Documentary Poetry

Documentary adj.                 

1. Consisting of, concerning, or based on documents.

2. Presenting facts objectively without editorializing or inserting fictional matter, as in a book or film.

In their primary form documentary poems take a document and present the information within it to an audience. The role of a poet when writing a documentary poem is to decided upon what it is they wish the poem to achieve and then remove any text  superfluous to achieving that aim.  

When I am working on a poem, most of my drafting and redrafting consists of cutting and removing words in trying to archive an absolute brevity of language. I do this as I believe if there is less content in which the information I am trying to convey can get lost or diluted in it retains more of its impact and effect.


The sources that I regularly use for documentary poems are:

  •  Newspapers-  especially newspaper websites as the stories and articles are often already quite short and concise.
  •  Memoir - As memoir presents the reader with a recollection of an event or moment during the writers life it presents the poet with a primary source at an event they are interested in where other sources may be harder to locate. I have found in my writing when dealing with military themes it has often been in memoirs that I have been able to find the best and most personal text relating to human side of a battle.
  •  Old Books- If writing about an obscure or dated subject then often printed books are the premier source of information and text. It can be interesting to use a book that you know presents an argument that you know is inaccurate, wrong or even complete drivel such as a manual on phrenology to explore a topic that you do want to write about but without tackling directly.
  •  Interviews and conversations - Documentary poems do not have to tackle grand sweeping themes or issues, they can and I think are often better when they are about something uniquely personal but touch upon something that everyone can relate to. Talking to someone with a story to tell can be an excellent way in which to generate the content for a poem by jotting down what they say or record the conversation and then transcribe it.
  •  Archives- Most of my writing comes from the use of archive material as it contains the details of everyday life unrecorded in other forms. The Metropolitan Archives is a literal treasure chestfor anyone interestedin social history and the history of London itself. In its collection I have read documents detailing the arrests of Georgian prostitutes, firsthand accounts of beggars wounded at Waterloo, the reasons that drove individuals and families into workhouses, the birth life and death of children handed over the founding hospitals and the symptoms and diagnosed conditions of everyone in a parish declared at the time insane.


Rules and points to think about when writing a documentary poem.


  • ·    Don't add anything that changes the meaning of the document your working with. If a document says that five people were shot then don't say six or no-one.
  • ·         Treat the poem as you would a news report, respect it and the sources your working with and present an honest account unless you wish to mislead the reader.
  • ·         If your knowingly misleading the reader make sure to inform them that they've been misled .
  • ·         Do not let your reader carry away a falsehood having read the poem. Don't create extra drama or imagery for the poem, find it in the texts.
  •     Don't change the syntax and language of quoted people to make it sound or reader better in a formal sense, a 19th century navvy did not write if they could, or speak Received Pronunciation.

The most important thing though is to remember that these are rules that I have constructed since I created and developed the idea of documentary poetry and there is nothing at stopping you taking my idea and using it in a completely new way just as I developed documentary poetry out of the objectivist manifesto.  


Some examples of T Mallender's Documentary Poetry.


The “Museum of Women’s History” in Tower Hamlets is not what people expected

The hoardings were removed yesterday
from a disused shop in Cable Street
supposedly converted
to honour the women of the East End.

The planning application criticised most histories
of the area for being
“told from the perspective of poverty (and) crime.”

Sample exhibits were supplied in the plans,
pictures of Suffragettes,
female trade unionists and anti-racism campaigners
alongside proposals to use
the voices and experiences of women
tell a different history of the East End.

The reveal?

A exhibition about misogynistic murders.
The Jack the Ripper Museum
“ from the perspective of the women who were his victims.”

The English Collective of Prostitutes
complained that the museum would
trivialise violence against sex workers.
“The murder of women shouldn’t be fetishised,
 into an intriguing murder mystery.”

It has been mooted the founder
of the Jack the Ripper Museum
Global Diversity List chief executive
Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe,
“cynically” suggested a women’s museum
in order to dodge local opposition.

Trying to placate complaints
the museum argued it would donate
“a proportion of profits” to a women’s charity.

The charity,
Eaves does not know about the museum
nor has it been made a beneficiary.





Before the angels came to Mons

Jay Naylor,
watched and listened.
A boy in the BEF,
3rd division’s trumpeter.

An indeterminate grey mass,
slowly approaching.
At four hundred,
at three fifty,
at three hundred,
the officer was saying.

