Congress expert Norman Ornstein on what the debate over the debt limit says about dysfunction in Congress, and his ideas for how to fix it.
Guest Host: Susan Page
He’s been in front of the camera and behind the scenes, covering major events of the day across the country and around the world. But throughout it all, Jeffrey Brown of PBS NewsHour has always held onto his love of the arts. His new collection of poems has just come out. The Washington Post named it one of the top three poetry books of the month. He reflects back on the world he has seen, the events he has experienced and the people he has encountered. But instead of filtering it all through the skepticism of a journalist, he uses the lens – and heart – of a poet. Jeff Brown talks about turning news into poetry.
- Jeffrey Brown Senior correspondent and chief arts correspondent of PBS NewsHour.
The News | Selected Poems
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She'll be back later this week. Jeffrey Brown has spent much of his career covering the news as a journalist. The Emmy Award-winning correspondent for the PBS "NewsHour" has now turned to writing about the news as a poet. In his first collection of poetry, he reflects in his experiences in Haiti, Beirut and elsewhere.
MS. SUSAN PAGEHe incorporates quotes and headlines from news stories into his poetry. The book is titled simply "The News: Poems." Jeffrey Brown joins me in the studio. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. JEFFREY BROWNHello, Susan. Nice to talk to you.
PAGEWe're inviting our listeners to join our conversation as well. You can call our toll-free number. It's 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, Jeff, in the afterward of your book, you write "journalism uses the language, but poetry frees the language." Tell us what you mean by that.
BROWNWell, you know, as a journalist, that we are reporting stories every day. We look at the world and then we have to figure out a way to tell it. And we have ways of telling it, right, whether you're on the radio or in print or, for me, on television, we have a kind of language that we use that we're used to, that we're familiar with. Poetry uses all kinds of language. That's what I meant by freeing the language.
BROWNIn fact, it plays with the language. It toys with it. It twists it into different shapes. And I was interested in going back to look at some of the things that I had done in one language, the language of the news, and playing with it a little bit and trying to free it up and tell it in a different way, in a different -- certainly, for me, a different voice, right? Not the voice of the journalist, but the voice of a would-be poet, but using different words.
PAGEYou know, sometimes you cover a news story and you do the best you can and you feel that -- or at least I've felt that my story is inadequate to convey the full meaning of the event or that...
BROWNWhat do you mean, sometimes? Isn't that, like, all the time?
PAGEAll the time. And poetry is one way to bring kind of an added dimension to even the things that you've seen as a reporter.
BROWNWell, you know, that's the key thing for me. It's the most interesting part of this is that, yeah, especially if you're in the daily news, you're telling stories, you're telling them quickly. You're telling them as deeply and fully and honestly, with the greatest care, that you possibly can. But you know, at the end of the day, that you haven't told the whole story, just because, well, it's humanly impossible, but then there's all kinds of contingencies.
BROWNI ran out of time. I didn't get to talk to one other person. There's just an endless number of things that don't allow you to tell the full story. And then, there's all the issues that people think about with news. Who's telling the story? What point of view, what perspective? It's not that poetry tells you the truth, which is something that people have started -- it was kind of interesting for me when I started reading -- giving readings and people were asking me about this question of the truth.
BROWNIt's not so much that poetry tells you a truth that the news doesn't. That's not what I mean at all. It just allows you a different way in of looking at things.
PAGEAnd it also, with many stories, especially stories that show people in tragic circumstances, or (word?) ones. You need a certain distance as a journalist, I think, to tell the story in the way you need to do it for a daily newspaper, for a website, for a TV show. But with poetry, you can immerse yourself in the emotion of an event.
BROWNI think that's true. I think, you know, with the news, you're out there. You're telling it fast. The poems that I wrote, that look at places that I've been, the stories I've told, I didn't write them while I was there. I didn't even write them the day after, the week after. These are things that I might have remembered a snippet or a moment in time where something that somebody said to me might have just stayed with me.
BROWNIn some cases, I jotted them down in a little notebook I keep and I went back years later. It's always been interesting. You know, I interview a lot, as many of the listeners might know. On the "NewsHour," I interview lots of writers myself and people who write about real events that they were part of -- I think of, you know, military soldiers who go back and write novels. It takes years and years for them to process.
BROWNIt's not that they're writing the next day. Often, it takes decades.
PAGEIt takes a long time, sometimes, to figure out what something meant or how you look at it. Well, why don't you read one of your poems. I'm thinking, "Song of the News." It's a short poem. It's on page 26. Read us that.
