Introduction: Documentary Writing and Mennonite/s Writing

For about a decade now, I have been interested in documentary poetry, occasionally teaching it in special topics courses and trying to write it myself. It has taken me a long time to recognize how deeply the concerns of this literary practice touch my own reasons for writing—and how clearly they correlate with values I find common among some authors and books associated with the loose enterprise we sometimes call "Mennonite/s writing."

Documentary poetry applies the values of contemporary verse—voice, concision, visual imagery, emotional urgency, inventive form—to topics we expect to encounter in the news, such as issues of social justice or environmental crisis. Documentary poets derive their authority not so much from experience and feeling as lyric poets do, as from evidence and empathy. Their methods include deep listening, archival research, quotation of found texts (oral or written). Sometimes writers manipulate or otherwise work with existing documents; other times they actively record the language of others. Often this work seeks to amplify voices or highlight events that might otherwise go unnoticed, or to cast history in a different light.

According to Jill Magi, the words "documentary" and "poetry" have been used together since the early 1990s, when the poetry journal CHAIN published an issue by that title, and Susan Howe taught a graduate course with roughly that title at the University of Buffalo. Around that time, scholarly articles about Muriel Rukeyser began to describe her work as "documentary"—remembering this kind of work from the 1930s.


"Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long," wrote photographer Walker Evans who, with James Agee, captured the lives of white tenant farmers in the southern United States. Their 1941 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men imprinted the global imagination with iconic images of the Great Depression (along with photographs by Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke White, and other New Deal artists employed by the Farm Security Administration). That era and the practices of those artists, according to William Stott, provided a distinct way of looking that assumes immediacy and transparency: the aesthetic and rhetoric of the documentarian.

In 2010 poet Mark Nowak observed that the documentary impulse has probably been best realized through film and photography, and yet we still write it. An exemplary practitioner and generously inclusive spokesperson for "doc po," Nowak claims that documentary poetics "has no founder, no contested inception, no signature spokespersons claiming its cultural capital." He sees the impulse at play in archives as well as interviews and internet searches. He traces it in the work of international activist-authors such as Ernesto Cardinal and Ken Sara Wi-wa as well as American poems of the 1930s, like Langston Hughes's "Johannesburg mines" and Muriel Rukeyser's The Book of the Dead. In Nowak's own practice, political engagement always accompanies documentary writing.

Documentary poems that quote the voices of others become dramatic monologues, bordering on drama. In August 1991, I lived not far from where the livery car driven by a Jewish man struck a young Caribbean boy learning to ride bike on a Brooklyn sidewalk. The child died after emergency response personnel were delayed in reaching Crown Heights. Riots erupted, dividing the neighborhood between mostly Hasidic Jewish people and Caribbean and African American people, resulting in 190 injuries and 129 arrests. The following spring, Anna Devere Smith performed a one-person work of verbatim theater created entirely from interviews with individuals from various positions in that conflict. Her electric performance of Fires in the Mirror in a downtown Brooklyn theatre—followed onstage by comments from several people she had portrayed—moved me deeply.

In Smith's title, "mirror" refers to the way art can reflect back experience and the artist's work of intervention by way of quotation, as in Martyrs Mirror. Smith simply gathered and held up the conflicting points of view in her work, making no attempt to placate or mediate the conflict, and in so doing she broadened the conversation. Because she created a work of art, the project created meaning and enabled viewers to gain access to their own feelings and to formulate their own meaningful responses.

In 2013, about a year into a project of writing poems to document the human and environmental impacts of fracking in Pennsylvania, I felt that the poems dragged with the freight of evidence, what Wallace Stevens has called "the pressure of reality." He wrote of the "spiritual violence" that threatened to overcome poets during World War II. Images might help, I thought, when I met a photographer on my campus who had also been attempting to document fracking, and so we joined forces. Working in constant uncertainty of my craft and in collaboration with an image-maker to create Shale Play has been liberating. I have found joy in listening closely to others, fact-checking their narratives, learning about geology, engineering, geography, public health and policy, and reading back to my informants a composed version of their own language, when I am able.

Documentary artistic practice can intervene in our era of numbing, non-stop information and "fake news," even as it uses the tools and sensitivities artists have always used to make meaning and discern truth. When the news is demoralizing, the reader feels a sense of relief at hearing truths from the margins. As a gardener I must also note that Robert Hass observes a link between "doc po" and The Georgics of Virgil: instructions for animal husbandry, bee keeping, and agricultural methods cast in ancient verse form.


