Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Why The Newsroom Matters: The Power of Fiction

I first fell in love with Aaron Sorkin on September 22, 1999 when I sat down to watch a new show called The West Wing. It quickly became one of my favorite shows and I never missed an episode. When I heard that Sorkin was writing a new series for HBO, you can imagine my excitement.

The Newsroom began in June and just finished its first season Sunday night. As the name suggests, the show follows a cable news staff who are attempting to change the way the news is done. The show begins in April of 2010 and uses actually news stories in the plot-lines, which adds an extra layer to the stories being told. The viewer is put in an interesting position, because we already know the outcomes, but Sorkin almost makes us forget that we do. In the fourth episode ("I'll Try to Fix You"), we almost believe that Gabby Giffords might not live after being shot in January of 2011. The final minutes of that episode are emotional and I found myself holding my breath.

As a lover of Sorkin and nearly all HBO series, it is no surprise that I fell hard for this show. It's smart, thought-provoking, funny, and some of the sharpest writing currently on TV. The show, however, has created a very love it or hate it situation. Critics have been mixed. Many major news corporations have trashed the show in their reviews and poked fun at it (even NPR).

What I've found interesting in these negative reviews is that people seem upset at how fictional the show is. In some ways, reviewers are holding the show to a standard that the show never set. Sorkin never claimed to be writing a completely fact-based TV series about how to do the news. The show blends reality with fiction. I'll be the first to admit the show uses rather convenient plotting at times (example: Maggie's best friend knowing Casey Anthony) and is not a true look at how the news is done. But does that make it a bad show? Or any less important? Doesn't fiction have the power to do something just as thought-provoking as non-fiction?

The Newsroom is a commentary on the current state of our media and politics. It's pointing out many absurdities and problems. The show is liberal without a doubt, but it is also pointing out how far the republican party has come from its true values. It's an important and interesting look at the country we are currently living in. The show isn't all about reaffirming what liberals already know or preaching to the choir. I found myself on a few occasions conflicted by the stories ("Bullies"). It made me reconsider what I believe. That's not to say there aren't "preaching to the choir" moments (Sorkin loves that).

The show isn't really about how one should do the news just like The West Wing wasn't really about how to govern our country (and critics loved The West Wing). Sorkin is using these platforms to present ideas and thoughts. The fact that he can do this in such an entertaining platform is truly what makes him a remarkable writer. During episode three, my partner, who doesn't know much about Sorkin, turned to me and said, "this show is really funny." Yes, it is. It's smart adult comedy.

Just like Sorkin's other shows, he does throw in some workplace love stories, which are often cliche. The thing is Sorkin is so good at writing the cliche that he overcomes it and you find yourself truly engaged with the characters. If you don't, there's plenty of other great storylines to keep you going.

Of course, The Newsroom owes a lot to the cast. This is Jeff Daniels finest performance. Emily Mortimer is absolutely the heart of the show and holds it together. I've also completely fallen in love with Olivia Munn who plays Sloan. Acting veterans Sam Waterson and Jane Fonda command every scene they are in. This is great television and thankfully HBO agrees. The show will be returning for a second season in 2013.

The show is doing what great fiction should do. It is entertaining us and making us think at the same time. Sorkin has built a world where smart people say smart things and smart people win. It's fantasy, but one that helps us think about where we want to go. The West Wing got me through those first few years of George W. Bush. Sorkin created a president I wanted. Here, he created a news show, I want  to watch.

-Stephen (Watch It)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Review: Aim for the Head

Poetry is associated with a lot of different things like love, death, nature, and sex. But how about zombies? Maybe not the first thing that comes to mind, but why not? When I teach poetry, I always stress to students that poetry can be about anything you want. In my own work, I write about many topics that surprise readers. Giving people the unexpected is often very rewarding, which is what makes the book Aim for the Head: An Anthology of Zombie Poetry edited by Rob Sturma such a great read.

I first became aware of this book from my friend Evan Peterson who has a poem in the anthology. I also read the article The New York Times did on the book in January. It intrigued me. I have a great interest in using pop culture in poetry and this seemed like a perfect book for that. I'm also a zombie fan. Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead are some of my favorite horror films. I'm also a big fan of The Walking Dead on AMC.

Of course, I had my concerns. How do you keep the topic fresh? Will the poems be too similar? Will content be rewarded over craft? These are issues that can happen in any themed anthology. Aim for the Head, however, avoided all of these. With the exception of a few, these poems each hold their own and are fascinating glimpses into everything zombie.