BROWNWell, I appreciate your asking for this one. First, it's a -- I think of it as a little ditty, which is why I called it the song -- a song. It's very short and it sort of gets at a little bit of what I was -- sort of announces some of the themes, I guess, I was thinking about. And this is called, "Song of the News." "What do we see and what do we say, between what happened and who cares, between give a damn and what the hell, between good evening and good day, car crash, caress, the children at play, all that we see and all that we say."
BROWNSo that's, you know, it's talking about the idea of the news. We sit down at the "NewsHour," you sit down at your organization in the morning and we say, what happened, you know. What do we see? And then, we say, okay, what are going to do on the show that night, how are we gonna tell it? What do we say? And then, all these things happen during the day and we figure out what did we see, how do we say it, and there's all kinds of -- you know, who cares? How much do we give a damn? All these things are in play.
PAGEAre actual questions that get asked at news meetings at...
PAGE...organizations everywhere. And the fact is, many of your poems begin with a quote from the news, an actual quote or a headline. This is the case in what I thought was a really unlikely topic for a poem. The poem is called "European Union." Hard to find the poetry in an economic crisis, but in this case, you do start with an actual headline. This is -- tell us about this one.
BROWNWell, it is a funny one for me. As you say, I mean, how do you find poetry out of economics, international economics? It's something that I started covering. Actually, when I was hired at the "NewsHour," and I've been there for more than 25 years, I started off-camera as a producer so I was a young off-camera reporter/producer. They hired me as the economics reporter. And as in the nature of journalism, you know, you get hired even if you don't -- you may not know anything.
BROWNThat was the position that was open. Somebody there liked me and they said, okay, you're the economics guy. So I learned on the fly as I went and things like international economics, the currency, taxation, budgets, those things came over the years. This came about from -- what page is it on, Susan?
PAGEIt's on page 24.
BROWNOkay, thank you. I've got to ask you for the pages.
PAGEAnd it starts -- yes, that's fine.
BROWNBut this one came from a trip that I took a few years ago to Greece. And, of course, you know, from our daily headlines, we know that Greece is having -- continuing to have economic problems. So this is about all the situation, the European Union, will it fall apart? Will it dissolve? So I wanted to have some fun with it, while also being serious. It's called, "European Union," and it begins with an actual headline.
BROWN"Europe dodges a crisis in Spain, but perils lurk across the continent, a pitiful game of who's the jerk who gambled and lost my retirement, an addiction to borrowed money, a contagion of bubbles burst, inevitable laws of boom and bust, yet no one imagined the worst. Fiscal integration, a dream and a lie in Madrid and Athens, its sung, take that to the bank, Mr. Minister, in any continental tongue."
BROWNSo that, you can see, I mean, obviously, was having fun 'cause there's a lot more rhyme in that one than in most of the poems, but that was the idea of, you know, you're seeing on the streets, people angry about this idea of the Union and what do we get out of it, right? But at the higher level of the ministers, well, they're trying to make a case for why it's important.
PAGEAnd the wonderful headline, which was from "The New York Times," "Europe Dodges A Bank Crisis in Spain, But Perils Lurk," it's such a classic headline. Well, have you always written poetry?
BROWNWell, I wrote poetry long ago, you know, in my 20s and I had a brief period of writing quite a bit at that time. And then, I wrote off and on with a lot of offs, you know, for many years at a time over the next 30-some years. There were periods where I would get into it and write poems and periods where I'd just simply stopped. This all came in quite a rush, actually. It was collecting things that had been out there and then putting a lot of them together in a fairly quick period, but, you know, I don't want to say I wrote it all quickly 'cause a lot of it was written over decades.
PAGEBut what do you think accounted for the urge to do this in a bigger way?
BROWNWell, the joke at home is that my wife, who's a painter and a professor, she went away for three months to teach abroad. So the joke at home is that the urge came from me being left behind with no one at home 'cause my kids were out of the house at that time so I could spread out everything all over the kitchen table. I could spread it out everything everywhere I wanted. I could work when I woke up with my morning coffee and when I'd come home from work, it would be sitting there and I'd just continue and pick up.
PAGEAnd easy or hard to write poetry for you?
BROWNWell, hard a lot of the time, but at this moment, it suddenly became easy. So yeah, the joke aside is that something clicked in. And the thing that clicked in, I think, was that I realized that I had a subject. I think that was the key thing. And the subject being the title, "The News." That's why, from the very beginning, I wanted to call it, "The News."
