JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: a new and unconventional work of poetry from one of our own.
Gwen has our latest conversation for the NewsHour Bookshelf.
GWEN IFILL: You know Jeffrey Brown as NewsHour’s jack of all trades, who provides a window into breaking news, as well as books, culture, and poetry.
It turns out Jeff writes poetry too. And his first collection is out. Aptly, it is called “The News: Poetry”
And Jeff joins me now.
JEFFREY BROWN, Author, “The News: Poems”: Oddly enough…
GWEN IFILL: Oddly enough.
JEFFREY BROWN: … sitting across, sitting on this side of the table.
GWEN IFILL: Jeffrey, anyone who follows your work thinks of you possibly as a hard-bitten newsman, not someone who sees the world this way.
I didn’t even know you were writing a book of poetry. Why did you decide to do it?
JEFFREY BROWN: You know what?
I am a hard-bitten news guy. I mean, that’s our world, right? We go out into the world, we see things, we tell stories, we meet people.
But there’s a side of me that loves literature, that loves poetry, that loves history, that loves ideas, that loves music. It comes out, I hope, on the program as well.
I started writing a long time ago. I wrote at different times during my life. I would write. I would pick up snippets from along the way.
I started realizing that I wanted to go back and look at stories that I had done and sort of rethink them, reimagine them, tell them in a different voice with different words. And I — it was just — it was — it was fun for me. It was interesting to do.
GWEN IFILL: Were you thinking of these stories through a poet’s eye at the time, or was it looking back at it?
JEFFREY BROWN: It was looking back.
GWEN IFILL: Huh.
JEFFREY BROWN: No, when I’m doing it, I’m doing it the way you and I — we’re newspeople, right?
GWEN IFILL: Right.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, we’re telling stories.
But I would sometimes hear things. And one of the things that was most interesting for me in writing the poems was a memory of something that had happened that hit me at the time or that stayed with me, you know, that stuck, that stayed there. I might have written down the phrase. In some cases, I went back and looked at the transcripts.
I went online and looked at the transcripts of old stories I had done, because it was partly there, and I wanted to find that voice again.
GWEN IFILL: When you did that, did you discover that Richard Avedon was right when he told you the camera always lies?
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, it’s not so much that it lies.
I use that quote, and I use quotes from people. And Richard Avedon said to me…
GWEN IFILL: The photographer.
JEFFREY BROWN: The photographer. He said — and we did an interview late at night in the Metropolitan Museum surrounded by his grand portraits.
And we were talking, because this is a subject that fascinates me, as it does with him, anybody who has a camera in front of them. What does the camera tell you? Well, it tells you a truth, but it doesn’t tell you the whole truth.
GWEN IFILL: Only a truth.
JEFFREY BROWN: A truth.
GWEN IFILL: I’m going to ask you to read some of your writing, because I — it took me places I didn’t know you had been.
One poem you write is when you were in Haiti. And you went there on a reporting trip after the earthquake.
JEFFREY BROWN: After the earthquake, but cholera had broken out. Things were very desperate.
I went to a slum in Port-au-Prince. And then I went to a small village where people were dying in the Central Plateau. So, this is called “Haiti.” And it begins and ends with actual quotes from that trip.
“Epidemiologically, this area is terrifying. La Saline, the giant slum on a sun-soaked, trash-soaked morning, as the children filled their buckets from a makeshift well, the pigs scavenged while a rat watched all. Why bother to hide? La saline, somewhere nearby, the assaulted salted sea. Days later, the last light high in the Central Plateau, so far, so bone-crushed by the road, I had argued against going, Saut d’Eau. They filled the benches and told us of death upon death. A man who’d lost his son said, I am a bird left without a branch to land on.”
GWEN IFILL: It’s beautiful.
JEFFREY BROWN: I remember that. It was one of the saddest things I had ever heard in my life, when he said that.
GWEN IFILL: You wrote another poem that caught my eye, because it kind of takes you behind the curtain here, what we do, what you and I do.
And you kind of gave it a little bit away about the art of the interview, especially when…
JEFFREY BROWN: A little bit away.
GWEN IFILL: Especially when things don’t go as planned.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.
Well, a lot on my mind was about what we do here every night. It’s an interesting transaction. Right? There’s somebody in our ear, the director talking. There’s the communication with — and we know there are people out there watching.
GWEN IFILL: Right.
JEFFREY BROWN: So there’s a lot going on.
This is a little bit of a poem called “The Art of the Interview.”
And it begins: “Engaged, open, curious, firm, prepared by all that’s come before, no surprises, but ready to be surprised again.”
It goes on from there about what happens in an interview. But then there’s this thing that’s happened to both of us, right? “Once, a man froze, unable to speak. I asked and answered every question myself, then said, you agree? We could have gone on that way forever. Another night, the lights went out. We understood we were still, again, always in the dark.”
You’re laughing because it’s happened to you. Right?
GWEN IFILL: It has happened to me.
JEFFREY BROWN: Somebody freezes. And what happens in that moment? And the nights the lights went out was — actually, I was sitting over there with Mark and David doing the Friday’s politics. The power went out.
GWEN IFILL: That’s right, and you had to keep talking.
JEFFREY BROWN: Keep talking.
GWEN IFILL: OK, one more.
This — this is kind of personal, because this also takes us a little bit inside your life. And you wrote a book about what happened after the passing of your — a poem about what happened after the passing of your father.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.
Some of the poems in here are more personal, and this is one that — you know, everybody deals with death of a loved one. And a lot of strange things happen at a moment like that, strange thoughts.
This is on the day of my father’s funeral, which was a year ago. It’s called “Succession.”
“One morning, state police escort us to your grave. The next, my flight is canceled. Maintenance issues breaking out all over. You would speak of a grand theory, something tying all this together. But you had none yourself, none that reached me then or now, as I drive your car slowly into the tranquil streets of my youth.
“Here is where I learned to ride a bike, on this high hill that is no hill at all. And, still, I fell. And now you descend, and, still, I fall. And here is where I learned to doubt in the chapel where we donned black skullcaps that meant nothing, I tell you. If God speaks, it is elsewhere. And here our my own children, rooted and uncertain, watching me speak to you.
“You watched the news every night, worried if I didn’t make air, traveling, sick, useless, lost. Now that you are gone, traffic parted by the state police, can, I, too, disappear?”
It’s a hard one to read even sitting here, because…
GWEN IFILL: It’s a hard one to read.
JEFFREY BROWN: Because my father would have watched us every night, and if I wasn’t there for a few days, he’d wonder, what happened? You know, where are you? And I would have to explain.
GWEN IFILL: And the loss of a parent is a universal experience eventually.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.
GWEN IFILL: I want to ask you one more question.
As you put this book together, and as you just go through your life as a writer, a poet, a television personality, do you feel that you’re constantly looking at the world through multiple lenses?
JEFFREY BROWN: I do. I do. And I like that. I like that so much. I think that’s what the world is about.
I love what we do, you know, looking at the world through facts. And we are so careful every night to try to get it right. But I think the world is filled with all kind of other things, art and music. And I want that in my life. I want that to be part of our program. That’s why I care about it so much.
I think that’s what’s happening in our world. When we tell people every night, here’s what happened today, I want it to be what they expect, but I also want to bring some of this. I want it in my life.
GWEN IFILL: Well, we all want it. And that’s why we’re so glad you have written this book, “The News: Poems.”
Jeffrey Brown, thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: Thank you, Gwen.