By Tess Taylor
Recently, when convening a panel to discuss what one might mean by these phrases, “reported poem, lyric truth,” I began by asking our full audience for a show of hands. Who in the audience wrote nonfiction? Who wrote poems? Who wrote something that was both? Who wrote something in-between? Hands rippled across the room in a quick flurry of overlaps—as if the audience itself were a Venn diagram. We were in a productive territory. Even if they are not always acknowledged as such, we may imagine that the mud flats between nonfiction and poetry offer good feeding grounds for one another, and for thought. A great many people harvest rich work in the spaces where poetry and nonfiction overlap.
There’s a lot one could say about the deep history of the poem and the essay, and about the urgency of each, now. In this era of false news, the fact itself feels sacred. And yet the truth found in poems, as William Carlos Williams famously notes, is also urgent—a way of gathering focus, of accounting for the embodied human who watches and observes, for the human experience of gathering. A journalistic report reflects the power of gathering, measuring, and recording truth in motion. A poem reflects the mystery of measuring at all.
In this age of “alternative fact” we are especially, painfully aware of the need for the journalistic truth and for the fact-checker, for the central terrain of that-which-can-be-publicly-verified. The poem cannot be publicly verified, and yet it is not a falsehood. The poem also stands as a template for hearing, seeing, a way of learning to feel, learning to tell. The poem both concentrates and makes possible our focus. In coming to thought and words, the poem allows us excavate our human senses, to measure the very shapes of being human.
Yet how do these disciplines push against each other? Where do they cross-pollinate? How does the brilliant poem enable the journalist? How does the journalist enable the poet? Poems and nonfiction do come with different toolkits. It is good to learn syllabics, prosody, the use of a line break, the form of the sonnet, just as it is good to learn the profile, the 500-word service piece, the art of investigation. It is good to learn to survey a scene and try to find in it the shape of a saleable story, or to listen to a conversation and do a quick, compressed character sketch. Yet while hearing the flow of factual dialogue, we are also hearing the staccato beats of conversation, and perhaps even finding a volta in the sudden turn of the argument.
It is important also to note that learning to divide one’s writing into genres is only partly about craft. It is also about entering the political history of a genre, its market, its socially embedded position. For example, I started out as a poet who loved to record snippets; I learned to be a nonfiction writer because I needed money. My first jobs out of college involved selling nonfiction writing. Part of this was fluke: In the late 1990s, with the emergence of the Internet, there was a sudden, strange, algal bloom of demand for what online editors call “content.” This was back when writing for the Internet still paid, and in the waning days before the slow collapse of a great deal of print. But the market helped me learn a solid craft: In working for hire to produce “content,” I began to learn the journalist’s skill. I sold stories. I wandered around the city with a notebook, covering planning meetings and night court, architecture, and eventually the fall of the World Trade Center. When times got tough after 9/11, I applied and was accepted on scholarship to NYU’s journalism school. I kept up the gumshoe work.
My writing for hire was made possible by a place and time, by what editors would buy, by an economy of desire and attention, arguably also by an advertising model. There’s a kind of story that could position my journalism and even all journalism as hack work, a day job meant to fund pure lyric pursuit, like the poems I was trying to write at night, for which it seemed there was no market at all. There’s also a certain kind of story—like the one told by my first news-reporting professor, who talked about poetry as what “Emily Dickinson wrote in her bedroom”—containing the lyric far away as an impenetrable, cloistered other. (He told me this: I could be a journalist or I could be Emily Dickinson in my bedroom.”)
But upon close inspection, I found that the terms of those stories began to unravel. I began to notice how forays into the hard facts of the so-called real world were sometimes aquiver with laden metaphorical significance—or how the very need to give a set of facts shape, resonance, compression meant that we were pulling from the poet’s store. The blurb is not quite a poem. But it does have jaunty language, a need to lift off and end abruptly. It becomes clearer when honed. Alliteration, rhyme, the arrangements of vowels: these, too, are units of meaning. These are the tools by which we make the report or battle or inquiry into corruption legible. As Muriel Rukeyser put it: The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.
I began to suspect that journalism was teaching me quite a lot about how to be a poet, just as life reading Keats and Bishop and Cavafy on the subway was also teaching me quite a lot about how to watch the world. I had begun to consider the poetics of nonfiction, the poetics of metonymy, by which the reporter, who researches and takes endless notes, must then compress those notes into a short, crafted, sonic thing. The artifact takes on meaning precisely because it is composed to refract parts of the whole. The journalist relies on the poetics of refraction. It is the journalist’s job to rove wildly, gather everything like a magpie—and then to assemble by knowing exactly what to leave out.
