Post-Vegas Catch-Up: News Poetry Edition

Hey, Fickle Readers! I’m back from Vegas, where my oldest and dearest friend Donnabella Valentino and I had an amazing couple of days of eating, gambling, listening to the Beatles, and watching sprays of water dance to cheesy melodies. (You wouldn’t think water would be capable of acting cheesy, but then, Vegas can bring out the cheesetacularness in any given molecular construction.)

But, since all good things must end with a long, cramped flight across the country, I’m back in the ‘burbs and ready to start churning out random, fickle thoughts, such that my presence will be noted by even more bots ready to fill my spam comment filter with long strings of unconnected words and generic praise.

Today’s first spam-catching post is on the subject of news poetry, or “opinion poetry,” as the L.A. Times calls it. Yes, because I stopped paying attention, and because my short-term memory has dwindled to maybe ten minutes, I managed to miss the publication of the official 2014 L.A. Times Opinion Poetry page. Definitely worth checking out, if only to see what material the Times’ editors chose.* There’s a good balance struck here between professional and amateur writers (although the professionals don’t have a monopoly on the most notable pieces) and between comic and serious verse. Topics are varied, yet most seem not to refer to a specific event but to an overall problem (see “Re-Divining Water” by Fran Davis and “Modern Love Incorporated” by Mike Orlock**) or even to a larger social or political issue that impacts private life (“Facial Heritage” by Elmast Kozloyan, “Sometimes the Urge to Live” by Aliki Barstone, “Veterans’ Benefits” by Brad Rose). Lots and lots of rhyming here, too, which is kinda nice to see–a throwback to the witty epigrams of eighteenth-century periodicals. Not everyone quite nails the forms (there are two “sonnets” in the Times that are not sonnets in the traditional sense), but the poems themselves are interesting and worthwhile. (Peter Larson, by the way, wins the Miss Fickle Form prize for his meticulously metrical poem “Please Pass the Mud.”) Other standouts include “Bridge Over a Bone River” by Lollie Butler and “The Sunflower” by Pam Ward, both longer works and both extremely powerful.

The one criticism I have of this year’s poetry page has to do with layout: namely, whoever transferred the poems to the web site neglected to include any structural details, not even stanza breaks. This means that the entire group of poems reads like one continuous column down the left side of the screen. Come on, L.A. newspeople: you know the importance of the way text looks on a page. Poets put spaces and gaps in their work for a reason. Please don’t ignore them. Otherwise, this is another good showing from the Times opinion editors. Nicely done, folks! Hope you decide to do this again next year!

In other news, news itself is the topic of a weekly feature on the Rattle magazine web site. Called “Poets Respond,” this project is an experiment to see if timely poetry–work written within a week about an event that occurred during that week–can participate in the lightning-quick conversations spawned in the 21st-century 24-hour media merry-go-round. You’ll recall that I mentioned this new poetry series in a round-up of poetry-related announcements last week. You may also recall, a few months back, I criticized Seth Abramson for writing a prose poem about Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista rampage killer, and how immediately after the event might not be the appropriate moment to start exploring the humanity of a man who’d just shot nineteen people, six of whom died. “This is probably why poets don’t make good first responders,” I wrote at the time. Now, Rattle gives us the opportunity to see if poets can remake themselves into first responders, or, at the very least, as witnesses with valuable perspectives that can’t be conveyed in other forms of writing.

Now that I’ve finally had the chance to see Poets Respond, my report on the viability of news poetry is: so far, so good. Even though these poems are inspired by specific events, as with the L.A. Times poetry page the work on Poets Respond injects public discourse with a sense of the private, interior reactions we almost never get to see. The presentation of the work is gorgeous, with an easily navigable index page and audio files of readings for almost every piece.  As far as the individual poems go, all are high on accessibility without sacrificing craft. I love Lynne Knight’s beautiful, understated pantoum “The Letter from James Foley,” Rebecca Schumejda’s exploration of her inability to explain painful events to her daughter in “Black Banana,” and Jason McCall’s absolutely gut-wrenching tribute poem “Roll Call for Michael Brown.” Overall, Rattle has a great thing going here, and I, for one, hope they continue this project well into the future.

*For the sake of full disclosure: yes, I had a poem chosen this year, and no, it’s not one of the ones I discuss in this post. I’m not in the habit of sockpuppet-reviewing my own work, not only because it’s unethical but also (and maybe more so) because I wouldn’t want to go anonymously patting myself on the back and have my readers say, “Why is Miss Fickle crowing about such a crap poem?”

**Orlock also wins points for these lines about corporations: “For they, my boy, make no mistake / are fickle as young girls. / They need our constant blandishments, / tax breaks instead of pearls.”

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2 responses to “Post-Vegas Catch-Up: News Poetry Edition

  1. Thanks for mentioning my poem. I received lots of positive feedback. The Times miss titled the poem which is actually called “Sunflower Seeds” but I was glad they had the nerve to print it!

    • My pleasure, Pam! It was a gorgeous, powerful piece–a true standout, and a story the rest of the country needs to hear. Don’t ever give up writing and getting your work out there!! We need poets who push the envelope, especially in our post-Trayvon, post-Renisha, post-Michael Brown world. (And, yeah, sometimes editors flub things like titles. I had one editor drop a “not” out of a line that changed the whole meaning of what I was trying to say. I’m giving the LA Times people a pass for now, since I’m guessing they’re not used to dealing with poetry texts.)

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