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How turning hate mail into a book of poems liberated one reporter

Illustration | Leo Cooperband

By Michelle Robertson

“Hate Mail: Thank You For Reading” by Michelle Robertson will be published April 12 by Vine Leaves Press. 

When you’re a journalist, hate mail is an everyday occurrence, as routine as drinking a cup of coffee. In about five years as a reporter for one of the biggest news sites in California, I received hundreds—if not thousands—of emails from readers. Some were positive, but most were dashed off haphazardly in a spirit of annoyance aimed at either me or the city. Responding to them was, in most cases, unproductive. Instead, I decided to reply by turning my reader emails—or hate mail—into poems.

Hate mail takes an immense toll on journalists. It’s especially disheartening to be criticized by people you’ve never met, who lambast you behind the digital camouflage of a computer screen. Very little of it is pleasant, although there is an obvious difference between a reader pointing out a misplaced modifier and wishing death upon you.

At the start of my career, I struggled to make sense of my hate mail. But I found freedom when I discovered that I could turn the vitriol into something else entirely: a work of art. The rush of creating my hate mail poems became addicting. Each night after work, I’d spend hours immersing myself in the content of each email and fiddling with its form. Some may call what I did conceptual or found poetry; I called it talking back. 

Here’s how it all started. One day, I received an unusual sort of email in response to a story. It read: “If whales cannot find food, are commercial fishermen catching fewer fish? Do restaurants at Fisherman’s Wharf have a shortage of fresh fish?” A lightbulb went off in my mind. These emails weren’t just hastily written responses to my articles, I realized. They read almost like poetry. All I had to do was take a knife to the stone and see if a statue emerged.

The night of the fish email, I went home and brandished a pen and stack of blank printer paper. I wrote the text over and over again, trying to find the right form. Eventually, I settled on this:

If whales cannot find food, are commercial 
Fishermen catching fewer fish? 

Do restaurants at Fisherman’s Wharf 
Have a shortage of fresh fish? 

After I laid my pen to rest, I realized what had happened. By simply adding line breaks, I translated an email into a poem. The act felt satisfying—even vindicating. Finally, I had a method of responding to readers that wouldn’t further enrage an already-swarming hive. I could respond to the emails and imaginatively converse with their authors without ever drafting an email in response. 

“But what makes hate mail rise to the level of poetry?” you might ask. Let’s break that poem down, bit by bit. 

The first six syllables of the first line are iambs, or a unit of poetic measurement that includes one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. If you know nothing about poetry, you may recognize the phrase “iambic pentameter.” Shakespeare wrote his plays in that form (and high school English teachers love to teach it.) 

Iambic pentameter is also a natural way of speaking English. One breath can comfortably emit ten voiced syllables, and the unstressed/stressed pattern lacks any sense of artifice when spoken: “I drove from home to get my shoes and socks.” 

The fish email also contained, to my delight, both consonance—when the consonants in a word sound similar—and assonance—the same phenomenon, but with vowels. The repetition of the f, c, d and w sounds echoes many of the verses American schoolchildren have come to know by heart. Edgar Allan Poe’s “For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams/ Of the beautiful Annabel Lee” feels not dissimilar from “If whales cannot find food, are commercial/ Fishermen catching fewer fish.” The assonance and consonance add weight to the poem, forcing the reader to chew on the syllables one at a time without glossing over them, while the iambic meter gives the poem a feeling of formality or weightiness. 

Incredibly, some of the emails I received contained perfect rhymes. Here’s another hate mail poem, titled “Southern Boyfriend.” 

He didn’t ask about rats
The size of cats
On Market Street

And his car hasn’t 
Been broken into? 

Like the fish poem, “Southern Boyfriend” has a built-in rhythm—it’s mostly written in iambs—but that rhythm is broken, satisfyingly, at the end. The “hmmm” carries the line into poetic eternity, like a Catholic monk humming prayers to an infinite God. With the “Hmmm,” the poem ends in a wash of pure sound, arguably the central component of poetry. 

Let’s look at one more, titled “Debra.”

I, and everyone on 18th street
(From Douglass to the end) are THRILLED 
By the new lights on our street 

No more do we have to worry 
About people lurking in the dark 
Ready to pounce and rob us,
Or worse yet selling drugs. 

This poem intrigues me for a few reasons. The classical imagery of night and darkness—people aren’t just “lurking,” but “lurking in the dark ready to pounce”—suggests the narrator is in a state of intense anxiety, if not paranoia. The expressive use of monosyllabic words (“street,” “pounce,” “rob,” “drugs,” “yet”) heightens the angry, hyper-alert tone of the poem. You can almost feel the reader spit with emphasis, or perhaps slap the table, as she describes these people who pounce and rob in the night. An air of pathos hangs over all. 

But there’s also a weird humor at work, especially in the last line. Debra thinks streetlights will allow her to stop worrying about crime at night. She also claims that the vilest crime in her neighborhood is not people pouncing and robbing others but selling drugs. This unexpected de-escalation of criminal intensity in the final line reinforces the poem’s sense of panic, and I hope, makes the discerning reader chuckle.

All of this is to stress that there is poetry hidden even in the most banal of sentences. “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” William Wordsworth wrote. Could not the same be said of hate mail? 

Follow Michelle on Twitter at @mrobertsonsf

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