PAGEWe're gonna take a short break. We're having a conversation with Jeffrey Brown, the senior correspondent and chief arts correspondent of the PBS "NewsHour." His new book is called, "The News: Poems." We're gonna take your calls and questions. Our phone lines are open, 1-800-433-8850, or send us an email at email@example.com. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in today for Diane Rehm. We're joined in the studio by Jeffrey Brown of the PBS "NewsHour." He has written his book of poems. It's called simply "The News: Poems." And we're going to be taking your calls and questions in just a moment. You can reach us on our toll-free number. It's 1-800-433-8850. You can always send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Facebook or Twitter.
PAGEWell, we talked before the break about incorporating an actual headline into one of the poems that you'd done about the unlikely topic of the European Union. There's another poem you've written called "Haiti," on Page 10 that incorporates a quote from a man you talked to in Haiti. Would you read us that poem, please?
BROWNYes, of course.
PAGEAnd tell us about the poem.
BROWNSure. This was from a reporting trip I did for the NewsHour after the earthquake. This trip was actually a year after the earthquake. And at that point cholera had broken out, so there was new tragedy upon the earthquake tragedy. People were still living in tent cities. It was quite clear that a lot of what people thought might be temporary had become a permanent situation. Cholera was breaking out in the city in those kind of tent cities, but also in some of the giant slums. And it was also very serious in small villages high in the central plateau in the mountains inside Haiti.
BROWNSo I went there and I did several stories for the NewsHour. And this poem, it's, again, a short poem. The first part is set in one of the slums that's called La Saline. And then takes us to a small village that's called Sodul (sp?) . And as you say, it begins and ends with quotes from people, which is something I really like doing. And also you'll hear the first word is not a word you usually hear in poetry, but you hear it in journalism. And so I like trying to get that in.
BROWN"Haiti. Epidemiologically this area is terrifying. La Saline, the giant slum on a sun soaked, trash soaked morning. As the children filled their buckets from a makeshift well, the pigs scavenged while a rat watched all. Why bother to hide? La Saline, somewhere nearby the assaulted salted see. Days later the last light high in the central plateau so far so bone crushed by the road, I'd argued against going, Sodul. They filled the benches and told us of death upon death. A man who'd lost his son said, I am a bird left without a branch to land on."
BROWNThat was the phrase, of course, the line that stayed with me from that experience, because I thought then and still think it's one of the saddest things anyone ever said to me, "I'm a bird left without a branch to land on." Anyone who's lost someone that close can feel that.
PAGEWho's lost a child I'm sure.
BROWNLost a child.
PAGEYes. So you talked about how in many cases you didn't write these poems immediately. You had to kind of figure out what happened. You had to process what you had seen. Would this be that kind of case...
PAGE...where it took a while to kind of figure out what you wanted to say?
BROWNWell, absolutely. There were things that stayed with me from that trip, including that particular moment of the people sitting on benches telling us about what had happened to their loved ones. There were other elements to that trip that did not end up making it into poems. But that told me that that experience had stayed with me in various ways. So I did -- in this case, as I did in some of the other poems, I actually went back to look, went back to the NewsHour website. I went back to my own notes. I looked at the transcripts.
BROWNI looked at transcripts of the stories that I ended up doing. I looked at transcripts of the interviews I had done. I grabbed out lines that struck me. That's where that epidemiologically line came from, from a health worker, I think Doctors Without Borders working in one of the slums. And gradually over time somehow shaped it into the poem.
PAGEIs there a case where going through this process of thinking about it again, even going back to the source material really shifted what you thought you'd seen, really changed it in some fundamental way?
BROWNI don't know about that so much, but it makes me think about the -- you know, going back to what you and I were just talking about earlier, about how the things you don't tell in the news stories, that you can't, either because it's more personal or it happened off camera or the things you're feeling at the moment. You know, we're going into the field as reporters. We're telling a story that is us. You know, it's me the reporter telling the story.
BROWNBut there are ways that one tells a story, and some of the kind of internal thinking, like the line in that poem about it was so -- the road was so bad, I didn't even -- I mean, what I recall, and I think of myself as such an idiot, I knew at the moment, and I know it now, I didn't want to go on that last trip into the village because we had done so much. We had done so much reporting already.
BROWNWe had so many, you know, amazing stories, interviews, footage. We had heard about this village. We knew it was so far off the road. We knew that it was going to take so long to get to and get back. You don't know what you're going to get. And I actually was the one of our team with my producer and little small team that we travel with, the cameraman. I said, oh, I don't think we should do it. You know, I'm not sure it's going to be worth it.
