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Poets Take Cues From Journalism In Recent Collections


Artists have always helped us find meaning in a chaotic world. And at the end of another difficult week, we're going to talk about why three poets have chosen to mine nonfiction to explore thorny subjects. Our poetry reviewer Tess Taylor joined me to talk about their new poetry collections. The first is called "Admit One" by Martha Collins. Collins explores her own family's racist past to wrestle with the history of American racism. Here's Tess.

TESS TAYLOR, BYLINE: As part of her poetry, she quotes from the Du Quoin Evening Call, which is a newspaper that was published and edited by her own grandfather. And so this is the Du Quoin Evening Call of 1924. She's got poems on page 70, but on page 71, she just has headlines and little snippets from this newspaper. Americans wanted to join the Ku Klux Klan. If you are American-born, white, Gentile, Protestant and of good character, you are eligible. America is in danger. And so she's actually asking us to sort of consider the deeper roots of where, you know, where we've come from.

SHAPIRO: There's another clipping here from the Du Quoin Evening Call 1916, and the headline is, "Trained to Forget Traits: 600 Red Children being Trained in Ways of Whites." and it says, the government is endeavoring to efface from the minds of Indian boys and girls all memory of their ancestors and primal traits.

TAYLOR: The word primal is, you know, a little difficult there. And I think Martha Collins is bringing it back up to just make us realize, you know, this is very, very recent history in our nation. Things that feel and that are, as sort of unacceptable as this, are, you know, just barely - you know, this is her grandfather's paper. This is mere generations old.

SHAPIRO: So many people have taken on the subjects - history, journalism, race, war. What do poets bring to the table that's different from all of these others?

TAYLOR: Poetry is made of the presence and the absence of language, and part of the ingredients of poetry is the white space on the page. And so when a poet gathers things in these slim journals and they're surrounded by white margins, we're forced to consider what's being left out.

And the poets here use these documents but also the margins of these documents in really haunting ways so that when you see the excised newspaper article on the page or you see the list, it's able to sort of generate a chill of pointing into all of the things that aren't being said.

SHAPIRO: Tell me about the second collection by a poet named Solmaz Sharif called "Look," which uses perhaps one of the least-poetic things I can imagine - a Department of Defense Dictionary of terms used in war.

TAYLOR: Solmaz Sharif has done something really remarkable here. She has gathered this document, the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, which takes ordinary language and kind of codes it for use in war.

SHAPIRO: For example, there's a poem called "Dear Intelligence Journal" - this is page 18 - where every word that she has taken from this Department of Defense Dictionary is in all caps. But she puts them in other contexts. So for example, there is this line, we were friendly beneath the gazebo's lattice, a low-visibility operation, which is what my over-the-horizon radar was telling me.

And so there are all these terms - friendly, lattice, low-visibility operation, over-the-horizon radar - which are taken from the military and instead sound like some "Romeo and Juliet," lovers after dark setting.

TAYLOR: Right but still a truly, really important point of no return. So she's making us take that language, and she's destabilizing it for us. She's showing us how it's sort of conquest by the military dictionary makes it unstable, and then she's actually trying to re-embed it in a poem about love. And we are sort of forced to deal with the unraveling of what those terms can mean and our own sort of unstable relationship to them.

SHAPIRO: There's even a really lovely list of operations. It's an abridged list of operations. This is page 55. It's called Perception Management, and it is really literally just a list - swamp fox, tomahawk, Crazyhorse thunder, geronimo strike, patriot strike - that are all of these terms of operations that the U.S. military has done that become like an incantation.

TAYLOR: Dirty Harry, gold digger, unforgiving Raging Bull, thunder cat, "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood," Shadyville, Hickory View, scorpion sting, eagle liberty, wolfhound fury, falcon sweep. And so then you're in a really interesting position because on the one hand, this is a list of operations. On the other hand, it's a list. How is a list poetry? On the other hand, it's got this strange linguistic pleasure - like, you're naming things like swamp fox or constitution hammer. And there's sort of a Dadaist nonsense to the language...


TAYLOR: ...That makes it kind of pleasurable. And what it really does is it forces you to suspend yourself and consider your relationship to language really deeply. And I think it's - I think that is - that heightening of our consideration is the gesture that really does make it poetry.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about the third collection here. It's called "Olio" by a poet named Tyehimba Jess. What's going on in this collection?

TAYLOR: The content of this book really is a remarkable one. You know, Tyehimba Jess gathers the histories of the lives - untold lives of many of the African-American artists who sort of built the blues and jazz and the sound that we, you know, consider - sounds we consider quintessentially American. And he's written these poems as history in a variety of voices, in a chorus.

He's got snippets of letters, interviews with Scott Joplin's widow. He's got a whole poetic history of Millie and Christine McKoy, who were these conjoined twins who were born into slavery and taken on the road and eventually became part of P.T. Barnum's circus. It's a history of exploitation. It's a history of beauty. It's a history that, by and large, has not been written down properly.

SHAPIRO: But it's not a book you have to read beginning to end, page by page.

TAYLOR: I don't think so. I don't think that that - it's very pleasurable. It's got a lot of - it's got a really tactile quality to it.


TAYLOR: There's a page that just has F - like, the F note. And it says, pentatonic black keys raise up high into bliss, born to sing my name.

SHAPIRO: Here's a page with C on it, like...


SHAPIRO: ...The note C, and it says, my motto for life, merit, not sympathy, wins my song against death.

TAYLOR: But then on page 155 you have the Work Progress Administration field interview - text of interview unedited - name of worker, Eva Shu (ph), state - Ohio.

SHAPIRO: Tess, why do you think these different poets from different backgrounds tackling different subjects are all gravitating towards these scraps of nonfiction in their poetry collections?

TAYLOR: You know, I think maybe this is actually an American thing (laughter) to do. I mean, I think that one of our great strengths is that, you know, we have this freedom of the press. And the freedom of the press is part of our democratic voice. I think of Walt Whitman creating dual strains of literature in writing journalism of the Civil War and writing, you know, his poetry and that actually he plundered himself from both of his genres. He would kind of play the two against each other.

That said, I mean, I think we're living through great unrest in this country right now. And I think the question that poets are asking themselves is, you know, in what way is my work relevant? Am I going to write the merely beautiful, or is there something that I can do to sort of harness some of the language of the world and put it to work in a poem in a way that makes people sit up and notice it even more?

SHAPIRO: Tess Taylor, it's great to talk to you again.

TAYLOR: Ari, it's really fun to talk to you too.

SHAPIRO: We were just discussing the collection "Olio" by Tyehimba Jess, before that, "Look" by Solmaz Sharif and "Admit One: An American Scrapbook" by Martha Collins. Tess Taylor's latest collection is called "Work And Days." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.