Seminar in Creative Writing: Poetry of Witness

ENG 713 Poetry and Witness (Seminar in Creative Writing)

Online Synchronous Tuesdays 3:15 – 5:45 p.m. / Aug. 23 – Dec. 17

Instructor: Noʻu Revilla


Zoom Student Hours: Wednesdays 1-2 or by appointment


“There, where suffering lies, so, too, does the political imperative to say, You pain me, I suffer with you, I grieve myself with you. We mourn us. Yours is my story, and my story is ours, because from the start, from the singular – yet generalized – perspective of we who suffer, you are my country, my countries.”

— Cristina Rivera Garza, trans. Sarah Booker


“Poetry may or may not change us. But shows the changes within us.”

— Ilya Kaminsky, Twitter, 24 Nov. 2018 (@ilya_poet)


Course Description

Write what you know? In a world defined by social media and a 24-hour news cycle, how do we distinguish between what we know and what we saw on Instagram? In an age increasingly guided by the logic of #picsoritdidnthappen, how does poetry continue to matter as a form of testimony and cultural record? How does extractive capitalism, hyper-consumer culture, and the attention economy shape the ways we look or choose not to look? How does poetry of witness develop an ethics of looking that is inclusive and compassionate?

This course is an advanced study in creative writing. We will discuss major themes, forms, and movements claimed by poetics of witness and examine historical, cultural, political, and theoretical contexts for poetry that radiates around the ethical questions of what is considered knowledge and whether we should only write what we know. For graduate students in the creative writing track, this course will help you to develop and refine strategies for creating new work and offer you the space and time to experiment with form, point of view, and language. For non-CW graduate students, this course will widen your scope of research and introduce you to important intersections of poetry, social justice, and community building. Although this is not a creative writing workshop, students will compose original poems, and a week will be dedicated to preparing a formal submission to a literary magazine, contest, or even the newspaper.

Required Texts

  • Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, Iep Jaltok
  • Ilya Kaminsky, Deaf Republic
  • Claudia Rankine, Citizen
  • Patricia Smith, Blood Dazzler

Student Learning Outcomes

  • Students will gain an understanding of witness poetry as a poetic genre and demonstrate written and oral ability to place creative work within broader artistic and/or critical conversations with peers, students, and established scholars/writers as well as in publication.
  • Students will read and analyze contemporary witness and social justice poetry, engaging with ethical, cultural, esthetic, and political issues salient to the archive they construct.
  • Students will demonstrate ability to apply advanced creative writing techniques in form, point of view, and documentary poetry to develop strategies for creating new work.