BROWNAnd then we went and it was the most powerful experience of our trip. And I'm thinking to myself, what an idiot I was, I almost was. You know, what other times have I been an idiot and missed something like that?
PAGELet's go to the phones and let some of our listeners ask questions, make comments. We're going to go first to Dave who's calling us from Holly, Mich. Dave, thanks for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
DAVEThank you for having the show. I appreciate it. One thing that struck me as you're beginning your conversation was something that I had read a little while ago. And that was that poetry is the language of emotions. And when you -- it's just a brilliant idea of putting the news to poetry because usually when we go to the news, it's quite fat, it's delivered, you know, and there it is. But it doesn't -- it may be later on that when you're thinking about it when you're doing something else that it really reaches you emotionally. It has the impact that it should. And I think by putting it to poetry, it's -- and that's a great idea. I appreciate that.
BROWNWell, thank you for that. I think I'd like to push back on the notion that poetry is the language of emotion. Of course it is, but I think poetry is also a language of facts, you know, of telling us, look, see, look over there, you know, there's something you can see, you can touch, you can taste, you can smell, and all of the feelings and emotions that go with it. But in the same way I would suggest to you that the news is language of emotion as much as facts.
BROWNI mean, yes, we're telling you the story, but we're showing you emotion. We're bringing it to you. We don't want to over-emote. I mean, that's certainly not the style on the "NewsHour." It's not my personal style to do that. But I don't think it should be flat and just here's the news. It is let me tell you a story. So these are different ways of storytelling.
PAGEDave, thanks so much for your call. Well, in fact, one of your poems talks about finding your voice, and your voice for the NewsHour really. The poem is dedicated to Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, the founders of the PBS "NewsHour." Tell us about why -- tell us about this poem...
PAGE...and what prompted you to write it.
BROWNWell, it's -- a voice is intended in several ways. I'll tell you just a little back story, which is that, as I said, I worked at the NewsHour for many years as a producer behind the camera. When I first went on camera, it was an experiment which Robin and Jim were happy enough to allow me to try, while doing my -- continuing my main job, which at the time was a senior producer. I was producing big chunks of the program for them.
BROWNBut they were kind enough, along with Les Crystal and Linda Winslow, the executive producers at the time, to let me try my hand going on camera to tell a story. So I did. And the part for -- the parts for me that were quite easy actually, being on camera, talking to people, writing a story, all of those easy. Or at least not too difficult. The hard part where this almost failed completely was the part where it's a little bit like what we're doing here right now, Susan, but even more when you go into the audio booth and you're sitting alone and you narrate the story. That is you narrate the story, the editor takes it in, and then we put it all together.
BROWNYou're sitting in an audio booth. And I wouldn't have you here to be talking to me. I'm talking to a microphone with nobody around. I don't know why, but I found that the hardest thing to do. What voice do I use? How do I deliver it? So a lot of people gave me great advice at the time, including Robin and Jim who are masters of this. And some of that I got into this poem, but even more, and the reason I dedicated for them, of course, they're the founders of the program, they're my great mentors, they mean the world, the world, the world to me, you know, for what they allowed me to do to be part of the "NewsHour." So I dedicated it to them. It's called "Voice."
BROWN"There are those with a voice so rich, so bell strong, time chiseled and alive, they can read the phonebook and you will hear the deeds and failings in every name. The laughter and wailing of ghosts who inhabit each address. The infinite possibility in every number. There are those with a voice that rich, he says, the lucky ones. But that is not us. We open our mouths and out comes a small, high sound, cracking midsentence, straining to tell the story we know to be true. There are things you can do. Learn to breathe, stand up straight and let the air flow through you, belly to chest and into the mask of your face. Take a bite of chocolate, sip on your coffee, excite the senses."
BROWN"Imagine the people in their homes hungry for dinner and for news of the world. Underlined phrases emphasize what should be emphasized. Diminish the less important. Decide what important. Be sure you understand the meaning of what you are to say. Do not yell, do not whisper, look ahead, not down, fill your lungs, open your mouth and speak. The Zen master says, you find your voice when you find yourself. But that too is not for us. Who knows what else you'll find there, he laughs. Better to listen to that voice as though from afar, as though it is not yours, then speak again."
BROWNThat's about learning to speak.
