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“Poetjournalism” slouches forth from Michigan to be born

For Aaron Dworkin, poet, news is not
that far from his butter and bread of verse.
Instead, he says, they’re siblings, of a kind.
Combined, they make a form anew, one which
he calls (and here one must break the meter)

“I was thinking I had another poetry collection in me, but I wanted the poetry to have impact,” said Dworkin, a 2005 MacArthur fellow and professor of arts leadership and entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance. “I realized I wanted to be like a photojournalist, and I wanted to take a snapshot of an issue and express it through the medium of poetry. And then it came to me: that’s a poetjournalist.”

Where a photojournalist trades in photographs, a poetjournalist, according to Dworkin, would trade in “newspoems.” He could think of a few examples from the past: Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, say, or O Captain! My Captain!, Walt Whitman’s lament of the assassination of President Lincoln. It’s a similar idea to what the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks called “verse journalism,” which she defined as “poet as fly-on-the-wall” and “poet as all-seeing eye.” Brooks was a prolific writer of verse journalism (Quraysh Ali Lansana wrote a great breakdown of some of her works for the Poetry Foundation), but Dworkin thinks there isn’t anybody treating it as a serious craft of its own these days. And so the Institute for Poetjournalism was born.

The institute’s first order of business was defining poetjournalism, and Dworkin’s working definition is “writing that evokes an emotional connection related to news topics or subjects and utilizes elements of sound, meter rhythm, creative illustration, and so on.” While newspoems should deliver information and are rooted in fact, their focus, Dworkin thinks, will be the emotion behind the news, rather than simply reporting on the sequence of events as they happened.

This is, of course, for a reporter
Most certain a question of order.
And many a poet,
Wouldn’t you know it
Were not quite the biggest supporters.

At least not at first: The idea of poetry being constrained by journalistic mores — Dworkin thinks newspoems, like journalism, should be fact-checked, for example — was off-putting. But gradually, Dworkin has built up boards of directors and advisors that consisted of poets and journalists alike, all of whom were intrigued by the idea of poetjournalism. LeVar Burton is on the board of advisors; so is Jenn White, host of NPR’s 1A.

“Journalism is in serious trouble for all kinds of reasons,” wrote John Bebow, the former publisher and CEO of Bridge Michigan and a member of the institute’s board of directors, in an email. “A variety of poets and journalists may look upon each other with some mixture of mystery, amusement, scorn, skepticism, and satire. So what? Our traditional ways of reporting news, telling stories, and painting our world and human emotion aren’t exactly resulting in Utopia at the moment. Let’s try something different.”

Dworkin has big plans for poetjournalism: he’s currently courting donors to fund a $150,000 prize, which he says is the largest in either poetry or journalism. And he wants to start what would essentially be a wire service for poetjournalism called the “Verse News Network,” complete with a managing editor, that would distribute newspoems to outlets around the world.

“I know I would certainly not be the world’s best poetjournalist,” Dworkin said. “But I wanted to create a platform that could further this discipline.” Hence the prize: That amount of money, he hopes, would give both the institute and the practice of poetjournalism credibility out the gate. “We want it to be at the highest level of monetary prize because, let’s face it, that the media pays more attention,” Dworkin said. “If it was a $5,000 prize, nobody’s paying attention. But if it’s $150,000, everyone is paying attention.”

I am, more than most people I know, romantic about journalism as an art form unto itself. But even I have to admit that much of this seems to be driven by the kind of outlook that only a poet can bring to the world. I have no idea if anyone would take a Verse News Network seriously, for example — Dworkin imagines most of the early contributors would probably be poets, though the managing editor might come from journalism, and he recognizes that the network, like the rest of the institute, would have to be grant-funded. Much like Bebow, however, I think the news industry these days can feel like we’re “not waving but drowning.” Perhaps poetry could at least provide a bit of driftwood to hang on to.

Besides, this wouldn’t be the first time Dworkin has wrestled an opportunity for the arts into shape: He founded the Sphinx Organization, which funds initiatives for diversity in classical music, in 1996. The Institute for Poetjournalism, which is currently mostly an idea, a website, and a bunch of interested people with impressive resumes, would simply be a continuation of Dworkin’s history of social entrepreneurship.

“The arts have a unique way of connecting people across political, cultural gender barriers,” Dworkin said. “We believe if we can take that mechanism and apply it to journalism, we can reach people who would otherwise not experience that news item or story or issue.”

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