A grey wall no longer.
Individual details,
starting to stand out.
Could see that it was,
made of men.
Started to get rather anxious,
for the first time,
frightened even.
The officer,
still as cool as anything.
At two fifty,
at two hundred.


Ten rounds rapid!
The chaps opened up,
the Germans fell down like logs.
As a boy of 16 I was astounded.
Will never forget the discipline of the troops,
the fire discipline.
What a marvellous army we are!





The Killing of Renisha McBride

Amid the commemorations of Hurricane Sandy,
rich with progress reports on repair and rebuilding,
there was an overlooked moment for which
ribbon cuttings and indexes of municipal development are no salve.

On October 29, 2012, as the storm ravaged New York’s coastal areas,
Glenda Moore struggled to free her two young sons from her flooded car,
only to see them swept from her grasp and drowned.
Moore sought help from nearby residents but was turned away; the boys were four and two.

Two weeks ago, a year and four days after Moore’s children died
Renisha McBride was involved in a car accident at around 1 am in a Detroit suburb.
McBride intoxicated knocked at the door of Theodore Wafer.
He fired a shotgun through his screen door killing her, she was nineteen.

Two months since Jonathan Ferrell was killed by police in Charlotte North Carolina.
After crashing his car crash he knocked on the door of a nearby home,
the owner called 911 to report a robbery in progress, he was twenty four.

On Friday, the Wayne County prosecutor,
announced that Wafer would be charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter.
The decision to bring charges had “nothing to do whatsoever with the race of the parties.”

A reported irony that African-Americans are both the
 primary victims of violent crime in and the primary victims of the fear of that crime.

In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s killing by Zimmerman,
his defenderspointed defiantly to statistics showing that African-Americans,
committed a disproportionate share of violent crimes.
Those stats wielded like a collective bad report card held over everyone.
No one allowed forget if only for the sake of his or her own safety.

But those numbers are mute on matters of actual human experience,
nothing to say about how a petite grieving mother registering as a threat,
an inebriated nineteen-year-old intimidates a middle-aged man with a shotgun,
the victim of an automobile accident the obvious perpetrator of a robbery.

A sense that McBride’s death is not news it’s a case study—a cliché with a casualty.

The week of McBride’s killing; students discussed the case of Rubin Stacy.
He showed up unexpectedly at the Fort Lauderdale home of Marion Jones.
She screamed and neighbours alerted police while a mob gathered.
They hung him from a post near the Jones residence.
His lynching was commemorated with a postcard, a source of civic pride in Florida of 1935.

The circumstances of Stacy’s death different from those of
Ferrell’s ,McBride’s and the sons of Glenda Moore  
but when a request for help is read as something more sinister the results indistinguishable.





A true tale of grief, trial and sorrow

The United Kingdom’s first Independent
Anti-Slavery Commissioner
was born in 1963.

One hundred and thirty years after
The Slavery Abolition Act was passed.
800 and 61 years after slavery was proscribed
by the London council

Here we are in the 21st century
hearing about 'Oliver Twist' Children.

These are young children sent out
shoplifting, pick pocketing
and begging.

Young children who should be at school.

The Home Office estimate the
this morning 10 to 13,000
slaves awoke in the UK.
men, women and children
forced into prostitution,
forced onto fishing boats,
forced to work in factories
or forced out into fields.

Today in any British city a slave owner can expect
 a return of over a million pounds
from sexual exploiting just 10 women.

Last year, there were 151 convictions
for slavery related offences

The Anti-Slavery Commissioner said
“It's nowhere near good enough.”






A scared skinhead

Transsexual Muslim Airline Pilots
worry former cabinet minister Norman Tebbit
despite having flown vampires and venoms for her majesty. *1
"Insane dictum" angers the Companion of Honor,
that parliament and the civil service hierarchy should be
"representative of the community it serves".  *2

Lesbian queens add to Lord Tebbit’s worries.
A future where the queen, a lesbian, marries another woman,
conceiving the royal heir by artificial insemination. *3

As a member of Her Majesty's Most Honourable
Privy Council, opposed both Civil Partnership and Gender Recognition Acts of 2004.  Now clams the government's determination to pass the Marriage (same sex couples) Bill has alienated grassroots Tories. *4

The Chingford skinhead a vice-president of the
Conservative Way Forward Group
yet incorrectly claims that proposed government legislation allows
 him to marry his son or for a sister to wed sister
as a ruse to avoid inheritance tax.* 5

No current Conservative MPs should unsettle Barron Tebbit,
no transsexuals pilots (commercial or private)
sit on the benches.  






