If you have never heard of “crime poetry,” you’re not alone. It’s a narrow genre, but is gaining in popularity. With April being National Poetry Month, I thought it would be interesting to learn more about this type of poetry and the people who read, write, and publish it. I couldn’t think of a better person to talk to than editor, publisher, and poet Gerald So.
Robert B. Parker’s Spenser stoked So’s interest in crime fiction and poetry in 1993, while So was a student at Hofstra University. He helped found Hofstra’s literary magazine, Font, earned his M.A. in Creative Writing from Queens College/CUNY, and taught English at Hofstra for six years before turning to writing full time.
A member of the Academy of American Poets, his poems have appeared in Nerve Cowboy, Barbaric Yawp, Defenestration, Yellow Mama, Gutter Eloquence Magazine, and other provocatively-named venues. So has served as Short Mystery Fiction Society president (2008-’10) and Thrilling Detective fiction editor (2001-’09). After developing the online crime poetry journal, The Lineup, he published an ebook of his own poetry, We Might Have.
His personal blog is My Life Called So.
Gerald, before we talk specifically about what your blog series, The 5-2, is all about, can you please describe the genre of “crime poetry?”
In 2006, my friend Anthony Rainone wrote an article for Mystery Scene Magazine #99, “Raven in a Trenchcoat: Hardboiled and Noir Poetry,” examining classic and contemporary poetry through the lens of crime. Crime poetry is not a new genre to my mind, but a way of reading with an eye to the wrongdoing and transgression that has fueled much poetry.
Some of those literary journals in which you’ve been published have some pretty – uhh, ‘interesting’ – titles. (For those who don’t know, ‘defenestration’ is the act of throwing someone out of a window.) What do you say to people who question the literary value of this type of genre, or claim it’s glorifying violence?
I have no intent to glorify violence or sensationalize crime. Anyone who reads my work or what I accept for The 5-2 will see that much of it reacts to crime, often ultimately condemning it. Crime is simply a subject that interests me in fiction and poetry. It may be taboo to some, but to others, that forbidden air is all the more reason to explore it, to tap into something that hasn’t been tapped.
Defenestration, by the way, is a humor magazine that has nothing to do with throwing people out windows. They just like the sound of the word.
Whew, thanks for clearing that up!
Now, you were a fiction editor at Thrilling Detective magazine in 2007 when author A.E. Roman suggested you combine your love of poetry with the drama of the crime stories you were editing; what type of poetry had you been writing up until then? And what did you think of the idea of combining poetry and crime?
Disappointment was and is a common theme in my poetry. I often choose to face it with humor so as not to be consumed by it, but I can easily relate to what victims of crime, or sometimes criminals themselves, feel. So when Roman approached me, I could see the concept growing into something. If I got in on it, I could ensure that the material didn’t glorify crime, as I said, but simply witnessed crime.
Speaking of crime and poetry, Edgar Allan Poe was certainly a pioneer in melding beautiful words and imagery with horrific scenes and action…would you say he helped create the genre of “crime poetry?”
Definitely, just as he pioneered detective fiction. His poetry and others’ in the same vein intrigue me because, unlike fiction, it isn’t necessarily made-up.
You mentioned ‘others’…what poets do you feel helped develop this genre, and who would you say are the best, or your favorites?
That’s tough to answer because I see crime in all periods of poetry when I look for it. There have always been poets whose only recourse from being wronged was to write. Recently, I think of Sharon Olds, who has written many poems about her abusive father. On a different note, in the final issue of The Lineup, I reprinted “Prayer for the Man Who Mugged My Father, 72”, in which Charles Harper Webb reminisces about his loving father and imagines taking revenge on his assailant. The material is all there, needing only to be organized into a genre.
The eBook that was created, The Lineup: Poems on Crime, was published the following year; what was the reception to it?
The Lineup was an annual print chapbook series. I’ve only recently converted the back issues to eBooks. It was well thought of in the crime fiction community. I would have loved for it to make more inroads, but printing on demand was too expensive to publish as frequently as we wanted or distribute copies in the quantities we wanted.
When I closed shop at The Lineup, I still wanted to provide an outlet for crime poetry. A blog lets me publish more frequently, keeping the concept in the public eye and including accompanying audio/video.
On The Lineup, I worked with three co-editors on each issue, each having equal say in the selection of poetry. We had as good a working relationship as you can hope. With The 5-2, it’s just me and occasional guests editing a week at a time. The Lineup accepted new and previously published poetry to establish the concept. The 5-2 accepts only original work.
By the way, why “5-2?” In police code, that could be anything from a missing person to a domestic disturbance to a fire alarm, depending on what town and state you live in.
The name refers to the fifty-two original poems published on the site each year, but the echoes of police code and precinct jargon are intentional, too.
Finally, what do you think surprises readers unfamiliar with crime poetry the most? And what are your plans for The 5-2 for this year?
Readers are often surprised how well they can relate to the material. Not everyone is into poetry at first, but everyone can unfortunately relate to crime, to feeling hurt, betrayed, violated. I have no grand plan except to pick poems that move me each week for as long as I can.
Well, thanks for taking the time to shed some light on this unusual poetic genre, Gerald…and best wishes with The 5-2!
Thank you for your interest, your voice talent, and your poetry. 🙂
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that our nation’s Children’s Poet Laureate, J. Patrick Lewis, had a poem included in The 5-2…and a really good one it is, too:
Pat tells me he’s not sure what inspired the poem, although says it could have had something to do with his recurring thoughts about the LA riots from several years ago, or possibly that he was thinking of his daughter, who attended USC, in Watts.
NOTE: All month long for National Poetry Month, all sales proceeds of Gerald’s eBooks will be donated to the nonprofit American Academy of Poets to support poets at all stages of their careers and to foster the appreciation of contemporary poetry.
If you’d like to learn more about Gerald’s blog and books, click any of the graphics – they’re all linked to his site. And if you don’t want to miss any posts here at ‘Triple-R’, be sure to subscribe!