Jason Reynolds is the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature of the Library of Congress — and a magnificent source of wisdom for human society as a whole. He’s driven by compassion and the clear-eyed honesty that the young both possess and demand of the rest of us. Ibram X. Kendi chose him to write the YA companion to Stamped from the Beginning. In his person, Jason Reynolds both embodies and inspires innate human powers of fortitude and imagination. Hear him on “breathlaughter”; the libraries in all of our heads; and a stunning working definition of anti-racism: “simply the muscle that says humans are human… I love you, because you remind me more of myself than not.”
Poets & Poetry
This collection offers episodes and writings from the archive dating back to 2003. To listen to more poems and search our ever-expanding archive, visit our new home for poetry.
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May 27, 2021
Tracy K. Smith and Michael Kleber-Diggs
‘History is upon us... its hand against our back.’
The pandemic memoirs began almost immediately, and now comes another kind of offering — a searching look at the meaning of the racial catharsis to which the pandemic in some sense gave birth and voice and life. Tracy K. Smith co-edited the stunning book, There’s a Revolution Outside, My Love: Letters from a Crisis, a collection of 40 pieces that span an array of BIPOC voices from Edwidge Danticat to Reginald Dwayne Betts, from Layli Long Soldier to Ross Gay to Julia Alvarez. Tracy and Michael Kleber-Diggs, who also contributed an essay, join Krista for a conversation that is quiet and fierce and wise. They reflect inward and outward, backwards and forwards, from inside the Black experience of this pivotal time to be alive.
“Though we have instructions and a map buried in our hearts when we enter this world,” the extraordinary Joy Harjo has written, “nothing quite prepares us for the abrupt shift to the breathing realm.” She is a saxophone player and performer, a visual artist, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, and the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States. She opens up with Krista about her life, dreaming as a way of relating to time and place, and the story matrix that connects us all.
Hanif Abdurraqib’s writing is filled with lyricism, rhythm, people and precision. In his essays and poetry, he introduces readers to a soundscape of Black performance and Black joy: we hear hip-hop and jazz, we hear Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin and Little Richard. Music and performance of every kind are the source of his fascination, focus and wisdom: what makes people cry, or feel safe, or brave; held in struggle, joy, or love. Hanif is interviewed by our colleague, Pádraig Ó Tuama, a poet himself and the host of On Being Studios’ Poetry Unbound podcast, now in its third season.
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.
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 as one of Northern Ireland’s foremost living poets. He is known, in part, as a poet of “the Troubles” — the violent 30-year conflict between Protestants and Catholics, English and Irish. And he is a gentle voice for all of us now, wise and winsome about the everyday, never-finished work of social healing.
Krista interviewed the wise and wonderful writer Ocean Vuong on March 8, 2020 in a joyful, crowded room full of podcasters in Brooklyn. A state of emergency had just been declared in New York around a new virus. But no one guessed that within a handful of days such an event would become unimaginable. Most stunning is how presciently, exquisitely Ocean speaks to the world we have come to inhabit— its heartbreak, its poetry, and its possibilities of both destroying and saving.
“I want to love more than death can harm. And I want to tell you this often: That despite being so human and so terrified, here, standing on this unfinished staircase to nowhere and everywhere, surrounded by the cold and starless night — we can live. And we will.”
March 4, 2021
Naomi Shihab Nye
“Before You Know Kindness As the Deepest Thing Inside...”
It’s pretty intriguing to follow poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s idea that most of us actually “think in poems” whether we know it or not. Rarely, as she points out, do you hear anyone say they feel worse after writing things down. That, she says, can be a tool to survive in hard times like these, to anchor our days and to get into a conversation and community with all of the selves that live on in each of us at any given moment — “your child self, your older self, your confused self, your self-that-makes-a-lot-of-mistakes.” We also hear her read her beloved poem “Kindness” and tell us the story behind it.
