Saturday, July 12, 2008

My Poetic License - An Introduction

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?

Flood Poem: Almost a Third of CEOs Expect to Cut Jobs

Appeared in the Press-Citizen June 21, 2008

The boardroom talk is all about the rising
cost of energy and whether,
if corn and durable goods increase together,
a crest in unemployment is surprising,
merited, excusable, or good
for business in the coming fiscal year,
and how to make this cresting now appear
as natural as a high school textbook would:
history is full of ups and downs,
the nation always—always—comes back stronger
if you sandbag just a little longer
and sacrifice a few Midwestern towns.
For when your Maytag’s lost to the flood’s designs
the boardroom floods as well—with dollar signs.

Flood Poem II: "Croc Dundee" in Tax Fight

Appeared in the Press-Citizen July 9, 2008

For he can hypnotize a buffalo
and he can tell the time by the course of the setting sun
and while his career, like his taxes, isn’t done
it’s a little sad to see him shuffle so.

Why the evasion, Paul? At sixty-plus,
you should be enjoying your golden years,
staging a comeback like Indy with smoke and mirrors.
It’s not too hard entertaining us,

so why the sudden Al Capone routine
instead of a simple fight, the bread and circus?
We’re tired of seeing the favorites who used to work us
hide their heads in the sand and lose their sheen

making a token gesture at the best
like an Aussie quip, or a visit to the wet midwest.

Cat Chasing Mouse Leads to 24 Hour Blackout

Appeared in the Press-Citizen May 25, 2008

—4,079 and counting

And after the parties of interest are sought and found,
quieted, questioned, detained and disappeared,
and after we’re told it wasn’t as bad as we feared,
and after the circuits are determined sound
and all the power’s properly restored,
then come the commissions, committees, and decrees,
the whatifs, never agains, and you-should-sees,
the whys, the how tos, and it-should-be-ignoreds.
We learn that no one really dropped the ball,
that the incident was isolated
and its importance grossly overstated.
And then before you know it, after it all,
some grinning, dirty dog named Spot or Rover
is shaking your hand and claiming the war is over.

Man Faces Jail for Smuggling Iguanas in His Prosthetic Leg

Appeared in the Press-Citizen April 14, 2008

He takes solace in the fact that in
the big house you don't ask what your cellmate did,
how it was planned, or what made him flip his lid.
So he can wait to volunteer his sin
(as do we all) until the occasion merits,
hiding the trip to Fiji in his past,
the beaches and sun, the fish that school as fast,
pacific and colorful as the island's parrots.
He will tell them of the lizards, but only
when the prison walls are cold and pressing
and the very act of his confessing
takes them someplace warmer and less lonely,
where the sun's so bright, the water and sky so blue
you can't but try to make it a part of you.

'Lingerie Mayor' Vows to Stay in Office

Appeared in the Press-Citizen January 28, 2008

From negligee to negligence, and bra
to public brawl, it’s clothing and not closure
that’s gotten the mayor’s office its exposure—
not what people said but what they saw.
To Eleanor and her stockings, Monica’s dress,
and Hillary’s skirt-or-suit aporia,
we can add these skivvies south of Victoria
in our discourse of pretentiousness.
For a woman involved in politics—
her city’s in the black (as is she)—
there’s simply no such thing as parity,
not when it comes to the clothes that woman picks.
Her critics should look, instead, at the monsieurs,
for even Arnold’s posed in less than hers.

How Evel Got to Heaven

Appeared in the Press-Citizen, December 2007

in memorium
Evel Knievel, 1938-2007

More than the fire and brimstone downward pouring,
it was Charon’s ferry, paddled safe and swell,
that made Knievel see he’d gone to hell
and worse—that hell was downright boring.
In life, he’d seen his likeness in a doll,
broken sixty bones, jumped over canyons,
and fended off both upstarts and also-rans,
but nothing prepared him for this brutal fall.
No fountains, no jumpsuits, no crowds to cheer him on,
everything painfully slow and on the level:
eternal doldrums fashioned by the devil
and tended without a dare by Satan’s spawn.
How could he escape? What could he do for kicks?
Then Evel looked behind him: the River Styx.

Bronze Fonz in Milwaukee?

