The Compassionate Witness: Attending to Suffering through Proxy Witness Poetry

Dale Tracy is a PhD candidate in English literature at Queen’s University working on a dissertation engaging with witness literature, compassion and attention.

The phrase “proxy witness” is first developed in Susan Gubar’s Poetry after Auschwitz while “witness poetry” is attributable to Carolyn Forché. I came to understand these texts as proxy witness poetry in Brenda Carr Vellino’s graduate course ‘The Proxy Witness in Twentieth-Century Human Rights Poetry’ at Carleton University.

In the genre known as poetry of witness, the poetic speaker offers testimony of the experience of atrocity. This speaker is typically considered to relay objective fact, opening up the truth of the suffering for the reader. To me, the claim that a poem is objective seems a strange one that forecloses the power that poetry has to represent ideas in new and thought-provoking ways; if a poem is caught up in maintaining newspaper-like accuracy, it can no longer unsettle our expectations through the unusual use of language and concepts.

With this critique in mind, I turn to proxy witness poetry. This under-theorized subgenre likewise engages with suffering, but the speaker here does not actually endure the atrocity; rather, this speaker acts as a witness by proxy, engaging with the suffering of others and speaking on their behalf. Looking closely at such poetry and its conscious concern with the mediations and distance necessarily involved in representing someone else’s pain, it becomes clear, I argue, that there is error in regarding a poetic speaker as an objective witness.

The proxy witness, rather than providing an account of another’s suffering, deals instead with the affect of witnessing; these witnesses illustrate the emotion involved in being concerned for another’s suffering. It is not possible, however, for the witness that claims (or is given) an objective stance to offer an account of his or her emotional engagement; that is, the objective witness is unable to express the subjective experience of compassion. Since I believe compassion to be an essential aspect of witnessing, I want to demonstrate the importance of understanding witnessing as a subjective action.

Compassion is often thought about as the feeling we might have when we put ourselves into another’s shoes; many theoretical and commonsense notions of compassion explain it as the ability to feel what the other is feeling. While imagining what another might be feeling is an important aspect of compassion, I want to suggest that we can never know exactly what another person’s suffering is like for them and, moreover, that this knowledge is not necessary. What matters in compassion is that one attends to another; what we offer in feeling compassion is our willingness to be aware of the signs of another’s suffering, to accept these signs as another’s communication. Proxy witness poetry demonstrates this consideration as the speakers offer their close attention to those that suffer. Rather than an I feel your pain attitude, these witness-speakers offer their own feeling in response to the awareness that the other person is feeling something, beginning from the stance that it is only in this attentive relationship that they can access anything about someone else’s suffering.

The poetry, then, models an affective attention that, I believe, is also the most effective method of reading the poetry; that is, the reader is set up to explicate the verse with the same method of close reading and awareness of emotion that  operates within the poem. Further, the value of this thorough and emotional “reading” extends beyond the realm of literature; I believe that this careful and feeling-full analysis represents the kind of attention one could give another person in the most beneficial kind of relationship.

In thinking about the desire for objectivity in the poetic witness, a desire that cannot be reasonably maintained through a close examination of the poetry itself, I seek to overcome two things: one, the tendency to separate fact from feeling and, two, the superficial thin-spreading of our attentions. When I talk about feelings here, I’m not proposing something touchy-feely, wishy-washy, or otherwise namby-pamby in orientation. Allowing emotion to reside in intellectual rigour and critical thought is essential in fostering a personal and compassionate orientation to other people. Proxy witness poetry, demonstrating and requiring a kind of reading that involves both emotion and sustained consideration, could function as a pedagogical tool in helping us learn to witness the details of another person in his or her own experience of the world, to conscientiously read the signs of another’s suffering, and to attend to the role of our own emotions in this process.

Suggested Readings

Back, Rachel Tzvia. On Ruins & Return: The Buffalo Poems: 1999-2005. Exeter: Shearsman,2007.

Balakian, Peter. June-tree: New and Selected Poems [1974-2000]. New York: Perennial, 2001.

Brand, Dionne. Inventory. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2006.

Ossuaries. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2010.

