Round Table: On Ephemerality and Documentation
Romarilyn Ralston, Philip Metres, Erika Meitner, Octavio Quintanilla, Tess Taylor, and Susan Briante, with Marcela Sulak
Thinking about the ephemera(l) of our natural world, our lives, our culture, our cosmos, becomes a daunting task. After all, in seeing, noting, naming a brief entity, we offer it a second, perhaps extended, life. Sometimes we offer it voice and visibility. Does the act of noting something that was not meant to survive rescue it from its moribund state? Audre Lorde’s ”Litany For Survival” urges queer Black women to draw courage from the hope of survival, to speak (document), “For all of us /this instant and this triumph/ We were never meant to survive.” Here, documentation acts as a lifeline of a different sort, should one’s physical life on earth be cut short by hostility, injustice, violence by making those who “love in doorways” visible. They receive a place in the poem/document.
It seems to me that documentation is inseparable from the idea of ephemerality. Perhaps documenting what is fleeting fixes it, like the lovers on Keats’ Grecian Urn. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard /Are sweeter,” Keats notes. Perhaps unheard melodies are sweeter because they are created in our empathetic minds, and held there for as long as we live. Perhaps ephemera is simply another name for what is not documented, for what is real but not believed because it takes a form we are not expecting. Or perhaps it is a name we give to what is documented on fragile material, like newspaper?
I asked six visual artists, writers, and poets, whose work in documentation I admire, to consider the ephemeral in their work of documentation. You can find out more about the work of Romarilyn Ralston, Philip Metres, Erika Meitner, Octavio Quintanilla, Tess Taylor, and Susan Briante by visiting their websites, provided below.
—Marcela Sulak, Managing Editor and Poetry Editor, The Ilanot Review
At age 24, I was sentenced to life in prison. After 23 years of incarceration, release came, not freedom. Recalling a fragmented life lived behind the wall; a still death and disappearance, incapacitated by razor wire and gun towers; I struggle to document the memories of younger years ⸺caged and isolated… forgotten. I resist the liberty of the free-world; politics and a rhetoric of disposability and respectability seal the fissures of memory past, present, and future, dissociating me from me, preventing me to be me. I am a ghost.
My principles and aims when I write documentary poetry are the same as my principles and aims for any poem that I write. I write to endure and to create something that is enduring. Augustine writes to God as “ever ancient and ever new” and Pound writes of poems as “news that stays news.” It is the link between these two ways of thinking that I’m trying to forge. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote “to prevent these deeds from drifting into oblivion”—though Herodotus had heroic deeds, valor in battle, in mind. I’m often trying to cast into collective memory something that’s not always visible—or something that’s being actively erased—the lives of people and peoples on the edge of oblivion. Of course, whether or not my work is remembered is decidedly not up to me. When my biological life is done, it will be up to others whether my creations are worth keeping in living human memory.
The word “ephemeral” comes from the Greek, meaning lasting for a day. Often, the documentary poet takes up or works with official, bureaucratic documents and language, as a way of confronting, dialoguing, or actively resisting the systems that produced those documents. They are not mere detritus to the systems of power—they are its proofs, evidence of its power. The danger in working with such documents is that we risk either merely replicating or even enhancing their power, or we treat them as if, by vanquishing the documents, we vanquish the systems of power. Both are profound dangers.
The larger question you’re asking concerns whether the ancient value of creating lasting works is also problematic. I think of the digital “cloud” networks (beneath the ground, ironically) that house trillions of images and documents on people’s computers and require enormous energy to run—all for our trivial selfies and forgettable memories. The human desire for immortality—in all its petty forms—is now threatening the planet’s own mortality (or, at least the planet that is habitable for humans). We have captured life to death. I do think about whether anyone needs any of my writing, or if it’s destined for the enormous trash heaps we are making. That’s why I try to avoid the graphomaniacal urge, and sit with my work for a long time before I share it.