January 14, 2021
‘We Go Forward With a Sanity and a Love’
It feels good and right this week to sit with the beloved writer Nikki Giovanni’s signature mix of high seriousness, sweeping perspective, and insistent pleasure. In the 1960s, she was a poet of the Black Arts Movement that nourished civil rights. She’s also a professor at Virginia Tech, where she brought beauty and courage after the 2007 shooting there. And she’s an adored voice to a new generation — an enthusiastic elder to us all — at home in her body and in the world of her lifetime even while she sees and delights in the beyond of it.
December 17, 2020
Jennifer Michael Hecht
‘We Believe Each Other Into Being’
“We are indebted to one another and the debt is a kind of faith — a beautiful, difficult, strange faith. We believe each other into being.” That’s the message the philosopher, poet, and historian, Jennifer Michael Hecht, puts at the center of her unusual writing about suicide. She’s traced how Western civilization has, at times, demonized those who died by suicide, and, at times, celebrated it as a moral freedom. She has struggled with suicidal places in her life and lost friends to it. She proposes a new cultural understanding based on our essential need for each other.
The Cuban American civil engineer turned writer, Richard Blanco, straddles the many ways a sense of place merges with human emotion to make home and belonging — personal and communal. The most recent — and very resonant — question he’s asked by way of poetry is: how to love a country? At Chautauqua, Krista invited him to speak and read from his books. Blanco’s wit, thoughtfulness, and elegance captivated the crowd.
The poet Jericho Brown reminds us to bear witness to the complexity of the human experience, to interrogate the proximity of violence to love, and to look and listen closer so that we might uncover the small truths and surprises in life. His presence is irreverent and magnetic, as the high school students who joined us for this conversation experienced firsthand at the 2018 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. And now he’s won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
Editor’s note: This interview discusses sexual violence and rape.
September 24, 2020
‘Poetry Unbound’ Returns, With Wisdom For Living Now
Poetry rises up in human societies in times of crisis when official words fail us and we lose sight of how to find our way back to one another; how to hear each other’s voices. This week we offer a preview of the next season of our Poetry Unbound podcast, which returns on Monday, Sept. 28. Each episode takes a single poem as its center, with host Pádraig Ó Tuama reading the poem and meditating on it. In this hour, we dwell with six poems that accompany the struggle, strangeness, and possibilities of being alive in this time.
Amid the harshness of life, Mary Oliver found redemption in the natural world and in beautiful, precise language. Oliver, who died in 2019, was one of the most beloved poets of modern times. She sat with Krista for a rare, intimate conversation in 2015.
Marilyn Nelson is a storytelling poet. She has taught poetry and contemplative practice to college students and West Point cadets. She brings a contemplative eye to ordinary goodness in the present and to complicated ancestries we’re all reckoning with now. And she imparts a spacious perspective on what “communal pondering” might mean.
We often explore on this show the places in the human experience where ordinary language falls short. The poet Gregory Orr has wrested gentle, healing, life-giving words from extreme grief and trauma. And right now we are all carrying some magnitude of grief in our bodies.
April 16, 2020
Wendell Berry and Ellen Davis
The Art of Being Creatures
In this intimate conversation between Krista and one of her beloved teachers, we ponder the world and our place in it, through sacred text, with fresh eyes. We’re accompanied by the meditative and prophetic poetry of Wendell Berry, read for us from his home in Kentucky: “Stay away from anything / that obscures the place it is in. / There are no unsacred places; / there are only sacred places / and desecrated places. / Accept what comes of silence.”
In this unsettled moment, we’re returning to the shows we’re longing to hear again. Among them is this 2019 conversation with writer Ross Gay. The ephemeral nature of our being allows him to find delight in all sorts of places (especially his community garden). To be with Gay is to train your gaze to see the wonderful alongside the terrible; to attend to and meditate on what you love, even in the midst of difficult realities and as part of working for justice.
Step away from the week with us.
The Pause is our Saturday morning newsletter, a gathering of threads from the far-flung, ongoing conversation that is The On Being Project. Stay up to date with our latest podcasts, writings, live events, and more.
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