Interviewer: Mark D. Johnson, Founder of the Partial Observer
Greg, you’ve been writing poetry for the Partial Observer for several years now. What is it about poetry that makes it an effective vehicle for your thoughts on current events as opposed to writing an opinion column in prose?
Most everyone who comments (or blogs) on politics, religion and popular culture does so through prose. On the enneagram personality indicator, I’m a #4. We creative types like to approach life unlike most. I enjoy being different. Besides, I enjoy the challenge of conveying my opinions, insights and conclusions in poetic form. Forcing thoughts through the filter of meter and rhyme requires additional effort and time. All the same, when I’m done I have a sense of satisfaction.I think poetry lends itself to suggesting an application of the news and not simply announcing the news. If it is a memorable string of words that suggest “so what,” you are more apt to share it with a friend verbally or forward it on the internet.
Walk us through your creative process as you sit down to write a poem on a particular topic.
I watch the Today Show every morning as I sip my first cup of coffee. I watch CNN before I go to bed at night. I also have a news alert software on my iPhone. I am constantly aware of what the major news stories of the day are. From day to day as I digest the headlines, I evaluate the importance of each. The weekly deadline for my column at http://www.partialobserver.com is Thursday 9pm Pacific Time. That means by Tuesday or Wednesday (at the latest) I have to decide what news items, sports event or national holiday I will tackle. When I began writing Rhymes and Reasons five years ago, I only wrote one poem a week. Now it is typical for me to deal with two major topics each Friday. That is especially true if it is a busy news week. Once I’ve decided what story I am going to comment on, I doodle on a yellow pad with a pencil. I always look for puns, plays on words and ways to come at the topic from the side door. I never know how a poem will end once I start it. It’s an adventure in creativity and going with my thoughts. I probably write two or three different drafts before I settle on the version that appears on Friday. While that pattern is the norm, it is not unusual for me to get an idea and have the finished poem in 15 minutes. Over the years I have experimented with different rhyming motifs. One of my favorites is a style I think I invented. The first two lines rhyme and then the third and fourth lines simply tag along in an established meter but do not rhyme.
I’m often amazed at how quickly you write a polished poem so soon after a major news event. Do the words flow more easily than usual at such times? What kind of topics are the most difficult to write about?
I guess I’m a news junkie. I LOVE following what’s going on in the nation and the world. That may stem from my first job as a news announcer for a local radio station at the age of 17. Ever since I have had a nose for news. I wrote my first poem when I was in second grade. I’ve been writing poetry ever since. I write several poems a week. But I must add a disclaimer. My poetry is more like that doggerel of Odgen Nash or Edgar Guest than the abstract non-rhyming verse prized by academia. Because of the frequency with which I attempt to play with words and string them together in rhyming arrangements, words flow quick quickly when I sit down to tackle a topic. I almost think in iambic pentameter (ten syllables to a line).The most difficult part of writing Rhymes and Reasons is settling on what to write about. Tragedies in the news are also tough to reduce to a few stanzas. More often than not my poetical commentaries on tragic current events are free-verse poetry. Somehow a predictable meter and rhyme seem disrespectful to those who are in mourning.
As you think back over the news events of the past several years that you’ve been writing Rhymes & Reasons, is there anything that strikes you in terms of the direction our nation has gone in that time, perhaps culturally or politically? Or are there any trends that you’ve observed. How have we changed since, say, September 11, 2001?
In my opinion we have become much more media conscious than anything. Immediately following 911 we had a God-consciousness that was unmistakable. Recognizing our vulnerability as a nation (and as individuals), we gathered in chapels, churches and cathedrals for spontaneous prayer gatherings. But that spiritual revival was short-lived. Once the immediate threat of the terrorists had subsided, we returned to our self-confidence as a people. What was different was our dependence on the 24 hour news channels to keep us informed. We watched with rapt attention as the Twin Towers collapsed on September 11th and from that day on we have become unhealthily dependant upon television news to shape our understanding of the world.
This volume has a decidedly religious theme. What are you hoping readers will take away from this collection?
Faith means everything to me. Although I genuinely have fun commenting on popular culture and current events, my faith-verses flow out of my heart to heal the hurting. It is my hope that my God-centered poems will encourage the downtrodden, depressed, and doubting as well as those who have an awareness of the Creator’s presence and power in the world. Sunday Rhymes and Reasons is my attempt to combine poetry I believe God has given me into one accessible volume. A volume that will be read and re-read year after year.
The Bible, of course, has a great deal of poetry in it. Why did Biblical authors write in verse so frequently?
I don’t know that I am qualified to answer that question. I can only speculate. Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes contain some of the best poetry in all of literature. Then, like now, people grasped truth through imagery, metaphors and word pictures. Showing someone the truth is always more effective than telling someone what they need to know. I believe that is why Jesus told parables as often as he did. While parables are not poetry as such, they are part of the same extended family. If you go back and read the first couple chapters of Genesis, you find yourself staring at a unique canvas on which the Creator painted a scene that escapes the linear logic of science.
You recently wrote about your youngest daughter graduating from high school. Do you feel like your life has entered a new stage as an ’empty nester’? In what ways can major life changes affect our view of the world?
My wife and I have definitely entered a new season of life. For twenty-six out of the twenty-seven years Wendy and I have been married, our lives have orbited around our children. Now we finally have the time to invest our lives in each other. The reality of “empty-nest” parenthood opens your eyes to the pain and the joy that millions have already experienced and others soon will. As my friend Gary Walter, the president of The Evangelical Covenant Church, likes to say, “The more you know, the more you see.” In other words, the more we experience of this world, the more we can feel and know the nuances and emotions of life. We become sensitive to what we have previously been oblivious to. So, I guess I am saying that the more I really taste of life, I become more capable as a poet. Major life changes add additional paints to the palette and more width to the canvas.
I see that you have dedicated the book to your deceased father. Tell us about him.
My dad died just after midnight on November 4, 2008, a red-letter date in our nation’s history. The day Americans elected a black man to live in the White House, my eighty-two year-old father’s citizenship in Heaven was certified. That was not the first time his personal history overlapped with American history. On September 2, 1945 my dad, a nineteen year-old Corporal in the U.S. Marine Corp, stood twenty feet behind General Douglas Mac Arthur aboard the Battleship Missouri as the treaty ending World War 2 was signed in Tokyo Bay. He spoke about that unique experience often with much pride. My dad loved his country. He taught me patriotism. But he also taught me the importance of faith. As a small church pastor, he became my inspiration to enter the ministry. He often would use poetry to illustrate his sermons. I guess that rubbed off on me as I grew up sitting on the first pew. He took pride in the poems I wrote. His fourteen-year battle with prostate cancer inspired many verses contained in Sunday Rhymes and Reasons. Since he died while I was compiling poems for this volume, it only seemed right that I dedicate it to him.
NOTE: The Partial Observer website, well-loved and utilized for nearly 20 years, and with many contributors over the years, has been retired, as of 10/21/2021. Greg’s column there, which contained 1,032 entries, are being migrated to this new blogsite of Greg’s, where he continues with his weekly poetic posts. The PO poems have been marked with the category of “Partial Observer.”
Greg’s book, ‘Sunday Rhymes & Reasons‘ is still available – see the BOOKS menu.