Essay: Jessica Wilkinsonon nonfiction poetry

What is Nonfiction Poetry? Reflecting on Rabbit’s 30 issues

Poetry – amid all its ambiguity and ornamentation – is not only perfectly capable of conveying truth; it can also attain a unique relationship to truth because it implicitly acknowledges and interrogates the limitations of language.

— Cole Swensen.

In late 2011, I had a meeting with the founders of the nonfictionLab at RMIT University, David Carlin and Francesca Rendle-Short. I was a new employee at the university, and they were asking me what I might contribute to the fledgling ‘Lab’. Without much thought, I proposed that the literary publication Rabbit, which I had begun as an experimental venture midway through the year, become ‘a journal for nonfiction poetry’. David and Francesca looked at me excitedly. ‘What’s nonfiction poetry?’, they asked. ‘I don’t know,’ I said, and we all laughed at how swiftly an authoritative statement was revealed to be a mere spontaneous proposition. When the mood resumed to focus on serious business, I told them that we would find out.

At home that evening, I remember thinking on the possibilities presented by this flippant proposal. I plugged ‘nonfiction definition’ into Google; the definition that popped up – which still pops up – is: ‘prose writing that is informative or factual rather than fictional’. Why not poetry, I thought? Is poetry that is informative and factual not nonfiction? Are these questions and divisions about content, or form?

Certainly, as a poetry reader, I had always been most drawn towards works that had a basis in some kind of documentable reality, particularly long-form poetry works that had involved considerable research on the part of the author and which could arguably fall into the category of ‘nonfiction poetry’. Jordie Albiston, П.O., Anne Carson, Susan Howe, Rita Dove and Lyn Hejinian were all poets whose (auto)biographical, documentary and/or historical long poems continued to hold my attention.

And as a poetry writer, I had just completed my first manuscript, a longform biographical poem on early cinema actress Marion Davies, the first of three biographical works I have completed to date. Poetry, I had surmised, could do so many amazing things for nonfiction – technically, stylistically, spatially. Why couldn’t it be recognised as a valuable mode to challenge and expand nonfiction?

Rabbit, then, became a journal for nonfiction poetry in early 2012. We’ve just published our thirtieth issue. The masthead now declares that the journal

celebrates the potential for poetry to explore and interrogate the boundaries of nonfiction writing. Rabbit encourages poets to openly engage with auto/biography, history, politics, economics, mathematics, cultural analysis, science, the environment, and all other aspects of real-world experience, recollection and interpretation.

This remit also riffs off a manifesto I penned with Ali Alizadeh for Cordite in 2012. ‘The Realpoetik Manifesto’ is a ‘code for the art of non-fiction poetry’ which ‘celebrates the power of the poetic form to realise and enact factual content’ and ‘recognises the unquantifiable potential of poetic writing to convey a deeper experience of reality and “real life” accounts than may be possible through conventional non-fiction prose’.

Keen to ‘find out’ what nonfiction poetry is, does and can do, Rabbit opens its pages for both writers and readers to explore actively the possibilities of each issue’s theme. Some of those themes to date have related to topic (Biography, Autobiography, Geography, Philosophy, Dance, Jazz, Lineages, Tense, Sport, Belonging and Politics), while others have been focused on form (Prose Poetry, Long Poems) or writer-demographic (Youth, Indigenous, LGBTQIA+). Over our 30 issues so far, poets have contributed to the expanding of the term ‘nonfiction poetry’, reminding me on a regular basis of the extraordinary capabilities of poetry, its malleability, openness to experimentation, contrariness, performativity and complex aesthetic palette.

In what follows I want to revisit some of the poems that have appeared in issues of Rabbit that will help me to articulate better the significance and value of the term ‘nonfiction poetry’ and how it can extend the dimensions and boundaries of the nonfiction field.

