Archival poetics : ordinary crisis in contemporary poetry

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2017-05

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“Archival Poetics: Ordinary Crisis in Contemporary Poetry” analyzes how present-day writing by poet-scholars registers urgent conditions of structural crisis such as racialized violence, settler colonialism, and environmental degradation. I examine how poets index the systemic and quotidian aspects of these realities through formal strategies of assemblage. Through readings of book-length works by Claudia Rankine, Anne Carson, Juliana Spahr, and Harryette Mullen, I reveal their shared contribution to what I term an “archival poetics.” An archival poetics names the collection of textual and visual materials, which not only documents the present, but also accentuates the limit points of this process. While assembling diverse forms of documentation, writers who practice an archival poetics expose the shortcomings of conventional documentary and its effects. An archival poetics intersects with current interests in multi-genre writing, while, at the same time, engaging and inhabiting received poetic forms—extending and reworking these forms’ traditional archival functions. My first chapter analyzes Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (2004), showing how it records violence against black Americans while exposing the incompleteness of any documentary method. Her book also showcases the elasticity of the lyric as an archival practice that emphasizes race and racism as key structural conditions of the American present. Chapter Two examines Carson’s Nox (2010). I illustrate how Nox locates a relational ethics through its archival practices: exhibiting the limits of understanding and the labor of constructing narrative and elegy. Chapter Three explores Spahr’s well then there now (2011) as a work of ecopoetics that relies on archival modes and materials. I argue that Spahr’s writing catalogs colonial settlement in Hawai‘i to foreground the convergent legacies of place. Highlighting the contours of her perspective as a white Midwesterner, Spahr underscores how subjectivity shapes accounts of the present. The final chapter considers Mullen’s Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary (2014), an assemblage of poems conceived through a daily walking practice. Mullen’s verses stress the significance of racialized experience to the genre of the walk poem, and they demonstrate how a sharpened awareness of body and place affords attention to social inequity and ecological devastation.

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