We’re hungry for fresh ways to tell hard truths and redemptive stories, for language that would elevate and embolden rather than demean and alienate. Elizabeth Alexander shares her sense of what poetry works in us — and in our children — and why it may become more relevant, not less so, in hard and complicated times.
Words Make Worlds
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside / you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
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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.”
“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.
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.
There is a question rolling around even in the most secular of corners: What do religious people and traditions have to teach as we do the work ahead of repairing, renewing, and remaking our societies, our life together? Krista’s conversation this week with Rabbi Ariel Burger, a student of the late, extraordinary Elie Wiesel, delves into theological and mystical depths that are so much richer and more creative than is often imagined even when that question is raised.
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.
You can’t think about something if you can’t talk about it, says Eula Biss. The writer helpfully opens up lived words and ideas like complacence, guilt, and opportunity hoarding for an urgent reckoning with whiteness. This conversation was inspired by her 2015 essay in The New York Times, “White Debt.”
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.
“When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up to become their brothers’ keepers,” Rebecca Solnit writes. “And that purposefulness and connectedness bring joy even amidst death, chaos, fear, and loss.” In this moment of global crisis, we’re returning to the conversations we’re longing to hear again and finding useful right now. A singular writer and thinker, Solnit celebrates the unpredictable and incalculable events that so often redeem our lives, both solitary and public. She searches for the hidden, transformative histories inside and after events we chronicle as disasters in places like post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans.
January 30, 2020
Pádraig Ó Tuama and Marilyn Nelson
A New Imagination of Prayer
Pádraig Ó Tuama and Marilyn Nelson are beloved teachers to many; to bring them together was a delight and a balm. Nelson is a poet and professor and contemplative, an excavator of stories that would rather stay hidden yet lead us into new life. Ó Tuama is a poet, theologian, conflict mediator, and the host of our new podcast, Poetry Unbound. Together, they venture unexpectedly into the hospitable — and intriguingly universal — form of poetry that is prayer.
Editor’s note: This episode includes a preview from our new season of Poetry Unbound featuring a poem by Joy Harjo.
“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.
November 21, 2019
Marilynne Robinson and Marcelo Gleiser
The Mystery We Are
Novelist Marilynne Robinson and physicist Marcelo Gleiser are both passionate about the majesty of science, and they share a caution about what they call our modern “piety” toward science. They connect thrilling dots among the current discoveries about the cosmos and the new territory of understanding our own minds. We brought them together for a joyous, heady discussion of the mystery we are.
Writer David Treuer’s work tells a story that is richer and more multi-dimensional than the American history most of us learned in school. Treuer grew up on the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. At the time of our conversation with him in 2008, he was part of an ongoing project to document the grammar and usage of the Ojibwe language. He says the recovery of tribal languages and names is part of a fuller recovery of our national story — and the human story. And it holds unexpected observations altogether about language and meaning that most of us express unselfconsciously in our mother tongues.
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.
Writer and photographer Teju Cole says he is “intrigued by the continuity of places, by the singing line that connects them all.” He attends to the border, overlap and interplay of things — from Brahms and Baldwin to daily technologies like Google. To delve into his mind and his multiple arts is to meet this world with creative raw materials for enduring truth and quiet hope.
She has called Brain Pickings, her invention and labor of love, a “human-powered discovery engine for interestingness.” What Maria Popova really delivers, to hundreds of thousands of people each day, is wisdom of the old-fashioned sort, presented in new ways. She cross-pollinates between philosophy and design, physics and poetry, the intellectual and the experiential. We explore her gleanings on what it means to lead a good life — intellectually, creatively, and spiritually.
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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