Caesar's Story

No insider had supplied evidence of the existence of the Syrian death machine before Caesar.

For two years,
he was ordered to photograph
tortured, starved and burnt bodies.
Documenting prisoners’
tortured to death in
Bashar al-Assad’s jails.
Using a police computer in
he coped thousands of thosephotographs.
to USB keys,
smuggled out of his office,
hidden in his shoes or belt,
before passing them to Sami,
a friend for over 20 years
who could get them out of the country.

Sami was painfully aware of the scale
of unreported violent deaths in Syria.
Prisoners and protesters killed in the regime’s dungeons,
their bodies disappeared.


More than 17,000 detainees disappeared w
when Bashar al-Assad’s father,
Hafez ruled Syria
More than 215,000 people have been detained by the regime
since the start of the civil war,
estimates The Syrian Network for Human Rights.

Since Caesar was in a unique position
to collect proof from inside the regime
Sami persuaded him to carry on in the job.
promising to support him,
whatever happened.
regularly supplying Caesar with USB sticks
first 4GB ,8GB, then 16GB.


Sami copy everything twice;
first using generic file names,
in case one of the regime’s agents stumbled across them
to his home computer’s hard disk,
then to an external hard drive.
The essential process took agonisingly long minutes.
Only the original photos have the metadata
proving when they were taken and the high definition needed
to analyse injuries and produce a probable cause of death.


To make sure that nothing got lost,
the photos were immediately uploaded,
in lower definition to speed up the transfer time
given Syria’s unreliable internet.
When the regime attacked Sami’s town,
He took his wife and children somewhere safer,
then came back to find a friend ,
who had been helping transfer the photos.
They took Sami’s computer and external hard drive
and hid them under a pile of rubbish in a bag,
beingtoo risky trying to take them past an army roadblock.
As mortar shells began to fall more heavily,
and soldiers moved on to the streets,
for three days and nights
the two friends hid in the cavity above a false ceiling.

Sami thought about his family,
his father and the rabbits he was raising on the roof of their home.

Through a crack in the wood,
“We saw soldiers force a young man to say,
‘There is no God but Bashar,’
then one of them killed him.

“We were not afraid of dying, but we were afraid of dying like that!”

who has remained anonymous,
had never been interviewed.
Carance le Caisne had to find him,
it was imperative.
His testimony was essential
to understand the
horror at the heart of the regime.

This is his story.

I am Caesar.
I can’t reveal everything because I am afraid,
the regime might recognise me through the details.
I’m afraid they will find me,
eliminate me,
and take revenge on my family.

I used to work for the Syrian regime as a photographer
with the military police in Damascus.
Before the war,
whenever there was a crime or accident involving military personnel,
I had to photograph the locations and the victims.
If there had been a shooting in an office,
we’d photograph the spot where the body had been found,
we’d photograph it at the morgue to show where the bullet had entered and exited it.
We might also photograph the gun,
then we’d go back to the office.

After finishing their photos,
Caesar and his colleagues returned to base to draw up their own report for the military courts.

At the start of the uprising,
each dead person had his or her own file card.
As the bodies became more numerous,
one card had to hold the details of 10, then 15, then 20 detainees.
At the time among the lower ranks,
the service was popular, a lot wanted to join us.
It wasn’t very hard work.
We could choose whether or not to wear uniform.

The officers were less keen.
There is no prestige being in charge of photographers and archivists.
We didn’t have any dealings with civilians,
so no possibility of bribes.
Military police didn’t have much authority,
nothing like the intelligence services.
In the hierarchy no one paid attention to our work,
our unit didn’t count,
just one among dozens.

In Damascus alone there are at least 30:
photographers, drivers, mechanics, sports and the
brigade that transports prisoners
between the various levels of military intelligence.
The most important departments are,
of course,
in charge of investigations and prisons.

In the first weeks of the civil war,
March -April 2011,
a colleague told me we were going to photograph some civilians’ bodies.
He didn’t want to go back – he was afraid.

While crying he told me,
“The soldiers abused the bodies,
trampled them with their boots and shouted”.

I was summoned to take the pictures.
I could see what had upset him.
The officers said the dead were terrorists.
They were just demonstrators.

