Poetry as Investigative Journalism

Posted 20 Mar 2014

in Featured

Poetry as Investigative Reporting

by Gillian K Ferguson

Vermin and cockroaches. Fungus, rust, mould; raw sewage – broken lifts, gates and windows. Maybe not the usual ingredients for a poem, but ‘This is Home’ is the result of an innovative US project – ‘Off/Page’ – fusing journalism and poetry. Three young poets – Deandre Evans, Will Hartfield and Donte Clark – from ‘Youth Speaks’, teamed up with The Center for Investigative Reporting to research the plight of residents – many of whom are elderly, disabled or in poor health – in a rundown, mismanaged public housing development in Richmond, California.

The poets, who all grew up in Richmond, used the distressing source material from their investigation – the appalling infestations, lack of basic amenities, fear and indignities suffered by frail residents – to create a three-part spoken word poem; to highlight and communicate their findings and the residents’ personal experiences, in a more vivid way than journalism alone. The director of the Off/Page Project calls it ‘source storytelling’.

So can poetry offer this extra insight into the truth? That added illumination to jolt us into attention, to make us better informed; to make us care? Or should journalism just shoot straight and simple for a story to have maximum impact? Poet and Professor of English at Harvard, Stephen Burt, has written recently about the relationship of poetry and journalism. Sometimes the two are seen as actively oppositional. Perhaps reportage considers external facts while poets consider the inward. Yet the Off/Page project can actually be seen as a rediscovery of a vital function of poetry – great poets of the past, like Milton and Wordworth, saw poetry as an absolutely appropriate vehicle for commenting powerfully on the events of the day. Homer conjures battles and grief scintillatingly to life. And in every century since, poets have reacted to contemporary events. Some lasts; some doesn’t. But surely the horror and bitter passion of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ speaks just as powerfully and freshly today of WW1; it has never faded.

Burt examines where the idea of an opposition between poetry and journalism arose; considering manner and matter, style and content: ‘Reporters say what happened, where, when, why; poets say how, and what it was like’. But on reflection, he takes this opposition apart! Good reporters make stories interesting and new; as do poets – ‘Experiences that seem similar, even identical, in worse hands seem interesting and new, in a better poem, because of the way in which they are put into words… Love poetry in particular, like poetry of political indignation, distinguishes itself from so many similar poems on the same subjects by the how, by saying not what happens but what it was like, how it was at that one time.’ Burt suggests that in both cases, the ‘story’ is too important to ignore, but has also been written before – the challenge is to present it in a way that holds a reader’s attention and makes it seem new. The particular words matter.

PBS Newshour correspondent Jeffrey Brown also wrote this month in the Poetry Foundation’s magazine of his belief in the symbiosis of news and poetry. He writes daily of wars, natural disasters, politics, but feels there is more to be told than facts; so he also reports on poetry! “In an age of chattering 24-hour news, of the latest celebrity this or that, it is barely conceivable,” he says. “But it also makes a kind of sense. Literature has long provided me with a connection, a way in. I have seen the world, travelled the world through poetry and learned much from it of the power and process of giving an account.” Inspired by the likes of Walt Whitman and even Homer, and supported by the Poetry Foundation, Brown strives “to connect these often disconnected worlds of news and poetry, to make a place in the news for poetry.” He jokes of being the world’s first and only ‘Senior Correspondent for Poetry’.

Brown has gathered stories such as Cadets at West Point, just prior to deployment in Iraq, analysing poetry – from Homer to Shelley, Tu Fu to Wilfred Owen; of how they interpreted its meaning, and messages about war, life, death, leadership and bravery, for their own situation with great sophistication, diversity and appreciation. He felt he was getting right to the guts of poetry in a high-security Arizona prison workshop.  “I learned over and over that the news comes from many directions, in many forms, that there are many ways — including a work of art, a piece of music, lines of poetry — to describe ‘what happened’,” he explains.

Repeatedly, Brown felt that poetry provided fuller insight into situations; a unique value. It seems that neither poetry nor journalism should be mutually exclusive, that they can each learn from each other – and work together to communicate. Poetry should not be corralled into certain ‘appropriate’ subjects. It is far too mighty, natural and vital a product of human culture to be so constrained; too powerful a tool. Who could doubt the power of poetry to construct and paint stronger, more intense, vivid images – in emotional, cerebral or visual 3D – be they of love and lilies or cockroaches and vermin overrunning your home in modern America; to be a blind man who has served his country battling winter with no heating. As William Carlos Williams wrote: “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack// of what is found there”.