What we put in and what we leave out, who buys which stories and why: The margins of the reporter’s work are, like the margins of the poem, political. It was only later that I discovered I was not alone in thinking about such things—that I discovered the tradition of the documentary poem and of lyric nonfiction. In other words, I discovered the path of Whitman and Brooks and Rukeyser and Lowell and Agee and Trethewey and Novak and Rankine—and on to some of the most interesting writers working today—writers whose names are legion and well remarked upon in the essays that follow. Of course, once I had made these links, I could see plainly that this tradition is deep in our national grain and may well be the pith of that grain itself. Dickinson’s reportorial virtues notwithstanding it’s worth remembering that our great American poet Walt Whitman was also a journalist. He played with the spaces of market, medium, and genre: He wrote anonymous reviews of his own Song of Myself and circulated them. He wrote the Civil War as essay and as poetry. His poems can be read through the lens of the extended personal essay, even as they exist to question what the person is. It would be fascinating to talk to Whitman about how he understood the boundaries between genres, how he used and pushed them against one another. It would be fascinating to hear what Whitman would have to say now about alternative facts.
As he’s not here (except perhaps and always in spirit), I’ve gathered colleagues whose wisdoms enrich the alluvial plain where literary traditions intersect. Robert Polito writes about the poetry of fact, the very materiality of words. Tom Sleigh discusses t the kinds of reporting that actually lead to a poem, the kind of knowing that makes lyric possible, as well as his own deep need to “see things for himself.” He links this tradition of being a “voyager writer” back to Basho. Brian Turner contemplates the basic form of the stanza— the Italian word for room and our need, even when reporting war in prose, to be let into the rooms that frame a story. Camille Dungy writes an essay that hinges on a metaphor about California—the metaphor itself being central to exploring, and even apprehending, the very thing we come to know as truth.
Poetry of Fact
By Robert Polito
This is a short piece with a long list inside it, mostly in sentences, not lines, or in sentences that occasionally aspire to lines. Lines and sentences: Even now, nonfiction—including nonfiction by poets—is approached by readers, and sometimes by writers, chiefly as information, argument, or anecdote, the formal aspects of language and prose a sort of ornamental afterthought, as though the real action of nonfiction takes place peripherally, perhaps reluctantly, through words. In an interview in Paris Review, Luc Sante focuses some of the elusive idiosyncrasies here, remarking: “All writing is an activity that occurs on the page. It cannot merely be a transcription of something thought about in advance. Because it’s already dead at that point. If it’s been thought through, it’s a corpse. Ideas have to be wrestled with then and there.” (Incidentally, this was only the ninth Paris Review interview to feature a nonfiction writer, in contrast to at least 99 for poets and 227 for fiction writers.)
“Already dead. . . . a corpse. . . . wrestled with”: Sante’s spirited phrasing shapes a hard-boiled reformulation of Elizabeth Bishop’s famous invocation of a poem as a mind thinking. Elsewhere in this Paris Review interview, Sante signals that he, too—the author of Low Life, Factory of Facts, and most recently The Other Paris—although pretty much exclusively a nonfiction writer, is calculating poetry when writing prose:
I write prose with a poet’s head. . . . Without sounding utterly pretentious, I do think of almost everything I write as a poem—certainly all three of my big books. The chapters are strophes. It’s not an account. It’s not a history. I’m not a historian—I’ve never pretended to be one—and I’m not giving a definitive account of anything. It’s a very, very subjective approach to the past, to a certain time and place. It’s carved in a particular way. It favors certain narratives over certain others. It’s intended above all else to be an experience.
For me, as a poet and also as a nonfiction writer—mostly of essays, biography, and criticism—Sante’s observations are immensely appealing, and instantly familiar. I read a lot of prose, fiction and nonfiction, watch a lot of movies, but everything I know about writing prose comes from reading and writing poems—and this is true of large organization conundrums, such as form, design, and structure, as well as local cavils, such as diction, sounds, pauses, breaks, and rhythm.
