From the Editor’s Desk: News Poetry is Deceptively Easy

by Kate Ter Haar on flickr

By Beth Ayer, Senior Poetry Editor

News ought to make great poetry. And there is no question; newspapers, magazines, and other media contain endless fodder for found poems. We receive many submissions crafted from news sources, but yet we rarely accept submissions based on current events. Why is that? We’ll explore that here, but first a little bit about our experiences reading submissions.

While it is possible (to some extent) to objectively separate good poetry from bad, we’ve learned that “yes” and “no” in the submission review process often comes down to the personal tastes of each reader (i.e., your editors). What appeals to one editor might not appeal to another. What works for you might not work for another writer. And often, what doesn’t fit in a given issue of the Found Poetry Review might be a perfect fit for another publication. Sometimes each editor even has a poem set aside to fight for as the last few choices are made. We consider how the submissions work as part of a whole issue, and we choose poems that move us in one way or another.

In From the Editor’s Desk, among other topics, we’ll explore what works and what doesn’t (and why) in the submissions we receive. This week, we’ll examine found poems based on current events.

Creating found poems from news is deceptively easy. After all, news carries its own emotional weight. But that built-in meaning could hinder a writer looking for new territory. The news story may be imbued with moral extract; it might be politically righteous. It might easily call out our sympathies. And yet, it might not make good found poetry. Poet Wislawa Szymborska warned against becoming “convinced that honorable intentions preempt form.” Indeed, a relevant news story must become more when transformed into a poem. Szymborska also shares advice from Rainer Maria Rilke:

Rilke warned young poets against large sweeping topics, since those are the most difficult and demand great artistic maturity. He counseled them to write about what they see around them, how they live each day, what’s been lost, what’s been found. He encouraged them to bring the things that surround us into their art, images from dreams, remembered objects.

When writing from news, we often touch on these “large sweeping topics,” and maybe that’s why it can be hard to write successful found news poetry. In order to create a found poem, we usually attempt to move beyond the existing story. As readers, we want to know what you have found underneath or overhead or in between. We want to see what results when you form a new context.

National Public Radio has a news poetry series, NewsPoet: Writing the Day in Verse. In the series, a poet spends a day in the NPR newsroom and then composes a poem (but usually not a found poem) inspired by the day’s stories. What works in NPR’s news poetry? How does the setting make these poems different from found news poems? My guess is that the context makes all the difference.

The poet spends the day in a place where the news is reported but not emotionally processed. She or he sits and takes in the day’s news and the production of the day’s news. Taking snippets, the poet provides an angle that we don’t ordinarily find in journalism, no matter how thoughtful. And where reporting aims at objectivity (though it may fail), poetry can react, turn the news over in the poet’s hands, and examine the stories as subjects.  In the end though, as is the series intent, the poems are still about the news.

With NewsPoet, the result is not typically found poetry, but instead original poetry inspired by the day’s news. These poems provide new perspectives and new pathways for processing our shared events. These poems are born and live in the world of news.

Creating found poetry from news means bringing not just a new perspective, but also a new story. The language leaves the newsroom and enters the poem. The news is the source, not the subject (OK, sometimes it is still the subject).

When we read submissions for the Found Poetry Review, we favor pieces in which the poet has clearly created something new. This means being less precious with the news, perhaps, and allowing the poem to stand alone.

All this said, above all, do what works for your poem. And please, don’t stop sending us found poems taken from news.



  • March 21, 2013

    Ellen Girardeau Kempler

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece. The way to make news poetry less tricky is to personalize it in some way by distilling the truth of a particular event. By attempting to write about news that we have not fully processed, we sacrifice the opportunity to shed light on the event through poetry. My best “news” poems deal with history, old news that still resonates, like the Irish potato famine or the Holocaust.

  • March 21, 2013

    Beth Ayer

    I like the way you put that, Ellen: “distilling the truth of a particular event.” Just the facts themselves cannot always get to the truth, but a great poem can.