His Softer Side  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  The Beat
From AJR,   December/January 2006

His Softer Side   

The Star-Ledger’s hard-charging David Tucker is earning recognition—for his poetry.

By Matt D. Wilson
Matt D. Wilson is an AJR editorial assistant.     


It was an unusual day in September 2004 at Newark's Star-Ledger. The assistant managing editor for metro news, David Tucker, was out of the newsroom — which was strange enough in itself. On top of that, nobody seemed to know where he was.

A phone call later in the day revealed that Tucker was in Sleepy Hollow, New York, at a poetry reading, and, much to the surprise of many, he was the poet.

Tucker, 58, was one of the architects of the Star-Ledger's August 2004 coverage of Gov. James E. McGreevey's resignation, which earned a Pulitzer this year for breaking news reporting. Around the newsroom, he has a reputation as a gruff, grunting, yelling, cursing, bulldog sort of editor whose main concern is burrowing deeply into the story. Suffice it to say the revelation of his life as a poet, which many in the newsroom discovered in 2003 after he won the SOLO Prize and had his winning poem published in "SOLO 6: A Journal of Poetry," came as a shock to most. One reporter later found some of his poems on the Internet and attached them to his office window in an attempt to "out" him.

"Until someone told me he was a poet, I wouldn't have guessed it," says Mark Mueller, a rewrite man and special projects reporter. "But then, I don't know that many poets."

It's not easy to pinpoint why Tucker, a Tennessee native who was sports editor at a Toronto-based wire service, a stringer for the Toronto Star and then city editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer before coming to Newark, keeps his poetry so private. It's not a secret, he says, but he doesn't advertise it, either. Some colleagues say it's because Tucker is incredibly humble — he almost didn't go to the Pulitzer luncheon in May to accept the award. Others say it's because his poetry is so personal. Tucker says he just likes keeping his work separate, the "solitary art" of poetry and the "anonymous craft" of journalism. And unlike in his newsroom work, he can let his control slip. "You can't always sit down and dictate to yourself where you're going with poetry," says Tucker, who gets up at dawn or earlier most mornings to write before going to work. "Journalism is about what the facts tell us. Poetry's about what the facts don't tell us."

In 2003, he won the Slapering Hol Press Chapbook Competition at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center, which led to the publication of his 28-page book, "Days When Nothing Happens." His poems, which range in topic from newsroom work to love, family and cats, have appeared on Slate and in the Southern Poetry Review, The Literary Review and dozens of other literary magazines and journals.

Early last summer came the news that Tucker had won another major award, the Bakeless Prize, given in an annual writing competition sponsored by the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference at Middlebury College in Vermont. As one of the spoils of his win, Houghton Mifflin next spring will publish an anthology of 45 of Tucker's poems, "Late for Work."

Poet Philip Levine, who selected Tucker's manuscript from some 700 contest entries, compares Tucker to literary giants like John Keats and Thomas Hardy in his foreword to the book. "The writing is so precise and economical, the language so familiar and ordinary," he writes, "that if you're not reading closely you can miss how glorious the achievement is."

Margo Stever, founder and coeditor of Slapering Hol Press, says Tucker's poetry is a reflection of the poet himself. "He's like his poetry in a lot of ways," she says. "His poetry is quiet and it doesn't editorialize."

Quiet? This is the same assistant managing editor who once charged a reporter's desk, sat down and announced he wasn't moving until the reporter got the story. The same guy who sent a reporter to Chicago to track down a union leader who had gotten a loan from Sen. Jon S. Corzine (D-N.J.) and called as soon as the plane touched down to see what he had. The same David Tucker who, as Josh Margolin, a Star-Ledger Statehouse reporter puts it, doesn't have "a tremendous amount of patience for people who haven't reached a certain level in terms of reporting."

For Tucker, the dichotomy between his personas isn't so cut-and-dried. He fell in love with poetry mainly because of his father's passion for the art. "My father was one of those guys that prided himself on remembering all the Shakespeare he learned in high school," Tucker says. In college, he was introduced to poets like Donald Hall and Robert Hayden, who became models for his own work.

It wasn't until after college that Tucker got into journalism. He was living in Toronto and wanted to find a place where he could write, so he ended up at the School of Journalism at Ryerson University. "I fell in love with the craft pretty quickly," Tucker says.

As AME at the Star-Ledger for the past six years, he has brought a more writerly ethos to the paper. As soon as a story idea emerges, Tucker is thinking about a way to write it, many reporters who work closely with him say. He doesn't just need to break the story on racial profiling in the state — a series that's gotten the paper huge recognition this year — it's got to be a good read, too.

"David is the principal caretaker of language at the paper on the news side," says Mark Di Ionno, the Star-Ledger's assistant managing editor for local news.

Now that Tucker's two worlds are coming together, he says he's going to be a little more open about his life of poetry. Even though he didn't announce his reading in Sleepy Hollow, he jokes that he's going to be "beating people over the head" to come to readings once his book comes out. Tucker has a hard time expressing his excitement, but he clearly can't wait for the book to be released. Michael Collier, the contest organizer, says the only major editing has been a title shortening from "Late for Work on a March Morning."

Although Tucker's poetry is gaining attention, he's still focused on his main goal: breaking news every day. He sees many similarities between the two fields, particularly in their use of language.

After all, he's quick to point out, Walt Whitman was a journalist.


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