Monday, May 11, 2015

Poetry of Witness: What is My Responsibility?

68º ~ soggy, all is soggy ~ 3 inches of rain in 2 hours overnight, lightning & thunder, true torrents

In the aftermath of The Alchemy of My Mortal Form, my poem drafts have taken quite a journey. I started with the angry sisters and from there I've branched into writing prose poems in a series I'm calling "Chain of Evidence." All of these poems have to do with missing, exploited, or murdered children, some very young, some nearing adulthood.

In part, these poems arose because last fall was the 25th remembrance of the abduction of Jacob Wetterling from St. Joseph, MN, where I was then just beginning my undergraduate years at the College of St. Benedict. This terrible anniversary coincided with the reports of a missing toddler from Searcy, Arkansas; Malik Drummond has not been found, and every time I stop for gas, his picture stares back at me from the pump's video display. And of course, this is Arkansas so news of the West Memphis Three is always in the air, and along with it the murders of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore.

There are so many of these stories it is almost too much to bear.

So, I found myself writing about all of the people whose lives are touched when a child is taken, never to be heard from again or discovered dead. Some of the poems are about those closest to the child, and some are from the point of view of bystanders or children who live several towns away who have heard the stories.

I'm tackling a new form with these poem, the prose poem, and that brings doubt enough; however, these are also poems of witness and with them comes a question of responsibility, a question of rights, really.

Do I have the right to write these poems? How do I avoid sensationalizing the events, something that I would consider a true horror were my reader to feel it? How do I treat the victims with respect? And, ultimately, what is my purpose? Why am I driven to this material? Is there something in it for me, attention or a feeding off the voyeurism of our society in such cases, that I should reject?

Why do I feel hesitant to write these poems? Is it because I do not have first-hand experiences with such atrocity? Should these poems only be written by people who have suffered this kind of catastrophic and on-going loss?

These are all the questions I'm wrestling, even as I hear new lines in my head and open my journal to draft.


Carol Berg said...

I remember a friend of mine did an essay about the importance of Thom Gunn's poems about Jeffrey Dahmer and how those poems created empathy. I think it's important that you're thinking of the questions.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks for chiming in, Carol. Yes, empathy is the goal, and this is a really fine line...finer than any I've tread before.

Twin Cities Adventure Guide said...

Sandy, I found you via Michelle Holshuh Simmons...she and Bob were friends in college...I graduated in 95, CSB. I believe the impact of the Wetterling case and the many others like his are affecting all of us....especially parents with small children. I tried to articulate this to a young man who interviewed me a few years ago in our community newspaper. He couldn't understand the anxiety I and many other parents feel...real or perceived.
I recall waiting tables at Kay's Kitchen and in would walk Mr. Wetterling to buy a pie every now and then for his family and the great sadness I felt seeing him. Thanks for your work.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks so much for the comment. If you get a second, I'd love to reconnect more. Would you email me?