Increasingly, prose and poetry are experiences I find it difficult to distinguish in any ultimate way. Many of my favorite books, music, and films over the last few decades tend to operate along the seams of poetry, fiction, and essay. I’m thinking of work as various as W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work, James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover, Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, Hilton Als’s White Girls, Geoffrey O’Brien’s The Phantom Empire, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Frank Bidart’s Desire, Fred Moten’s The Feel Trio, Dodie Bellamy’s When the Sick Rule the World, Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, Juliana Spahr’s That Winter the Wolf Came, Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony and God, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, Lisa Robertson’s Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture, John Ashbery’s Three Poems and Flow Chart, Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination, J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris, Ander Monson’s Neck Deep and Other Predicaments, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée, Kevin Young’s The Grey Album, Robyn Schiff’s A Woman of Property, David Markson’s Reader’s Block, Jenny Boully’s The Body, Lydia Davis’s Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, Rachel Cohen’s A Chance Meeting, René Steinke’s Holy Skirts, Harry Mathews’s My Life in CIA, Dale Peck’s The Law of Enclosures, Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land, Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, John Haskell’s I Am Not Jackson Pollock, Honor Moore’s The Bishop’s Daughter, Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and The Argonauts, Robert Pinsky’s History of My Heart, Deborah Landau’s The Uses of the Body, Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue, Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary, Steve Erickson’s Zeroville, Chantal Akerman’s News from Home, Jonathan Lethem’s The Disappointment Artist, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Sophie Calle’s Suite Vénitienne, C. D. Wright’s One with Others, Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus, Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions, Cathy Park Hong’s Engine Empire, Douglas Kearney’s Patter, Lynne Tillman’s American Genius, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, Matthea Harvey’s If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?, Maureen N. McLane’s My Poets, Fanny Howe’s The Wedding Dress, Teju Cole’s Open City, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson, Solmaz Sharif’s Look, Nathaniel Mackey’s Splay Anthem, Eileen Myles’s Inferno, David Lang’s Death Speaks, Robert Ashley’s operas Perfect Lives and Now Eleanor’s Idea, Guy Maddin’s films Cowards Bend the Knee, Brand on the Brain!, and My Winnipeg, Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft and Chronicles, Tyehimba Jess’s Olio, Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others, Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies, Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland, and many books, whether cast ostensibly in lines or sentences, by my fellow panelists Tess Taylor, Tom Sleigh, Camille Dungy, and Brian Turner.
Might this mongrel—or magpie—work be the signature genre of our time? Novels and poems and songs tracking essayistic impulses? Essays shadowing fictional and lyric designs? And many of these, nearly all of them, steeped in quotations, adaptations, allusions, borrowings, thefts, collaged. I’ve come to think of these books as dramatizing, even embodying, thinking in sentences and lines, at least as Elizabeth Bishop (again) advanced the notion when she wrote that she wanted to write poems that seize the mind “in action” rather than “at rest.”
Here, for instance, is a paragraph by film critic and painter Manny Farber from his 1962 essay “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art”:
One of the good termite performances (John Wayne’s bemused cowboy in an unreal stage town inhabited by pallid repetitious actors whose chief trait is a powdered make-up) occurs in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Better Ford films than this have been marred by a phlegmatically solemn Irish personality that goes for rounded declamatory acting, silhouetted riders along the rim of a mountain with a golden sunset behind them, and repetitions in which big bodies are scrambled together in a rhythmically curving Rosa Bonheurish composition. Wayne’s acting is infected by a kind of hoboish spirit, sitting back on its haunches doing a bitter-amused counterpoint to the pale, neutral film life around him. In an Arizona town that is too placid, where the cactus was planted last night and nostalgically cast actors do a generalized drunkenness, cowardice, voraciousness, Wayne is the termite actor focusing only on a tiny present area, nibbling at it with engaging professionalism and a hipster sense of how to sit in a chair leaned against the wall, eye a flogging overactor (Lee Marvin). As he moves along at the pace of a tapeworm, Wayne leaves a path that is only bits of shrewd intramural acting—a craggy face filled with bitterness, jealousy, a big body that idles luxuriantly, having long grown tired with roughhouse games played by old wrangler types like John Ford.
Farber’s manifest insistence on criticism as language—his insistence, too, that his critical language arise from the details of the films he writes about—makes him the most adventurous stylist of American film criticism. No other film critic has written so inventively from inside the moment of a movie. His writing can appear to be composed exclusively of digressions from an absent center. One of his standard moves is a bold qualification of a qualification, in a sequence of vivid repositionings. There are rarely introductory overviews or concluding summaries; his late reviews, in particular, spurn plot summaries, might not even name the director of a film, and make transitions seem interchangeable with non sequiturs. Puns, jokes, lists, snaky metaphors, and webs of allusions supplant arguments. Farber wrenches nouns into verbs and sustains strings of divergent, perhaps irreconcilable adjectives, such that praise can look inseparable from censure. He will cast prickly epigrams, and his sentences will dazzle through layers of poise and charm, but Farber qua Farber typically arrives at a kind of backdoor poetry: not “lyrical,” or traditionally poetic, but original and startling. Farber, along with D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, is among the few critics of modernism himself to write criticism as a modernist.
