Can poetry be journalism?

I’ve been thinking even more than usual about unconventional storytelling in the aftermath of The Story, and ended up back on a question I last seriously thought about while I was at university.

It’s about poetry. Since I came to London I’ve rediscovered my ability to write creatively, and a couple of projects have taken off – I’ve got a poem in this month’s Rialto magazine, and a couple of weeks back I read a few pieces of writing at the launch of Whippersnapper Press, a small press devoted to getting more snappy, exciting work out to more people. It was fun.

The first piece I performed was arguably an act of data journalism. It was born out of an FOI request I put in to Norfolk Constabulary in late 2009 on the subject of big cat sightings – one that yielded some fantastic results in the form of the CAD logs written by operators during emergency and non-emergency calls. Each one of these is a story in and of itself – the two women who sparked a lion hunt at Cromer caravan park after seeing two stone lioness carvings; the South African man who was convinced he had just come face to face with a leopard; the 41 calls received by the police about a large black cat and cub near Kings Lynn in 2001. And the performance piece was an aggregation and curation of those stories.

That taps into a long history of observational poetry and literature, works that take official or historical documents, curating them and reshaping them into a newly readable and accessible (normally) work. I’ve seen examples of this including transcripts of court cases, lists of statistics, and inquiry evidence, juxtaposed and curated to introduce new meanings and ambiguities that are not necessarily evident in the original documents.

One example that has stuck with me for years – but that I’ve so far utterly failed to track down online – was a novel-length collection of real-life stories of work-related accidents, that led to health and safety laws being introduced. I read extracts in the context of a literature course, but it could just have easily been an introduction to the power of journalism, in collating and curating those reports and bringing them into the public eye. I came away with a much deeper understanding of the subject – something that for me is a major function of journalism.

And the cross-over goes the other way, too – something that’s perhaps too easy to forget when you’re concentrating on 15-word intros and the inverted pyramid. The Gravedigger column is not only a fine piece of journalism but an incredible literary work – fantastic writing can be found all over the world in disposable newsprint as well as on bookshelves.

But, given that poets have been turning journalism into poetry for at least a century now, can journalists do the same back and turn poetry into journalism?

With that in mind, this is an experiment.

Yasqot Yasqot

they kill a boy on Youtube and you watch because you barely believe
and facts are few and far between and it matters
that before you pass it on you verify
and they film from a balcony in Alexandria as he advances arms outstretched
on the stone-throwing police
he crumples
and they stop shouting yasqot yasqot

so you Google Asmaa because you don’t know how it started and you watch
the screen flicker
and you’ve no way to know if the subtitles
tell her words right or if she’s still alive or where
but trust a pseudonymous someone not to mistranslate
and watch your friends retweet the news that the regime has fallen
again
even though it hasn’t

there are too many faces on the screen and in the end
you can only parse the numbers when they kneel to pray
or in HD for five minutes at a time before you’d have to pay
so you pick the numbers you believe from the nearest journalists
who aren’t being beaten arrested abused or killed
at the time
though they may be later

and there are at least 300 dead when you snatch your headphones
from the desk and load up al jazeera on livestation and listen
as the crowd roars
for fifteen minutes

and your goosebumps
are not enough tribute
and they stop shouting yasqot yasqot

What shape is a story?

A blog post is the wrong shape for pulling together strands from The Story. The day was enormously disparate – so many tales – but there were common strands that tied talks together across disciplines and across wildly varying conceptions of narrative and of story.

Listen. Because listening generously creates an articulate speaker. Moments in Karl James’s deeply moving talk stuck out for me like sore thumbs: I am not a journalist, he said, and therefore I get a better story. I can ask more questions. How do my questions differ from what journalists ask?

As a journalist, I’ve interviewed hundreds of people. Always you try to listen, but always you have the shape of the story to contend with. Literally, in some cases, for print: the story is a certain shape, a certain length and width and height with a certain size and shape of picture that goes with it; the form is constrained and constraining, and the questions you ask end up being designed to elicit answers that fit in and with the space you have available. The story gets chopped up into pieces, and the parts that fit become canonical while the rest are left as fragments that do not get retold. Good journalism is surgery.