Heaney, Seamus. Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

Rich, Adrienne. An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991. New York: Norton, 1991.

Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991-1995. New York: Norton, 1995.


Reading Haiti; Acquiring History Through Text

This weekend, while listening to this story about Haiti’s recovery on NPR’s Weekend Edition, I recalled a particular submission to Changing Lives, Changing Minds. As I listened, contemplating the correlation, I realized that a few months from now the world will observe the one-year anniversary of the ruinous earthquake that destroyed Haiti’s capital in January of this year, and many will likely have forgotten it until then. An impoverished and over-populated city, Port-au-Prince’s recovery is a continued struggle; efforts to replenish, rebuild, and reconstruct are still underway – eight months after the 7.0 earthquake hit.

In this essay, author Christopher Garland recalls how he became acquainted with Port-au-Prince, one year before the earthquake; with the sound of gunshots resonating in the air and a stack of books – the written histories of a country in crisis.  I believe Christopher’s recollection highlights a powerful social concept: a country embodied in text, dismantled in person, and struggling to establish an opportunity for a future.

Christopher Garland is a PhD student in the Department of English at the University of Florida whose current research focuses on recent literature and film depicting life in the slums of the Global South.

On my first night in Port-au-Prince, I set up my bed outside on the upstairs porch of Hospice St. Joseph’s, a hostel and valuable medical clinic that served the local community, and began to read. I continued reading through the night; I read about Haiti in an attempt — a mad scramble, really — to learn as much about the country’s history as I could.

I was a first year graduate student at the University of Florida, but I was in Haiti for a different purpose than most of the other students and academics – or, as we foreigners were referred to, the blanc – in Port-au-Prince. I was there as a writer, not a student, penning my first assignment as a freelance journalist for a New York-based magazine.

The more I read to understand Haiti, the more elusive the answers became. These weren’t gaps in knowledge, but rather spaces that shifted, expanded and contracted. I wondered: What were the conditions under which Haiti’s first democratically elected leader, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, left office during his second term? And, how did the Tonton Macoutes – Papa Doc’s gruesome network of thugs and informants – gain such a pervasive foothold in Haitian society?

That night, sustained reading of sociological and historical texts was a difficult exercise. The loud pops coming from the streets below me were gunshots, signaling the end of a party somewhere in the surrounding neighborhood of Christ Roi. After reading for some time in the warm December night air, I felt compelled to put the books down. The reading seemed like a diversion from the real work, a way of checking out the past to disconnect from what was a very critical state of “now.” Here in Haiti, the streets of Port-au-Prince faced levels of impoverishment equal to those of any in the world.

This was one year before a catastrophic earthquake drew global media focus upon Port-au-Prince – an over-populated, under-resourced, beguiling, and bewildering city. It is the capital of a nation that emerged from of one of history’s most astonishing and inspiring achievements: a bravely stubborn and incredibly revolutionary force, made up of slaves and ex-slaves, overthrew the French colonists of Saint-Domingue.

My trip to Haiti was precipitated by a more subtle, earlier movement – one that has forever altered life in Haiti’s major cities. One of the books I read on that warm December night was entitled Planet of Slums (2006). In it, author Mike Davis calls attention to the fact that, by 2008, for “the first time [in human history] the urban population will outnumber the rural” (1). Davis describes in some length that the greatest proportion of this rural-urban shift has centered on the uber-cities of the Global South, where population growth over the last twenty years in places like Port-au-Prince (as well as Kinshasha, Sao Paulo, and Manila) constitutes what Davis calls “a watershed in human history” (1).

Davis argues that the human who moved from any village to any city in the world — perhaps for work, for further education, for love, or just the allure of the city — thereby tipping the balance of the world’s population spread towards urban areas, would not be specifically noted. However, now that that movement has occurred somewhere in the world — perhaps in Haiti — it does signal a significant moment in human history.

