In March of 2006, Iowa City's daily newspaper, The Press-Citizen, began printing poems on its Op-Ed page as part of a regular feature called "Poetic License." Hearkening back to a time 50-150 years ago when American newspapers regularly ran poems that explicitly engaged the day's news, "Poetic License" encouraged its contributors - yours truly among them - to be as topical, occasional and political as the best letters to the editor, and as biting, satiric or humorous as the best editorial cartoons. "Today's news is tomorrow's fish wrap," editor Jeff Charis-Carlson often reminded Poetic License writers - what he called his Deadline Poets - in an attempt to get us to come down from Parnassus and to write quickly and frequently so as to better help fill his page.
As recently as the 1950s, The New York Times was in the habit of running poems amidst the letters to the editor in its pages, but it's rare to see a poem in such contexts today. In restoring poetry to the Op-Ed page, though, Jeff didn't want to repeat Ted Kooser's nationally-syndicated column "American Life in Poetry" which features a Kooser-approved poem by a recognizably "literary" poet that is then reprinted in paper after paper across the U.S. To the contrary, Jeff wanted "Poetic License" to be an aggressively local feature: written by Iowa City poets for Iowa City audiences and oftentimes taking on topics of such local orientation that "outsiders" need a good deal of background in order to understand where the poems are coming from. The term "Maytag" in "Flood Poem: Almost a Third of CEO's Expect to Cut Jobs" for example, resonantes very differently in Iowa than it does elsewhere, especially since Whirlpool's 2006 acquisition and closure of Maytag manufacturing plants, once the economic center of Newton, Iowa.
Jeff eventually got in the practice of running illustrations - photographs, or sometimes hilariously-done ink drawings by the Press-Citizen's editorial cartoonist - alongside PoLi poems as well, creating provocative text-image conversations. Oftentimes, the poems dialogue clearly with other pieces on the Op-Ed page. This editorial dynamic is impossible to duplicate in this blog, where I'm simply excerpting some of my contributions to PoLi and recording them.
Gannett News Services, which owns the Press-Citizen, has a policy that keeps PoLi poems (like other materials) online for 4 weeks, after which those items vanish. As much as I'd like them to become tomorrow's fish wrap, I also don't want to see them - or the experiment that PoLi is continuing - completely disappear. There are many questions that PoLi has inspired and that are worth thinking through, including:
• How can poems complicate or trouble an Op-Ed page chock-full of otherwise straightforward or transparent declamatory prose?
• What does poetry have to do differently in 2008 to work in a journalistic context that it didn't have to do 100 years ago?
• When poets do come down from Parnassus and embrace the ephemerality of the daily news and the specificity of the local event, what new freedoms do they find?
• What sort of a poetics takes shape under the pressure of a deadline?
• What is the public response to PoLi, and how does one measure and track that response?
• Who decides to write for PoLi and why - a question especially relevant to Iowa City, which boasts the Iowa Writers' Workshop full of poets who have never sent poems to the paper?
Many writers not affiliated with the Workshop have contributed to Poetic License over the past 2+ years, each developing over time a signature style, politics, approach, tone, rhetorical flexibility, etc. (Most recently, for example, I've been using actual news headlines as my poem titles, and after experimenting with various verse forms, I seem to have settled in - improbable as it sounds - to writing sonnets.) Contributors have worked more or less closely with Jeff, who sometimes participates so heavily in the writing process that he might claim co-editorship. In sum, PoLi has become a fascinating laboratory in which to track the possibilities of re-embedding poetry in one aspect of print culture today as thoroughly as it once was for generations of Americans in the U.S.
The following are some of my contributions to this research. Who says you can't get the news from poetry?