In response to the killing of Michael Brown on 9 August 2014 I decided to compose a collection of poems about the affective structure of police violence against Black Americans. The poems document a small number of the deaths that occurred in the two-and-a-half years between Trayvon Martin’s murder on 26 February 2012 & Brown’s.
The poems are composed using a “objectivist” formula derived from Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony. First, I collected all the relevant hits from Google searches on the death in question. Little is publicly known about most of these events. Usually, there are no more than 10-30 reports published on-line, the majority of which repeat & amplify (or diminish) aspects of other reports. I gathered all of the available reports into a single word-processing document.
My next step was to synthesize the reports by constructing a timeline that follows the dead person’s trajectory. This required a major reordering of narrative structures & consumed a majority of my time. Most reports, derived from police press releases & local news websites, develop “law & order” narratives that feature the police as omniscient/heroic subjects. I reorganized the totality of details offered by the various reports into a “plot” that occurred in the lived time of the person (or persons) who died in the encounter.
My next step was to eliminate all the overlap–most stories included the same events, varying only in minor details. I included as many specific details as possible, while describing each action only once. Actions or details repeated by multiple sources were guaranteed a place in the final text, while ones briefly mentioned were occasionally omitted.
I used various media to reconstruct the events. Wishing to provide a setting for the actions (most reports offer little scenic background) I turned to Google maps and street views to clarify distances & deepen the focus. Many reports produced by local TV stations included videos, some of which were produced by the police. Squad car cameras, bystander cellphone videos & surveillance footage increasingly serve not only as a supplement to but as a source of ‘eye-witness’ testimony. I made use of all such sources (provided they were available on-line); when using source texts, I tried to preserve their idioms & jargons, while eliminating the passivity & redundancy of journalistic prose.
Lines are developed according to my system of “harmolodics”: free verse improvisation in which aesthetic & ideological swerves toward truth receive equal weight when making considerations of meter, melody, idiom & so forth.
4 of the first 50 poems can be downloaded here: 4 poems out of Ferguson.