Why Novelist Elinor Lipman is Tweeting a Political Poem a Day Until the Election

Election '16

Last spring, Elinor Lipman, the author of nine novels including The Inn at Lake Devine and Then She Found Me and The Family Man, pledged to tweet a political poem once a day, every day, until the 2012 election. Ten months later, she’s still going strong, steadily contemplating the Republican debates and the state of the upcoming presidential race through rhyme.

At the start of her project Lipman explained to the Boston Globe that though she was initially hesitant to join the multitude ranks of authors on Twitter, after listening to a panel discussion on same at a writers festival, she “came away thinking that it isn’t just about vanity and ego, that you could really accomplish something.” As of today, Lipman has posted 236 political poems on Twitter, something no one else is doing even in much smaller output. On her Twitter bio she explains that she “watches the debates so you don’t have to,” and then rises every morning between five and six to read Politico.com and watch the pundits so that her poems are breaking. She’s been told by her readers that she’s their first news source each day, and they have compared her poems both to Jon Stewart’s commentary and to the political doggerel Calvin Trillin has written for the Nation. Her goal throughout: to distill any political speech or gaffe or flip-flop, announcement or endorsement into four lines of ironic and funny prose. While so many people who write about politics are earnest and solemn, Lipman works and works at each rhyme until it makes her smile with the hope that it will make her readers do so, too.

Ms. Lipman and I recently sat down at our laptops to chat about political observations at 140 characters or less:

How long does your interest in politics go back, and how passionate about it are you today?

It goes back to 1959, as a little Massachusetts girl whose handsome senator was running for president. The night of the '60 election, I asked my father to wake me up with the results. He did wake me up around 2 a.m., and said, "Kennedy won." I look back and marvel at his taking that request seriously. Most parents, me included, would have waited 'til morning. Five years later, I sent my $2-per-week allowance to Eugene McCarthy's campaign.

How did you come up with the idea for #poemaday?

I'd written--and loved writing--rhyming poems and doggerel for special occasions. I went to a panel on social networking--not out of conviction but because three friends were the panelists, and they convinced me to tweet, that it's a good thing for a novelist to do. I thought, well, don't you have to be self-important to tweet? Isn't it all just self-regard? Rather instantaneously I thought--I'll write one rhyming tweet a day until the 2012 election. I wish I'd counted how many days away that was. I wish I'd pledged five a week instead of seven. But then again, I view it as a trip to the mental gym every morning, and good for my brain. I wrote a long faux valentine poem "from" Bill to Hillary Clinton in February '08 that was published on Huffington Post, and an ode to Michelle Obama's clothes that I wrote for an Obama fundraiser, and it ended up on www.mrs-o.org.

What has the reader response been like on twitter and Facebook, and from your more traditional readers?

I started with two followers and now that number is approaching 900, all word of mouth. I’m often reposted by Judy Blume who has 52,000 followers. I post them on my Facebook page every day, and people do comment and "like." My favorite response was from Cong. Barney Frank. The day he resigned, I wrote what amounted to a valentine to him, and he thanked me and made an Ogden Nash comparison, which thrilled me. That poem ("I serenade you, Barney Frank/Brilliant wonk & witty crank/You've had enuf. There's no good will/But O what giant shoes to fill.") And a tribute to Gabby Giffords got the most "likes."

You've committed to a poem every day until the election, and you started in April. Have you missed a day yet, and though surely there will be plenty of material out there in the coming months, are you confident you'll make your goal?

Today I wrote my 236th. I've been tempted to take a Saturday or Sunday off due to lack of news, but so far I've only skipped Yom Kippur. So, yes, confident I'll make my goal because I've managed to write and rhyme something on the thinnest of no-news days. Donald Trump, and Sarah Palin always good for a little flashback. On a few days I've written extra ones, breaking news tweets, usually when someone drops out of the race and I can poke a little fun at them. Of course that's the goal of every poem--partisan pokes. Gingrich is the gift that keeps on giving.

It's hard to pick favorites, but try? Your three favorite poems to date?

1. For Gingrich not a happy phase: Down 20 pts in 20 days. How to handle such a wobble? Better buy the wife a bauble.

2. So many women felt his prod, But Cain is now at peace with God.
 Take Gloria & go abroad,
 Then mind the proverb, "Spare the rod."

3. Struck down today: Don't ask-don't tell. Good riddance, stupid ban! 1 harsh upshot was troops less hot, Less neat, less fun, less tan.

What's compelling about Lipman's #poemaday project is not only the long-distance marathon aspect of it, a feat of impressive writerly discipline, but the uniqueness of delivering breaking political news in a way that gets beyond the shouting and canned talking points that cause many to simply disengage. A bit of partisan fun and comic relief taps into the a void experienced by an audience worn out by the current political and economic clime. A look at how many "likes" Lipman's poems receive on Facebook and how often they are retweeted shows that while people tend to tune out political news as a reaction to the negativity and nasty attacks, political commentary can revitalized by approaches that feel more participatory, less hostile, and less predictable. The twittersphere is more than a place for people to report on what they had for breakfast. It's a place where new writing, new ideas and new approaches to the world are happening every day. Lipman's political poems are part of a real-time conversation and a social-media dimension of politics where getting beyond business-as-usual feels possible. Follow her on twitter at @elinorlipman [twitter.com/elinorlipman].

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