Colburn came late to poetry during a mid-career Knight Fellowship for journalists at Stanford University. But for 33 years he made his living as a newspaper reporter at The Washington Post and The Oregonian. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing during his reporter days.
He is fully aware that he is following in the steps of another great poet and newspaper man: Walt Whitman. “The true poem is the daily paper,” the poet and editor of the Brooklyn Eagle said in 1852.
“I don’t quite believe that,” says Colburn. “You can’t always trust Whitman, any more than you can always trust any writer or newspaper editor. This is, after all, a man who reviewed his own poetry in the newspaper – anonymously. And – need I say? – favorably. I’m not even sure that Walt himself believed his daily paper was a true poem, although I think I know what he meant. He meant nothing is off-limits to poetry, and he wanted a poetry that gets out of the classroom into the street to encompass the whole world and, like his own ego, contains multitudes.”
Colburn has given a lot of thought to the differences and similarities between prose and poetry and says that poetry has made him “a better prose writer”:
Journalists aren’t supposed to make things up. Novelists and poets usually don’t write on deadline. Most news stories are in third person; many poems aren’t. In prose, the computer (or the page margin) decides where the lines end, and in poetry, the writer decides. (That’s more important than nonpoets may realize.) In news writing, you try to know what you’re going to say before you say it, while in poetry, you try not to.
But think of what poetry and journalism have in common. To begin with: words and the human condition. Also: concision, precision and clarity. To my mind, those sharings outweigh logistical differences such as deadlines and fact-checking, newsprint and the shape of lines. What’s more, the two kinds of writing can inform each other. Paying closer attention to the sound and play of language and the nuances of words can help a news story come closer to telling the truth. And poetry is not an escape from the world, but another way of apprehending it.
“Both journalists and fiction writers make stories from,” says Colburn. “In a deft reversal, Vladimir Nabokov once said that the ideal writer combines the passion of the scientist with the precision of the poet. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Nobel laureate who is renowned for his ‘magical’ style of fiction, also wrote an occasional newspaper column in his native Colombia. ‘Whether I’m working in journalism or literature,’ he said, ‘I’m always describing the same reality.’”
The Genesis of Tomorrow Too
One day, as I sat with Brenda during her chemo session, she told me of her dream. She was feeling good, tolerating the chemo quite well, no physical symptoms of the cancer beyond the obvious, her pregnancy apparently staying normal. Her dream was to write a play, in the format of community theater, incorporating voices of the many people she had met through her harrowing-yet-uplifting experience of going through breast cancer while pregnant. Her rough model was The Vagina Monologues, a play she had directed in college. She even half-joked about calling hers The Mammary Monologues. It would be a one-woman show but in many voices — acted by Brenda and directed by her friend and former teacher. Amy Gonzalez. When Brenda saw me taking notes, as was my habit, she stopped me and forbade me from divulging — yet –this information in the newspaper. Didn’t want to jinx it. This part of the story could come later, after her baby was born, after she finished treatment, after the kids were in day care or school.
That time, of course, never came. After Brenda died, I stayed in touch with her family. Her husband, Larry, desperately wanting to keep Brenda’s dream and memory alive in some way, asked me if I could help write some sort of play, perhaps for use as a fundraiser for breast cancer treatment. We kicked that idea around some, and Brenda’s story certainly did not let go of me. I love seeing plays, but have no experience writing a play. I started reading plays of all kinds (The Vagina Monologues, Our Town, The Laramie Project, The Crucible and works that blend journalistic witnessing with drama and fiction, such as Anna Deveare Smith’s Twilight).
Nearly 3 years ago, I got a writing fellowship at The MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, and went there with the goal of trying to write some sort of play out of Brenda’s story. I took all my reporting files from the newspaper stories. I struggled, and struggled, with scene-writing and dialogue and bits and pieces of story. It did not work, and after about 10 days I gave it up, determined to move on to other pursuits — “regular” poems — and accomplish at least SOMETHING from my gift of time at MacDowell. I felt immediate relief, and slept well for the first time in 10 days.
The next morning, after breakfast, I went back to my “studio” cabin and sat down at the laptop and realized I was not really relieved, after all. I was disappointed, and pissed. It was as if I had to fail first — and give up my expectations of writing a “play” — before I could simply write out of the emotional experience that had driven the idea in the first place. I’m not sure this will make sense to you — not sure it makes sense even to me — but I decided in a kind of creative fury that if I was going to try to do something as crazy as write a play, I might as well throw out all the “rules,” because whatever rules I was following were not working anyway. And since I had already failed, the risk of failure was gone, or moot. So I thought: I’m just gonna pretend I’m Brenda and write what she might say. And then, what the heck, while we’re at it, I might as well go totally absurd and start writing in the voice of a baby girl being born.
I had the best writing day of 3-weeks-plus at MacDowell. Just wrote. How liberating to be someone else besides myself for a while! No “journalistic” rules at play, because, to put it bluntly, Brenda was dead and no one could say that she DIDN’T say or think what I was typing onto the screen. Actually, there WAS a rule at work: truth. What I wrote had to ring true — to her voice and experience. As a career newspaper reporter, I had to learn that copying down exactly what someone said — quoting them correctly — was not the only standard for accuracy….
Recently, I came across a passage in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own that rang like a tuning fork in my memory of writing these monologues. It’s in Chapter 3. Woolf is ruminating on the rarity of convincing female characters in literature, and her challenge in bringing a Victorian-age woman to life on the page:
“What one must do to bring her to life was to think poetically and prosaically at one and the same moment, thus keeping in touch with fact — that she is Mrs. Martin, aged thirty-six, dressed in blue, wearing a black hat and brown shoes; but not losing sight of fiction either — that she is a vessel in which all sorts of spirits and forces are coursing and flashing perpetually.”
