When Journalism Meets Poetry

I am most interested in three seemingly separate writing disciplines: the creative non fiction genre, the investigation and research put into journalism, and the unique form in poetry. So, when I read Erika Meitner’s creation of these things in “All that Blue Fire” and watched Katie get inspired as a result of it, I wanted to try it out myself. I plan on having this poem workshopped, so I won’t focus so much on how I wrote it and get you sick of the poem just yet. Instead, I’ll talk about how I gathered my information.

I am conducting a field study for my anthropology class, investigating the language of healing. The class discusses how language used in culture and context can assist a “sick person” in getting well again. For example, how does your doctor talk to you during checkups and how does this communication influence your healing process? Of course, western medicine is not the only nor necessarily the best way to “get well again”. There are many kinds of healing practices across different cultures, as there are many kinds of ways to be “sick”. I have chosen to focus on the practice of yoga and meditation, specifically at a studio here in Geneseo, NY.

So, for my research, I conducted an interview a few weeks back talking to one of the head instructors of the studio. I asked her a variety of questions, but there was a specific response I took a lot of interest in. I asked her how she first got into teaching yoga, and she told me that she started off by working with her professor in college, teaching meditation at a maximum security prison in the 1970s. She went on about her experiences and the reactions that the inmates had to meditation class. It was so cool to listen to!

That story stuck in my head for a while, and when the idea of a journalistic-style poem was introduced to me, I automatically knew I should make a poem out of it. As I was listening to the interview recording, I noticed Angela (the instructor) mentioned “the riots of the early seventies”, and I wasn’t sure what she was specifically referring to. At the time, I shrugged it off as a reference to the counterculture, but now that I wanted to write a poem about it, I figured I’d be more specific. So I looked up Attica Correctional Facility, and read all about the Attica Prison Riot in 1971. Half of the prisoners, about a thousand people, upset with the mistreatment that went on in the prison, overthrew forty two members of the staff, and rather successfully. I knew so little about this historical event and was blown away by all of what Wikipedia had to tell me about it, I knew I had to write a second poem in the footnotes. Granted, a lot of the more detailed information doesn’t have citations, probably because the U.S. government wanted to protect themselves and didn’t release much information about the brutal retaliations by the guards. I encourage you to read up about it, and I hope you enjoy my poem I’ll be distributing on Thursday!

Punctuation as Noise (and White Space as Silence)

After reading Amy’s poem for workshop, I realized that the quadruple colon (::::) created a kind of noise for me by the end of the reading. Since the speaker was making a telephone call, the recurring :::: sounded like static. Plus, Katie brought up in class how the it could symbolize a “double mirror” since we like to think of the double colon as a mirror in all its glorious symmetry. This brought me to the conclusion that a double mirror could suggest the reversal of roles. Who is really making this phone call? Who else could possibly be speaking besides the father?

So, upon hearing that static in the quadruple colon, I began to look at all punctuation as noise. I say noise instead of sound because I figure that the words work as sound in poetry, poetic phonetics if you will.

If punctuation were to function as noise, what would the reader be hearing in your most recent poem? What does a comma sound like in comparison to a period? An em dash? And does this mean poems with a lack of punctuation are necessarily more quiet?

Just some food for thought that where there’s punctuation, there’s lack of space, which makes for a lack of silence! What sounds do you hear most?

Making Sense of Something Foreign

Upon first opening Myung Mi Kim’s Dura, all I really saw were double spaced lines and occasionally separated words in those lines. Lots of the word choice seemed random to me, though I know that most published poets have a reason for their decisions, even if those reasons yield illogic. I continued reading, not understanding most of what was going on (that’s contemporary poetry for you, at times, I guess) but still accepting what was to come. Despite the initial frustrations, I appreciated a lot of the rhythmic sounds. For example, on page 6, the last line just echoes to the beat of some drum playing quietly in the reader’s head: “Lop off the top where the milliner’s wooden box doesn’t reach”

This brought me back to the discussion of rhythm, meters and emphasis in words we had in class a few weeks back. Myung Mi Kim demonstrates emphasis within words and lines perfectly here, as when it is read aloud, it sounds like: LOP off the TOP where the milliner’s wooden BOX doesn’t reach”

The word “milliner’s” is spoken the fastest. It is also the word with the most syllables in the line. Looking at emphasis like this in a book of poetry leads me to thinking about the chapter I read for my Teaching English as a Foreign Language class called “Teaching Pronunciation”. In order to teach a foreign language speaking student how to emphasize the correct parts of a word or sentence, they must learn prominence. Prominence is the focus of the sentence, where the emphasis is placed most. For example: Did you hear that John moved to ChiCAGo? CAG in Chicago is emphasized because where John is moving is the main focus of the sentence. Word stress works the same way, but within a single word. Think of the word economic. We say it like ecoNOMic. There is stress on the NOM. Then there is connected speech, where two words sound like one when they are pronounced in conversation, such as Kim’s milliner’s wooden. Outside the context of her poem, these two words wouldn’t sound connected, but because they are bound together in a rhythmic line, they are spoken faster and sound like they are together.

I found it interesting that my Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language textbook related so much to my reading of Dura. But then I flipped back to the Preface by Juliana Spahr.