This is Home’ by Deandre Evans, Will Hartfield and Donte Clark, created through the Off/Page project spoken at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xqyIOT2LkvU.

Deandre Evans:
This is where rodents and roaches are like family
‘cause we share the same meals
Top ramen, cereal, Kool Aid
Its no family complaints
Everything is enjoyed that we refrigerate and put in cabinets
We feel thirty-below air from cracked windows
No heat for when Richmond wind blows
No AC to cool down the weather that makes us sweat
Neglect is the only thing we get
Fungus disintegrating the walls
Bathroom sink replaces bathtub
Only place where I can wash my body
Everybody comes through the door except people who repair
Why are elevators broken in a place made for people who are disabled?
How can we use stairs when we
roll the wheels of our chairs and lean our bodies on canes and walkers?
No one is responsive – feel like I’m talking to myself
When help is asked to restore something as simple as a lock on a gate
So I can feel safe
Never get any phone calls returned
Don’t get to talk to anything more than an machine,
This is home -
it’s not built for us to survive.

William Hartfield-Peoples:
I see barren hallways
Broken cameras
Uninvited guests
There’s no service here
As if a sea of people were cast away on an island
to fend for themselves
The weather outside is frightening
The absent guards’ ghost remains in its rightful place
A world ran by village rules
We exist only to survive
Accustomed to the law of the land
Mind your business
Pay no mind to that body that just fell
from the top floor the other night.
Silence has become an ally to fear
the fear of being evicted,
Like a sickness the madness of this reality soaks in to a simple statement:
“Better here than out there”
I see Juanita:
a double amputee bound to a chair,
hands scarred not by surgery or disease,
but by a room and a door that a wheelchair wasn’t made for,
Everyday she pushes through,
Everyday she pushes on because
This is home.
Look at Mama Hall:
81-years young and she still keeping a routine
Weary eyes maintaining order with disorder
Day in and day out
and if the proper authorities won’t help
Then they help themselves
Whether it be mice nesting in the walls
Dope dealers in the halls
Or prostitutes treating for a trick
These seniors take hold of what they can
and fight for what they can’t because
This is home
Where video cassettes are glued to the ceilings and the walls to keep the mice out
This is home
Where the people make their own
Ain’t family but they’ll never be alone
Ain’t nowhere else to go
and these old folks need a place
so they make space
and pray for tomorrow
‘cause tomorrow shows a new face.

Donte Clark:
Tomorrow, as dawn peeks
and blue jays sing praise
I will awake,
with a gracious morning
resting lightly on my eyelids,
Thankful,
I can roll out of my plush covers feeling silk
Feet seep deep into warmed carpets in my apartment
On winter mornings around Decembers
Unthaw the frosted grip I have on misery
And set me free
Believing without seeing has brought life to this carcass
Tomorrow,
I will be treated more like resident
Feel more relevant than just a pawn
You feel me?
I bet not – see no dirt but green in these lawns, huh!?!
Don’t want to smell no cocaine linger
or mildew clingin to my doorsteps, huh!?!
Gotta protest, raid the government,
shake their pockets
and make them fix these pro-jects, huh!?!
‘cause if not here then where?
Where do we go next?
‘cause left is cemetery,
Barbed wired hearts
Unchained metal gates like a welcome place for the tear apart
Open doors For the match & spark where
Everything dies slowly,
on schedule.
But until tomorrow
Before my thoughts will manifest kingdom
And we feast in abundance of wealth
We’ll break bread,
share what left over scraps we have
and find communion in our struggle.

This is tomorrow.

PBS Arts article on Off/Page project – http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/poetry-exposes-truth-about-housing-in-the-bay-area/

San Francisco Chronicle article, ‘Subsidised Squalor’ by CIR reporter Amy Harris, who collaborated with the poets, and photos by Lacy Atkins -  http://www.sfchronicle.com/local/bayarea/item/richmond-housing-day1-27348.php

Video report by PBS member station KQED – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Ye6jkqsnCU

Find out more about literary non-profit organisation, Youth Speaks and its collaboration with CIR to create the Off/Page project – http://youthspeaks.org/offpage/

Professor Stephen Burt’s article on poetry and journalism, Harvard’s Neiman Foundation for journalism – http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reports/article/102884/Poetry-The-News-that-Stays-News.aspx

PBS Correspondent Jeffrey Brown’s article on poetry and journalism in Poetry Foundation magazine -  http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/article/247354

by The PoetryZoo Keeper