That’s how I felt writing Brenda’s story in a new form.
“Don Colburn has written a series of sonnets that read like a miraculous story,” writes poet Marie Howe. “You want to feel as alive as you actually are?” she asks. “Read this book.”
Here are seven poems from Tomorrow Too: The Brenda Monologues.
Long before I got sick, way back
before I had Jack, before Larry,
I wanted another part besides my own.
I wanted to crawl inside another skin,
not just to look around but be that one
a while – the only kind of make-believe
I could believe in. To come alive as someone else
changed everything. In high school, in The Crucible,
nobody wanted to be Abigail,
a troublemaker who danced wild in the woods
and never ‘fessed up. I loved that role.
I could feel the parents in their seats afraid –
that’s how good I was at being Abigail.
And ever since, I’ve loved to say her name.
We met because she tried to get into my pub
when she was under 21. O what a tale
she spun. All yours, boss, my doorman said,
she won’t take no for an answer. I stepped outside
to hear how she had lost her last ID
getting stopped by a cop. She was running late
and gorgeous – flirty and classy at the same time.
Look, I said, that is one heckuva great story
I don’t believe a word of. So here’s the deal:
I’ll let you in – if you give me your number.
She didn’t slap me, or flinch. On our first date
we watched “Titanic” on the pub’s big screen.
It was December 13th, the day after
Sinatra’s birthday. Fly Me to the Moon…
My left thumb discovered the lump
as I tried on a snug new halter top.
Not a lump exactly, not a marble or a pea –
a shapeless hardness underneath, invisible
except to a thumb. It didn’t hurt.
My girlfriend made me get it checked.
A cyst, they said. The biopsy was optional
is what I heard, let’s check it in three months, OK?
OK. (I can’t stand needles anyway.)
I got the postcard in the mail – I did.
Jack was 2. A crazy time. When is it not?
I let it slide, and no one called. Moot point now
but I was thirty, feeling fine, no family history.
And no one called. I let it slide. I did.
One day at a time never made much sense
till now. It seemed like giving in.
At 31? With a 3-year-old,
another on the way? I know a year
is made of days, but I can’t bear to say
my life might not be made of years.
This afternoon I go to Good Samaritan
to see two doctors, one for me,
the other for the one we’re calling Abigail.
They’re both, of course, for both of us.
If their news is good – the baby growing,
the cancer not in sight – I’ll praise the day.
If not, I’m grateful for today. It is a gift.
But when tomorrow comes, I want that too.
Who knew a moment could contain such joy
and grief? I wear a bra when we make love.
Or like that day when, draggy from chemo,
I saw my daughter’s hair on ultrasound.
Today as I was dressing, Jack ran off
with my prosthesis. When it slipped
out of his hand and slid across the floor,
he shrieked in glee. What could I do
but giggle through my tears, join in
a 3-year-old’s delight at this outlandish world.
I’ve seen the same confounded look
in Larry’s eyes. He tries so hard
never to let me see him scared.
I do the same for him. Sometimes it works.
Sometimes she talked about it as a plot,
a play the diagnosis cast her in
to be herself, her hardest role by far.
She dreamed of conjuring a different script –
made up, but real, of voices that she heard
or overheard. Each voice a part of the truth
she learned from cancer and that big swerve.
She bought a spiral notebook just for this.
I never asked to see inside. I knew
it would come out one day. And when I found
the notebook afterward, after all this,
here’s what I found: three parts, each with
its cursive title: Larry. Jack. The Doctors.
And that was all – every page a blank.
The first attorney, Brenda was about to haul off
and slap him one. He asked how much she made,
then sighed and shook his head: If you made more
we might have something here. She glared and seethed.
A year later, it still gnaws at me – what if
that doctor had insisted on a biopsy
way back before the pregnancy? Would she
be here? Her surgeon, Dr. J, was blunt:
No doctor’s gonna testify against another doc.
Besides, you couldn’t say for sure, as virulent
as this one was. I called another lawyer anyway.
You want the bad news first? he said. No case.
But what if you had known? Think who else
might not be here. Her name is Abigail.
About Don Colburn
His first two poetry collections won national manuscript contests for publication. His chapbook Another Way to Begin received the Finishing Line Press Poetry Prize, and his full-length book As if Gravity Were a Theory won the Cider Press Review Book Award. He has published two other chapbooks of poems: Because You Might Not Remember and most recently Tomorrow Too: The Brenda Monologues. The latter is a sequence of sonnet-length monologues in seven voices telling the true story of a young woman facing breast cancer while pregnant — a story Colburn first reported in The Oregonian.
Colburn likes to explore how journalism and poetry, for all their differences, both are truth-telling ways of witness. Poetry, in his view, is not an escape from the world, but another way of apprehending it. A graduate of Amherst College, Colburn has an MFA degree from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
His poems have appeared in many anthologies and magazines such as Alaska Quarterly Review, The Iowa Review, Ploughshares, Poetry Northwest and Southern Poetry Review. His many writing honors include the Discovery/The Nation Award, the Iowa Review’s McGinnis Award, the Duckabush Prize for Poetry, fellowships at Centrum and The MacDowell Colony, and three Pushcart nominations. He is a board member of Friends of William Stafford. For more information about Don Colburn and his work, please visit his website.
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All poems © Dan Colburn. All Rights Reserved. These poems appear in Tomorrow Too: The Brenda Monologues (2013) and were reprinted with permission from the author.