First of all, she defines dura for us: an enveloping membrane. But it can also mean “hard mother” in Arabic, “to last” in the French infinitive, “feminine stiffness” in Spanish, or an ancient city that once existed in Syria. The many meanings of one word, the title of the book, open up our language and reveals to us that the context is different, not so precisely defined, and she ultimately tells us that things are not always what they may seem. She discusses the cultural gap in her poetry. Suddenly, her use of white space made sense to me.

Kim confronts the language and cultural gap through poetry, and expresses the difficulty of translating Korean to English, and vice versa. Her poetry in this book is mostly comprised of fragments in order to reflect broken English and a foreigner’s communications.

Learning a new language is hard, especially English. And the entirely new, possibly conflicting cultural aspect makes it even more intimidating. I found Spahr’s words resonating with me when she concluded, “For to write in this ‘America’, is to write with the 38th parallel, the line that separates North and South Korea, the line that crosses the San Francisco bay” (x). According to my Teaching English professor, English is the most desired language in the world (to be spoken, written and used in general). American English demands its own cultural barriers and limits that may sweep foreigner’s values or traditions under the rug. How much of this English speaking continent allows all of that to go lost in translation?

Blackouts, Cabbages & Kings

My uncle works for a printing company in Rochester and contacted me one day, asking if I’d like some copies of literary and art magazines from Monroe Community College. I gladly accepted, curious as to what nearby colleges are up to with their poetry.

Cabbages & Kings displays a collection of visual art, interviews and poems, but they also included blackout poetry in the 2012 issue. However, in the 2013 and 2014 issues I have, no blackout poetry had been published. I wanted to know what you guys, poetry blog perusers, thought about blackout poetry as a craft, as a challenging prompt, as a useful tool, or just in general.

Is destruction just another form of creation—Would Donnie Darko support blackout poetry? Or is it not usually done well enough to be worth the time and effort of scribbling out a page in a book? Maybe this is to say something about black space as opposed to white space. Perhaps we can try it ourselves. For now, let’s take a look at some of Cabbages & Kings‘s stuff:

There is no title here, but I think the burned edges of the page add an exciting visual element. There are very minimal words but the poem has a fantasy-feel, especially since it ends in dialogue.


Again, no title here. This seems like a pattern in blackout poetry. What do we think of the words connected in pen? Sometimes, blackout poetry allows us to connect words in any order we may read them, but this one’s different in that respect.

The Poetry of Social Media

I’ve conducted a kind of casual social experiment. I decided to do so in order to get the public’s perspective on what they think poetry is (there are no wrong answers, necessarily: some are academic, some are introspective, some spiritual, some lighthearted jokes). The reason I wanted to ask others, specifically those who don’t study poetry or literature on a higher educational level, is because I feel like the more I immerse myself in poetry, the more I am perplexed by it. So, I was wondering if those who don’t spend as much time thinking about, reading or writing poetry felt similarly as I did or not.

At first, I posted a Facebook status bluntly asking, “What is poetry?” I proceeded to attach the link to our blog, The Contemporary Poem. I posted the status rather early in the day, so I waited until the evening to read the responses. But there was nothing there. Now, perhaps no one saw my status and it got lost in everyone’s BuzzFeed-polluted news feeds, but it could also suggest other possibilities.

Perhaps no one wanted to comment on my status because they were not confident to start conversation on something they didn’t know much about for all of Facebook to see. Or maybe those who did read the status knew I was a writing major and felt intimidated or judged by what I might think. Or perhaps no one cared. Nevertheless, I think this bump in the experiment is a noteworthy one.

So, in order to actually get responses, I tried again. But this time, on my boyfriend’s Facebook. He posted a status reading similarly, but apparently came off more welcoming: “here’s a thinker for you: what is poetry? (input encouraged)”

And, maybe you guessed it already, but he got responses! They are rather interesting:

“Poetry is writing that cuts out meaningless filler. Poetry is difficult to describe because emotions are difficult to describe and it is essentially a way to describe emotions. When you have thoughts and emotions they are better reflected with striking words and imagery rather than story telling and linear forms of writing; not that poetry can’t tell a story.
Ideas always seem so clear in your head and I think poetry is an attempt to capture that mental clarity without all of the clutter and fluff that floods everyday speech and thought. Almost like meditation with words. But then again thats my interpretation, there are lots of different styles of poetry and lots of different people that think and express in different ways.
Try some Japanese Death Poems. The use of language is simple, and brings a sense of tiredness.” -male, age 22

“Poetry is an aesthetic communication of thoughts/feelings… poetry conveys what gets lost in translation. words sometimes aren’t enough.i think poetry is a lot like empathy… i think we can FEEL what poetry conveys even if the string of words doesn’t particularly make sense to us” -female, age 20

“Poetry is painting with words.” -male, age 24

“Poetry is lyrics without the music.” -female, age 55

“When I write poetry,..rhyming always, I do it to memorialize something or someone that I’ve observed doing/being something that moved my heart and spirit” -female, age 77

Disregarding the cliches, we can find a common theme here. People write when they want to express an emotion, scholarly or not. So, maybe the next time I cannot understand what a poet is trying to say, I’ll instead try to experience what they are feeling. Not all aspects of poetry demand reading comprehension or even logic. But it should always demand one of our most human abilities, to feel.