Appeared in the Press-Citizen October 1, 2007

Rust belt brewer, metropolis of kegs,
city of knock and brat and cheddar wursts,
we’ve always looked to you to quench our thirsts
and not to give us public art with legs.
Every famous city has its Thinker
but did you really—really?—have to settle
on transforming Mr. Leather into metal
and giving Milwaukee a statue of Henry Winkler?
But metal, I guess, befits a man of cool:
Philly has Rocky, Chicago’s got M.J.,
and it would be a less than happy day
if Bob Uecker got his own reflecting pool.
So raise your mug or glass or plastic cup;
Let’s give the Fonzie project two thumbs up.

O.J. Simpson Questioned in Vegas Incident

Appeared in the Press-Citizen September 17, 2007

I can see him, even now, flying
with the greatest of ease and the grace of the finer arts
over the airport counters and baggage carts,
and I hear, down through the years, the Hertz lady crying
“Go, O.J. Go!” And then a decade later
with the Juice still running—this time in a white S.U.V.
and brought to the nation live on network tv—
we shouted “Go, O.J. Go,” for no one was greater
at legging it into the spotlight, leaping the charges
like a few lousy bags, and landing on his feet.
Now he’s in Vegas, as at home on the strip as at a meet-n-greet.
Questioned and searched yet again, his legend enlarges.
“Go, O.J. Go!” we think as we hear the Law swear:
“We don’t believe he’s going anywhere.”

The Case of the $54 Million Trousers

Appeared in the Press-Citizen on July 1, 2007

I drop my five-spot on the bar and Bill,
local P.I.—Pants Investigator—
tells me last night’s scores can wait for later
as he’s got something from the rumor mill:
a suit about a suit, an alteration
altercation, a case of missing slacks,
a judge who thought he had a hand of jacks,
and a brief submitted and heard ’round the nation.
“The beltway’s abuzz,” Bill says. “I’ve been in the biz
long enough to deal with in-betweeners,
but this guy taking his cleaner to the cleaners
is meaner than a pirate in pantaloons is.
It could go either way, I guess, but here’s to hopin’
that when he stands for the verdict, his barn door’s open.”

Mars Being Fed

Appeared in the Press-Citizen June 28, 2007

By pipelines, by tankers, he stuffs himself with crude,
reclines like the Roman god he is to feast,
perceiving the world as his private source of food,
his head in Alaska, his feet in the Middle East.
The more he eats, it seems, the more he’s fed,
his arterial highways long past clogged.
He orders his empty-handed servants flogged
and every barrel turns him a brighter red.
And he grows fat. His belly swells with gas.
He knows the oil has ruined his complexion
and will not dare to look at his reflection.
He’s too bushed to limit the habits he has.
He appears on posters captioned “Mars wants you.”
In the picture he’s red, but he dresses in white and blue.

Coyotes Thriving in Suburbs

Appeared in the Press-Citizen June 11, 2007

At first—before their S.U.V.’s and middle-
class complaints about the price of fuel
and the costs of sending the pups to private school—
their moving here was something of a riddle.
Were they in flight? Or were they on the trail
of achieving the Americanine dream,
pushed by the pack, by the need for self-esteem,
and by faith in the Horatio Alger tale?
And if they’re thriving—on Atkins, trash t.v.,
Wild Hogs and Wii—then what of the census
that now reports the rates of poverty
are higher within than without their picket fences?
Will they howl with their pack at the full-moon sky,
or just order a latte and let sleeping dogs lie?

Whale Watching on the Sacramento River

Appeared in the Press-Citizen June 4, 2007

They nearly came ashore—out of the sea,
into the bay, up the river, under
the bridges, and far enough to make us wonder
if they were trapped or looking to be free.
And so a convoy met them—canoes and kayaks
full of TV crews and Coast Guard staff—
to drum up a story of a mother and calf,
misguided, lost, wounds across their backs,
who should not go where they felt called to go,
be that Berkeley or the Golden Gate.
Now, it appears, our efforts have set them straight;
they’ve turned around and headed back, slow
to consent, as our recording of their song
broadcasts where they do and don’t belong.

Crocodile Wrestling

Appeared in the Press-Citizen September 11, 2006

In the old B movies, they always come back.
As soon as you’ve dismissed ’em,
forgotten that you’ve flushed ’em down the New York sewer system,
then they go on the attack,

larger, leaner,
and full of terrorist intentions
festering for twenty years in filth and waste that no one mentions.
You don’t find creatures much meaner

than these hissing
lizards laying low lower Manhattan
consuming human beings and the monuments of Modern Man.
Nor does the moral of the cautionary tale go missing

yet still we curse and frown
when the next great anaconda shark gorilla swarm of killer bees
brings the city to its knees
and the towers that we look to for direction smoke and tumble down.