Mennonites have long worked with documents and as documentarians—and more recently as artist-activists. Consider Martyrs Mirror: a massive compilation of court records, letters, eye witness accounts, and testimonies arranged to make an argument about distinctive beliefs, identity, and oppression. The historical novels of Rudy Wiebe, usually regarded as the Mennonite point of entry into the North American literary mainstream, depend on historical and archival research into Mennonite and Native American experience. In the 1978 manifesto Mennonite Identity and Literary Art, John Ruth identifies "scruples" which have inhibited literary endeavors in Mennonite culture. Of the seven, at least three—"practicality," "art as artifice," and "concern for edification"—could be seen as motive, not limit, for the documentarian. Al Reimer's 1993 response to Ruth, Mennonite Literary Voices: Past and Present, takes into account the new generation of Russian/Canadian Mennonite writers, celebrating their marginal, prophetic, and didactic modes—positions often assumed by documentarians.

Once you look through this lens, it's easy to recognize that documentary materials have had a constructive and abiding influence on Anabaptist thought—as well as Mennonite fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry. For those who migrated from Europe to North America during the last century as refugees and displaced persons, the word "document" is a noun with specific meaning and power. Historian Benjamin W. Goosen recently challenged white supremacy in the church by examining everyday notions of "Mennonite ethnicity"—an idea largely constructed during the twentieth century. During the Third Reich, he explains, some Mennonites in Germany complied with the "racial passport" that documented Aryan identity. After the war, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) used documents to make the case for Dutch identity so Mennonite refugees could escape post-war Europe, behaving as the legendary Mennonite tricksters described by Ervin Beck. Because we know the power that documents hold to construct identity, maintain coherent collective narratives, and influence migration, Mennonites cannot ignore the plight of asylum seekers. In June 2018, MCC sponsored an Arts Learning Tour to the Arizona-Sonora border, and contributions by two writers featured in this issue come of that experience.

I celebrate the range and quality of the document-minded writing gathered here and hope it will inspire more. Raylene Hinz-Penner takes on the topic directly with a meditation on documents and documentation written especially for this issue, which concludes with a reference to her participation in the Arts Learning Tour on the border. Angeline Schellenberg, author of Tell Them it Was Mozart, an award-winning collection of poems that employs a number of documentary poetics approaches to engage representations of disability, offers new poems drawing on her Mennonite heritage. Sofia Samitar shares the first chapter of her unpublished cross-genre opus, The White Mosque, based on documentation of a band of Russian Mennonites who wandered to Central Asia in search of Christ and instead found a home among Muslims in Uzbekistan. Artist-activist Abigail Carl-Klassen offers work in two genres: poems from her recent chapbook of voices from the U.S./Mexican border Shelter Management, and You-Tube links to Darp Stories, cross-cultural conversations in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua. Joyce C. Monroe offers an excerpt from Time and Memory, a new collection of deeply researched creative nonfiction of everyday life set in a rural eastern Pennsylvania community during the nineteenth century. Daniel Shank Cruz contemplates the body as document in light of the tattoo he chose to memorialize his participation in the Arts Learning Tour on the Arizona-Sonora border. And finally, I include an erasure poem created from the Dirk Willems story in Martyrs Mirror.

Sources for more reading

Sandra Beasley: "Flint and Tinder – Understanding the Difference Between 'Poetry of Witness' and 'Documentary Poetics'" (Aug. 19, 2015) www.poetrynw.org.

Ervin Beck: "Mennonite Trickster Tales: True to be Good," The Mennonite Quarterly Review 6 1 (Jan. 1987):58-74.

Ben Goosen: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2017).

Robert Hass: A Little Book on Form: An Exploration into the Formal Imagination in Poetry (New York: Harper Collins, 2017).

Jill Magi: "Poetry in Light of Documentary," (January 2016) http://chicagoreview.org.

Philip Metres: "From Reznikoff to Public Enemy" (September 22, 2008) https://www.poetryfoundation.org.

Mark Nowak: "Documentary Poetics" (April 17, 2010) www.poetryfoundation.org.

William Stott: Documentary Expression and Thirties America (New York: Oxford UP, 1973).

About the Author

Julia Spicher Kasdorf

Julia Spicher Kasdorf is author of Shale Play: Poems and Photographs from the Fracking Fields, a documentary collaboration with Steven Rubin published in 2018 by Penn State Press. Her other books of poetry--Sleeping Preacher, Eve’s Striptease, and Poetry in America--have received the Agnus Lynch Starrett Prize, The Great Lakes Colleges Award for New Writing, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Pushcart Prize. She teaches poetry writing at The Pennsylvania State University. With Steven Rubin, she is currently working on Home Place, a documentary project that involves listening to the experiences of farmers who live and work within 30 miles of her home in Bellefonte, PA.