My spring Serendipity hour: Dew, new and news

A few times a year, everyone in Digital Media gets a day or so to work on any idea they feel might help NPR. No meetings are held. Everyone pushes themselves in different directions. There is a prize given for biggest failure.

We call it Serendipity Day. For the first one, I chased new CMS ideas. For the second, I explored a type of human-centered design. In the third, I taught myself some PHP and API coding. For the fourth Serendipity Day, this time around, things ran off the rails a bit. The period collided with a major project launch, and several of us lost most of our Serendipity time. 

The project was worth it, no doubt. But missing out on awesome creative think time was a bummer. So, I made the best of the free hour I had. For my three-minute demo (we present to each other at the end), I talked. 

Life has been busy recently. Lots of projects, emails, meetings. I didn’t have much time the past couple days to get Serendipitous.

So, unhappy yesterday morning, I picked up a book from my coffee table that I hadn’t read before. I opened it to a random page and promised myself I’d talk about whatever that page taught me about what we do at NPR.

The page had a poem.

Kay Ryan, “Dew”

As neatly as peas
in their green canoe,
as discreetly as beads
strung in a row,
sit drops of dew
along a blade of grass.
But unattached and
subject to their weight,
they slip if they accumulate.
Down the green tongue
out of the morning sun
into the general damp,
they’re gone.

What the poem made me think about was the way our digital stories meet the world.

Consider how dew forms. In spring, the sun heats Earth’s surfaces. At night, the surfaces release heat in the form of water vapor. The vapor condenses, and dew drops form on the grass.

Eventually, the sun comes up. The drops evaporate. The cycle repeats.

News storytelling is similar.

NPR takes in the world’s heat. Our journalism warms until we find the right moment to release. We get cooler than the rest of the world. Our reporting hits the air, and stories form on the surfaces around us. The stories are noticeable for a while. Then the day burns them away.

Or they slip into the general damp.

If you buy this comparison, you start thinking. About the heat of information, about publishing, about the delicacy of a new story.

Our expectation for newness these days is low.

Discovery is fierce competition. We acquiesce to the idea that everything we see someone else has seen before. We give up on “new.” We settle for “new-to-me.”

But this problem is a good challenge for NPR. Even if someone else has seen an NPR story before you, how do we imbue that story with a newness that sticks?

We’re off to a decent start. New is clean. We love white space. New is different. We cover stories no one else covers, a newness that creates engagement and pageviews.

But we also have work to do. New is pure. We’ve only begun to simplify our layouts. New is fresh. We’re slow on trending topics. New is dewy. We can be dry.

That’s what I’m taking away today — the work of newness ahead here at NPR. But also that new is unburdened. New doesn’t have projects.

New doesn’t have emails and tickets. New doesn’t have a backlog. In order to preserve new for others, to remind our audience of what new feels like, we have preserve it for ourselves.

We have to remind ourselves, even if busyness takes over just about all of our Serendipity Day, to pick up a book on our coffee table, open to a random page and turn the spring heat into something new.

Six poems catching me off guard

Kay Ryan has the continual power to leave me blank on a subway ride. Not speechless — because who but tourists talk with strangers on the subway — but blank for the moment, unable to offer any thought of my own to the world. I have her latest collection on my coffee table, fresh from the Amazon box. But I’ve been forcing myself to wait until I catch up on my stack of magazines. Given the power of her “Tree Heart/True Heart,” the tiny poem from today’s commute home, I’m also apparently helping myself get off the Metro at the right stop. The first a.m. I crack that book, I’m going to spend the day in the New Carrollton train yard.

Where Ryan takes you along a path a minute before dropping a piano on you (a Doritos bus-stop ad also comes to mind), Sophie Cabot Black tends simply to grab you and throttle you, and that approach works as well. Black’s “Private Equity” was one of the many poems that knocked me out last summer, and her “Sheetrock” inflicted the same on me this summer. Don’t listen to the poet’s audio. God bless her writing, but the poem works better laid on top of the passion in one’s own head. “As if almost too late we ripped into each other / With whatever we had….”

On a completely different scope recently for me were Kate Daniels’ “In the Marvelous Dimension” and Frost’s “Desert Places.” The former was an epic multi-perspective glimpse of the moments following 1989’s San Francisco earthquake. Speaking as evocatively as any Pulitzer-sought, post-disaster coverage, the roaming voice let Daniels tell stories from the string of crushed vehicles. “I felt myself / growing smaller, like Alice, / a trick so I could travel / out of there, to that ledge / where a petunia waved in the dust rising / from a fallen-down freeway.” For Frost, Post columnist Tom Boswell used the poem in mourning for Mike Flanagan, after the beloved ex-Oriole’s suicide. “Flanagan was a first port of call for Orioles with problems because he had had his share,” wrote Boz, and then he cited Frost as a New Hampshire person, like the pitcher.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars–on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

To balance those two this fall, two others, happier, arrived about the same time. Matthea Harvey’s “In Defense of Our Overgrown Garden” couldn’t have packed in more words. A crowded scan proved Harvey’s title true. The wheelbarrow lost in the middle of the mess showed no so-much-depends desperation threatened. No fear existed, only joy.