More modestly, my fellow panelists and I can all suggest some different routes whereby our poems intersect our nonfiction. For me, these might involve multiple, self-consuming voices; a search for language and structures that criss-cross or embody a subject; collage; fragmentation; and the open-endedness of multifarious perspectives and divergent points of view.
As an illustration, I’ll end by reading a poem called “Riding with the King,” which along the way collages passages and episodes from an amazing instance of unreliable narration in nonfiction, Priscilla, Elvis, and Me by Michael Edwards. The poem started, of course, with my reading of Edwards’s strange, inadvertently Nabokovian memoir, but it really started when I wrote a short essay about it for the “Lost and Found” column in Tin House years later.
Riding With the King
You don’t know about me, without
back when my name was Michael Edwards
I was the most successful male model across
Europe and the United States, I wrote
a book, my ghost did,
perhaps you remember me.
Perhaps you know my nightmare the first night
at Priscilla’s—an enormous Elvis over the pool,
This is what it’s like to be God, Elvis said.
Perhaps you know my next date with Priscilla: Magic
Mountain with Lisa Marie and her little friends,
I vomited the beer I drank behind the Spin of Death.
Perhaps you know I carried Priscilla past a pedestal
showing Elvis’ gold-framed sunglasses with the big EP,
it was unsettling, I kicked the door shut behind us.
Perhaps you know I felt the stirrings of love
after our third bottle of wine when I over-
heard Priscilla random-dialing, impersonating a hooker.
Perhaps you know I came to see Priscilla was to Elvis
as Lisa Marie to me—after Elvis brought her to Memphis,
he put Priscilla in Catholic school.
Perhaps you know seeing Lisa looking
adorable in her wool skirt, white blouse, bobby
sox and loafers, I understood Elvis’ feelings.
Perhaps you know in our acting class Priscilla
did a love scene, she and her partner went into a long kiss,
I knew exactly how Elvis felt, when he caught her.
Perhaps you know Lisa got up from the dinner table
to go to the refrigerator, her bare knee
brushed my hand.
Perhaps you know I was in a mood for some photos,
I dressed Lisa in her mother’s vintage gowns,
her eyes and lips replicas of Elvis’.
Perhaps you know I put an end to swimming
together when Lisa threw her arms around me, we bounced
up and down, I became aroused.
Perhaps you know Priscilla and I returned
after an argument about my drinking,
she went to her bathroom, I went into Lisa’s room.
Perhaps you know I wanted someone to talk to,
but Lisa was asleep.
Perhaps you know I lifted a corner of the covers,
and gazed at her.
Perhaps you know I woke with a hangover,
alone in bed.
Perhaps you know Priscilla and I were secretive about
Perhaps you know Priscilla and Elvis were the same,
until his staff exposed them in Elvis—What Happened?
Perhaps you know driving home through Los Angeles,
I felt numb,
Perhaps you know every car I looked in,
I saw happy couples,
Perhaps you know as I waited for the light to change,
I thought of the three of us.
You don’t know about me without you have read
a book by the name of Priscilla, Elvis and Me,
that book was made by Michael Edwards,
he mainly told the truth.
By Thomas Sleigh
I remember having dinner with a journalist, a decent enough guy, afflicted with “The Danger I’ve Been Through Is Bigger Than the Danger You’ve Been Through” disease. It’s a pretty common form of one-upmanship, but since he thought of me as a poet—a dude who gazes at his navel, and then, for a little variety, asks his other poet pals if he can gaze at their navels—there was maybe a touch of scorn in his voice when he said, “You do journalism? About what?” And when I said that I’d been to Mogadishu during the 2010–11 famine in which close to 260,000 people died—imagine a city like Buffalo, New York, in which every man, woman, and child starves to death—I could see him recalibrating what he thought of me.
But I have to admit, the surprise in his voice is a surprise I share. I’ve also been guilty of the desire to flaunt the “war is hell” persona—maybe it’s just a way of turning fear into a story that you can live with, tedious as that may be for others—but since I know “real” journalists, I also know that the kind of long-form essays I write, which are dedicated to how things look and feel, rather than what they signify as “news,” means that I’m an amateur. I’m not apologizing for that. I have no gift for policy prescription, and whatever “views” I might have spring out of my immediate perceptions: A starving goat climbing inside a huge metal pot, and with its long tongue licking the pot clean, a pot that just minutes ago fed several hundred equally starving kids—these moments of texture are far more interesting to me than writing a coherent “story.”
