Documenting Barbara Presnell

November 18, 2013 - Kelsey Block

Last week, the RCAH Center for Poetry was delighted to welcome North Carolina native Barbara Presnell to East Lansing. During her brief visit, Presnell conducted a workshop on documentary poetry and gave readings of her work.

Presnell said she began writing when she was a child. As the youngest of three children, she said her older siblings often left her to invent her own fun. She said she read her first stories to her parents, who were very supportive throughout her life.

“When I had my first book published, I really felt like, ‘I don’t have to do anything else,’” Presnell said, adding that she felt she had accomplished what she set out to do. “It felt that good. It just felt right.”

Presnell said that her favorite part about writing poetry is striving to be accurate.

“I usually write about people and real life situations, and I like when people tell me that I’ve gotten it right, that I’ve portrayed them accurately, truthfully and respectfully,” the 59-year-old writer said. “I love just building imaginary worlds, like I did when I was a kid.”

Presnell said her childhood has played a big part in her work.

“I didn’t know that it was doing it at the time,” she said. “But now that I’m older, all I do is write about family or write from family. My work is really rooted in the south and in those values that I learned when I was in my family, which was a real tight family.”

Presnell’s family is still close-knit, she said.

“My parents have both died, but my brother and sister are both real supportive,” Presnell said. “They read everything I write, which is scary, but they do.”

Perhaps what is more frightening is how much time Presnell has to spend in writing “documentary poetry.” She places a lot of emphasis on truth, and said the process involves a lot of research and phone interviews.

“I didn’t coin that phrase, but somebody call what I do that (documentary poetry), and I like it. It fits,” she said. “It’s work that’s historically based or based on current events or based on some real even or real time, but yet it’s imaginative. But, it has to be authentic, so it’s researched.”

Presnell said she hopes that her work might inspire others to start writing themselves or to look a bit deeper into their own pasts.

“The family research that I’m doing now is something that a lot of people can get into. The documents are there, it’s just a matter of knowing where to look and taking the time to do a little looking,” she said. “As soon as I start talking about it, people will start talking back. It always makes folks think of their own story.”

“My work is all about digging up the past and also preserving the present, preserving the month,” Presnell said. “Documentary poetry in particular preserves a time and a place and a lifestyle and a culture … My work is very understated. It’s just like snapshots in a way. Hopefully, there’s  lot of truth to it in that little snapshot, but I think understatement can be real powerful, it can sneak up on you.”