Poem of the Week / Is Journalism Art?

Poet and journalist Joanna Chen on the trials of learning to report from the Middle East.

The Art of Journalism

Joanna Chen

It takes three years and I'll tell you why:

The first year you struggle to master the

language, the unfamiliar territory that

scalds your hands, the way your heart

throbs indecently when politics smacks

you in the face, the strangeness of it all;

you're swimming the second year, pumping

hard-earned contacts for all they're worth,

thinking creatively, letting the mind work

harder than emotions but still able to

catch the scent of a good story, the wicked

waft of jasmine through summer-drunk

nights, the uneasy rhythms of reporting

in the Middle East; the third year the body

becomes accustomed to the bumps and jolts

of the road to Ramallah, Gush Etzion, Jaffa.

You barely flinch when another round of secret

talks in corridors begins, when you know it's

just a show for you to cover with words

finely ground and digestible.

So you see nothing changes.

Previously published in The Bakery, an online journal.

***

From time to time in this column, we will present works by poets living in Israel who write in English. Joanna Chen’s poem about writing for other newspapers seems a fitting place to start.

Chen, who was born in the U.K. and lives in the Ella Valley, has reported for organizations such as Newsweek, Marie Claire and the BBC, and has published her poetry and poetry translations in various journals abroad and in Israel. She is a graduate of the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University and is a founding member of 4Locals, a group of Anglo-Israeli writers of prose and verse.

In this poem, Chen posits reporting as an “art” – not only a literary art but also a kind of physical performance, perhaps martial arts or ballet. Learning the art happens in stages: First it hurts; the equivalents of the aspiring ballerina’s pained muscles and bloodied slippers are hands scalded by new territory, a throbbing heart and a face struck by politics. After a while, in the second year, it gets better. The training has paid off, the instincts have kicked in, and there is a kind of illusory ease, a floating high – “the wicked / waft of jasmine through summer-drunk /nights."

In the third year the reality of reporting becomes more palpable and present, less romantic: “… the body / becomes accustomed to the bumps and jolts.” A kind of tough, world-weary realism sets in, with a reference to 19th-century French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr’s epigram: “Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose” – “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”

And perhaps the subject of this poem is not only the stages of learning to become a reporter, but also the stages of mastering any new skill: pain, euphoria and routine.

For more of Joanna Chen’s work, see Recours au Poeme and The Ilanot Review.


Musings

*Chen writes that secret talks are merely "a show" for the benefit of journalists. If so, why bother? Is it also the poet’s job to make words “finely ground and digestible”? 

Photo: Heidi Levine (Sipa)