Sunday, May 20, 2007

Poetry and Journalism: Close Cousins

These are some remarks I presented to the National Writers Workshop, Wichita, May 19.2007, about the connections between journalistic writing and poetry:

You may wonder what a poet is doing at a journalism conference. I am honored to be in this company, and I did start out right. I grew up in Emporia, Kansas, in the large shadows of William A White and William L White. Indeed, my first job was working as a high school stringer for William L., and I remember my first ever interview with this bear of a man.

Since then I have strayed from the true faith of journalism and gone the way of English majors into various directions including, most recently, administration and poet laureate for the state of Kansas, beginning July of this year. I do review occasionally for the Kansas City Star; I do op-ed pieces—in Tribal College Journal this quarter; and The Land Institute of Salina. In short, I find journalistic training an essential tool for my professional life.

Poets and journalists have much in common. Both are curious about reality. Over breakfast I overheard journalists regaling each other stories, just as poets do after hours. Compression of language is essential to poets as well as journalists, as well as careful selection of details to create a narrative. We both honor the 5 Ws: who what when where—though poets imply the “why” rather than state it directly. And poets use their license to stretch the “when” dimension of time to be an implication of season, time of day, and/or historic time.

In return, what I can tell you about being a poet that may be of help to a journalist? Poets specialize in compression of language; precision; emphasis on verbs; use of vivid, sense-driven diction; synecdoche and evocation. In addition, poems share organizational structures with especially photojournalists.

Walter Benjamin in Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction tells how our senses are extended by technology of the photographic lens, and I’m borrowing from that extended metaphor to present a range of poets of place, who extend their imaginations in similar ways: Polaroid snapshots; time-lapse photos; photo-collages; multiple angles; sepia prints; depth of field and focal points; documentary-narratives; and use of the poet’s micro lens. Poets extend the two-dimensional, ego-driven diary-derived beginner’s poem into a more fully shaped experience for the listener/reader through use of these perspectives borrowed from photojournalism.

Poems as examples can be found at This photographic tour of Kansas poetry of place includes: Jo McDougall’s “Spring comes to Leawood, Kansas” (snapshot); Jonathan Holden’s “Tornado Symptoms” (time-lapse photo); Harley Elliott’s “What to Do Around Here” (photo-collage); Victor Contoski’s “Douglas Count” (multiple angles); Steven Hind’s “Excursion” (sepia print: histories); William Sheldon’s “A Kind of Seeing” (narrative); Caryn Goldberg’s “Magnolia Tree in Kansas” (micro-lense); and my own “American Robin” (focal point).

Thursday, May 3, 2007

See National Book Critics Circle Defense of Book Review Pages

Newspapers have been cutting book pages for decades now or covering only books whose publishers contribute advertising dollars. The National Book Critics Circle blog Critical Mass has updates on this issue. See recent discussion by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Richard Ford, Jane Ciabattari, and many others at

See my own comments below.

Newspapers Abdicate Literacy Responsibility

Newspaper editors struggle to retain readership, yet they do not promote a culture of literacy. I have taught college freshmen English classes for almost forty years, where I see the failing outcomes of high school language skills education. First, 30% of students drop out of high school, according to 2003 Manhattan Institute researchers. Of those who do graduate, only about one-third have college-level skills, including basic literacy. Yet as education levels decrease, newspapers replace their coverage of book news with slick advertising circulars.

Newspapers have had a declining readership for years. In March, 2007, the Wall St. Journal reported an overall decline of 2.6%. In 2006 The New York Times circulation dropped 5.8%, and The Chicago Tribune dropped 12.4%, according to Reuters. Newspapers no longer have the cachet needed to drive sales. I remember when the New York Times book review arrived in our household and we children, as teenagers, searched its pages for new fiction. Novelists like J.D. Salinger and John Updike were like rock stars. I remember reading about Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s flamboyant stateside tour. This was when literary quality was the prerequisite for review space, rather than advertisers’ leverage. I learned books and authors were important, and this aura of prestige led me to a lifelong love of language. I am honored to be the 2007-2009 Poet Laureate for the state of Kansas.

In addition to teaching English, I review books for newspapers such as the Kansas City Star. In the 1980s, the Sunday edition included a healthy budget for reviewers, and I helped the books editor fill three to four pages. As a local reviewer I could put my own spin on national publications or reflect on local writers’ efforts. I still meet people who remember those early years of the Star’s commitment to books, and my small part. Then costs rose and advertising replaced much of the book section.

I commend the current Star book editor John Mark Eberhart, who makes the most of his allotted space to review local writers or at least briefly note their books. He is one of a handful of editors who publishes poetry every Sunday, even before former U.S. poet laureate Ted Kooser’s syndicated column. Yet I must search through pounds of paper to find the few book pages. In my local newspaper, the Lawrence Journal World, I turn to a section called “Pulse” to find a few reprinted reviews, features about local authors, and, luckily, because of anther enlightened arts editor—Mindie Paget—a poem.

Newspaper publishers seem to forget that it does take an entire village to educate a child. My college students seldom read books, but instead download tunes, send text messages, and surf the web. If they were to read a newspaper, they would dig to find book sections or a few columns related to literary arts. Instead they would find colorful pages designed like web pages, filled with sound-bites about movie stars.

As more news organizations increase online offerings, space is no longer a problem for book editors. On May 19, The Chicago Tribune moves its Books section to the Saturday edition to capture more readership, and additionally they expand the web version to include a blog. My local paper sponsors online author readings and interactive literary chats. These efforts can reestablish some of the former role of newspapers as advocates for book lovers.

I hope all newspaper publishers notice the connection between book culture and their own need for a well educated readership. They have an opportunity to attract new readers and also to affirm their role of educators. New generations need to see that literacy is more than just a job skill, but also entry into an exciting intellectual forum.