At last year’s Power of Narrative conference at Boston University, the poet Verandah Porche asked Gay Talese which women writers he admired.
“All of us seem to be on the beat of retrieving what’s missing, what’s unheard.”
He couldn’t name one, and proceeded to make it worse by mansplaining about how women just “do not feel comfortable dealing with strangers.”
Cue Twitter firestorm.
At this year’s (Talese-free) gathering, Porche may not have made news, but her session, “Turn Grim News into Daring Poetry: A workshop on the alchemy of transforming fact into imagery,” was one of my favorites.
A little back story: I long dreamed of having a “News Haiku” feature back when I was at the Los Angeles Times. No, it never happened. But I loved the idea of distilling a news event down to 17 syllables. The concept seemed to have both beauty and approachability to it.
So it was exciting to see that Porche, a poet who lives in on a farm in southern Vermont, had the same idea, but better. She told us how the tools of poetry can help journalists.
“Sort what haunts you,” she said.
And isn’t that what the best journalism is all about? Identifying the thing that moves you, that stays with you, and then figuring how best to write about that thing?
“All of us seem to be on the beat of retrieving what’s missing, what’s unheard,” she said in one of her more poetic lines. It’s such a lovely way of describing what we do.
In a power point presentation (during which she urged us not to take notes and stay in the moment – she’d email us the presentation later if we wanted it), she offered a poet’s tips to journalists:
Imagine/invent/address your perfect reader
Make thumbnail portraits of the characters
Distill little soliloquies
Smell the setting
Discover the lead
Sense the ending
Pare down the language
I think they’re all incredibly applicable to journalism, both short- and longform: distilling what we know into something readable and compelling.
Porche liberally cited poets from Walt Whitman, who spent time as a journalist, to Mahmoud Darwish to link the work of poets to that of journalists.
I’d like to list a few that have particular resonance in this time of conflict and “fake” news:
“It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.”
–William Carlos Williams
“It makes sense, in a time of war or siege, to speak in shards.”
– Mahmoud Darwish.
And finally, this from Maria Margaronis, a journalist and poet: “Poetry is essential to me in my journalism work, as a writing practice. That is, in the passage from observing and listening to making phrases and finding metaphors and rhythms, tones and resonances.”
Porche, who says she dreamed up her non de plume after reading a Doris Lessing work that featured the very evocative verandahs of South Africa, then had us all read a line that resonated with us at the conference. She said she was going to create a poem from them.
Porche may not have caused a Twitter stir at this year’s conference. But a quiet stirring of creativity is good for the soul.