I started doing this kind of journalism back in 2007, when I was asked to go to Lebanon and Syria after the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese War to write about Palestinian refugees. I didn’t anticipate violence, but the moment my plane touched down in Beirut, a mini–civil war broke out when a huge car bomb exploded in the ABC Shopping Mall. I remember traveling to Qana in southern Lebanon: The young man who took me there was one of the first members of the Red Cross allowed into the village after a bombing. In the smoke and semi-darkness, he came across a little girl buried up to her neck in rubble. So he dug down with his bare hands as far as her armpits, took hold of her under her arms, lifted her free—and discovered she’d been blown in half. He looked as if he were about to tear up. I told him he didn’t have to go on with his story, but he looked me in the eye and said: “I’ll tell you what happened, but you must promise to tell my story.” I’d never felt such a sense of responsibility, almost a kind of commission, in all my life.
As to how a cultural outsider can tell the story, that’s a different question. One thing I think is crucial, though, is to find a way to acknowledge the limits of what you can know, and to be honest about what you don’t know. So I try as hard as I can to avoid broad strokes in favor of the small picture, the local details and intimate truths that make up daily life. It can take me several years, and several visits, before I feel that a place has been imprinted on my nervous system. Only then can I write about it convincingly, at least for myself.
And just because a writer is borne into a situation doesn’t mean that person has the linguistic or emotional gifts to tell a compelling story about those circumstances. Among the best books I’ve ever read about the Palestinian uprisings is Jean Genet’s Prisoner of Love.
I’m also skeptical of the stance summed up by the phrase “literature of witness.” I think it was once a useful term, but in an age like the present, in which so many different viewpoints can be broadcast over digital media, the idea that one person can stand in front of history and tell us how to feel about it seems like nostalgia.
By the same token, the notion that the writer gives voice to the voiceless seems to me like self-delusion. I wonder how many of these writer-spokesmen ever stopped to asked the so-called “voiceless” how they feel about being called that. Besides, no one is voiceless if you really stop to think about it: People express themselves in how they dress, by what they eat, by the music they sing or listen to, and in a thousand other ways. In accord with the way we express ourselves in our daily lives, Robert Frost has a beautiful statement about our impulse toward form:
"When in doubt there is always form for us to go on with . . . The artist, the poet, might be expected to be the most aware of such assurance. But it is really everybody’s sanity to feel it and live by it. Fortunately, too, no forms are more engrossing, gratifying, comforting, staying than those lesser ones we throw off, like vortex rings of smoke, all our individual enterprise and needing nobody’s cooperation; a basket, a letter, a garden, a room, an idea, a poem."
At the deepest level—and I have a hunch this is the same wellspring that the poems come from—my need to see things for myself is a way of cutting through the haze of media-spawned fantasies. I used to feel like I lived in a hell of abstractions, of canned images, of jabbering, competing ideologies. What journalism and poetry have done for me is to help ground my experience in what Seamus Heaney once called “the primal reach of the physical.”
And as a brief example of Heaney’s ideal, I’ll read an excerpt from a long poem about a visit to Iraq just as ISIS was establishing itself in Mosul. It’s called “Homage to Basho,” and like Basho’s use of haibun, it mixes poetry and prose.
“Homage to Basho”
(excerpt; from Station Zed, Graywolf Press )
The chopper’s sides were open to the night air, and I instinctively shoved myself back on the bench as far as I could get—not very far, it turned out, certainly not far enough to quell my unease about hurtling through the air with no door in front of me.
The contractor gave me thumbs up, and I at least knew enough to give thumbs up back, and then the chopper blades accelerated faster and louder. He slid the lenses of his night-vision goggles past the lip of his helmet and down over his eyes to keep watch for snipers on the ground, and then we slowly ascended, the nose of the chopper dipping slightly as the tail lifted, and we soared straight up until the pilot adjusted the pitch of the rotors and we shot ahead, eventually climbing to about a hundred feet over the city.
Everything was dark down below for the first quarter mile, and then we were crossing over Baghdad, the lights of the cars on the road flickering softly, houselights shining in the windows. The pilot occasionally flicked a switch on the instrument panel, and then, as we rose higher, and the night air got very cold, the contractor slid the Lexan-glass doors closed on the passenger part of the tiny cabin. The chopper shimmied back and forth in the light wind, soft buffets, almost the way a child might pet a cat on the head. Just above the pilot’s helmet silhouetted against the curved glass of the windshield shimmered another little galaxy. Switches glowing in the darkness, an overhead instrument panel lit up the pilot’s hand as he leisurely lifted his arm to switch something off or on.
