Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Writing Good Bad Poetry

As regular "Poetry & Popular Culture" readers may well know, for the past two and a half years I've been writing poems for the Opinion page of Iowa City's daily newspaper, the Press-Citizen. Topical, occasional, oftentimes humorous commentaries on the week's news, these poems are aggressively embedded in specific historical and journalistic contexts and happily go forth into the world eschewing notions of artistic timelessness and universality. Insofar as they do so, they hearken back to the days when newspapers across the U.S. regularly ran poems as part of the daily news—news that sometimes stayed news (newspaper poets actively debated their day's hot-button or wedge issues such as abolition and women's suffrage), but that more often than not ended up as the next day's fish wrapper.

The current issue of Poets & Writers Magazine—buy yours today!—has a longish look back on the 60-plus poems I've written for the Press-Citizen and the virtues and perils of trying to revive the tradition of "good bad poetry" in the present day. Here, to whet your whistle, is an excerpt:

One of the things that sticks in my mind (and in my craw, admittedly) after two years of reading and writing Poetic License poems, however, is a poem that the paper wouldn't print, and the very fact of its nonpublication suggests there are limitations to how good bad poetry can function in public forums like the Press-Citizen. At the time, the University of Iowa was trying to hire a new president, and the Iowa board of regents had, in many people's minds, overstepped its authority by conducting the search in secret without input from faculty, staff, or students. As the faculty senate deliberated how to express its disapproval, I wrote:

It's time for a no-confidence referendum.
The Regents are broken, so let's end 'em.
Let's make the process transparent
and the next search as apparent
as Britney showing the world her pudendum.

I liked the limerick because, like many good poems as well as good bad poems, it cuts two ways. On one hand, it argues for a more open search process. On the other hand, in voicing that opinion via the tabloid example of Britney Spears, the poem begins to sound like a send-up of those arguing for a transparent process: Do we really want the search to be that open?

In the end, [editor] Charis-Carlson returned the poem to me with profuse apologies, explaining that some higher-up at the paper had objected to my use of the word pudendum. I protested, of course. It's an anatomical term most frequently used in clinical contexts. Slate magazine used it in a headline. It's entirely in keeping with the limerick's popular bawdiness, and readers would clearly recognize that. Charis-Carlson said he sympathized but said there was nothing he could do; it was officially too dirty for the paper. So I thought about it and realized that Charis-Carlson's prudish higher-up wasn't necessarily objecting to the word per se so much as to the poem's implication that official university business might in fact occupy the same discursive world as Britney Spears's genitalia—which is kind of dirty. I quickly rewrote the poem to demonstrate the fact and sent it back to the Press-Citizen.

The presidential search is the pits.
The Regents are giving us fits.
Let's make the process transparent
and the next search as apparent
as Britney showing the world her naughty bits.

That verse, it goes without saying, was also returned to me, as well it should have been: It's not nearly as good a good bad poem as the first version was. But in the process, I learned that even Poetic License comes with a few restrictions.

A Few Good Bad Poems:
"OMG! Buddhist Nun Texting Novel"
"Dinosaur Descendant to be Dad at 111"
"Cat Chasing Mouse Leads to 24 Hour Blackout"
"Man Faces Jail for Smuggling Iguanas in His Prosthetic Leg"
" 'Lingerie Mayor' Vows to Stay in Office"
"O.J. Simpson Questioned in Vegas Incident"