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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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We are in the final weeks as On Being evolves to its next chapter — in a world that is evolving, each of us changed in myriad ways we’ve only begun to process and fathom. So it felt right to listen again to one of our most beloved shows of this post-2020 world. In fact, Krista interviewed the wise and wonderful Ocean Vuong right on the cusp of that turning, in March 2020, in a joyful and crowded room full of podcasters in Brooklyn. Yet what’s most stunning is how presciently and exquisitely Ocean spoke, and continues to speak, to the world we have since come to inhabit — its heartbreak and its poetry, its possibilities for loss and for finding new life.

It has ever and always been true, David Whyte reminds us, that so much of human experience is a conversation between loss and celebration. This conversational nature of reality — indeed, this drama of vitality — is something we have all been shown, willing or unwilling, in these years. Many have turned to David Whyte for his gorgeous, life-giving poetry and his wisdom at the interplay of theology, psychology, and leadership — his insistence on the power of a beautiful question and of everyday words amidst the drama of work as well as the drama of life. The notion of “frontier” — inner frontiers, outer frontiers — weaves through this hour. We surface this as a companion for the frontiers we are all on just by virtue of being alive in this time.

Pádraig Ó Tuama is a friend, teacher, and colleague to the work of On Being. But before that was true, Krista took a revelatory trip to meet him at his home in Northern Ireland, a place that has known sectarianism and violent fracture and has evolved, not to perfection, yet to new life and once unimaginable repair and relationship. Our whole world screams of fracture, more now than when Krista sat with Pádraig in 2016. This conversation is a gentle, welcoming landing for pondering and befriending hard realities we are given. As the global educator Karen Murphy, another friend of On Being and of Pádraig, once said to Krista: “Let’s have the humility and the generosity to step back and learn from these places that have had the courage to look at themselves and look at where they’ve been and try to forge a new path with something that resembles ‘together’ … Right now we should be taking these stories and these examples and these places and filling our pockets and our lungs and our hearts and our minds with them and learning deeply.” And that’s what this hour with Pádraig invites.

The late poet Mary Oliver is among the most beloved writers of modern times. Amidst the harshness of life, she found redemption in the natural world and in beautiful, precise language. She won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award among her many honors — and published numerous collections of poetry and also some wonderful prose. Krista met with her in 2015 for this rare, intimate conversation. We offer it up anew, as nourishment.

No conversation we’ve ever done has been more beloved than this one. The Irish poet, theologian, and philosopher insisted on beauty as a human calling. He had a very Celtic, lifelong fascination with the inner landscape of our lives and with what he called “the invisible world” that is constantly intertwining what we can know and see. This was one of the last interviews he gave before his unexpected death in 2008. But John O’Donohue’s voice and writings continue to bring ancient mystical wisdom to modern confusions and longings.

The esteemed writer Jane Hirshfield has been a Zen monk and a visiting artist among neuroscientists. She has said this: “It’s my nature to question, to look at the opposite side. I believe that the best writing also does this … It tells us that where there is sorrow, there will be joy; where there is joy, there will be sorrow … The acknowledgement of the fully complex scope of being is why good art thrills … Acknowledging the fullness of things,” she insists, “is our human task.” And that’s the ground Krista meanders with Jane Hirshfield in this conversation: the fullness of things — through the interplay of Zen and science, poetry and ecology — in her life and writing.

The wonderful writer Luis Alberto Urrea says that a deep truth of our time is that “we miss each other.” 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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

“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.

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