How Poetry Informs Journalism

“The skill of writing poetry – the skill of watching – is essential to journalism.”

— A poet-journalist at AWP, 2017

I have always been sure of the distinction between poetry and journalism. Between the structure, the style, the form, and the theme – surely there are no similarities at all. A journalist embodies fact, truth, and nonfiction. He is the unwavering boulder atop the hill, symbolizing that which is real. A poet embodies passion, emotion, and fiction. He is a flower just sprouting, flung about by the wind and the rain. He is impressionable.

But if the journalist is as tough and immovable as we are made to believe, how do we have such powerful and provocative stories as Seven Days of Heroin? If the poet is truly a whimsical fool always meditating on fiction, how do we have such grounded, realistic narratives as Kate Daniels’ In the Midst of the Heroin Epidemic?

The fact is the poet and the journalist are not as different as they may seem. Further, both forms thrive when they are in dialogue with one another.

I stopped writing poetry when I entered college and declared myself a journalism major. I am a serious writer now, I told myself. No more musing over heartbreak or changing seasons. It’s time to get serious. Two years later, when I took a creative writing class, my poetry was different than it had ever been. It was no longer cluttered with messy descriptions. It was grounded in specific, intentional images. It was real and it was true; my poetry was no fiction.

Suddenly I found myself backtracking. I wrote poem after poem about the sources that had long vanished from my life but continued to haunt me almost weekly. I wrote poems for the boxers I photographed for three months. I wrote poems for the Kent State maintenance worker who came out as a trans woman to me, a reporter. I wrote poems for a bubble artist in Florence, Italy, who was kind enough to tell me his story. I wrote poems for all the people I met and abandoned through journalism.

The good reporters are the empathetic reporters. But they are often the ones who struggle the most. How do we grapple with time? How do we push ourselves into a person’s life, memorize every detail, witness such vulnerability, and move suddenly onto the next source without thought?

Poetry is a space to answer the questions that journalism cannot. Poetry often exists in journalistic work for the sake of sanity. We need a space to write subjectively, to write our own truths and our own feelings.

I am a better poet because of my education in journalism. But I am also a better journalist because I grew up as a poet.

Poetry teaches us to find meaning in the absurd. It teaches us to watch, to listen, and to react. The number one rule in poetry is to write what you know. Though poetry is not always concerned with the absolute truth of a matter, it is concerned with honesty. Poetry is not mere fiction.

My life as a poet has taught me to observe. Every tiny detail from the smell of a room to a flickering fluorescent light to a man’s crooked teeth can inform the narrative I am constructing. Nothing should ever go unquestioned. Even when covering hard news, I try to paint a picture: Who are the characters? What is the setting like? What is the story here? Why is it happening?

At AWP last year I met Leorna LaPeter Anton, a journalist who started as a city hall reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. She said she always put storytelling in her stories in small ways. She said that even though she started off small, she made the most of it. In 2016, she won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. Storytelling is an art, and it has its place in journalism.

Author and journalist Amy Goodman said, “Go to where the silence is and say something.” Journalism aims to uncover silence where there should be discussion. It offers fact and it broadcasts truth. Poetry gives us the power find the meaning under the silence. Poetry helps us make sense of the Whys in the world. Poetry gives us empathy. Poetry allows us to be kind to others and ourselves. A poet is a journalist without deadlines. A journalist should always ask the poet’s favorite question: why?

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