For a moment, I had the reverie of myself as a child, looking up at Day-Glo stars stuck to the ceiling over my bed—a memory I knew to be false, since I’m way too old for such things to have existed when I was a kid, nor were my parents the type to indulge me with Day-Glo stars. I knew, even as I took pleasure in it, that my fantasy was out of sync with the reality on the ground, not to mention the contractor hunching forward, his gun in his lap, intently scanning the darkness below. At least the contractor had his orders and his night-vision goggles. What I had to go on was the drone of helicopter noise, its surgical detachment from the neighborhood alleys and streets, and the way my own hypervigilant senses magnified and crystallized the light and dark flow of the city beneath me. One of Saddam’s former palaces, encircled by a moat that testified to the dead dictator’s love of water, glowed dimly below us, looking like an Arabian Nights fantasy in bad taste, and reputed to have a torture chamber in the basement. Aloft in the chopper and looking down, I found and continue to find it hard to know what tone to take when the truth is both atrocious and banal.
And if you were on the ground looking up? In an oral history of the Iraq War, I’d come across this account of a pregnant woman, Rana Abdul Mahdi, who lives in Sadr City:
I saw a helicopter floating very high in the air away from me, and I watched as it fired a rocket toward me and my little sister, Zahra. She was eight. I felt heat all over my body, and then I was on the ground as the street filled with smoke. There were bodies all around me, and I saw my sister with all her insides spilling out her front. She was reaching for me, motioning with her hand for me to come and help. . . . I saw my left foot was gone. It was sitting there in the street a little ways from me.
Whatever you do, there are rockets falling,
and after the rockets, smoke climbing
up through walls that are exploding.
Trees grow up where there once were people, weeds
take over beds of lettuces and coddled flowers,
uprearing mole hills unpopulate the fields.
The bricked-in hours of the human have all been knocked down.
No one lingers at lipstick counters, no one
stares into a screen to escape the digital mayhem
of heroes hurdling over the heads of monsters.
The old bones on the mountain that stand upright
and shake when winds blow up from the shore,
old bones that shake when the winds roar
now dangle in the void of an unknown dimension.
Forget all this, says Earth to the stars.
The Reporter and the Songbird
By Brian Turner
The soldiers enter the house, the soldiers enter the house.
Soldiers, determined and bored and searing with adrenaline, enter the house with shouting and curses and muzzle flash, det cord and 5.56mm ball ammunition. The soldiers enter the house with pixelated camouflage, flex-cuffs, chem lights, door markings, duct tape. The soldiers enter the house with ghillie suits and Remington sniper rifles, phoenix beacons and night-vision goggles, lasers invisible to the naked eye, rotorblades, Hellfire missiles, bandoliers strapped across their chest. The soldiers enter the house one fire team after another, and they fight brutal, dirty, nasty, the only way to fight. The soldiers enter the house with the flag of their nation sewn onto the sleeves of their uniforms. They enter the house with TOLEDO and BATON ROUGE imprinted on the rubber soles of their desert combat boots.
This passage (from my memoir, My Life as a Foreign Country) continues on for several pages employing observation in this manner—using lyric repetition and lyric substitution of beat phrases to launch into and explore nighttime raids in war-torn Iraq. Sometimes after a reading, someone will share their thoughts on the “poem” that I read “about the raid” or the “nighttime raids.” I understand the impulse to consider this a poem. Its repetitions are reminiscent of Ginsberg, perhaps, and the language is shaped to create velocity and forward progression by use of sonic drone notes (drone from the musician’s lexicon, not in terms of military hardware). At the same time, the observed (chem-lights, door markings, duct tape) rise from the drone or beat phrase (The soldiers enter the house . . . ) while shifting back and forth from the real to the imagined, from sniper rifles and goggles to—later in the passage—” horses from the barn” or while “cradling their little sisters in their arms.” The passage seems to signpost us toward the neighborhood where list poems reside.
And yet. My model for this passage in the memoir comes directly from “Boys,” a short story in Rick Moody’s Demonology. In fact, I wrote him a letter before publication to make sure that he was okay with me publishing this piece and to thank him for the form and structure he’d created in “Boys,” and he responded with a gracious note in return. I’m not sure if he has experienced this, but those who’ve read my own passage seem to encounter it as lyrical prose—while those who hear it aloud respond to it the way one responds to hearing a poem.
Here is a poem that I helped to translate, along with Dutch translator Roel Daamen, from the Dutch poet Roel Vertov:
The Militia kick a soccer ball
in the street. Young men. Greybeards.
Rifles, heavy weapons. Stories. Laughter.
Their shivering hands boiling coffee
in a tin over a crude fire. The buildings
no longer buildings. Landscapes of rubble
given to howling when a storm comes in.
The ceasefire will be announced soon, and
the fighting will resume until the deadline.