Partly what makes this book work so well is that zombie is used both literally and figuratively. Many of the poems are taking on the voice of zombies or those in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. Others use the term zombie to get at much bigger issues and themes. In "Zombie (1994)" by Lindsay Eanet, the subject is the Cranberries song "Zombie." As a teenager of the 90s, I appreciated this greatly. This song also appears in "The Last Hipster" by Brennan Bestwick. This expected take on the topic adds greatly to the overall collection.

These poems are often laugh out loud funny, but others are heartbreaking and thought-provoking. Zombies can be a great way to examine our own fears. Zombies work on so many different levels, which makes them perfect for poetry. The book is just 123 pages, which makes it a quick read, but you'll surely want to return to these poems again and again and eat their brains.

Favorite poems:

"George Romero Never Lied to Us" by Ryk McIntyre
"Fifteen Ways to Stay Alive" by Daphne Gottlieb
"Zombie (1994)" by Lindsay Eanet
"The Thing About Having Just Dropped Acid an Hour Ago When the Zombies Arrive at the House Party" by Mindy Nettifee
"Night of the Living" by Steve Ramirez
"Fuck A Nostradamus" by Jason Bayani

-Stephen (Brains)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Poetry Podcast: Standing in Front of Pollock's Greyed Rainbow, Chicago, 2012

In 2010, I devoted a lot of my blog to podcasting my work. This was something I wanted to try and I was pleased with the results. I recorded quite a few poems throughout the year and some in 2011. It became a fun way to share my work without publishing it on my own site, which I don't do.

Today, I decided to return to podcasting and recorded a new poem. Yesterday, August 11th, marked the 56th anniversary of the death of the famous painter Jackson Pollock. Pollock is one of my favorite artists and was a huge part of the art scene in New York when some of my favorite poets were writing (like Frank O'Hara). As many people know, I have a bit of an obsession with the New York art and writing scene in the 1950s and '60s. This obsession is part of the new book manuscript I am writing. Pollock is actually featured in three poems in the manuscript so far. This includes the one I recorded today.

For this podcast, I recorded my poem "Standing in Front of Pollock's Greyed Rainbow, Chicago, 2012." I wrote this poem after going to Chicago for AWP this past March. I hope you enjoy.

Listen here.

-Stephen (Splattered)

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Mini-Reviews: What I've Been Reading

Life's been busy the last few months, but I've been keeping up with both my writing and my reading. I'm well into a second book manuscript that is starting to really take shape. I'll post more about it in the near future. Today I wanted to do a few quick mini-reviews of books I've been reading this summer. Check out these three books:

1. Skin Shift by Matthew Hittinger

This is another excellent debut poetry collection from my press Sibling Rivalry. The book is beautiful and well worth the read. I've been familiar with Hittinger's work for quite some time now and he's a very talented poet and actually a very nice guy. This books varies in subject matter and style. The poems are rich with references, history, and observations. My two favorite sections of the book are Narcissus Resists and Platos de Sal. In a lot of ways, Hittinger and I are similar in what seems to inspire poems (history, pop culture, art, other poems), yet our approaches are very different. This is another important voice that I'm proud to promote and share a press with. 

2. Slow Lightning by Eduardo C. Corral 

This book won the Yale Series of Younger Poets book contest selected by Carl Phillips and was published this year. I typically enjoy this book series and I'm a big fan of Carl Phillips, so I wasn't surprised that I enjoyed this collection so much. The poems are beautiful and startling at the same time. I love how Corral is able to examine the complexity of borders in these poems. The borders are sometimes literal like the border between Mexico and the United States and sometimes these borders are mental, yet just as real. I highly recommend reading these poems. I could have done, however, without the snakes on the cover. I really hate snakes. 

3. The Submission by Amy Waldman

Writing a novel about the aftermath of 9/ll is not an easy task, but Waldman pulls it off. The novel is set two years after the attack and is about a fictional jury deciding on a monument to go up at ground zero. The competition is anonymous and when the jury makes their final selection they discover the architect is a Muslim. The novel is about the aftermath of that decision and how much 9/11 changed our country. The book follows various characters including the Muslim-American architect and the 9/11 widow who was the main supporter of the design on the jury. The book isn't easy to read. It feels so real and makes you angry in one moment and empathetic in the next. It's an important book to read and shows how fiction can really get at issues from a different angle. 

-Stephen (Reading)