The students in my graduate poetry course on documentary poetry worry about voices. Some of them are writing about persons at risk: a homeless woman who loves to dance, inmates sent to prisons in other states — or locked up here at home. They're also writing about themselves and what they’ve lost, be it a grandfather or a culture or the tangled combination of both. Whose voices can they use? How do they cite what they quote of these voices? Are they potentially causing harm to those whose voices they use? Should they use names? Specify places? Beneath all these questions are worries about themselves, the possibility for self-harm involved in act of speaking out. Surely to put someone else’s words to paper is to implicate yourself. So the question is, how to write voices without superintending them; how to be author without presuming an authority that puts others in psychic or physical danger.
In December, I spent a vibrant night at the Cooperifa spoken word salon on the South Side periphery of São Paulo. The open-mic sessions take place every Wednesday at the bar of Zé Batidão, a neighborhood gathering spot in Jardim Guarujá, where up to 300 people of all ages converge weekly to listen to and perform poems. Over the last eleven years, Cooperifa (the name is a compound of cooperativa and periferia) has become well-known in São Paulo and throughout Brazil for uniting and strengthening, through poetry, a community that is marginalized in both social and geographic senses. Sérgio Vaz, a poet and founder of Cooperifa, is widely recognized as a community leader; in 2009, Época magazine named him one of the hundred most influential people in Brazil. Indeed, Cooperifa spoken word is something of a popular movement that has spread beyond São Paulo.