A vital rail line must be captured, or defended. Or
perhaps a sympathetic town must be liberated . . .
In high-rise offices somewhere far away, architects
design new orphanages, new hospitals, maybe
a mausoleum to be placed in the cemetery
as a way to honor the dead.
There is too much good work to be done.
Lists of provocations, demands. Diplomatic teams
negotiating in distant cities, flashbulbs ringing.
And so the Militia oil their bolts, check their radios.
They smoke their last cigarettes and fall in line.
It will take hours to reach the front. Enough time
to consider the smoke drifting over the treetops,
that grim dark grove of chestnuts marching
toward the horizon before them.
And the dead woman lying on the roadside
as they pass by? She continues to be dead,
perfecting the task, though not one soul
stops or offers her the slightest bit of help.
Here’s the poem in its original Dutch form—also in free verse:
De Militie schopt een voetbal
door de straat. Jonge mannen. Grijze baarden.
Geweren, zwaar geschut. Verhalen. Gelach.
Met bevende handen wordt koffie gemaakt
in een blik boven een simpel kampvuur. De gebouwen
geen gebouwen meer. Een landschap van puin
waaruit gejammer opklinkt wanneer er een storm opsteekt.
Het staakt-het-vuren zal snel afgekondigd worden, en
dan wordt de strijd hervat tot aan de deadline.
Een vitale spoorverbinding om te veroveren of verdedigen. Een
goedgezinde stad, misschien, om te bevrijden . . .
In hoge kantoren ergens ver weg bedenken architecten
nieuwe weeshuizen, nieuwe ziekenhuizen, misschien
een mausoleum voor in het kerkhof
bij wijze van eerbetoon aan de doden.
Er is teveel goed werk dat gedaan moet worden.
Lijsten met provocaties, eisen. Diplomatieke afvaardigingen
die in verre steden onderhandelen bij het licht van de flitsers.
En dus oliën ze hun wapens, controleren ze hun radio’s.
Roken ze hun laatste sigaretten en nemen posities in.
Het zal uren duren om het front te bereiken. Genoeg tijd
om de rookpluimen boven de boomtoppen te beschouwen,
die grimmige rij kastanjes die marcheert
richting de horizon die voor hen ligt.
En de dode vrouw langs de kant van de weg
die zij passeren? Zij blijft dood,
beheerst het dood zijn tot in de perfectie, zonder
de geringste hulp van de een of andere ziel.
I can’t be certain, but from my many hours with this poem and my conversations and deliberations with my co-translator, the poem reads very much like a nonfiction account, an essay and meditation on a war zone, or perhaps all war zones. The slight distancing from specificity and the slips into the imagination and dark humor of the third stanza might offer some signposts toward the poetic impulse and the province of poetry, but when read aloud “Twelve Roses” offers inroads into an experience that leans on reportage and the eyewitness account. There are hints of lyric repetition and substitution in this poem, too—in the lines “The ceasefire will be announced soon” and “There is too much good work to be done—” but the poem relies less on song than it does on storytelling and development of a photographic scene.
The songbird in us often wants or needs to give voice to the profound beauty of this world, to lament when the world offers pain.
The reporter in us often wants or needs to frame a moment in prose so that a reader might, in some ways, inhabit that moment.
This reminds me of the Italian root of the word stanza, and its connections to the word room. Stanza by stanza, paragraph by paragraph, room by room—we are augmented by language.
The reporter and the songbird. The nonfiction writer and the poet. These distinctions in genre are reinforced by academia and by the shelving decisions made in bookstores and in library databases. But writers are storytellers. Shapers of the imagination. Observers of the world within and without.
This isn’t meant to discount the utility and pleasure of genre, but rather to recognize, at some point, that storytelling is the foundation for all of the rooms, the stanzas, the paragraphs we inhabit.
If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home by Now
By Camille Dungy
The first fall I lived in Lynchburg, Virginia—which was, I’m sure you can imagine, a place very different from the coastal California world in which I’d grown up—a childhood friend took a job as a meteorologist in Raleigh, North Carolina. Darren and I spent a weekend together, talking about what it meant to be thrown out of an environment we knew and into someplace so completely different.
Poor Darren. He’d landed in North Carolina in a year when there were two hurricanes and three blizzards. Imagine reporting weather when what you’d known your whole life was sun, more sun, slightly cloudy, and seasonal Santa Ana winds.
When we talked, most of what we talked about was how much we missed the place we called home. Darren told me about the first time he left Orange County, to take a job reporting weather for a Bay Area TV station.