The other poem was Charles Wright’s “Bedtime Story.” I’ve made the link a favorite and read it a few times at night in the past few weeks. From some steps back, the work looked odd. Was odd. More closely, phrasing I’d seen and liked in an art story came to mind: “in even the wildest de Kooning, you feel securely anchored.” That was how it felt.

Thunder, but not loud: The reverse drama of Kay Ryan at AWP

They introduced Kay Ryan last night with a quote of hers:

It’s poetry’s uselessness that excites me. It’s hopelessness. All this talk of usefulness makes me feel I’ve suddenly been shanghaied into the helping professions. Prose is practical language. Conversation is practical language. Let them handle the usefulness jobs. But of course, poetry has its balms. It makes us less lonely by one. It makes us have more room inside ourselves. But it’s paralyzing to think of usefulness and poetry in the same breath.

Ryan took the podium and raised a fist, “Let’s hear it for uselessness!”

The crowd cheered and laughed. That moment, I wasn’t expecting. In honesty, I hadn’t known at all what to expect. The Associated Writing Programs conference was in town, and Politics & Prose made several sessions free and open to the public, Ryan’s discussion among them. I hadn’t been to a poetry reading since a high school class. But over the past year, I’d come to love the former poet laureate’s work, finding it in The New Yorker, then in Poets Picking Poets, then in Googling for more.

I knew Ryan was a private person who wrote short, tight poems and hated writing groups. I pictured a Silent Cal-like performance. (“You lose.”) I knew she had written an essay about a previous conference that had drawn controversy. I pictured an audience confrontation. (It turned out, reading the essay, that’s where she ripped the groups. If you have time, read the Hunter S. Thompson-style awesomeness.)

So, to find Ryan a personable riot was a surprise that had me smiling all the way home and to the keyboard now. Her reading? She decided, given recent news, to read poems she’d written that involved weather. She’d then Googled herself, she told us, found poems, and was going to pretend like they were related. She told stories that punctured the seriousness that built over the lines, sometimes interrupting herself. “I can barely mono-task, let alone bi-task,” she said. She explained the trouble with some poems. “Lighthouse Keeping” was tough to recite because one could read it as “Light Housekeeping” (“which I don’t like to do”). But it wasn’t so terrible, she said. “That’s the fun of reading things for yourself. You can have it work out the way you want.”

When Ryan read “The Pass,” making a remarkable metaphor for self “stuck-ness” from the story of the Donner Party, she mentioned them eating their corpses when things got low. “Not their own corpses,” she added quickly, smiling, as you considered your arm or leg. “They didn’t get that low.” As a fan of poet laureate hilarity, my night was made.

The highlights for me among what all she read, in addition to Donners, were: “Train-Track Figure,” “Dogleg” (which appeared in Poets Picking Poets), “Bait Goat” (all about rhyme! in ridiculous and vicious style),  a poem an NPR story about Thelonious Monk had inspired (about how “it was hard for Monk to play Monk,” a humbling and beautiful concept), a cicada poem that sure beat anything entered in the Post‘s 2004 cicada verse contest, “Pentimenti,” and “Reverse Drama.” That one, via here:

Lightning, but not bright,
Thunder, but not loud.
Sometimes something
in the sky connects
to something in the ground
in ways we don’t expect
and more or less miss except
through reverse drama:
things were heightened
and now they’re calmer.

I fell in love with the thought.

The conversation after the reading was good as well. Interviewing was Dana Gioia, who spent a career in big food (even helping to invent Jello Jigglers) before becoming a full-time, acclaimed writer and then head of the National Endowment for the Arts. His background’s diversity suited a Ryan interview and audience well, egalitarian but still finding depth.

Among Q&A moments… On a career: “I really wanted to do something that required a pick-up.” On being a child making remarks at a grown-up dinner: “I made a woman spit milk across the table. And I thought, ‘There’s power here.’ ” On how your writing changes over time: “First you’re acquiring a voice. Then it’s telling you to shut up.” On why she likes internal rhyme’s humor: “End rhyme is almost intolerably funny.”

On how writing doesn’t change us, directly: “I just go on blundering.” On how it provides examples, though: “We can heat things to a point that transformations occur.” On doing her writing in bed: “I’ve been through some pajamas, I’ll tell you, in my time.” On literary essayists inspiring her mind: “I have friends there. … Well, I like them. I don’t know if they like me.” On her odd fit for the laureate-ship: “It’s not therapy. It’s not one of the healing arts. It’s poetry. It’s savage.”

But, last, she reflected on her laureate work with community colleges. In a fascinating process, LaGuardia Community College had translated her “Say Uncle” poem into a couple dozen languages. The students had worked in small groups, serving different roles in the translation, to capture the idiom and carry it across cultures (PDF of the results).

Ryan leafed through a book for a few seconds to find the poem. Not finding it, she went ahead and recited from memory to end the night.

Every day
you say,
Just one
more try.

Then another
irrecoverable
day slips by.
You will
say ankle,
you will
say knuckle;
why won’t
you why
won’t you
say uncle?