PAGEThat's Jeffrey Brown reading his book "The Voice" -- or just "Voice" from his new book of poetry "The News: Poems." And was there a key for you in finding your voice for being on TV?
BROWNWell, I think it came over time. I think there was ways to think about -- there are tricks, you know, as sort of suggested in that poem. The main thing is to think about the people you're speaking to. You know, you're speaking a bit into a vacuum, into a darkness or even into a camera. It's to realize and understand that you're speaking to real people, that you're telling them. And there's almost a way of -- you know, we don't say this before we start speaking, but it's almost like, hey, listen, you know, listen to me, I'm going to tell you a story. And it's an important story, one you might want to hear.
PAGEAlthough that's not the worst way to start a story.
BROWNNo, it's not. And actually when I was in the sound booth, when I was wrestling at the beginning, when this experiment almost failed, I would do that. I would say to my editors there was a -- I would say -- or to a friend I might say, Susan, and then I'd start reading the script. Susan, listen. You know, so it's just a way to train yourself to start telling a story. And then it becomes more natural.
PAGEAnd now with a book and a book tour and publicizing your book, you're reading your poetry aloud, is reading poetry different?
BROWNWell, it's just -- you know, it's fun for me. I mean, I've been joking that I've been doing my first poetry readings in 30 plus years, so, I mean, that's one thing. It's a very different voice. It's a very different feeling. It's a different way, but it's great fun to do.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls 1-800-433-8850. Let's go to Lekir (sp?) calling us from College Mark, Md. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
LEKIRThank you, Susan. I'm just wondering if Jeffery is familiar with hip hop, because what he's doing is what we doing with the headline every day. So, Jeff, welcome to the club.
BROWNThank you so much. I'm glad to be part of that club. You know, I'm familiar with it. I can't say I'm a connoisseur. I listen to a fair amount. I listen to -- my son helped me get into it. I listen to it for stories I've done. I pay as much attention -- I love the way language is used in so much hip hop, because you're absolutely right, it's quoting from the news. It's sampling, you know, actual quotations. It's taking a little bit of this and that. It's mosaic in that sense, you know, of picking images and sounds and quotes. And I was very happy to do a little of that. I appreciate you hearing that.
PAGELekir, thanks for you call.
PAGEYou know, you have thought about, written about what rap has contributed to the world of poetry. You've done pieces of rap...
PAGE...for the NewsHour. What impact do you think that's had?
BROWNWell, I think it's kept the language alive. You know, I mean, that's the great thing about the English language and about what poetry and music can do. And rap is certainly a big part of that for many people. The thing about language is that it is alive. You know, we have to use it. We have to find new ways to use it. And when you look at our musicians and our writers and our poets, the ones that are able to find new ways to say old things. I mean, you know, that's the funny thing is -- and I think of this as a journalist, you know, from the bible there's nothing new under the sun.
BROWNYou know, in a way there isn't. But in a way everything is new, right, because everything is a new day and we're new people and we might be experiencing it for the first time. There isn't a story that I do probably on the NewsHour that I haven't done in some form, in some fashion, that at least doesn't remind me of something. But it is new, and I have to see it as new. Poetry, rap, they allow us to look at the world and express it in new ways. And rap has been one wonderful way to give a little beat, to give a little, you know, voice, to give a little energy to the form, to a new form.
PAGEYou have interviewed a lot of writers in your day job at the NewsHour. What have you learned from them?
BROWNWell, I learned to be engaged with the world. I mean, I learned to be engaged with the world in a different way. I think that's the main thing. The most interesting thing I guess that I get to do for the NewsHour -- well, I don't want to say it that way, because then I'll be putting down other things I do. But one of the most interesting things in my travels is to go to places where we go as news people, but to also talk to the writers and musicians and actors and what have you in those places.
BROWNAnd they offer this window into the world. So, for example, I've been to the Middle East several times. And I've done the stories that we traditionally do about politics and war and talked to the people you expect, the military and the politicians. But I've also talked to the writers. And they've taught me about how to -- another way to look at the world.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Jeffrey Brown about his new book "The News: Poems." We'll take your calls and questions and read your emails. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page, of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're talking to Jeffrey Brown from the PBS "NewsHour." His first book of poetry has just been published. It's called, "The News: Poems." We want to go to the phones and get some of your calls and comments. Let's go first to Heather. She's calling us from Rochester, N.Y. Heather, thanks for joining us.
HEATHERHello. Good afternoon.
PAGEYes. Did you have a comment or a question?