In the wake of global ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests, I immediately turn to Cortney Lamar Charleston’s ‘Poem Where I Contend the Arc of History Bends Toward Itself’, published in Rabbit 26 (The Belonging Issue, guest-edited by Eileen Chong). The words of this visual poem are presented in a circle, so that what would be a ‘short poem’ if lineated expands into a much larger space; it becomes, in a sense, a poem that never ends. When Charleston submitted this poem, he accompanied it with a short, explanatory statement, noting that the poem wrestles

with historical oppression and marginalisation [and] speaks to the experience of being told, by others, that they don’t belong, that their presence is unwanted. While the poem uses language that I believe solidifies the allusion to Black peoples, I feel the sentiment carries forward to any number of marginalised populations around the globe.

A visual poem presented as circle of words. The continuous line of typed text forming a circle reads: ‘they’re coming for me like they’re always coming and always coming because I'm always ahead of them so they can never arrive so showing the tension of verb tense as they action yet stay firmly behind me in my past further affirming I am magical as even in getting me I’ll have gotten away again because.’
Cortney Lamar Charleston, ‘Poem Where I Contend the Arc of History Bends Toward Itself’, Rabbit 26.

The appearance of the poem as a circle of words adds an aspect that cannot be reduced to one meaning; in the context of the text, the circle helps me to visualise an action or activity beyond the words themselves – I think of an ongoing ‘chase’, a newsfeed featuring repeated incidents of systemic racism, violence and oppression. Further, Charleston generates a sense that his voice – any voice of the oppressed – is centrifugally forced to the margins of a dominant ‘white space’. He forces us to look at/to the margins, to interrupt the circle/cycle. As a poem, we recognise that the components – appearance, use of space, choice of words – signify in excess of the text. As a nonfiction poem, we respond more urgently to the poet’s ‘I’ as a subject victimised by the ongoing chase.

Mitch Tomas Cave’s ‘Skin’ (Rabbit 21: The Indigenous Issue, guest-edited by Alison Whittaker) also features an ‘I’ that we identify with the poet, who appears to be reckoning with his biological inheritance:

i am a body
my father
merges his skull
to become mine
two faces
behind glass
into one reflection
carved stone
teeth crooked
eyelids somewhat associated
shape of amphibians
and land
undefined colour
a mask
definition of past
too white

Rather than providing the reader with a coherent, unified representation of the author’s ‘skin’ or appearance, this poem generates a more complex, disjunctive impression. Readers must actively co-ordinate and negotiate the various components depicted in the poem’s lines – the mix of facial description (‘teeth crooked/bone’; ‘mouth/broken’) with metaphor (‘carved stone’) and ambiguous references (‘reject’; ‘salt/unconsidered/dissolve’) – in order to fathom the image/s or the ‘message’ of this poem as a whole. Through short lines, some of which are enjambed, while others are disconnected, the poem allows him to communicate a fractured self. We are given a more complex understanding of how his appearance bears traces of mixed ancestry and how that (dis)locates his sense of belonging. Eileen Chong uses lines differently in her poem ‘Crying’, published in Rabbit 29 (The Lineages Issue, guest-edited by Chi Tran and Matthew Hall). Couplets of more-or-less uniform length generate a neat appearance, as one might imagine the urban apartment block depicted in the poem:

Nearly midnight in the enclave
of apartments turned inwards,

blue light flickering in rooms.
A single wail, a drawn breath,

another scream—one long, continuous
keen. Teething, perhaps, or a fever.

Minutes after, a window is slammed
shut, but the crying persists. What

could be the matter? No one has known
grief like this. Inconsolable, without

reason or solution. A mother, or a father,
holds the child: a tethered, slapped boat.

In a journal for nonfiction poetry, Chong’s poem leads me to imagine the poet herself within the privacy and comfort of her apartment at midnight (‘turned inwards’), hearing a neighbour’s baby scream. With a poet’s eye and attention to word choice, the ‘blue light flickering’ (a delightful way to convey that people are watching TV in the dark) and the ‘wail’ of the baby, together suggest a pervading mood of irritation and restlessness. Perhaps it is summer, too hot to sleep? For a window has been open, at midnight, and is now ‘slammed/ shut’ – it may be another neighbour, shutting out the noise of the baby.

