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?

Hating Photography

Last spring I went to see my favorite band in Brussels, Belgium. It was a great experience to see an American band perform in a different continent at a very strange venue with a whole crowd of Europeans. It was easily the best concert I’ve been to, and one of my best experiences while studying abroad.

When I returned to Florence shared my weekend adventure with my photography class, my professor asked, “Did you bring your camera?”

Photographers can’t enjoy anything. We train ourselves to obsess over light and colors, over lines and shapes. We watch from shadows, silent and invisible, tracking like spies with our viewfinders. We think in shutter speed and f-stops, always balancing exposures in our heads, metering too loud to hear ourselves think.

Had I brought my camera to the concert, I would not have felt the bass, the drum beat, the rhythm and the flow of the guitar pulsing through the blue and green lights. I would not have felt the sweat from the wave of strangers all dancing together. I would not have lost my voice from screaming the words I used to sing out my car window on sticky July evenings.

Had I brought my camera, I might have snagged a shot of fog washed in green light, a greasy haired singer open-mouthed behind a microphone, energy in a single moment. I might have gotten that shot, but instead, I got to live it.

The problem with all art is that we make it our single identity. We dedicate our lives to learning the skill, perfecting the craft, and we give ourselves nothing in return. So many photographers live their entire lives loving nothing else besides their cameras.

My problem is not that I hate photography: I hate singularity. I hate being only one thing, having only one identity. Sure, I have spent my fair share of golden hours clicking away at subjects and ignoring the warmth on my skin, the breeze through my hair. I have stealthed through shadows at parties capturing laughter rather than sharing it. I have made sacrifices for my photos, and I have never regretted it. But I also know when it is time to put down the camera and just simply enjoy.

Photography is a language, an art form, and a virus. It has a nasty way of gripping at your core, of washing over you and never letting go. Those chosen ones blessed by the sickness get to see beauty everywhere they go, but they never get the chance to feel it. They are always on the edge of the moments, never in them.

When I talk to so many of my photographer peers, I feel bored. I so rarely hear them talk about hobbies or interests or even friends. Of course I admire their dedication, but so many photographers are cold, unfeeling robots programmed to click and capture.

My favorite photographer is Patrick Joust, a Baltimore-based film-photographer who is a librarian first and a photographer second. Because he splits his time between two professions, because he has multiple identities, because he sees the world as a human first and a photographer second, his work is honest and subtle. It is simple and emotional. Joust knows how to live, not just how to record.

I think of myself as a woman. A bisexual feminist who loves fire and hates dust. I am a poet, a daughter, a sister, a scholar, an artist, a cat-lover, and a coffee-drinker. I am all of these things, and all of these things combine to make me a human who happens to love making photographs.

Storytelling is Timeless

Before cameras, before newspapers, before journalists themselves, a different mode of communication existed. Not just in the form of anecdotes told by parents to calm their restless children before bed, but around bonfires, between the shelves of libraries. Legends, of heroes, of epic journeys, of comedy and of tragedy, all passed down through generations to tell the tales of those who walked before us.

We photographers hold no monopoly on storytelling.

Though most photographers do not claim to be the sole experts in the craft of the story, many carry a special side of arrogance in their camera bags. Photographers believe they are the torchbearers of a modern era in storytelling – that some prophetic god bestowed upon them the power of Composition to single-handedly document the world through a viewfinder.

I am no exception. In fact what drew me to photojournalism in the first place was the faultless blend of my two loves: photography and storytelling.

Before I ever picked up a camera, I picked up a pen. I climbed trees in the springtime and stayed nestled between the branches until I had successfully filled every page of a journal with stories. I read poems to my parents in the backyard. I took walks over dead leaves in autumn and wrote down words like crunch and crisp.

Somewhere in the last two years, that little girl who used to hide in trees and read dictionaries for fun lost herself behind ISO, f-stops and shutter speed. When learning the mechanics and the practicalities of photography, the art often finds itself shoved to the side while the numbers and figures and histograms take the spotlight.

Since my first photography class here at Kent State, I have become a developed photographer with exceptional technical skill. I learned to shoot in manual mode, learned the differences between lenses and have sold my soul to Lightroom. In doing so, I have also lost my passion – my voice.

I fear that photography nowadays is only ever judged on its ability to shock. Who can get to the crime scene first? Who can snap the most heart-wrenching portrait of a starving child? Who can walk with the ranks and show us what war really means? Of course all of these images hold a level of importance, but photographers are not merely record keepers. We do not exist only to incite discomfort. We must first understand ourselves as artists and as creatives. We must employ empathy and listen as much as we watch.

I am tired of being a photographer first and a storyteller second. More and more, I long for my pen, my journal and the tallest tree I can find. When I march out of this institution with four years of education behind me, I do not want to be another news-hungry photographer. I want to be loud and passionate. I want to be armed with three things: a camera, a pen and a great big torch billowing with the proud flame cultivated by the tradition of genuine storytelling.