HEATHERI do. My question to Jeffrey is who are his favorite authors and poets?
BROWNWell, you know what? I know that I always get that. And I made myself one rule, which was I know too many of them who are living. So I decided I'm not going to -- I'm not gonna go through that list 'cause I inevitably leave out too many people, some of whom have become good friends. I mean, I've had the great fortune in the last many years to meet and talk to so many of our great poets and writers. I'll just tell you a little bit about past people, if I can, if that's okay with you.
BROWNI go all the way back. I mean, I had a period of my life where I studied Ancient Greek and classics in college. And so I go back to Homer. And I reread Homer every few years, "The Iliad," in particular. I just think that's, you know, you want a window on the world, you want to think about things that have stayed with us forever, war, love, friendship, it doesn't get any better than that. It's amazing that it was written that long ago. I grew up reading poets that I still love, in the canon, T.S. Eliot, Walt Whitman, of course, Wallace Stevens became important to me.
BROWNI can mention Phil Levine 'cause he just died, the poet. I will mention one living poet, W.S. Merwin, who was somebody I read in college and I've got -- had the great good fortune to become a friend in a recent years. I got to see him in Hawaii recently. And I wish him the best. Czesław Miłosz is the Polish poet who was at U.C Berkeley at the time that I was there, although I was not studying poetry at all or writing, I mean, reading and writing, studying at that time.
BROWNBut he was important to me because he's one of the poets who wrote about history. You know, he incorporated history into his poetry with a moral imperative. And that became important to me.
PAGEThank so much for your call, Heather. Let's talk to Denise, from Janesville, Wis. Denise, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
DENISEGood morning. What a delight, great show. And thank you for the collection. Jeffrey, you just…
DENISEYou just made my point for me, but, Susan, you called one of these poems -- before he read it -- unlikely, but I gotta beg to differ. I think that a noble calling of a poet is to hold up a global and a cultural and a moral mirror. And you don't have to look far to find that all over the literary landscape of other cultures. If you think of Lorca and Neruda and, in our own, think of Oddny (sp?), Milosz, and in fact, one of my favorite poems is by the American poet Martín Espada, called "Alabanza."
BROWNYes. I know it very well.
DENISEHe pays -- he -- and he pays homage to the loss of the Windows on the World workers on 9/11. Now, you can't get a lot more topical than that and it is gorgeous.
DENISEThat's my comment. Thank you.
PAGEDenise, thanks so much for your call.
BROWNThank you for that.
PAGEOne of your favorite poems in this collection is "Richard Avedon," referring to the famous photographer. It's on page 37. Tell us a little about this poem, and then if you would, read it for us.
BROWNWell, it became important to me -- one of the things I did in the book is that I went to -- there is section about places that I've gone, stories. There's a section of some people, some of them quite famous. People like Philip Roth and the dancer Mark Morris, Susan -- Suzanne Farrell, and others, including Richard Avedon. And this was important with Avedon because of what his subject, of course, as a photographer, is the camera. What does the camera capture, what does it not capture.
BROWNAnd that was a theme for my book throughout, what was does our camera capture, what does it not capture? This was at a retrospective of Avedon's at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. And you have to picture the scene. Avedon, as many of you may know, he does very large scale portraits of people, many of them famous people. In the Metropolitan Museum, when you have that big a retrospective of somebody that well known, it's a crowded place. So they only let us in with our camera to do an interview either very early in the morning or as Avedon asked, very late at night.
BROWNSo we're there at about 11:00 p.m. or midnight. So it's a kind of eerie setting already. We're set up in the middle of a huge exhibition hall surrounded by these large, large portraits of faces, many of them very famous faces, and I'm sitting there with Richard Avedon. So here's the poem. "Richard Avedon. Look around you, all gone, all dead. The heavy lidded, snake-charmed, sunbaked, the poets and actors. Capote, with the blotched face. Marilyn in sequins. Beckett and one of his drifters. The powerful and the pretenders. They stood before a white screen as close to me as you are now. A confrontation that will last. Eyes closed tight and eyes alert. Eyes ahead and eyes askew, as though they knew not to stare at the viewer.
BROWN"Click. Forever. All gone, all dead forever. This is why I call the taking of portraits a sad art, he said. The camera lies all the time. It's all it does is lie. But this is no lie. Over there, my father, Sarasota, August 25, 1973, staring at me forever. He does not age, but he will not return." So that was Richard Avedon's father, that was a large portrait of him from Sarasota, 1973. And by the way, he did say the camera lies all the time, it's all it does is lie.
