A new book by Houston’s official Poet Laureate looks at how society determines what becomes newsworthy and whose perspective drives those narratives.
Newsworthy, by Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton, is a collection of poems and short essays that examine the nature of virality and the other ways in which we get news. The book will be released with a special performance April 20 at University of Houston Downtown, coinciding with National Poetry Month.
Mouton self-published a previous work of poetry as a teenager, and Newsworthy is the second title from Bloomsday, a new independent press based in Houston.
The book is a reimagining of a newspaper, told not from the offices of a formal media outlet, but on the streets, through whispers and sometimes innuendo. Several of the poems center on a young girl named Amandla, a stand-in for Mouton herself. Amandla, whose name means power in the Nguni languages, becomes a de facto reporter for her neighborhood.
“I was thinking about how the news we hear on a newscast is very different than what we hear in the neighborhood and different than what we experience,” says Mouton. “All of those things are valid sources of the news. The connection I wanted to make was being able to write in real-time my responses to these things that were happening—to chronicle how they were changing and shifting and how the truth kind of fell between the lines.”
The book addresses everything from the killing of James Byrd in 1998 to the refugee crisis to the shooting of Amadou Diallo, a 23-year old immigrant from Guinea who was killed by four plainclothes New York City police officers.
But Mouton also wanted to write about people whose names we’d never heard. “I wanted to pull these newsworthy names that we had made this huge fuss over, but also the ones that should have been fussed over," she says. "There are sections about Oscar Grant, about Sandra Bland.”
Our conversation came just a few weeks after a gunman attacked multiple mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 50 people. The story weighed heavily on both our minds. We discussed Prime Minister Jacinda Arden’s decision not to name the gunman, not to let him control the narrative.
Mouton said she was also thinking about people like Dajerria Becton, the 15-year-old girl at the center of the McKinney pool party incident in 2015.
“That incident was on the news for a couple of days and then disappeared quickly,” Mouton said. “And at the end of it, there was still a girl there who had been beaten into the ground, threatened by police. How much attention was paid to her purely because of how many other people's names had been mentioned that week? I think that there's this interplay between them that says one validates the next, which is the horror and the beauty of it.”
Mouton said she primarily considers herself a “performance poet,” but hopes the release of Newsworthy will give people a more concrete resource that they can return to again and again.
“I want to start a conversation,” she says. “I want to create work that sparks some new understanding of things. As an activist, I want to make people uncomfortable enough to move.”
Book launch Saturday, April 20. Tickets $22 (book included). UH Downtown, One N Main St. More info and tickets at bloomsdayliterary.com.