and the poet Rita Dove says that what's interesting to her when she's working on poems is the space where capital-H History and lowercase history intersect.

- [Anne] Mm-hmm.

- [Camille] And that's a space where we live, right?

- [Anne] Mm-hmm.

- [Camille] We are all living in history, but for the most part, we are not participating in capital-H History. It's just our Tuesday.

- [Anne] I was wondering if it was partly to do with time. So much journalism focuses on what's happening today, what happened yesterday. Poetry, it seems to me, is also looking for that level of timelessness or another layer of time.

- [Camille] I like to call it a, "parallelogical communication," like parallel logic.

- [Anne] Oh, I love that.

- [Camille] So, because poetry invites readers to experience things emotionally, physically, in these other ways that aren't just purely rational, they open space in our thinking about what we're witnessing in the world for other ways of absorbing, and digesting, and synthesizing information, than that straight, logical, "Who, what, where, when, why," way of telling things.

- [Anne] Mm-hmm. I wanted to ask you about another poem that's in your book, "Let Grow More Winter Fat." Could you read that, and then could we talk about it?

- [Camille] I would be happy to do both of those things.

- [Anne] Thank you.

- [Camille] Let grow more winter fat, wine cup, Western wild rose. So little open prairie left. little waves of blue stem, little fuzzy tongue penstemon, quieter the golden current, nodding onion quieter now, as well. Only a few clusters of Colorado butterfly plant still yawn into the night. Where there once was prairie, a few remaining fireflies abstract themselves over roads and concrete paths. Prairie wants to stretch full out again and sigh. Purple prairie clover, prairie zinnia, prairie dropseed nodding into solidago, bee balm brushing rabbitbrush, prairie wants, prairie wants, prairie wants.

- [Anne] Anything in particular spark that poem?

- [Camille] Well, so, "Soil," that I read these two poems from, it's actually mostly a prose book. I mean, it's about my family's effort to rewild our suburban plot, and bring back native landscaping, and the animals, and insects, and birds that rely on that landscape, and so, and it's also about living in a very White community as a Black family. It's about a lot of things, and this is a thing that I love about documentary poetry, or any number of ways that we want to call this kind of work, is it's another way of conveying experience, information, material.

- [Anne] And in this case, the documenting is this gorgeous litany of specific plant names, as though you're calling the prairie back into form with your words.

- [Camille] Right, a kind of prayer chant. Part of the poem was triggered, I'd read an article about a guy who studies Colorado fireflies, and it was, like, both a happy, sad article, you know? There's just, fireflies depend on open space and tall grass, and the less open space and tall grass we have, the fewer fireflies we're gonna have, and I just couldn't get that story out of my head, and so the fireflies show up in the poem.

- [Anne] So, "Soil," I read as this extended meditation, partly on the tradition of nature writing and environmental writing, that has, in so many ways, deliberately erased almost everything human that's not a single White man. There's this really funny story you tell, that it's really stuck with me, I've repeated this story to two other people so far, 'cause I love it so much. It's the story about the little song that your daughter made up. It just so resonated for me.

- [Camille] I was really frustrated. I was listening to an audio book. I actually really don't remember which audio book it was, but I was just so frustrated by this trend in so much foundational environmental literature, of just the erasure of everybody but the lone guy who's out on his solitary wander, and then I was prepping for dinner, but mad, and, like, slamming down the the plates while I was setting the table, and my nine-year-old was like, "What gives? "What is going on with you?" And so, my daughter and I made up this little song. ♪ La, la, la ♪ ♪ Walking through the woods ♪ ♪ Nobody to think about but me ♪

- [Camille] And goes on for a couple more lines, and then I was laughing again.

- [Anne] Yeah, but, I mean, it's funny and so incredibly true, and I just started to think about, "Oh, my God, "so much nature writing is still "that trope of, 'What I'm gonna write about is being alone "'in the wilderness, not about who's doing the dishes, "'and who's raising the kids, "'and even thinking about the people who are back home, "'doing the dishes and doing the laundry.'"

- [Camille] It was definitely my question there. I was like, "Who gets to do this, "wander alone for months at a time?" I don't know, but it's part of why a lot of people still feel like, "Oh, I don't do nature writing," because it's about something that's separate from the lived world, and that feels wrong.

- [Anne] Yeah.

- [Camille] It feels dangerous to me, if we don't kind of understand how to integrate the greater-than-human world, with the human world, we're going to, that much more quickly, accelerate ourselves towards the catastrophe that this kind of disconnect is already setting us towards. I want my writing to be part of a wider embrace.

- [Anne] Mm-hmm, and so circling back to the news, I'm wondering, I guess, whether there are any kind of habits or practices that come out of working and living as a poet, that might inform how we engage with, think about the news?

- [Camille] That is a really wonderful question, and a difficult one at this moment. For me, I find myself reading the news now, and pushing for the places where there are personal and individual stories, and sitting with those stories, almost like a moment of connection as opposed to consumption.

- [Anne] Yeah.

- [Camille] Which means that I'm reading more slowly, and probably not as much, 'cause it's hard, you know, I read a story and somebody talks about utter catastrophic loss. That's my story for the day, and I just sit with that, as opposed to, "And now, next," and what works in the best docupoetry is it makes a lived experience resonate longer and farther, like the difference between somebody just throwing a rock into the water,

- [Anne] Mm.

- [Camille] And somebody who's a really good stone-skipper.

- [Anne] And maybe also to build up your image. You can throw a rock into the water, and then just turn away, as though, "There, that hit the water." or you can stand around long enough to watch the rings and the ripples form.

- [Camille] Exactly, yeah. I'm grateful for the writers who make me stay long enough to watch the ripples form.

- [Anne] Yeah.

- [Camille] And as a writer myself, that's what I'm aiming to do, also.

- [Anne] Oh, thank you. It's been lovely talking with you.

- [Camille] Yeah.

- [Anne] Thank you very much.

- [Camille] Thank you so much. This has been a lovely conversation.

- [Anne] That was Camille Dungy, an award-winning author whose latest book is, "Soil: The Story of a Black Mother's Garden." Today's episode on documentary poetry was produced by Shannon Henry Kleiber, in partnership with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, and includes original poetry by Philip Meters, Suncere Ali Shakur, and Kaia Sand. The full poems can be found on our website, A special thanks to Penn Sound and the Estate of Muriel Rukeyser. Additional music this week came from Crowander, Dashan Jong, and Daniel Barbiero. The, "To The Best Of Our Knowledge," production team also includes Charles Monroe-Kane, Angelo Bautista, and Mark Riechers Technical Director and Sound Designer, Joe Hartdke, with help from Sarah Hopefl, and Executive Producer Steve Paulson. I'm Anne Strainchamps. Thanks for listening, and be well.

- [Narrator] PRX.

Last modified: 
January 18, 2024