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).