Defacing the Monument is a hybrid: part guide book, part polemic, part performance, part activist poem. I read the book because I wasn’t sure what documentary poetics meant, but suspected it might be aligned with some text-based art projects I’d done several years ago. Turns out, I was wrong on that count, but enthralled by Briante’s book.
The book showcases several specific social movements, including the project that the author worked on at the Arizona-Mexico border regarding the intake, processing, and incarceration of incoming migrants. Briante uses court documents from Operation Streamline, the system by which migrants seeking sanctuary were herded through court procedures in perfunctory and utterly inhumane processes.
She cites as example the part of her project where she attends migrants’ court hearings as a witness and documentarian, as part of her attempt to “extend the document.” She writes:
As witnesses, as researchers, as those who possess an “imagination enlarged by compassion, (…) we need to understand our documents as well as ourselves within the web of power and the processes that produce them.
She stresses the crucial point that we must always consider context and where we stand relative to the subject matter. Be wary of the harms that can come from uninformed attempts at raising up. She warns the activist artist that they must to contextualize; that when creating socio-political work, the scope of its ramifications cannot be taken lightly.
She offers the freedom to be biased, a crucial part of activist art:
(…) documentary poetries offer a tradition and a space in which a writer can situate events or experiences within broader histories and fields of reference, without the burdens of mainstream journalism’s anxiety over “balanced coverage,” its obsession for presenting “both sides” to issues that are matters of fact…”
Such a relief to not have to dance around one’s agenda. And here, where Briante’s purpose is acknowledged from the start, I found her portrayal of the injustices at the border, her republication of immigration documents, and her interviews and reportage of court cases ring closer to “truth” that’s being offered via the usual channels.
Deep in the book, I found some answers, or maybe not answers, but new ways to think about the vague uneasiness I’d felt about some persona poems. This book reminded me that I’d had a challenging time with some I’d read, and others I’d seen performed. I’d just figured they weren’t my thing, or maybe these particular ones just weren’t hitting their mark. I’d even been told by one poet that my tastes were unsophisticated, a thing that, at the time, I bought. Sometimes, I got near to the source of my discomfort, but as I couldn’t imagine myself doing such a thing, I would forget about it. But then, a white, Catholic poet who said I “just didn’t get it” wrote a poem about the veil, and another wrote about Nogales, Sonora, in the voice of a murdered teenage girl, and even my unsophisticated self knew this was a problem. Who gets to tell what story? Are there parameters to political art and writing?
To access stories excluded from the text or trapped within them as poets and documentarians, we must investigate, must listen for the voices silenced from the page … becoming medium for what has been silenced. We must imagine, but we cannot appropriate or ventriloquize.
She gives examples of cases that work and others that fail. To be clear, she is not talking about persona poems, but rather writers using materials from some “other” as the basis of one’s own creative work. Whether it is the story or artifacts being used, I believe the same caution should be taken. The additional issue with persona poems (my opinion only) is that the writer is credited with elevated insight. That because it is a work of art, an effort, it somehow serves as an absolution.
There’s been much talk about who gets to give voice to what issues. A few recent poems and two very popular novels come to mind, where mistakes were made, but innocently (I like to think). A thing written in one moment will change with its context.
Briante writes, “We must not make the suffering of others a commodity.” This gave me pause. She talks about “vulture work,” which is a bold, but also accurate, way to portray some of the disturbing otherings offered up as “political work.” I worry about where the line between theft and empathy falls, and how to see that line, given we each have our own distinct lens. On the one hand: elevating historically muffled voices—and on the other: stay clear of what is not yours to tell.
Briante’s examples center on issues of race and power. I wonder how far to extend to her premises, but it seems to me that whenever one writes or makes art about a group of which they do not belong, that they need to assess stance and motivations. I wonder about writing the losses of others, where illumination becomes vulturework. (On behalf of my white trash side, I am still angry about Hillbilly Elegy.) And, yet.
I’ve been at work on a chapbook, vignettes mostly, some poems, about a place that can only be called complicated. Rural, tri-cultural, prone to tricksters and worse, I have no hesitation about calling the place home, or at least, a home. Even if no names are used, are these stories available to me? I wonder if living in a place for a decade and a half, years and years of teaching, raising a child there, inadvertently adopting the local cadence and el norte Spanglish makes me local enough. Does the fact that I am now (but was not always) comfortable, thanks to my fancy first-in-family education and a lot of luck, allow me to write about class? But also, how dare I? That I can sylph between communities has certainly given me insights, but I don’t think it gives me the absolute right to be an oracle.
Then there is the suicide bridge—a local name for the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge in northern New Mexico, the holder of some record for disaster. I’ve been working on poems about this bridge and others, because they haunt me, and because in a place so small with such numbers, how could it not? What are the implications of my writing the loss that this community feels over and over, while I am a step away: a friend’s child, a co-worker’s child, a friend of a friend, my chiropractor’s son, my daughter’s teammate. I am not the one in a kayak pulling out the bodies, yet I am still within mourning’s distance. There’s always someone who is, by virtue of who they are, equipped with more relevant personal experience. I don’t want to allow myself a pass.
Defacing the Monument is a compelling read: an experimental text, a history, and an art piece, all at once. It urged me to look critically at what I wanted to say, how and if I could use facts of a situation, evidentiary documents and materials, and what mode to use to “argue” my case. Briante shows, by example, ways to use existing documentation (erasure, repetition, counterargument, among others) and ways to assess others doing this type of work.
Briante urges artists and writers to exercise a critical archeology, to examine political documents and histories, but in doing so, we must acknowledge our own relationship to them, a sort of multi-directional unearthing. As Briante states, “There may be no new atrocities, only the imperative to make them newly felt.”