PROPOSED ADDITION: Documentary poetry as instruction manual

Harvest of documentary poetry projects, Fall, 2012

I’ve just finished a semester of teaching documentary poetry to a group of graduate students.  This mixed form proved extremely generative. Student projects focused on women in prison, a homeless woman, a forgotten city, a planned town and its secrets, tourism, food and activism, and a lost grandfather.  All of these projects (chapbooks and one on-line text) worked like accordians, moving back and forth between material and abstraction, between persons and communities.  If a drawer can said to be an accordian, then Donovan Kūhiō Colleps’s project, which takes as its central artifact a filing cabinet containing his late grandfather’s papers, breathes its histories in and out.  (See the project above: “from The Files of Curtis P. Ah You.")  Another of the central images in his chapbook, made out of file folders, is the Pulmo-Aide Respirator, whose instruction guide he uses in the central poem.  As the respirator is put together, according to the instructions, we learn about his grandfather’s links (broken and sustained) to his past, and of his love for — among other things — University of Hawai`i women’s volleyball.  (A cultural marker if there ever was one.)  And of the fate of the ’Ewa plain, not so long ago an agricultural area, now covered in Gentry Homes, those Colleps writes about in section 9 of the instruction sheet:

9. (`Eiwa) [Before] [a]ttach[ing] tubing to nebulizer air-
inlet connector, See Figure 6, take
a drive down Ft. Weaver Rd. and
when you wipe the red dirt
from the windshield you
wipe away the gentry homes.
Sugar stalks sweet shoot up
from the cleared soil. Wipe
those away, too.

The Hawaiian numbers (here, `Eiwa, which resembles `Ewa) represent yet another, older layer to this history.  Colleps’s elegy for his grandfather is also an attempt to recover (or, more accurately, uncover) a culture now stained by the red dirt of corporate agriculture and construction.  This is not to say that Colleps’s move is one of pure nostalgia; another poem centers around his grandfather’s own efforts to construct an addition to the family house.  This addition cannot compensate for the subtraction anticipated in the grandfather’s last illness, but “smile,” Colleps writes. “See / sun light above this / new ribcage” runs to the right side of a blueprint to the “PROPOSED ADDITION.” If the cage is constructed, then breathing comes only with the support of a machine.  Memory (Colleps’s of his grandfather, his grandfather's of Hawai`i’s past) emerges from a rusty archive that dominates the view of no one except the author.

But I leap ahead.  The first poem in this chapbook is “Papa’s Clock.” Here, Colleps mixes narrative — the poet’s grandmother buttering her husband’s sweet bread — with his grandfather’s cancer journal and instructions for putting a battery in his clock.  These instructions are mediated by a voice more human than generally comes with such instructions: “Righty tighty” and “Lefty loosey.” Instructions for putting a mechanism together alternate with a description of a mechanism (the body) coming apart. 

Feeling o.k.
Ate good breakfast.
5 mil Prednisone
Went riding to Walmart
Air mugi tired fast
Ate few pieces stake
Chest heavy.

Lefty loosey
The battery knife brings life
To old gears
Under cruel Romans.


We move from the grandfather’s detailed diary, complete with misspelled words ("mugi,” “stake"), to a re-versioning of battery replacement directions, to an oblique reference to colonialism in those “cruel Romans” with their detailed accountings of time.  The battery, like the respirator, marks time, but cannot sustain it always.

Prior to this class, Colleps had only written fiction, so it’s appropriate that his chapbook has a strong narrative push.  Instructions are stories.  Stories instruct us in how to get from one place to another, how to enter into conflict, how to begin and end.  But Colleps’s documentary poetry is as playful as it is serious.  One of the embedded stories concerns a male sea horse who may or may not have given birth to babies in the family’s fish tank.  Another telling and told moment, late in the story of grandfather’s dying, occurs right after his body is taken from the house.  Language turns inside out, seems as unstable as the notion that a male animal can give birth:

the time i found myself circling the house checking for tears in any of the screens because
i found the drawer of bent nails that you had me pull out because you said i did it all
wrong and that everything i do should be done well even if it’s as small as hammering a
nail into wood because this house needs to be repaired when it’s broken so that the family
always has a place to live.

I cannot not read that first line without the word “tears” (something torn) sounding first like the salt water that comes out of our eyes when we grieve.  Like so much in this chapbook, this writing comes close to over-sentimentalizing the grandfather, but pulls back when we see that “tears” is meant to sound like a tear in a piece of paper.  Sentiment returns to its object in the wavering of a word between its appearance on the page and the sound it makes in our heads.  The sturdy construction of the chapbook, which its author had intended to place inside a cardboard file cabinet — one he brought to class one day — joins at its seams the various materials of Hawaiian and family histories.  As he writes in “Proposed Addition,” a section under the influence of William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, which we were reading when he wrote it:

Build! Build!
While the light is here
when the breeze can weave through
the lo`i that flourish from his forearms
this is the good that must be found
in the flow of trachea tunnels
and the pricing of cabinet handles —
brass or chrome?
Family or no other option.
Let’s go look at paint chips tomorrow.

An imperative ("let’s go") is an instruction.  In a larger sense, instruction is educational, spiritual, cultural.  Colleps and other members of English 713, Spring, 2012, have only begun their work of instruction.  Watch for them and their work as they construct it over the next few years.


Watch and listen to Colleps read a section of the chapbook in the MIA Series in Honolulu on YouTube here.

I've written elsewhere about documentary poetry on Tinfish Editor's Blog, here.

The course syllabus can be found on-line.