From AJR, January/February 2001 issue
Ode to the Alternative Press
Poets turn to journalism to earn a living.
By Victor D. Infante
Victor D. Infante, former assistant editor of Workforce Magazine and the author of six books of poetry, is a regular contributor to OC Weekly.
K EN HUNT HAS PLAYED drums in Seattle punk bands and acted in performance art on the streets of Austin, but he made his mark in the arts as a writer, predominantly of poetry. He made his money, however, as a reporter.
"When I started writing poetry as a supplement to short, angsty, overly typical fiction," says the writer of several volumes of poetry, "I thought to myself, 'How can I be a writer and make money at the same time? I know! I'll be a journalist!' Isn't that cute?"
Hunt's plan to turn his passion into dollars isn't an abnormal deduction. With increasing frequency, young poets are shying away from the conventional wisdom that the only way to make it as a poet is to teach in universities. They are instead turning toward journalism, particularly toward alternative weeklies such as the Village Voice and the LA Weekly.
This isn't completely new. The Voice has made much of the fact that it has published the poetry of the legendary Allen Ginsberg. Recently one of its freelance contributors, Bryonn Bain, placed second in the National Poetry Slam Finals, a performance poetry contest. Renowned poet Lewis MacAdams has written occasional features for the LA Weekly, and staffers from Isthmus, in Madison, Wisconsin, and Chicago's Newcity Magazine have published books.
Hunt, the author of several volumes of poetry, wrote for the Austin Chronicle and the Alibi in Albuquerque, among other papers, before moving into radio as a volunteer for Allston-Brighton Free Radio in Boston. His previous work at mainstream dailies and, he says, their "overwhelmingly corporate, homogenous environment," led him to work for alternative publications. At the Seattle Times, he found that "it was verboten to participate in the arts scene if one was reporting on it, and as a performing poet and punk rocker, that is like hacking off three of my four limbs."
At the Austin Chronicle, however, Hunt found "that it was perfectly OK to both participate in and report on the creative community, and that one could do so in a relaxed, bohemian atmosphere."
Phil West, who reports on arts and entertainment for the Austin Chronicle and the San Antonio Current, is heavily involved in running poetry readings in Austin and San Antonio. He has also worked for many of the same papers as Hunt, including the Seattle Times, and he found himself in journalism for a lot of the same reasons.
"I've been drawn to journalism ever since I was 12," West says, "knowing that I wanted a career having something to do with writing, and figuring that journalism was the way to do that. I've been drawn to alt newsweeklies in particular, because in terms of creativity and freedom and interesting stories, they offer more than most dailies. Although," he notes, "I found the Seattle Times a thoroughly rewarding place to write."
For many poets, the relaxed pace a weekly affords works well with their schedules, allowing them time to read in bars and coffeehouses in the evening. Others, such as San Francisco Bay Guardian contributor Beth Lisick, whose work has appeared in the "Best American Poetry" anthology, were drawn to weeklies because they'd hire poets despite a lack of journalism experience. Moreover, many young poets find the diversity of subject matter they encounter on a journalistic beat inspirational. Cleveland Free Times freelancer Michael Salinger says that he has used research from his reporting in his poetry, and Walidah Imarisha, a former contributor to Portland, Oregon's Willamette Week, believes that journalism has given her a sense of whether her poetry's accessible or not.
"Journalism has allowed me to be more observant and to focus my observation on other people rather than myself," West says. "Poetry has allowed me to pay careful attention to the language of my stories. Devices like alliteration and even meter creep into my stories. Well, they don't creep. I do it consciously, not to be cute, but because they're devices that make a clause or a passage more memorable, more alive."
Which--for alternative papers--is a big plus. Some editors, however, have found that, for whatever reasons, a lot of poets entering journalism need to be encouraged to write like themselves.
"You'd expect poets to be great writers, to write with a vividness and sensuality absent from most newsrooms," says Will Swaim, editor of Orange County, California's OC Weekly, who's worked with a number of poets. "That's what I'm looking for; sadly, it's not always what I get. I've found that poets tend to think they ought to write like the journalists they read every day in the dailies. My job, I guess, is to tell them to knock off the bullshit and write like poets."