In the context of an apartment complex, the ‘slapped boat’ is out of place. These final, lingering words jettison my thoughts from the enclave and outwards towards contemporary humanitarian issues – in particular, asylum seekers and refugees, and the ways they are treated by the Australian government ‘without/ reason or solution’. ‘Connections between unconnected things’, says Susan Howe ‘are the unreal reality of Poetry’. Through Chong’s intelligent and unobtrusive use of metaphor, then, the image of the boat leads us to associate the window being shut on the wailing baby with the government’s shutting of Australian borders on asylum seekers. And because this poem appears in the ‘Lineages’ issue of Rabbit, I wonder if the poet is thinking on her own migration to Australia from Singapore, her place of birth, and feeling deeply for others who have had to make that move under traumatic circumstances. This nonfiction poem enables the poet to transform an otherwise quotidian real-world encounter into a powerful expression of empathy and concern.

Rabbit has also showcased many poems that disguise the poet’s presence/‘I’, as in the Biography Issues (nos. 15/16). Chloe Wilson’s ‘Experimenta Lucifera’ draws on the collected works of physician William Stark (1740-1770), who ‘died of scurvy after conducting a series of dietary experiments on himself’, as the brief accompanying note to the poem informs. Wilson presents a distillation of Stark’s experiments and observations in 26 short parts (titled for his 24 restrictive diets, with the addition of a preliminary note and a concluding ‘autopsy’). But each part combines Stark’s studies of his own body, as he undertook those diets that led to his death, with his previous studies of the anatomy of deceased persons. A reader must consult Stark’s published works to confirm the blending of observations. However, if this fact of blending is not discovered, the poem is still capable of provoking a resonant readerly experience. Take the following section, for example:

I. Bread and Water
Mr Franklin said when
he was a printer this was sufficient
tested digestion with caraway seeds
they reappear intact one or two days later
remember the jagged edges
of the lady’s ribcage the fetid liquor
in the thorax I sawed
too fast pierced a finger later
suppuration the black fingernail
dropped off cannot manage more
than forty-six ounces in a sitting

Stark’s first dietary experiment was simply bread and water, inspired by Benjamin Franklin, who told him that he had lived on bread and water for two weeks when he was a printer. The poem notes this fact and follows with details of Stark’s tests on his own body, interrupted by observations from anatomical studies of other bodies, including an incident where his finger was pierced by bone splinters of one cadaver, which resulted in a terrible infection. While it is interesting to follow up on Stark’s experiments beyond Wilson’s text, I would argue that the poem itself provides a sufficient and fascinating biographical portrait of the physician as a stand-alone work. Gaps within lines and a spare use of abject vernacular accentuate the disjunct between bodies under examination; Stark’s ‘self’ blends with ‘other’ bodies as the distinction between observer and observed breaks down. The physician becomes so engrossed in his anatomical studies as to become his own cadaverous object. The poem, then, depicts Stark’s own experimental activities in a more performative and active manner than a more straightforward narrative of his life might.

Interestingly, the ‘I’ that appears within this poem is not the poet herself. The presence of the ‘I’ leads us to infer that other techniques are at play here – in this case, the poet incorporates quotation, with the effect of inhabiting her biographical subject. Wilson, then, draws herself into the poem’s ‘self/other’ blend, as if, in her study of Stark, she too blurs the lines between observer and observed, incorporating his methods into her own craft as a way of more aptly meeting the particularities of his life narrative.

In the same Biography issue, Stuart Barnes’ sequence ‘The Cure’ represents the well-known band in thirteen parts, each of which is a cento consisting of single lines sourced from each song on the band’s thirteen studio albums. This ‘biography’ of the band, then, plays as if a best-of compilation of its own lyrics. Veering away from a simple rundown of facts on the band’s members and their history together, the poetic sequence seems to ask why this tribute is any less biographical for a band; those words – those albums – are the band’s history, its biographical record.

When Stuart Cooke submitted ‘Pinatubo Volcano’ to the Biography Issue of Rabbit, I was made to further rethink the bounds of biography writing, how non-human others might be depicted within the biographical fold. The poem features three lines which travel independently across and over sixteen pages (rather than ‘down’ the page), before the poem’s two-page denouement.