BROWNHe then -- he went on to say lying is a strong term. And you know, he was overdramatizing it to make his point, but the point was the one we all know. That you take a snapshot, to the left, to the right there was something else. If I take a -- as he said to me at the time, if I snapped it one second earlier you might be smiling, you might be grimacing. I get a completely different portrait.
PAGELet's talk to Lori. She's calling us from Miami, Fla. Lori, thank you for holding on.
LORIThank you. I'm really enjoying the program and the poetry. I was a news reporter for television in Miami for many, many years, won a lot of Emmys, done a lot of stories. And I wanted to know his advice for news reporters who would be interested in putting up poetry.
BROWNIn picking up poetry? Well, the main thing is to read poetry. That's the first thing. Read poetry, see what you like, see what kind of rings true for you. There are so many wonderful writers out there today and from the past. And a lot of them, as we've just heard from another caller and I've tried to point out, a lot of them address very contemporary issues of the kind that you would know as a journalist, the things you've seen, the things that you've covered.
BROWNMaybe something will ring true. You don't have to write, as I did, about, you know, about stories you've covered. And I have many other poems in this book that are more personal, that are not based on news stories. I would, if I were you, if you're interested, I would just start jotting down lines, seeing what sounds right to you. Say them out loud because poetry is something you should kind of chew on.
BROWNMy great friend and first reader here is Robert Pinsky, who was the first person who was the first person who was willing to read these and give me some advice. And he always says, you know, read it out loud, and see how the words feel in your mouth as you say them.
PAGEHere's an emailer who writes, "How difficult was it to transition from objective writing to poetry?" And in a tweet from Eric, makes a similar point, asks a similar question. "How do you reconcile the difference between the objective voice of the journalist and the subjective voice of the poet?"
BROWNAha. Well, it's a big question, you know. And it's an important question. It goes back to what I think I was saying a little earlier about this idea of truth telling and what truths does one tell. I think, you know, as a news -- as a journalist we are objective, we take that very, very seriously. But we know that we bring some subjectivity to it. And you were talking earlier, Susan, about the essay I wrote at the end, where I tried to explain a little of this. That, you know, I am an individual. I have my own background.
BROWNI have my own -- my upbringing, the place where I live, the people I'm surrounded with, everything is there with me. It's a kind of baggage, but it's -- also sort of forms me. So there is a subjectivity that comes into the objectivity of the journalism. Similarly, there is a kind of objectivity that comes into the subjectivity -- and I don't mean to be talking in riddles. But I honestly believe this -- that comes into the writing of the poetry.
BROWNThat one can switch back -- and it's not so much a switching back and forth. They are elements of the same voice that is there all the time. I don't think it is switching one off and switching the other on. I think it is finding those pieces of both and using them in the proper way and the proper place.
PAGEAnd in fact, poetry is very sharply observed. Poetry is in some ways more sharply observed than any news story you would do.
BROWNWell, I -- it can be, you know. Or it can be abstract and it can be, you know, close your eyes and go totally inside. And you're observing something that you can't really see. Poetry, I mean, it does give you -- it is interesting and, I guess, fun is the right word for me -- that you don't have to tell the truth in the way that you do on the "NewsHour." You know, I mean, I'm not going to make something up on the "NewsHour." I can make something up in poetry and feel okay about it, as long as it -- as long as there's a truth to it.
PAGELet's talk about "The Art of the Interview," which is one of your poems. It's on page 29, which talks in a way that is -- for those of us who have asked -- done interview, in a way that's amusing. It's about some of the challenges in doing interviews.
PAGETell us a little about this poem.
BROWNWell, you know, I've spent many, many years sitting in a television studio, reading the news, doing interviews, looking at the camera -- interviewing people. It's an odd place, you know. It's an -- we're also used to it. But if you stop and think about it as a sort of artificial place and there's a transaction going on that involves a camera and it's like what we were talking about earlier, you know. How much of it is real? How much of it is a little bit of theater that goes on?
BROWNAnd, you know, there's -- while I'm doing these interviews or talking to the camera, there's a voice in my ear that I refer to in the poem, and that's the director. He's counting down time. There's a lot going on amidst this kind of calmness of the interview we're doing. So -- and then things go wrong. Some funny things happen. So I'll read -- this is a little bit longer. I'll just read a couple of the sections here. The first one -- it's "The Art of the Interview." One, "Engaged, open, curious, firm, prepared by all that's come before, no surprises, but ready to be surprised again.
