16 Nov 2023 17:00 - 19:00 Room SG1, Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge


An event by the Ambivalent Archives research network.


In an endnote to her poem sequence The Book of the Dead, first published in her collection U.S. 1 (1938), the American writer Muriel Rukeyser remarked that ‘Poetry can extend the document.’ In this reading session, we ask: what does it mean to textually ‘extend the document’?

Taking Rukeyser’s axiom as our opening, together we will consider the various ways in which a sample of literary texts across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have ‘extended’ documents in their practice, engaging with official and unofficial archival materials. The primary texts listed below draw on sources ranging from an 18th-century legal report, witness testimonies, Union Carbide stock charts, and personal diary entries. They each represent both a fascination with, and a resistance to, the archival function; in other words, we might say they each expand what Achille Mbembe has called the “criteria of ‘archivability'” (‘The Power of the Archive and Its Limits’, in Refiguring the Archive, ed. Carolyn Hamilton (2002) pp. 19–26: 19).

Since Rukeyser, this kind of writing has taken on various appellations, both in poetry as well as prose, now variously known and understood as documentary poetry (or docu-poetics), investigative poetics, social poetics and/or archival writing. It has also been subject to an increasing range of criticism, ranging from Michael Leong’s Contested Records: The Turn to Documents in Contemporary North American Poetry (2020), Jill Magi’s ‘Poetry in Light of Documentary’ (2015), to Susan Howe’s literary reflection on the archive, Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives (2014). This reading session is designed to think through this practice from a global perspective, drawing on both the terms ‘documentary’ and ‘archival’ (an overlap we will discuss) as they apply to both poetry and prose. For that reason, along with the example of North American writers Muriel Rukeyser and M. NourbeSe Philip, we include critical work by the Pacific poets Donovan Kūhiō Colleps and Craig Santoz Perez, translated excerpts from the Mexican writer Cristina Rivera Garza’s genre-defying work Liliana’s Invincible Summer (2022), and a short clip introducing the practice of the South Australian Narungga poet and artist Natalie Harkin.

These texts are by no means exhaustive or representative examples of literary works in response to, or working with, archives or documents; others might have included Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony (1934); F.R. Scott’s Trouvailles (1967); Susan Howe’s Sorting Facts (1996); Solmaz Sharif’s LOOK (2016); Philip Metres’ Sand Opera (2015); Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (2014); Jay Bernard’s SURGE (2019); Valeria Luiselli’s LOST CHILDREN ARCHIVE (2019) or even the speculative, imaginary and theoretical engagements with the archive in Shola Von Reinhold’s LOTE (2020). Given this extensive range, we warmly invite and encourage discussion of other known textual and artistic examples in our discussion, including those in other languages and mediums.


Critical texts:

Donovan Kūhiō Colleps and Craig Santoz Perez, ‘Two Pacific Decolonial Docu-Poets Walk Into a Tiki Bar’ in Tracking/Teaching: On Documentary Poetics (pp. 1-16).

Approach to readings: reading sessions will typically have around 30-60 pages of critical reading. We realise this is a significant amount of preparation when academic workloads are only increasing; we therefore encourage you to read as much as you can, and we will range between all set readings in our sessions.

This reading session will be facilitated by our convenor Lauryn Anderson. Please feel free to get in touch with Lauryn or at ambivalentarchives@gmail.com if you have any questions.

For enquiries please contact the Research Networks Programme Manager.

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