Excerpts from Stuart Cooke’s ‘Pinatubo Volcano’, Rabbit 16 (The Biography Issue, Part II).


This poem was recently republished in Cooke’s collection Lyre (UWAP, 2019), a book which ‘attempts to translate more-than-human worlds into different kinds of poetry’. Cooke continues:

As much as my encounter with each animal, plant, and landform produced differences of syntax and vocabulary across the poems, I also wanted to allow the subject to unsettle poetic form itself. In other works, it wasn’t enough just to describe the different worlds or unwelten of these different beings; as nonhuman lives were being translated into human poetry, human poetry also needed to undergo some kind of translation into something else. It was in this indeterminate, interstitial region that human cognition might break down, and start to encounter what it was not.

A nonfiction poem can challenge human cognition and encourage readers to see beyond their own frames and ideological impediments. ‘Pinatubo Volcano’ moves with and beyond historical/geographical documentation, stretching our relationship to language and the nonfictional through pronoun play (youm, yourm) and the expansiveness of the poetic line. Reading this poem brings to mind a sense of inconceivable longevity, of millions of years and layers of volcanic history building towards the dramatic and catastrophic 1991 eruption.

With the exception of occasional longer works, such as Cooke’s poem above, page limitations in a literary journal obviously hamper the length of nonfiction poems represented in Rabbit. The offshoot Rabbit Poets Series (RPS) was begun in 2013, opening an outlet for poets to flex their muscles in extended nonfiction poetry. No. 1 in the series was XIII Poems by established poet Jordie Albiston, after which the series focussed on publishing and promoting emerging poets. Several of the books published thus far constitute a collection of single poems, usually united through voice, style and thematic interests.

In our most recent release, Natalie Briggs probes familial, platonic and intimate relationships through her acerbic and introspective collection Who Loves At All (RPS no. 14). As ‘nonfiction poetry’, the collection gives us singular candid glimpses into Briggs’s relationship experiences. Other books in the series provide book-length explorations of a subject – Tamryn Bennett’s phosphene (RPS no. 4), for example, offers a series of ‘prayers for the wind, for buried cities, for the invisible and sacrificed’, aptly reflected not only in Bennett’s sparse and careful use of words, but in the use of white space and collage. In another example, Dave Drayton’s P(oe)Ms (RPS no. 8) provides brief anecdotal portraits of Australia’s Prime Ministers, in chronological order, through anagrams of each PM’s name.

In his book-length poem meditations with passing water (RPS no. 11), Jake Goetz visually, historically and geographically follows the Brisbane River. The poetry demonstrates Goetz’s personal engagement with the river and its surrounds while also exhibiting evidence of his research into historical archives. You can glean the research undertaken from the notes and source list at the back of the book, and from the poems themselves, which are rich with reference and detail. Goetz’s poem variously combines observation with historical (pre- and post-colonisation) and environmental information, as well as relevant quotations by other thinkers, activists and poets. Taking cues from poet Alice Oswald’s book Dart (about the Dart River in Devon), Goetz says that he ‘consider[s] all the texts quoted in [his] poem as an extension of the Maiwar/ Brisbane River’ and that he intended ‘to form a river of language constructed out of the river’s language – intertwining [his] physical and mental digressions with its movement, history and surrounding environment to challenge the way one might attempt to write about a specific place’.

Excerpt from Jake Goetz’s meditations with passing water, p. 17.

Visually, the poetry appears river-like, as in the above excerpt, following curves and ripples and forks and sometimes blockages. But two less obvious poetic techniques that Goetz deploys are juxtaposition and collage, both of which allow the poet to achieve a mixed ‘river of language’. Goetz’s respective decisions to be attentive to the shape of the text and to use collage and juxtaposition may have come from the research process itself, where multiple and contrasting voices and viewpoints jostled for the poet’s attention. This is another aspect of some nonfiction poems that I deeply appreciate, where formal aspects relating to the craft of the poem are dictated by the research itself. The CityCat, plastic bags, pest species and ANZAC celebration rub up against rejuvenating eucalypts and ‘reconciliation’; observation rubs up against reflection, critique and unattributed quotation. As readers, we may attempt to reconcile these jostling components; when these efforts are frustrated, we may be approaching the point of the poem: that there is no unified tongue with which the river speaks. Goetz acknowledges the co-existence of multiple histories, mythologies and cartographies within the flow of the river’s languages.