As Walter Benjamin argues, articulating the past historically “does not mean recognizing it ‘the way it really was.’ It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger . . . Every age must strive anew to wrest tradition away from the conformism that is working to overpower it” (396). In the case of Haiti, conformism has prevailed many times: crises have been used to justify intervention, both foreign and domestic, whether with the U.S. military’s occupation from 1915 to 1934 or through Haiti’s own brutal dictators, who lined their pockets at the expense of the Haitian people. These actions served to foreclose the possibilities of the future offered 200 years ago by the Haitian Revolution.

And the residual effect of reading to understand Haiti while in Haiti? The reading was the first step that came before interviewing anyone or making descriptive notes about what I saw “on the ground.” Not only had Haiti’s history been written as a history of crisis, but I recognized that these crises were moments of contestation over the writing of the past for the openness and possibilities of the future. The latest crisis for Haiti is not only the aftermath of the earthquake but also the future of the mega-slums, particularly Port-au-Prince’s Cite Soleil, the largest slum in the Western Hemisphere. Needless to say, the contestation over this latest “moment of danger” is well underway.

The Art of Engagement: Living With Literature

This is Katie Newport’s first post as web editor for Changing Lives, Changing Minds.

In the year 2000, I entered my freshman year at Framingham State College; I was eager to learn, hopeful for the future, and had indiscriminately chosen a major -Communication Arts.  It wasn’t long before I decided to change my path; I had fallen in love – with Art History. For the next four years, I devoured books on feminist art history, marveled over the seemingly insignificant smudges and dollops of oil paint that make up a Van Gogh, and got lost in the presence of anything from the Dutch realists.

During this time, in lieu of electives, I took anything and everything that related to English literature or writing. Children’s Literature, World Literature, Myth and Folklore, Women Writers, The Classics, etc. Each of these satisfied my insatiable need for the written word, and – even more compelling – they were fun. Four years later, I had taken so many of these elective classes that, upon graduating, I was awarded a degree in Art History and English; my reading and writing habits had become functional, and permanent, fixtures.

Over time, it became increasingly obvious that writing was, in fact, my calling. And though I still lose my breath at the sight of a Dutch memento mori, I know that Art History is the hobby, not Literature.

As my graduate career in the Professional Writing program draws to a close this semester, and as I accept this position as Web Editor for Changing Lives, Changing Minds, I cannot help but reflect on the role that literature has played in my life up until this point. I cannot help but wonder where I would be without my shelves, stocked with dog-eared favorites and stiffly bound not-yet-read books? Who would I have become if not for the likes of Judy Blume at age thirteen, Jane Austen at sixteen, F. Scott Fitzgerald at seventeen, and Steinbeck at nineteen? Their voices and their words changed mine.

Similarly so, the Changing Lives Through Literature program transforms reading from a passive, solitary practice to an active, participatory endeavor – one that engages and expands upon an individual’s experience or existence, creating opportunities for growth and change. The reflection of one’s self in the pages of classic literature is a striking thing; it is a moment that is both humbling and grandiose, and ultimately hard to forget. It is a moment that can strike you much like looking closely, and intensely, at a painting.

In my undergraduate Art History classes, we’d begin to discuss a piece by looking at it in full view, displayed up on the projector screen. Then, the slide would change, and we would visually dissect detailed photographs. As a class, we would discuss each nuance, color choice, brush selection, and medium variation.

After a while, it became harder to see the piece as a whole, and instead we saw it as a marriage of thousands of distinct, deliberate choices, all of which were made by one person, in one moment, for one end. This exercise in intimacy compels a relationship between the piece and the audience, much like close reading and literary analysis.

I am very excited about the upcoming months here at Changing Lives, Changing Minds, and look forward to being a contributor and facilitator of discussion, and more so, an audience to our essayists.

The Book in its Natural Habitat

This is Beth Ayer’s final post as web editor for Changing Lives, Changing Minds. She is moving on to pursue a position as Outreach and Technology Coordinator for United Neighbors of Fall River/Americorps.

As a literature student I learned to suppress personal opinion in literary analysis. Critical reading, we were told, had nothing to do with us. Rather than looking for ourselves in books, we examined structure, style, figurative language; we practiced explication de texte.

Close reading changed not only how I think about literature, but also how I think, period. People joke about the dismal job prospects of the English student, but my studies were invaluable, without question. Analytical ability accompanied me out of books and into life. So why not the reverse?

