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Pádraig Ó Tuama is a poet, theologian, and extraordinary healer in our world of fracture. He leads the Corrymeela community of Northern Ireland, a place that has offered refuge since the violent division that defined that country until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Ó Tuama and Corrymeela extend a quiet, generative, and joyful force far beyond their northern coast to people around the world. Over cups of tea and the experience of bringing people together, he says it becomes possible to talk with each other and be in the same room with the people we talk about.

When the wise and whimsical Sharon Olds started writing poetry over 40 years ago, she explored the subjects that interested her most — like diaphragms. “The politeness and the prudity of the world I grew up in meant that there were things that were important to me and interesting to me, [but] I had never read a poem about,” she once said. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for her collection Stag’s Leap about walking through the end of a long marriage. Her most recent book, Odes, pays homage to the human body and experience.

Mary Oliver was one of our greatest and most beloved poets. She is often quoted by people across ages and backgrounds — and it’s fitting, since she described poetry as a sacred community ritual. “When you write a poem, you write it for anybody and everybody,” she said. Mary died on January 17, 2019, at the age of 83. She was a prolific and decorated poet, whose honors included the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. In this 2015 conversation — one of the rare interviews she granted during her lifetime — she discussed the wisdom of the world, the salvation of poetry, and the life behind her writing.

The poet, essayist, and playwright Claudia Rankine says every conversation about race doesn’t need to be about racism. But she says all of us — and especially white people — need to find a way to talk about it, even when it gets uncomfortable. Her bestselling book, Citizen: An American Lyric, catalogued the painful daily experiences of lived racism for people of color. Claudia models how it’s possible to bring that reality into the open — not to fight, but to draw closer. And she shows how we can do this with everyone, from our intimate friends to strangers on airplanes.

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet / confinement of your aloneness / to learn / anything or anyone / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you.” David Whyte is a poet and philosopher who believes in the power of a “beautiful question” amid the drama of work as well as the drama of life, and the ways the two overlap. He shared a deep friendship with the late Irish philosopher John O’Donohue. They were, David Whyte says, like “two bookends.” More recently, he’s written about the consolation, nourishment, and underlying meaning of everyday words.

Tracy K. Smith has a deep interest in “the kind of silence that yields clarity” and “the way our voices sound when we dip below the decibel level of politics.” She’s a welcome voice on the little leaps of the imagination that can restore us. She’s spent the past year traversing our country, listening for all of this and drawing it forth as the U.S. Poet Laureate. Krista spoke with her at the invitation of New York’s B’nai Jeshurun synagogue, which has been in communal exploration on creating a just and redeemed social fabric.

Layli Long Soldier is a writer, a mother, a citizen of the United States, and a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation. She has a way of opening up this part of her life, and of American life, to inspire self-searching and tenderness. Her award-winning first book of poetry, WHEREAS, is a response to the U.S. government’s official apology to Native peoples in 2009, which was done so quietly, with no ceremony, that it was practically a secret. Layli Long Soldier offers entry points for us all — to events that are not merely about the past, and to the freedom real apologies might bring.

The wonderful writer Luis Alberto Urrea says that a deep truth of our time is that “we miss each other.” We have this drive to erect barriers between ourselves and yet this makes us a little crazy. He is singularly wise about the deep meaning and the problem of borders. The Mexican-American border, as he likes to say, ran straight through his parents’ Mexican-American marriage and divorce. His works of fiction and non-fiction confuse every dehumanizing caricature of Mexicans — and of U.S. border guards. The possibility of our time, as he lives and witnesses with his writing, is to evolve the old melting pot to the 21st-century richness of “us” — with all the mess and necessary humor required.

“Our discomfort and our grappling is not a sign of failure,” America Ferrera says, “it’s a sign that we’re living at the edge of our imaginations.” She is a culture-shifting artist. John Paul Lederach is one of our greatest living architects of social transformation. From the inaugural On Being Gathering, a revelatory, joyous exploration of the ingredients of social courage — and how change really happens in generational time.

To reassert the liveliness of ordinary things, precisely in the face of what is hardest and most broken in life and society — this has been Michael Longley’s gift to Northern Ireland as one of its foremost living poets. He is a voice for all of us now, wise and winsome about the force of words in a society that has moved away from sectarianism in living memory. The Good Friday Agreement was signed 20 years ago this month, and social healing is ongoing work to this day.

A literary thinker with a “telescopic view of time”; an astrophysicist with an eye to “cultural evolution towards good.” What unfolds between these two is joyous, dynamic, and unexpectedly vulnerable — rich with cosmic imagining, civic pondering, and even some fresh definitions of the soul. A live taping from the inaugural On Being Gathering at the 1440 Multiversity in California.

“When you’re in a very quiet place, when you’re remembering, when you’re savoring an image, when you’re allowing your mind calmly to leap from one thought to another, that’s a poem.” Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Kindness” has traveled around the world. She grew up between Ferguson, Missouri, Ramallah, and Jerusalem. She insists that language must be a way out of cycles of animosity. She’d have us notice “petite discoveries” that embolden us to choose human nourishment over division. “Before you know what kindness really is / you must lose things.”

“A dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it.” Mary Karr has a captivating ability to give voice to what is funny in life’s most heartbreaking moments. She is beloved for her salty memoirs in which she traces her harrowing childhood in southeast Texas — with a mother who once tried to kill her with a butcher’s knife and her own adult struggles with alcoholism and breakdown. Mary Karr embodies this wryness and wildness in her lesser-known spiritual practice as a devout Catholic — an unexpected move she made in mid-life.

The poet Christian Wiman is giving voice to the hunger and challenge of being religious now. He had a charismatic Texas Christian upbringing, and was later agnostic. He became actively religious again as he found love in his mid 30s, and was diagnosed with cancer. He’s written, “How does one remember God, reach for God, realize God in the midst of one’s life if one is constantly being overwhelmed by that life?”

In the 1960s, Nikki Giovanni was a revolutionary poet of the Black Arts Movement that nourished civil rights. She had a famous dialogue with James Baldwin in Paris in 1971. As a professor at Virginia Tech, she brought beauty and courage by the way of poetry after the shooting there. Today, she is a self-proclaimed space freak and a delighted elder — an adored voice to hip-hop artists and the new forms of social change this generation is creating.

The moral life, Marie Howe says, is lived out in what we say as much as what we do. She became known for her poetry collection What the Living Do, about her brother’s death at 28 from AIDS. Now she has a new book, Magdalene. Poetry is her exuberant and open-hearted way into the words and the silences we live by. She works and plays with a Catholic upbringing, the universal drama of family, the ordinary rituals that sustain us — and how language, again and again, has a power to save us.

Marilyn Nelson has taught poetry and contemplative practice to college students and to West Point cadets. She gives winsome voice to forgotten people from history, shining a light on the complicated ancestry that can help us in what she calls “communal pondering.” To sit with Marilyn Nelson is to gain a newly spacious perspective on what that might mean — and on why, in this troubled moment, Americans young and old are turning to poetry with urgency.

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