In the beginning,
The bodies were stored in the morgue at
Tishreen military hospital.

A pathologist would be there before us.
The pathologists were our superiors.
We weren’t allowed to talk to them,
let alone ask questions.

They’d say:
“Photograph these bodies,
from No 1 to No 30, then push off.”

Like us they didn’t have to wear uniform,
but were officers.
For the first few months they were low-ranking,
then replaced by higher grades.

Every day, the pathologist arrived holding his notebook,
and a block of big sheets of paper stapled together,
divided into three columns.
A soldier, the “witness”,
accompanied him and told him what characteristics to note down in the first column:
approximate age, height, skin and hair colour, presence of tattoos or bullet holes.
And the cause of death,
invariably “heart attack” or “respiratory problems”.
Naturally, no mention of torture.

The pathologist then drew a line under the information and moved on to the next person.
Each page held the details of three or four dead people.
The medical report archived,
in the pathologists’ offices in Tishreen hospital.

A soldier would get the bodies out of refrigerated drawers,
laying them on the tiled floor so we could photograph them.
The bodies were marked with two numbers in felt tip
on the forehead or the chest
or written on sticky tape which was poor quality and often peeled off.
The first number was that of the detainee himself,
the second,
the branch of the intelligence services where he’d been imprisoned.
The pathologist would give him a third number, the medical number.
He would write it on a piece of card and he or someone from the security services,
would place it next to the corpse or hold while we took the photo.
Those are the hands that you see in the photos.
This number the most important number for our files.
The two others might be badly written, illegible,
or simply wrong.

Mistakes were made.

To make identification easier for anyone searching the files,
we had to take several shots of each corpse;
one of the face,
one of the whole body,
one from the side,
one of the chest,
one of the legs.

The photographers used a Fuji digital camera or a Nikon Coolpix P50.

As well as photographing the bodies,
my colleagues and I had to create files for them.
We had to print the photos,
sort them by category,
stick them on cards and file them.
It was methodical work,
one person printed the photos, another stuck or stapled them, a third wrote the reports.
Our superiors signed them and we sent them to the military courts.

I had never seen anything like it.
Before the uprising,
the regime tortured prisoners to get information.
Now, they’re torturing to kill.

I saw the round mark of a stove,
the sort you use to heat tea had burned someone’s face and hair.
I saw wounds full of pus,
marks left by burning candles,
eyes gouged out, broken teeth,
the traces of lashes from those cables you use to start cars.
Sometimes bodies covered with blood that looked fresh,
clear they had died very recently.

I had to take breaks to stop myself from crying.
I’d go and wash my face.
I wasn’t doing well at home.
I’d changed.
Naturally I’m pretty calm,
but now I would get annoyed easily,
with my parents, my brothers and my sisters.
The things I had seen kept coming back to me.

I imagined my brother and sisters becoming these bodies.

I was terrified.  

It was making me ill.

I couldn’t stand it anymore.

They started sending bodies to Mezzeh military hospital ,
its official name is Hospital 601and is much bigger than Tishreen.
It was easier to photograph the bodies at Tishreen,
in the morgue or when that was full up, in the corridors.
At Mezzeh, they were dumped outdoors,
on the ground in one of the garages where the cars were serviced.
The numbers increased, especially after 2012.
The work was non-stop.

 The officer in charge of our service would yell at us:
“Why isn’t the work finished?
The bodies are piling up!
Come on, hurry up!”

He thought we were dawdling,
we couldn’t work any faster.
Always more corpses and defections in our unit meant that there were fewer of us.

The garage at Mezzeh started filling up,
with bodies that we hadn’t had time to photograph.

The bodies didn’t keep well,
especially when they’d been lying around for a few days.
Even the soldiers didn’t want to touch them,
they’d move them with the toes of their boots.
The bodies rotted.
Once, we saw a bird peck at a corpse’s eye.
Other times, insects attacked their skin.
And the smell ... we couldn’t get rid of it,
it drove us mad,
and then,
it became part of daily life.

We worked from 8am to 2pm, then break till 6 or 7pm,
before going back to the office until 10pm.
The days were long because we didn’t want to leave anything unfinished.
We knew there would be more bodies to photograph the next day.

Several times a week, I took the photos to Sami.
When I was alone in the office,
I’d copy them on to a USB stick that he had given me.
Always afraid that someone would come in and see me.
When I left, I’d hide the stick in my heel or my belt.
On my way home,
I’d have to pass four or five army roadblocks.
I was terrified.
I didn’t know what could happen to me.
The soldiers might want to search me,
even if I had my army ID.

