Robbi Nester (ed.), The Liberal Media Made Me Do It! – Poetic Responses to NPR & PBS Stories, (Nine Toes Press, 2014), 164pp, $20, ISBN 978-1-929878-72-7
Reviewed by Neil Fulwood
[Originally published in LP9, June 2016]
The acronyms in this anthology’s subtitle stand for, respectively, National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting Service; these are the national syndicators for a cluster of American public radio and TV stations whose programming focuses on news, current affairs, arts and human interest. Nester establishes their appeal in her concise introduction: “Public television becomes a trusted sanctuary from crass commercials, laugh tracks, unfunny comedies rising in volume as they grow more empty in content.” Broadcasting, in other words, that’s free of the dollar-bottom-line death-grip of the big networks; a public voice rather than a corporate one – and an intriguing concept to build an anthology around.
The Liberal Media Made Me Do It! – its winning title complemented by a cover image that comes across like a poster for a cheesy B-movie – is divided into five sections: ‘The News’, ‘Science’, ‘People’, ‘Epiphanies’ and ‘Et Cetera’. The second section sets up a memorable challenge to the old saw about the irreconcilability of science and the arts. Here the logical and investigative qualities of the scientist or researcher spark against the imaginative empathy that is one of the key skills of the successful poet. Nester’s own ‘Exchange’ responds to a story on All Things Considered about marine biologist Denise Herzing’s Wild Dolphin Project:
At this moment there is language,
an exchange and an understanding.
It is not as we imagined, this first contact …
Kris Bigalk takes a Radiolab episode about Ann Druyan’s personal and professional relationship with Carl Sagan and conjures a love poem that could easily have been star-struck or nerdy, but sidesteps the obvious pitfalls and finds the human centre in a steady accretion of imagery and detail:
A recipe of “us” includes ash, glass,
and concrete grammar of Bach, floating
from our bodies like notes from a flute.
Stars mark directions, but don’t control
the currents of bodies, souls or oceans.
The Liberal Media Made Me Do It! hits its stride with the science poems, and it is not until the ‘Epiphanies’ and ‘Et Cetera’ sections that it regains this level of quirky and imaginative engagement with its subject matter. This is not to say that the ‘News’ and ‘People’ offerings are substandard – Michael Colonnese’s ‘Poem After the Nightly Business Report’, M.E. Hope’s ‘Into a Void, a found poem’ and Christina Lovin’s ‘Writing Blindly’ are excellent, while the icy controlled fury of Judy Kronenfeld’s ‘What Happens’, about the offences in the occupied West Bank, is compelling. However, some responses to news stories are overly literal, the material shaping the poem rather than vice versa. This tendency is emphasised by the copious introductory notes. Every poem is prefaced by at least a couple of sentences identifying the programme that inspired it; too many, though, demand that the reader wade through entire chunks of prose, the introduction exhausting more words than the poem itself.
Sources are cited all over again at the end of the anthology, with four pages of web links and Q-codes pointing the reader in the direction of the original broadcasts. This prefaces 13 pages of contributors’ notes. Add in a further section on the history of the Lummox Press (of which Nine Toes are a division) and an exhaustive list of other titles, and almost a third of what otherwise seems like a chunky anthology reveals itself as cluttered with non-poetry content. In light of Nester’s introductory comment that “the anthology filled up faster than I expected”, it’s tempting to wonder how much more material, and of what quality, could have been included if more pages had been given over to poetry.
Still, these are more quibbles than criticisms. The Liberal Media Made Me Do It! gets it right far more consistently than it gets it wrong. It’s to Nester’s credit that she has conceived and sculpted an anthology that is as purely American in its aesthetic as anything I’ve encountered (a British version? Freeview: Poetic Responses to Dave and Notts TV? nah!) and filled it with such a diversity of work. Even the weaker inclusions retain enough in the way of immediacy or heartfelt response to merit their presence.
Of greatest interest is the scattering of formal work, with sonnets and villanelles expanding the “soundbite” nature of a TV news summary into something thoughtful and expressive. Moreover, a higher ratio of pantoums than you might expect from an anthology of contemporary verse – Hal O’Leary’s ‘Blame’ and ‘Contrast’, and Christina Lovin’s ‘The Forest of Her’ are genuine standouts – establishes the form’s requirement for repetition and re-emphasis as the perfect mirror for the blunt headlines, terse encapsulations and stock phrases that news or current affairs broadcasting so often relies on.
The media, by its very definition, is inevitably mediated. Even the less-strictured airspace of public broadcasting isn’t a guarantee of neutrality and/or objectivity. TV and radio don’t so much make sense of the world as package it into a structure that is easy to assimilate. At its most successful The Liberal Media Made Me Do It! instigates a dialogue with the medium designed to tease out the humanity and the emotional truths behind the headlines.