Writing as Witness

Robbie Gamble is the author of A Can of Pinto Beans, from Lily Poetry Review Press. His poems and essays have appeared in the Atlanta Review, Carve, Tahoma Literary Review, Solstice, RHINO, and The Sun. He worked for many years as a nurse practitioner caring for people caught in homelessness, and he now divides his time between Boston and Brattleboro, Vermont.  robbiegamble.com

Robbie’s essay “Exit Wound” was listed as a notable essay in Best American Essays 2020.

As a lefty, Robbie is blessed with a direct neural pathway from the creative/connective right side of his brain to his ink-stained, pen-holding hand. It also means that his handwriting is terrible.

Read Robbie’s work in this issue:
Creative Non-Fiction
: Scavenging
Poetry: Rwanda / Rumors / Ukraine: w(ars) poetica

Robbie says: I’ve spent most of my adult life working with folks on the margins: people who have become homeless, political refugees, undocumented migrants. I’ve witnessed a fair amount of trauma, and eventually I turned to writing poetry and nonfiction to help make some sense of it. The trauma isn’t my own; I’m a white, straight cis-male from a privileged background, but I feel compelled to speak about some of the things I’ve seen.

The tricky part of witness writing is to find a balanced take on the scene being witnessed, holding compassion without sentimentality, without making myself as messenger the focus of the work. Often, I get stuck, and don’t know how to proceed.

I’m one of those people who has developed a pre-industrial-era sleep pattern of what used to be known as “first sleep” and “second sleep,” separated by an interval of wakefulness in the darkest predawn hour. This doesn’t feel like insomnia to me; in fact, it’s often a time of tremendous creativity for my writing, when my mind feels loose and associative, and I often will find a solution to some blocked passage that has been holding me up, a surprising image or phrase or strategy, that transforms the work I had been wrestling with.

I find this to be particularly true when writing about witness, or issues of social justice. The poems “Rwanda” and “Rumors” allude to this phenomenon.

I’ve been deeply affected by the events leading up to the war in Ukraine, and the terrible destruction that is now unfolding. I’m not Ukrainian, and I don’t have particularly strong ties to that culture (though I have friends who do). But a long time ago, in 1988, I worked as a human rights observer during the civil war in El Salvador. I still recall viscerally what it felt like to carry on day after day, knowing that violence could erupt at any time; learning to gauge if distant explosions or gunfire might become a threat, coping with roadblocks, with power and water outages, always planning and adjusting plans to stay safe in the communities we worked in.

I find these visceral feelings resurfacing in the night. “Rumors” and “Ukraine: (w)ars poetica” came to me in almost complete form in my predawn intervals; “Rumors,” chillingly, the day before the invasion began.

No More Deaths/ No Mas Muertes is a humanitarian organization that provides medical and material aid to migrants crossing through dangerous sections of the Sonoran Desert along the Arizona/Mexico border. Robbie volunteered with them for several years, writing about the experience in his chapbook, A Can of Pinto Beans. nomoredeaths.org/donate-money

Riddled with Arrows 5.2: “Spotlight 2022”
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