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

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The Rise of Hands-On Journalism

Digital journalism has made possible some incredible storytelling in recent years. Visually stunning reports on issues as diverse as gun violence, environmental disasters, and surveillance have brought stories to life on the screen. Increasingly, however, journalists are experimenting with innovations that move journalism off the screen and into people’s hands.

This spring RadioLab did a story about an ancient skull and the questions it helped answer about the origins of human history. It is a fascinating story, but it revolved around minute details scientists discovered in the skull, details a radio audience couldn’t see. So the RadioLab team took a scan of the skull, printed it out with a 3D printer, and made the scan available online for others to print out. So, now you could hypothetically feel the groves and markings on the skull as the scientists discuss them, discovering new facets of the skull alongside the narrators.

I am fascinated by the potential for these sorts of journalism-objects to help engage communities around stories and foster empathy with audiences. So I began collecting examples of what I call, “hands on journalism.”

I see this hands-on journalism as a particular kind of community engagement, one that may involve collaboration with community, but puts an emphasis on discovery and learning. Specifically the kind of learning that comes from doing. Continue reading

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: 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.

Taughannock

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: 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.