BROWN"So much we don't know, we'll never know. A voice inside your head ticking down the seconds. Ask the question, listen, ask again, expect an answer, listen, then ask again. Listen for doubt, resolve, some truth. As though one could climb inside another's brain, so much we don't know. Tick. Don't ask. Tick. Don't want to know. Tick." Two, "Once a man froze, unable to speak. I asked and answered every question myself and then said, you agree?
BROWN"We could have gone on forever. Another night the lights went out. We understood we were still, again, always in the dark." You know that's what happens. Sometimes you're sitting there interviewing somebody and he or she freezes. And there you are, talking to yourself.
PAGEInterviewing yourself. I'm Susan Page. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Nancy. She's calling us from Cincinnati, Ohio. Nancy, thanks for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
NANCYThanks for having me. I just want to thank Jeffrey Brown for all the interviews that he does of poets. And for, I'm sorry, the pieces that he does in the projection of language and the arts. I don't find anybody else doing it and it's a wonderful part of my day.
PAGEWell, Nancy, that's great to hear.
BROWN…thank you so much for that. I really appreciate it. And I'll tell you, people come up and, you know, say hello all the time on the street. And the most gratifying thing I hear is about the arts coverage. It means a lot to me to make it part of the news. I work in a wonderful place that allows it to be part of the news. I think, as I say to people, you know, it's part of what's happening in our world. I want to put it out there. And I appreciate what you said.
PAGEDo you feel that, you know, lots of challenges for the news media these days, whether it's…
PAGE…for print -- yeah. I think we've noticed that.
PAGEDo you worry about if there is going to continue to be a place for the kinds of interviews with poets and writers and artists that you do for the "NewsHour?"
BROWNWell, I think one can worry about the news generally. I mean, there's all reason -- all kinds of reasons to worry about what's happening, whether you're in public broadcasting, as I am, or in commercial. Certainly print has seen all kinds of changes. Television, who knows what's going -- who knows where we'll be in a number of years. We at the "NewsHour" are wrestling with that. We work so much more online. We work so much more in social media. It changes the way that the news gets out there. It changes the audience a bit. We have to find new ways to reach them. All that is true.
BROWNI still think there are audiences for all kinds of things, the kind of things we do on the "NewsHour" that we care so much about, international news and national politics and ranging all the way to the arts and culture. So I think there are audiences for it. I think you can worry, but I would rather -- especially at this moment -- be hopeful.
PAGELet's close with a poem that is not about a news event or about a news maker. It's about Sam Brown, page 57. Sam Brown, your dad.
BROWNNo. Sam Brown is my grandfather, but I'd be happy to read that.
BROWNThis is my grandfather who died many years ago. And he loved to watch -- he loved to play the market, you know, the stock market. And he loved to watch CNBC. So a little fun, a little sadness, a little of honoring my grandfather. "Sam Brown. Pop Sam died watching CNBC. His mind in a muddle, the remote, the TV, the non-talking head of the market watch. What difference to him where it closed that day, up or down, when he passed away from the market watch.
BROWN"Plumped on his pillow with the NASDAQ and Dow, and memories of how investments went south, proud bull of the market watch. Dreams of a killing, his stocks and his bonds, not yet willing to pass on his losses and his gains from the market watch. A new high and final bell, the new low, in the black, in the red, my grandfather splayed on a bed before the market watch. I wonder now if his risk was rewarded, a final sale before the tally recorded, facing the night of the market watch. I asked him then, do you know what this means? He nodded and smiled and looked serene in the glow of the market watch."
PAGEJeffrey Brown, reading from his new book, "The News: Poems." And we'll close just with a comment sent to us from Harry, in Ann Arbor, Mich. He writes, "News tells the facts, poetry tells the truth." Jeffrey Brown, thanks so much for being with us this hour.
BROWNThank you, Susan. My pleasure.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
Most Recent Shows
Trump impeachment witness Fiona Hill on what her own background says about this political moment, and why she thinks the greatest threat to American democracy now comes from within.
Cities and states across the country are exploring reparations programs for Black Americans, but not all reparations advocates think it's the right approach. Diane talks to Mayor Daniel Biss of Evanston, Ill., and William Darity, Jr., and Kirsten Mullen, the co-authors of the book, "From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century”
The New Yorker's Evan Osnos traces the roots of divisions in the U.S. from 9/11 to January 6. His new book is "Wildland: The Making of America's Fury."