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Questions and Answers

What inspired “News from Another Room (Simple)”?

In September 2001 I went to Berton House, a writers’ retreat in Dawson City, Yukon, to start work on a new novel. On the 11th, of course, the twin towers collapsed, and for the next few days I surfed numbly among the news channels. On or around the 15th, while I was in the kitchen making coffee, I heard the CNN anchor burble, Back in a moment with more coverage of America’s new war! A stream of advertisements followed. I found the utterance remarkable for more reasons than I will explain here, but one thing that really hit home was that once again reality was trumping invention. Would even Orwell or Vonnegut have asked us to believe that a news channel could introduce a run of car, cleaning fluid and pharmaceutical ads with a sentence like that?

I started the poem that night. For a long time I’d been wanting to write something to suggest that the most potent sort of anti-war poem is not one that overtly addresses the awfulness of war—which everyone readily acknowledges—but a simple love poem: a poem that critiques hatred by means of contrast. What came to me next is the epigrammatic idea that all wars are basically about the same things, while every love is distinct, or at least feels that way. Finally I got the image of a couple drinking wine and making love while the TV babbles in the next room—a network and its sponsors trying to hold the lovers’ attention with the spectacle and melodrama of large-scale hatred. But these lovers ignore this “news from another room” (the title the poem finally acquired when it appeared in a collection of my poems). Or perhaps the real “news from another room” is the lovers’ activity itself, their silent, sensual, carnal speech, which contradicts the “new war” and the hypocrisy of its varied sponsors.

Well, that’s what inspired the poem, and now I’ve told you how I think the poem works, but bear in mind what D.H. Lawrence said about fiction: “The author sets out to point a moral. Characteristically the tale, however, points in another direction.” If readers think this poem of mine points in some direction other than what I intended, so be it.

What poetic techniques did you use in “News from Another Room (Simple)”?

The poem is “free verse,” but of a highly compressed kind. When I revise I interrogate every word and cut whatever I can. Every unnecessary, distracting word acts like static on a blurry TV screen, preventing the picture from leaping to clarity. I tune the TV, so to speak, by cutting all those distractions, so the central images and phrases leap clear.

As the journalist Alec Ross says, “you can always cut.” And if compression is important in journalism, it’s crucial to poetry.

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