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.Continue reading “How To Get Your News From Poems”

Poem: I Circle Around but the Sky Changes

For National Poetry Month in April, Orion Magazine hosted a poetry exchange inspired by a collaboration between poets Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Ross Gay. The theme was “This Growing Season.” Orion put out a call for anyone who was interested and then matched people up randomly.

I was paired with Anastasia Andersen, who teaches poetry at the University of New Mexico (her full bio is below). Here is how she described the challenge we set forth for our poetry exchange:

We chose a writing game based on those of the French Surrealists. We agreed upon number of stanzas (6) and lines per stanza (5).  We also alternated writing stanzas, but only forwarded the final line, which would inform the next stanza. The “missing” lines of the stanzas were revealed after all 6 stanzas had been written.  We also chose a line from a poem by Robert Desnos as a title “I Circle Around but the Sky Changes.”

All we had was a shared theme and the last lines of each other’s stanzas and yet, the results were remarkably connected, with common themes interwoven throughout both our writing.

Here is the poem:Continue reading “Poem: I Circle Around but the Sky Changes”

Poem: Taughannock

Every year my  friend Andrew Roberts asks for one thing for his birthday – a poem. Roberts is an accomplished poet himself and you should check out some of his work (try herehere or here). Below is the poem I sent him in 2013, and you can see the poem I sent him in 2010 here, 2011 here and 2012 here.


Shale stone is piled like pages down the long spine of this river, cut through the hills like an open book. The geology of our bones, shoulder blades and knuckles, jaw bones and shins. All edges. All sharp stones full of history, full of what nature has made us.

They say people used to jump off these ledges. Fingers and toes, bloodied on the rocks. The river washes them away, their names are how we remember this place. It was that or be killed. The trees drop leaves, pointing the way.

And as a kid I just wanted to climb up. To scramble over the confetti of rock, to feel the cold against my skin. I memorized the contours of these walls, I planned my route. I ate bark and hid there above the trail, waiting.

Birds float in a container of air, defined by the absence of mountains. Gorges left behind by ice ages. Fingers clawing at the earth, making space for wings. They circle like their legs are tied to strings.

There are fissures everywhere, places where the water seeps from the dark stone. Where breath is turned to air. Where echoes get lodged, and fall apart, returning damaged, not quite whole.

I learned to give names to the world here, to touch the water and know the season. I skipped stones, and made promises. I wrote them down in rock, in pages, in air.

Continue reading “Poem: Taughannock”

Poem: The Sound of Words Colliding

Every year my dear friend, Andrew asks his friends for one thing for his birthday – that they write a poem and send it to him. Roberts is an accomplished poet himself and you should check out some of his work (try here, here or here). Below is the poem I sent him in 2012, and you can see the poem I sent him in 2010 here and 2011 here.

The Sound of Words Colliding
by Josh Stearns

My son sees every bookcase as a ladder and climbs with fists full of pages. The books – just pulp for chewing – old limbs to gnaw on. Sharp teeth and quick arms remind me he is more an animal than I, still close to something I have lost. Some beating, some rhythm, some heat.

He snaps the bindings, strings and glue bending as he twists the covers, and the signatures come tumbling out on the floor like broken wings. He tests them carefully with outstretched fingers, their newly white shapes overlapping, stacked and spilled there. They belong here, he’s sure of it.

The surfaces buckle as he flexes his fingers, full of pages crackling. I imagine this is the sound of all those words colliding. Letters, those atomic elements of language, crashing into each other. It’s the sound he’s been looking for, and it fills his eyes with wonder.