Seeing these photos on a computer screen
was even more painful than photographing the bodies.
Out there,
with corpses all around us
we couldn’t hang around.
The pathologist was hurrying us along.
Agents from the security services were watching us and noting our reactions.

In Syria,
everyone watches everyone and as we weren’t allowed to ask questions.
It was easier to take our photos without really looking at the injuries.

It was simpler to try to feel nothing.

Back at our office,
however we had time,
no one was harrying us.
And there as we printed the photos and stuck them down,
we couldn’t avert our eyes.

It was terrible.
The scene was right there.
The detainee came back to life in front of us.
We saw the body clearly,
we felt the blows, imagined the torture.
Then we had to write the report,
as if to fix what we had seen a little more firmly in our memories.

In one month in the cells,
a prisoner’s face might have changed completely,
so much that we could no longer recognise them.
One of my friends died in detention.
We photographed his body without knowing who he was.
Only much later,
as I was discreetly looking for information on behalf of his father,
did I realise that his photo had passed through our hands.

Someone who I used to see almost every day
before he was locked up
I hadn’t recognised.

It was the military police
who told his father that his son had died in detention.
He didn’t want to believe it.

I had to tell him it was true:
“I contacted the military hospital and they confirmed that your son was dead.”

In fact,
I’d searched our archives and found the photo.
Of course, I wasn’t allowed to tell him that.
No one knew that each detainee’s corpse was photographed,
as a matter of course,
before being thrown into a mass grave.

One day, one of my colleagues was at Mezzeh hospital,
with bodies lying side by side.
As he stood over one of them,
he got the impression that he was still alive.

He was breathing quietly.

“Should I photograph him?
He’s still alive?”
My colleague asked the soldiers responsible for transporting the bodies.

The pathologist arrived and was furious.
“What do you mean, he’s still alive?
What am I supposed to do?
That’s going to change all my numbers!”

He was angry because he had already filled his notebook with the corpses’ medical numbers.
If this man was still alive,
he’d have to cross some out,
allocate new ones.

“Don’t worry,” a soldier told him.

“Go and have a cup of tea and it’ll all be sorted out by the time you come back.”

When he returned, they finished taking the photos.

At the beginning, we were disgusted. Repelled.
I’d hardly eat for days.
Then it became a part of us.
We bottled it up.

It was the only way we could keep going.

What else could we do?
We were also afraid for our friends and families.
If we gave vent to our feelings,
we might be arrested and tortured to death,
joiningthose bodies.

There were about a dozen photographers in my team.
We supported each other,
but we couldn’t confide in each other.
Sometimes, a couple of us would have a whispered conversation,
not daring to shut the office door in case someone imagined,
we were plotting and criticising the regime.
Anyway, we weren’t allowed to shut the door.

We’d say,
“On Judgment Day,
we’ll have to account for our actions.
What did you do during all these years with this criminal regime?
Why did you stay?”

We were afraid. What could we possibly reply?

For those two years, I was caught in the crossfire.
I was afraid of being arrested by the rebels because I worked for the regime,
and of being caught by the regime because I was collecting this evidence of torture.
My life was in danger from both sides and my family too.

We wanted to get these photos out,
so that the dead people’s families would know loved ones had passed away.
People had to know what was going on in the prisons and detention centres.

The security services feel invulnerable.
They can’t imagine that one day they will be called to account for their abuses.
I wonder if the security service bosses aren’t more stupid than we think.
Busy repressing demonstrators,
looting the population, killing,
they’ve forgotten that their abuses were being documented.

Look at the chemical attack on Ghouta!
Those responsible knew there would be evidence of what they had done,
yet they still fired their rockets.

We thought our work would mobilise public opinion.
But the politicians want to turn the page and negotiate with Bashar al-Assad.’

During the two years when I was secretly copying these documents,
I was afraid for my family and for my own safety.
I had started down this road and there was no going back.
I knew that one day I would stop this work,
but I didn’t know when.
I kept putting the moment off.
But eventually I realised,
I had to leave.

“We thought our work would mobilise public opinion.
The photos were shown to the EU,
to Congress in Washington,
to the UN Human Rights Council.
But politicians want to negotiate with Bashar al-Assad.
How did we get to that point?”