For my documentary poetry projects, I generally work in collaboration with photographers. Most often, we visit sites and do fieldwork and interviews together, which allows us to create relationships to our subjects that are both visual and textual—and sometimes even aural. And by “subjects” here, I mean the cities and social issues we document, but also the people we encounter. It also takes the pressure off my poems to be comprehensive; they don’t always have to report on what the photos already see. My most recent project, a lyric investigation on the impact of sea-level rise on the city of Miami and its built environment, is an ongoing one with photographer Anna Maria Barry-Jester, and one of the things that’s been interesting has been documenting changes in the city—not necessarily always the disappearance of things, but the ways, too, in which things have been restored or altered. I’m thinking here of a portion of Dania Beach we’ve visited a few times. The first time we went, the entire beach had eroded so much that it was basically a band-aid of sand between the parking lot and the ocean. When we came back a year later, they had completed a ‘renourishment’ project by trucking in tons of sand, so the beach was wide and inviting–the way I remembered it as a child. And the beach won’t stay that way–residents who had been coming there through past renourishment projects assured us that the beach would be back to that thin strip of sand when the right storm hit. So the poems and photos have to somehow acknowledge that juxtaposition—that shifting—that just one medium might not be able to encompass. When people have conceptions or narratives of places in decline, I like to plumb those received narratives and complicate them. This isn’t to say everything is going to be alright—it’s not. But I think documentary poetry—the process of structuring the actual voices and texts and images of a place into verse—can make elements of an issue visible (via juxtaposition, close focus, braided narratives, lyric moments, or other means)—that we might not have seen before, or haven’t seen in exactly that way. It can change our perspective on something so we can approach larger-scale social issues from new angles and they can hit us viscerally, and move us towards at least seeing the problem—if not actual change.
In Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Macondo suffered the illness of insomnia, and consequently, the loss of memory.
To protect against this loss, the formula was simple: write every thing down so its name and use was not forgotten, so all things could be remembered.
A “memory machine,” then. One that could allow you to review every morning from beginning to end “the totality of knowledge acquired during one’s life.”
And more failure.
And yet, here I am, with my Frontextos (visual poems), attempting to build this machine that will hold all memory.
As of today, 1,365.
One every day since New Year’s 2018 to document all possible utterance of my imagination, all possible shape and form, all possible silence, all possible roar.
After all, what is more ephemeral than memory?
More brief than our bodies or the hand that marks the maker?
As I am writing this, I think of how Macondo was saved by a drink “of a gentle color.” The people of the town recovered their memory. They celebrated.
And as I am writing this, I think about the time someone commented about the “gentle color” I had used in a Frontexto.
At the time, I didn’t think much of the observation. Blew it off.
Till recently, when I re-read the novel. And there it was: “a drink of a gentle color.” And then, I could remember.
Before the pandemic, I was beginning serious work on a book about drafts and drafting. I wanted to see what could be learned from sifting through poets’ archives, and to examine the way skilled poets progress from rough notes to finished work. In a daydreamy way, I also hoped to celebrate the pleasure and mystery of the ephemera in poets’ archives— the way Anne Spencer scrawls lines to her poems on the back of grocery lists, or Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath share scrap paper for drafting. I wanted to see poems on reused paper, electric bills or peach pie recipes, to chart the unexpected and fragile material sites where the daydream leads to a poem.
And then the pandemic happened, and archives all across the globe closed, and I was home, and had no childcare. All I had were grocery lists. I felt very unable to read or write very well, and felt for a long time that I was floating very far from poems, or poetry, or myself. As in the early days of motherhood, I felt as if the days were crashing over in a series of confusions. I had no sense of how to record the time, how to read it.
A year later, I am just beginning to think about my archive book again. I’m also starting to sift the strange folders and accretions of what writing I did do during the pandemic months; what scraps I did generate, which, occasionally I still threw into a folder. Whereas before the pandemic I took delight in the disorderly margins of archives, the last few months, I’ve taken comfort in the idea that if and when we are lucky, there is time to order the chaos, glimpse some shape, affirm the few lines we did write down. I had once planned to spend 2020 in an orderly space, enjoying marginal chaos. I was thrown into a chaotic space, which now, I am taking comfort in ordering as witness, poem, story, or simply as index to memory.
On the Archive and Ephemerality—Notes from the US-Mexico Border
It used to be that a border was a flimsy thing, a gate slung from a fence post, a bundle of branches, a line in the dirt. I once knew a man from El Paso who rode his bike to Juárez, MX, every day as a child to visit his best friend. Water, air, the flush and tide of currencies, products, data strings, these things pay no mind to a border. But some ideas harden, stiffen to wall.
When I think of an ephemeral archive, I think of the beauty of that which bends, of that which transforms: a string in the wind, a crumple of petals, a smudge of pencil. I think of the precarios of Cecilia Vicuña “objects composed of debris, structures that disappear,” art made from gathering what is at hand, improvised arrangements, documents of a particular place and time. I love intimate, ephemeral archives: the collection of stones carried from the trail to the writing desk, notes found in a pocket or tucked in a book, my mother’s calendars and recipes, identification cards from old jobs. Non-circulating, unannotated. How long will I keep them?
To build anything that might outlast a generation you must dig, cut, solder, and carve. The wall at the US-Mexico border is an archive of injury. Instead of colonizing, let’s improvise. Let’s collaborate. Let’s open access. Let’s write our books in pencil with room for marginalia, for revision. Let’s make them useful.