How To Get Your News From Poems

I came to journalism by way of poetry.

For a long time, poems were my workshop. Through poetry I experimented with language, learned how to make meaning and build empathy. Poetry, like so much good journalism, helped me see the world in new ways.

This week, the nation’s largest poetry festival kicks off in Newark, New Jersey. Over four days, on nine stages, more than 70 poets will take part in 120 events. In a preview of the festival, the New York Times called it “a literary bonanza.”

For me, the festival feels like a homecoming. Six months ago I began working as the Director for Journalism and Sustainability at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the hosts of the Dodge Poetry Festival. I’ll spend the weekend surrounded by some of the people whose poetry sparked my love of writing early on.

“It is difficult / to get the news from poems,” wrote American poet William Carlos Williams, “yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” And yet, we are seeing more and more efforts to combine poetry and reporting. Recently, the Center for Investigative Journalism partnered with the literary nonprofit Youth Speaks to create the Off/Page project mix spoken word with investigative reporting. In 2009 Haaretz newspaper in Israel replaced its reporters with leading poets and authors for a day, and later in 2012 NPR invited poets into the newsroom to translate the day’s news into verse.

Some of the poets featured at the Dodge Poetry Festival.
Some of the poets featured at the Dodge Poetry Festival.

In an article in the Irish Times, (quoted later in the Guardian) Olivia O’Leary writes that “Journalism and poetry at their best try to state the truth. Journalism and poetry at their worst do the opposite. The big difference is that so much journalism does the necessary job of reporting things as they happen. What poets can do is to give us a distance, from events and from ourselves.” In this way, Scott Gregory, of This Land Press, argues that “Poetry helps us confront the news.

The last few months have been full of difficult news from Liberia to Syria to Ukraine to Ferguson and beyond. The poets this weekend may not be reporting the news, but they are deeply engaged with it. Reviewing the program for the festival, you quickly see how current events and social issues are woven into the debates and discussions.

This festival is not so much a chance to bring together the poetry world, but rather, to bring poetry to bear on the world together.

Here are some highlights (view the full program here):

  • Award Winning Poets – The festival features many familiar names including three former U.S. Poet Laureates: Billy Collins, Rita Dove and Robert Pinsky. In addition, National Book Award winner Mark Doty and Pulitzer Prize winners like Sharon Olds, Tracy K. Smith, and Yusef Komunyakaa will share the stage with President Obama’s inaugural poet Richard Blanco. The festival also features newer voices like Aja Monet, a champion slam poet.
  • Teacher Day and High School Day – The first two days of the festival are dedicated to students and teachers. Thousands of them flood into the New Jersey Performing Arts Center to be inspired and work hands-on with everyone from champion slam poets to recent US poet-laureates. The Dodge Foundation works with poets in schools year-round, drawing nearly 4,000 students from 12 states for the festival itself.
  • Tribute to Amiri Baraka – Newark is a fitting place for the Dodge Poetry Festival. As WHYY’s NewsWorks notes, “Newark is the birthplace of poets Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, Philip Roth, Stephen Crane and C.K. Williams.” And this year’s festival will feature a tribute to the poet and playwright Amiri Baraka who died earlier this year just a few months before his son, Ras Baraka, was elected mayor of the city.
  • Current Issues Through the Lens of Poetry – Throughout the weekend poets and participants are going to be talking about the intersection of poetry with storytelling, hop-hop, politics, gender and the environment. I’m particularly excited to see Pulitzer winner Gary Snyder discuss “Poetry and the Practice of the Wild” and to hear war veterans read their poems as part of “Another Kind of Courage.”

This is poetry as a lived experience.

The festival comes at a time when live poetry and storytelling are on the rise. One need only look at the popularity of events like TED Talks and the Moth for evidence of this trend.

Martin Farawell, the director of the Dodge Poetry Program, sees this live aspect as a core part of what makes the festival so special. “As we see a live human being speak the words they have struggled to put together, to tell their perspective so the audience can enter their way of thinking — they may be articulating sorrow or joy in a way you share but cannot find the words for,” he told WHYY’s NewsWorks, “that’s the excitement of the communal experience, like really powerful theater.”

If you can’t be there in person, you can follow along on Twitter at @DodgePoetryFest or via our curated social media page.


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