Working as a part of CLTL for the last year, I’ve witnessed the value of personal literary analysis. This does not mean abandoning critical reading or attention to matters of style, language and structure, but rather adding the element of natural interaction with the text. CLTL promotes looking at characters’ struggles while reflecting on your own, and allows viewing a story’s complex situation from the perspective of your own seat. Revolutionary! We can read closely, analyzing texts and in doing so change the way we think; we can also react with the text and change (or understand) the way we feel.

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The Quieter We Become, the More We Are Able to Hear: Writing with Teens in a Psychiatric Hospital

Ann Teplick is a poet, playwright, and prose writer, with an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College. For eighteen years she has been a Teaching Artist, writing with youth in schools; literary art centers; hospice centers; and Pongo Teen Publishing, in King County juvenile detention, and currently, the Washington state psychiatric hospital.

This essay was originally published by Hunger Mountain’s online literary journal.

Each time my meditation teacher suggested that we “hold” our pain, rather than cling to it or push it away, I wanted to do something un-Buddha like. Like scream, or crack a few obscene jokes, or belt out the lyrics of a Jim Morrison song, where torment seeps like a bruised and mucked-up fruit. Shake up the hushed room.

It took me years to wrap my head around this concept of being gentle with myself, less obsessive. To trust that in hard times, I would not suffocate. And though I’m far from 100%, I’ve come a long way. The effort is constant. I slack, and I’m back in the wilds of anxiety—heart palpitations, wet like I have just walked out of the sea, breathing that is cockeyed, visions of train wrecks and crimson.

And then, one day, the epiphany—

It’s 6:45 a.m. on a beach in Seattle, foggy and damp, my hair wet and strung into curls. A boat horn blares, a heron strolls through the foam of a wave, driftwood and seaweed scatter across the sand. I am perched on a wet-salted rock, crying, cursing, trying to “hold” the unholdable— an indelible personal pain—one hell of a fire, like I have been blowtorched.

When out of nowhere, a barrage of butterflies light upon me—one on my thumb, one on my knee, one on my shoulder, the zipper of my fleece jacket. Who knows how many are on my hood. They are the size of my fist, with wings, veined and coppery, that close and open in slow motion. And they do not fly away, but cocoon me in stillness. The quieter I become, the more I am able to hear.

On Mondays, from October to March, four colleagues and I write poetry with teens at Firwood secondary school, in Lakewood, Washington. Forty-five miles south of Seattle, the school is one of many buildings on the campus of Western State Hospital, a 265-acre psychiatric facility. Western is wooded with trees, wildflowers, owls, eagles, and deer. Yes, butterflies, too. The teens live a stone’s throw away in cottages at the Child Study and Treatment Center (CSTC), the only state run and state operated psychiatric hospital for children in Washington. CSTC serves youth ages 6-17 in two primary programs—Inpatient Services, for youth who cannot be served in a less-restrictive environment, and Forensic Services, a program that conducts mental health evaluations for the Juvenile Court System of Washington State.

We walk into Firwood school at lunchtime, to the aroma of Mac and cheese, sloppy Joes, chips and salsa. The environment is brightly lit and cheerful, with polished floors, art on the walls, and friendly faces of adults and teens, which is not to say there is never a scuffle. We sign in at the reception desk and head to the computer room, high-five a few students we pass in the hall. “Can I write poetry, today?” “How about me? I didn’t get to write last week!” “I’ve got a cool poem back in my room, can I go fetch it?”

My colleagues and I work with The Pongo Teen Writing Project, a volunteer non-profit founded (in 1992) and run by writer Richard Gold. Gold is a compassionate man with a huge heart. He is dedicated to writing with youth who lead difficult lives. In the mid 1970’s, while a graduate student of creative writing in San Francisco, Gold volunteered with teens at a special-needs school,  many of whom were patients at an adolescent psychiatric clinic. He is anchored in the belief that when we write about life’s challenges—from hardship to distress to trauma and grief—we can better understand ourselves and take better control of our lives.
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