I gave poetry up for journalism when I was in my mid-20s. The perks of nonfiction were immediate. Strangers at parties suddenly understood what I did for a living. I could pay my rent. When I wrote articles, I didn’t struggle to find readers. Recently, I went back to poetry after more than two dozen years, and the result is a book that is the culmination of an odd poetic “career” in which my new work is much different because I labored so long as journalist.
My book focuses on newspapers shutting down, real estate extremism, bad tourism, the flattening of the self into products, moms without resources. These were my journalistic obsessions and now my poetry’s as well. But while my poetry is written in response to the news, its language would be out of place in a feature article: “Twitter Dead Souls” and “99 Cent Stores-as-memoirs,” “liberal arts strippers” and “Amtrak diaspora.”
How did the return happen? I went back to poetry in my late 30s on a journalism fellowship in a new city. I timidly approached a great and famous silver-bracelet-shod poet and was thrilled when she was very encouraging. While in that new city, I wrote a poem each day. After working as a journalist for so long, the practice was unexpectedly easy. After all, journalists are accustomed to deadlines, word counts, people waiting for our work and money per word that is dispensed (although the amounts of money have gotten smaller by the day). And journalists are accustomed to writing about money: Who has it, who has stolen it, who doesn’t have it. This is what I did in my poetry.
Inequality is not American poetry’s most popular subject. You are less likely to find references to money and class in poetry and fiction than in nonfiction. Thomas Piketty, in the tremendous Capital, argues that within literature, the theme of money “gradually dropped out of sight” after 1914. In contrast, what they used to call “class consciousness” is always lurking in journalism, even in the lifestyle variety that celebrates luxury and the wealth gap. This consciousness within journalism has something to offer poetry, I think.
So I wrote poems about money and the Venus flytrap of gender. Of course, I am far from alone in writing poetry about the news, and there are some terrific poets who write about lucre. I think of Muriel Rukeyser: “The news would pour out of various devices/Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.” Or Bernadette Mayer: “Give me your gentrificatees of the Lower East Side including all the well-heeled young Europeans who’ll take apartments without leases.” There is Jena Osman’s book of poems about corporate personhood, and Katy Lederer’s volume about money that she dubs the heaven-sent leaf. They are on to something.
I gave poetry up the first time because I wanted to report on commercialism, but also because I felt aggressed by the mysteries of its many schools and how you seemed to always have to choose one and be hated by the others. It felt like a dark habit: impoverishing, often humiliating, occasionally maddening. As the poet Jack Spicer wrote, “My vocabulary did this to me.” Poetry’s out-of-this-world language, its undertow, seemed something to survive rather than enjoy. Maybe that is still all true, but I nonetheless decided to not give up on poetry. And thankfully, poetry had not entirely given up on me.
—Alissa Quart is the author of the poetry book Monetized. Her poetry has appeared in the London Review of Books and elsewhere. Her nonfiction books include Branded and Republic of Outsiders.