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The U.S. election will be over soon but this year has surfaced deep human challenges that remain our callings — and possibilities for growth — for the foreseeable future. So this week and next, we’re taking the long view — first with journalist John Biewen, on the stories of our families and hometowns, what it means to be human, and what it means to be white. This conversation between Krista and John starts simply — tracing the racial story of our time through the story of a single life. It’s an exercise each of us can do. And it is a step toward a more whole and humane world, starting with ourselves.

What is the story of your name?

In this poem, the poet calls on place, ancestors, and history to bear witness to the dignity of their name. They recall how their ancestors “acknowledged my roots grew in two / places” and how their name “is the definition of resilience.” With Black/Indigenous, Pasifika, and West Asian heritage, the poet speaks to those who mispronounce their name: “Say it right or don’t say it at all / for I am Meleika.”

In strength and defiance, Lucille Clifton celebrates her Black body and her survival. When have you said or heard words like this?

Calling herself “both nonwhite and woman,” Lucille Clifton glories in her shape and fact of her life in these two poems. She invites the reader to witness everything she’s lived through, and to celebrate the flourishing life that she has created in spite of everything that has tried to kill her.

How can we keep walking forward, and even find renewal along the way, in this year of things blown apart? How can we hold to our sense of what is whole and true and undamaged, even in the face of loss? These are some of the questions Sharon Salzberg, a renowned teacher of meditation and Buddhist practices, has been taking up in virtual retreats this year, which have helped ground many — including Krista — on hard days. She teaches how to stay present to the world while learning kindness toward yourself.

How do you speak of and toyour body?

This is a poem dedicated to the body. “The body is a nation I have not known,” Chris Abani writes. Throughout the 21 lines of this work, he describes lungs, skin, bone, touch, smells, sweat, armpits and hunger. For all the embodiedness of the poem, there is disembodiedness too: the poem continues to question how to truly be in your own body.

Are there places you’ve lived or visited that others would disregard? What do you see in them that others might miss?

This poem takes place at night, describing a scene from a town on the edge of a city. The poet feels at home in a “nowhere” town, with cattle pacing in the fields, boarded houses, and rowdy filling stations. This is a place that through the eyes of some would be considered a “shit town,” but to the poet it is home. 

An hour to sit with, and be filled. Two voices — one from the last century, one from ours — who inspire inward contemplation as an essential part of meeting the challenges in the world. Howard Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited, it was said, was carried by Martin Luther King Jr. alongside the Bible and the U.S. Constitution. Thurman is remembered as a philosopher and theologian, a moral anchor, a contemplative, a prophet, and pastor to the civil rights leaders. Rev. Otis Moss III, himself the son of one of those leaders, is a bridge to Thurman’s resonance in the present day, and between the Black freedom movements then and now.

Is there a character (from history, politics, or literature) whose story you want to tell from a new perspective? 

This poem is told from the point of view of “Lot’s wife,” a biblical character who was turned into salt because she looked back to see the burning of Sodom, her home city. The poet shows us what Lot’s wife sees: towers swaying, guitars popping, dogs weeping and roosters howling. By mixing the modern with the everlasting, Lot’s wife is humanized and justified. 

After Arlie Hochschild published her book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, just before the 2016 election, it came to feel prescient. And the conversation Krista had with her in 2018 has now come to point straight to the heart of 2020 — a year in which many of us might say we feel like strangers in our own land and in our own world. Hochschild created a field within sociology looking at the social impact of emotion. She explains how our stories and truths — what we try to debate as issues in our social and political lives — are felt, not merely factual. And she shares why, as a matter of pragmatism, we have to take emotion seriously and do what feels unnatural: get curious and caring about the other side.

Is there a moment of beauty you can recall that’s like a blessing for you? 

This poem takes place at twilight in a field just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota, where the poet and a friend encounter two ponies who come “gladly out of the willows / To welcome my friend and me.”  

What’s a chance encounter in a city that’s never left you?

In this poem the speaker is asked a question by a stranger while standing near the water outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. “Pardon me Old School he / says you know is this a wishing well?” He initially brushes off the stranger, but something happens: a shared coin, a well, a wish that is answered as it is made.

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.

What stories or myths bring you strength?

This poem tells the story of a person living with invisible chronic pain who finds unexpected fortitude from a girl dressed as a superhero. Their encounter, “at the swell of the muddy Mississippi,” doesn’t have a fantasy ending, but instead finds strength and glory in bodies and myth. 

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.

Subscribe to Poetry Unbound on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Overcast, or wherever you listen.

Music is a source of solace and nourishment in the best of times and the hardest of times. It has been for so many of us in this year of pandemic, and Cloud Cult is on every playlist Krista makes. Craig Minowa started the band in 1995. Its trajectory was cathartically changed the day he and his wife Connie woke up to find that their firstborn two-year-old son, Kaidin, had mysteriously died in his sleep. The music that has emerged ever since has spanned the human experience from the rawest grief to the fiercest hope. We welcomed Craig and the whole Cloud Cult ensemble to On Being Studios in Minneapolis, for conversation and music, in 2016.

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