Darren was completely earnest when he spoke to me about the homesickness he suffered during those years. “When I was living in Santa Clara,” he said, “I really missed California.”
Perhaps that’s a joke only the Californians among us will truly understand. Santa Clara is, of course, in California. But it is in Northern California, which, in the minds of many, is a far cry from Southern California.
I didn’t know what I was going to say about prose vs. poetry until I thought about that story. It is possible, I want to argue, that the difference between prose and poetry is the difference between Northern and Southern California. They are the same state. But also, they are completely different. In one, it is quite understandable to be homesick for the other. Away from either, a person like me will often be bereft.
Here are two pieces, both written in response to experiences I had on the same trip with my daughter, who was nine months old at the time. The trip was complicated by a torrential thunderstorm, the sort we tend not to experience in either part of California. The first piece is a poem, and the second is a part of an essay.
There are these moments of permission
but we call it all rain.
I hang in the undrenched intervals,
while Callie is sleeping,
my old self necessary
and imperceptible as air.
That was the poem, from my poetry collection Trophic Cascade. Now for the prose, from a version of my essay collection Guidebook to Relative Strangers:
We flew through a thunderstorm on our way into Pittsburgh—landing without incident—but a hailstorm descended, delaying our bags. Forty minutes. An hour. When we got into the Town Car, both the driver and his wife’s well-timed pot roast were burning. When he started driving, the baby started screaming. She wouldn’t stop screaming. The label peeking from below the driver’s cap left a red mark on his scalp. We were the worst people he had ever known. Pittsburgh, late April. Cold as he steered past industrial parks outside the city. Cold as the setting sun burnished mirrored buildings bronze. She wouldn’t stop crying. I leaned over her car seat. Said, Every person in this car is upset right now, but you are the only one screaming. We drove out of some sort of tunnel, everyone quiet now, smiling over the yellow bridges into Pittsburgh.
There are differences between these two pieces, but they came from the same state: the need to figure out the best way to get an experience onto the page.
That I didn’t want line breaks in the latter and I needed big gaps and breaks in the former isn’t particularly that big a deal. Line breaks are often included in my poems after the fact, if they are included at all. And the essay follows the fussiness of a poet’s ideation. It contains a series of vignettes that are all exactly 700 characters long (to correlate with the number of hours of sleep an average parent loses in her child’s first year.) Even when I am visiting the region of the prose writer, I am often still inhabiting a poet’s state of mind. And when I am dwelling resolutely in the landscape of the poet, I sometimes throw out the boundaries that would, if we let them, limit poetry’s range.
But this is not always true, this border-crossing sensibility. There are reasons I turn to prose specifically that are sometimes different than the reasons I might turn to poetry.
One of the things that differentiates my approach toward poetry from my approach toward the essay is that, when I sit down to pen an essay, there is something specific I intend to say.
That’s the kind of statement that will get me into trouble, and for good reason. Writing personal essays is not the same as writing a guide to understanding the electoral college. Writing a personal essay must be an act of exploration. To riff off the oft riffed-off phrase, “No discoveries for the writer, no discoveries for the reader.” Still, in an essay, I have to define my terms and be, at times, didactic. I know that’s a dangerous word these days, but by it I mean that I spend several paragraphs in my essay “A Shade North of Ordinary” talking about the history of the surrender of arms at Appomattox, Virginia, as it relates to a visit I once took to northern Maine and as all of that relates to my daughter and me. In order for you to understand what happened to my daughter and me on that trip, I detailed the history of Maine’s involvement in the Civil War. The state of Maine, by the way, suffered the loss of more soldiers than any other state in the Union. I write about this sort of thing in essays in a manner I might not apply to poetry, even when my poetry is steeped in history’s legacies. I appreciate prose for its allowance of the prosaic. We need the prosaic sometimes as much as we need the compressions and suggestions of poetry. I love being able to write out all that data, and I love the allowance the essay gives me to do such things. But I also love the ways that poetry allows me to describe my place in history through other means.
I’ve hardly yet begun to talk about the intersections I know are possible between prose and poetry, the great interest I—and so many others—have in hybridity. The gorgeous prose-y poems and poem-y prose of writers like C. D. Wright, Jena Osman, Mark Nowak, Claudia Rankine, Selah Saterstrom, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Shara McCallum—oh, I could go on and on. There is a line between poetry and prose, and there is also no real line.
There was a quiz going around Facebook some time ago. Which part of California are you from? I took it because I thought maybe there might come from it an answer I could claim. According to that quiz, I am exactly fifty percent Southern Californian and fifty percent Northern Californian.
If writing really can be compared to the great state of California, I am always, if I am writing at all, at home in one form or another.