Fragments. The idea that stories are falling apart, narratives disintegrating into small pieces that carry meaning by themselves but that are no longer embedded into larger story structures. And that by escaping from stable structures these fragments become building blocks, “accreting like coral” (to borrow @glinner’s phrase) and forming new, more serendipitous narratives.

This is a problem I’ve been running up against in journalism since I started journalisting – stories that in former times could be pinned to the page or confined to the lead slot on the evening bulletin can’t be, any more. They twist and turn and escape their boundaries. There is always more that can be said, context to the content the curators choose – like the video Adam Curtis showed of an interview in Helmand, where, once you reached outside the shape the story had to fit, you found an even more fascinating narrative, that fascinated more because it didn’t make sense – because it felt real, because it wasn’t neat or tidy or enclosed. Grand narratives are disintegrating, being questioned and contextualised in unexpected ways by the people formerly known as the audience.

Some speakers at The Story – Phil Gyford, Lucy Kimbell – are tackling this head-on in fields that aren’t (necessarily) newsgathering. Journalists should be talking to other storytellers, because all sorts of people are dealing with this fragmentation of narrative and they’re doing it innovatively and creatively and we are idiots if we are not looking for the links and the lessons between news storytelling and other creative practices.

Because the coral accretions of those fragments become things like The IT Crowd, or Cornelia Parker‘s objects that carry huge cultural significance despite being divorced from their original contexts. Like atoms in the ether, stories bubble into existence and coalesce whether there is anyone there to “read” them or not; like our host Margaret Robertson’s declaration that our clothes tell stories about ourselves; like @kcorrick’s Sole of The Story. Like conference notes that become art objects and accrue their own stories. And like LARPers frothing about zombies and turning fragments of experience into solid narratives, curating the experience themselves.

And because stories are still hugely powerful, and not always benign. Jane, in Karl James’s Dialogue Project, warns against becoming your story, when that story is damaging or damaged. Mark Stevenson recasts the metanarrative of global disaster into a story about how everything is getting better, really. Matt Adams uses text messages to tell stories with teenagers, in an attempt to shape a world where they are more informed and more aware of difficulties facing them. Cultures tell grand stories to themselves, to define themselves, and a grand story can shape as well as define.

This blog post doesn’t have a beginning or a middle, and it isn’t really going to have an end. I’m rewiring my brain to cope with new concepts – I genuinely feel like several speakers yesterday took the top of my head off and I am still finding unexpected cogs in peculiar places and gluing the results back together. There will be more, I am certain.

[edited to add link to Antony Mayfield's summary of Adam Curtis's talk]

Zombies and stories

I’m still collecting my thoughts from The Story yesterday – so much to digest & absorb from some absolutely fantastic speakers in all sorts of disciplines. I’m going to blog once I’ve significantly rewired my brain to take in all that was said, but in the mean time, here are my slides and notes from the talk I made (including all the bits I skipped over because I ran out of time). I think there’s going to be an audio podcast uploaded too – I’ll add the link once it’s up.

Knocking them undead

Tomorrow, I’m going to be doing some Proper Public Speaking for the first time since I was a precocious 7-year-old. I’m speaking at The Story, and I’m privileged to be speaking alongside a host of amazing storytellers, artists, builders, makers, photographers, creators and other folks who do awesome things with narrative.

I’m going to be talking about Zombie, which last night sold out its ninth event in just five hours – talking about how we generate emergent stories, what systems we use to encourage and nurture and later curate stories born from player activity, in a community-oriented and word-of-mouth focussed way. The talk is called The Story Machine. I’ll post up my notes and slides after the event, but here as a teaser is one of my favourite images – drawn by the lovely and long-suffering @gshowitt.

The Story Machine

The Story Machine