A Christmas Carol for a Warming Planet

My uncle Chris Atkins is a great satirist who posted this alternative version of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” on Facebook last year. It seems just as relevant today – maybe more so…

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like April
(sung to the tune “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”)

It’s beginning to look a lot like April
I may come unglued
There are sandals on shoppers’ feet
No one has used the heat
And everybody’s in a cranky mood
It’s beginning to look a lot like April
Steamy sweaty stores
But the ugliest sight to see
Is the soaring mercury
Feels like Bangalore.
A pair of shorts and a tee shirt and new Birkenstocks
Is the wish of Barney and Ben
Look at the forecast on weather dot com
Buy some skorts for Janice and Jen
Did Fox just say there’s no such thing as climate change again?

It’s beginning to look a lot like April
Everywhere you go
There’s a plant in the living room
That looks like it’s going to bloom
I sure would like to see a little snow
It’s beginning to look a lot like April
Fifty-five’s the low
Glad the kiddies are out of school
We’ll do Christmas by the pool
And we’ll dream of snow

Poem: Table Legs

Every year for my friend Andrew’s birthday he asks his friends to write a poem and mail it (hard copy) to him. The poem need not be about him, or about any specific topic. Here is the poem I wrote last year (inscribed on the bottom of a plastic shoe mold), and this year’s poem is below.

Be sure to check out Andrew’s tumblr blog for a wonderfully curated collection of poems, his and others.

Table Legs

Running your hand over the grain, you said you regretted the wood. So tonight we ate dinner off of you.

As you knelt on all fours, I spread our best linens over your back, smoothing them over your shoulder blades, those remnants of wings.

You were too short for chairs so we sat around you on telephone books and dictionaries. You preferred it that way, sitting on top of stacks of words.

Our plates sloped towards us, leaning away from your spine. We built walls of potatoes to stop the peas from rolling away.

And your heart beat sent ripples across the surface of our wine. I pulled myself in close, bumping my knees against your ribs, and felt the heat of your body on my thighs.

We ate in silence, looking only occasionally at the old oak table, its underside, unvarnished and still rough.
When the others weren’t looking I fed you my radishes and you kissed my fingers.

A Poem: For 9 Little Places Called 826

In case you haven’t seen, Neko Case has been running a contest, raffling off her red 1967 Mercury Cougar:

All of the funds go to support 826 National. 826, founded in part by Dave Eggers of McSweeney’s, is a group of youth literacy nonprofits that run tutoring, writing, and publishing projects built around a deep passion for language, literature, education and writing. They do great work, empowering young people to find their voice. You can find out more about 826 National here:

Neko Case has been tweeting about the contest for the past few days and was challenging her followers to find their own ways to spread the word about it. So here is my contribution – it’s a poem made up almost entirely of the titles from Neko Case’s songs.

For 9 Little Places Called 826

Hold on, hold on my little bird. Maybe sparrow, the next time you say forever you’ll get that teenage feeling, like you are in the middle of a cyclone. When all is said and done, at last, you’ll make your widow’s toast, with a dirty knife and a red tide crashing at the shore. You, not the fox, brought this flood. But don’t worry, Jonny saw that number – he’ll be your star witness – just as soon as he removes his head from the lion’s jaw. Then, right when the fever hits, you’ll realize that this tornado loves you, and even while the magpie sings to the morning, vengeance will lie sleeping. You’ll put down the knife, and pick up the pen.

For everyone at 826 National, who inspire so many kids to pick up their pens. Thanks for the work you do.

To see a list of the song titles I used, visit:

Bird wings and foot soles

There is a storm of wings, all at once, they beat the air like engines, like eyelids.
Their paths are faint sounds, humming in your eyes, like heartbeats.

You say “We make the road by walking.”
You say your feet hurt, tired and dusty from sand castles scattered like pages.

We learn as children to follow the stars, so rarely seen anymore,
we tell stories about their weight, tight knots of light, fists clenched in the sky.

All the birds have fallen out of the sky like dumb stones, and you are in the field
building cairns out of their bodies. Piles of wings and beaks and tiny hearts mark your path.

By Joshua C. Stearns

(for Andrew Roberts on his birthday)Continue reading “Bird wings and foot soles”