So, what is nonfiction poetry? This is a question I am frequently asked. Sometimes I respond by returning a few questions of my own: ‘What can the line do that the sentence can’t?’; ‘What do you think a biography written in poetry can say about the subject beyond a conventional biographical account?’; ‘What can the affordances of poetry offer to your nonfiction writing?’

If I’m up for an argument, I’ll refer to the myriad ways in which poetry is not taken as seriously as its formal counterparts in literary circles, particularly in Australia, and that ‘nonfiction poetry’ might hustle its way to a more prominent place at the festival table.

If I’m feeling impudent, I’ll ask the questioner: ‘What do you think it is?’ Even though I have been an editor of a journal for nonfiction poetry for 30 issues, my answer might not be your answer. Rabbit has not invented the genre of nonfiction poetry – poets have been writing poetry that could be classified as ‘nonfiction’ for millennia – but the journal has provided a platform through which to share and celebrate poems for their contributions to nonfiction. Further, the assigning of a title to such a practice brings poetry’s unique capabilities into the orbit of nonfiction practice.

If a poem declares or positions itself to be nonfiction, we can expect that the poet respects that pact, that they have set out to deliver a truthful account or record of some kind, an engagement with real-world experience. For readers of the nonfiction poem – as with the reading of any poem – we can be more active in interpreting the use of language and space, how the poem ‘informs’ beyond the words themselves, ‘between the lines’. Each of the poems discussed above delivers something extra to us, through visual design, use of line breaks and space, metaphor, ambiguity and other poetic devices and techniques. Yet importantly, the poems also resist explanation of what this ‘extra-ness’ fully encompasses. In other words, a nonfiction poem makes room for ‘those aspects of truth’, as Cole Swensen writes, ‘which can’t be told [but] must be felt.’

The 30th issue of Rabbit: a journal for nonfiction poetry, just released, is a Long Poem issue. This is Rabbit’s second Long Poem issue. The first, issue 11, was published in 2014.

Works Cited

Stuart Barnes, ‘The Cure’, Rabbit: a journal for nonfiction poetry, 15 (The Biography Issue, part I, 2015), 23-28.

Tamryn Bennett, phosphene (Melbourne: Rabbit Poets Series no. 4, 2016).

Natalie Briggs, Who Loves At All (Melbourne: Rabbit Poets Series no. 14, 2020).

Cortney Lamar Charleston, ‘Poem Where I Contend the Arc of History Bends Toward Itself’, Rabbit: a journal for nonfiction poetry, 26 (The Belonging Issue, 2018), 89.

Mitch Tomas Cave, ‘Skin’, Rabbit: a journal for nonfiction poetry, 21 (The Indigenous Issue, 2017), 43.

Eileen Chong, ‘Crying’, Rabbit: a journal for nonfiction poetry, 29 (The Lineages Issue, 2019), 31.

Stuart Cooke, ‘Pinatubo Volcano’, Rabbit: a journal for nonfiction poetry, 16 (The Biography Issue, part II, 2015), 104-121.

Stuart Cooke, ‘Author’s Note’, Jacket 2, (September 20, 2019).

Stuart Cooke, Lyre, Crawley, Western Australia: UWAP, 2019.

Dave Drayton, P(oe)Ms, (Melbourne: Rabbit Poets Series no. 8., 2017).
Jake Goetz, meditations with passing water, (Melbourne: Rabbit Poets Series no. 11, 2018).
Susan Howe, My Emily Dickinson, (North Atlantic Books: Berkley, 1985).
Cole Swensen, Noise that Stays Noise: Essays, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2011.