Sunday, March 11, 2007

Where poetry and journalism meet

Poet and journalist Don Colburn clearly enjoys talking about the two sides of his writing, which he maintains, often become one.

Warming to the topic, he told my PCC reporting class recently that his poetry and his journalism inform and support each other.

Colburn, who reports on health for The Oregonian, noted that he’s not the first writer to draw the connection between the seemingly disparate genres.

Consider Walt Whitman’s words: “The true poem is the daily newspaper.”

And William Carlos Williams’:

It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there.

And Ezra Pound’s: “Poetry is news that stays news.”

At 59, Colburn has been around—“out in the street” as he puts it. He worked at the Everett Herald before going east to its parent paper, the famed Washington Post. While at the Herald, he won a Knight Fellowship to Stanford University, where poetry kindled interest that flamed to passion.

He quickly discovered that, like journalists, poets also need to be “out in the street”—to immerse themselves in humanity.

He found that humanity—and poetry—in the tragic story of young Garrett Smith.

When, after a year of mourning, Sen. Gordon Smith and his wife, Sharon, were ready to talk about the suicide of their son, Garrett, Colburn reported on and wrote their story. He heard poetic strains in their reflections. His job, he said, was to get out of the way and let them speak their truth.

Like a great poem, the Garrett Smith story “had something at stake,” Colburn said, adding that journalism and poetry always have something at stake.

Colburn said that writing poetry has made him a better prose writer. “I can’t prove it,” he said, “but I know it.”

“Each has things to teach the other,” he said.

Like journalism, the best poetry starts in the real world. And, like poetry, journalism at its best must “pay attention to the nuances of words—the sounds of the language.” That’s why Colburn reads his newspaper prose out loud in the newsroom before submitting it. “The words just have to sound right; there’s music in the language,” he said.

Colburn believes in what he calls the “commonality of journalism and poetry,” so much that he considers himself to be a “cross-training writer.” He has even compiled a list of pithy rules for cross-training writers. They include: “Play it by ear,” “Go with the Heat,” “Don’t try too hard,” and, its corollary “Try hard enough.”

Here’s a poem by Don Colburn from “As if Gravity were a Theory,” one of his two published books of poetry. The poem was inspired by a story Colburn wrote about a boy battling leukemia:

Local News

Ten years after,

I remember two things:

It was a mild, cloudless afternoon

and the sick boy wore a wool cap

indoors, down to his eyes

which were not scared.

No. Three things. I was scared.

For more about Colburn and more samples of his poetry, visit his web site.

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