Sure, it’s not uncommon to see educators, scientists, musicians, athletes, actors, writers, and even a Supreme Court justice or a US president or two on PBS, but you don’t. generally not all appear on the same series speaking of poems. – unless you’re Elisa New, the director and host of “Poetry in America.”
Even while recovering from a recent bout of COVID-19, New, a Harvard professor and director of the nonprofit organization Verse Video Education, sounded upbeat in a recent phone interview as she discussed the new season of the series which explores great works of American poetry, including poems by Walt Whitman, Richard Blanco, Evie Shockley, Robert Frost and others.
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If watching a poetry show seems boring or dry to you, well, you haven’t seen the show, which broadcast on PBS, pbssocial.org, poetryinamerica.org and streaming sites. The episodes crackle with vibrant imagery, original music, varied subject matter and high-profile guests which this season include Julia Alvarez, Gloria Estefan, LisaGay Hamilton, Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, Tony Kushner, Tracy K. Smith, DJ Spooky, David Strathairn and Cassandra Wilson, among others. Previous guests include Bono, Nas, Shaquille O’Neal, Senator John McCain, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan and Presidents Bill Clinton and Joe Biden.
“I feel extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to speak to so many distinguished people about poetry,” says New. “Poetry gives voice to things we all care about – ethical, moral, political questions that are hard to answer. And that helps us answer them.
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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. For a show focused on the written word, “Poetry in America” is visually compelling. Can you talk about that?
We try to create episodes that tell very dynamic visual stories. The episode about the poet AR Ammons, and about waterfalls, is a kind of nature episode. But Ammons, in addition to writing poetry, was also a painter. And so we use his paintings as well as the poems.
Edna St. Vincent Millay published in Vanity Fair, Edgar Allan Poe published in women’s magazines. Whitman, many poets published in illustrated magazines, and I think we lose a lot of that when we just think of the poems as these disembodied, decontextualized ahistorical statements from somewhere.
Q. In this episode of Ammons, you also speak with a planetary scientist and ask a geologist about the scientific elements of the poem. How far are you ready to go or do you want to go?
Really far! [laughs] People write poems. Sometimes the poems are just about poetry, but often they are fueled by the passions they have. Either they are like Whitman – they are passionate about the political and cultural issues of their time – or in the case of Ammons, he was a science freak. He studied general science in college, and as he traveled the world observing the features of nature, he looked both like someone who loved romantic poetry and that tradition of looking at the natural world and like someone who looked at a rock and thought, how it formed, who looked at a stream and thought about gravity.
Poet Ed Hirsch, who wrote a poem about basketball, loves form in poetry, but he also loves form in basketball. And the way different areas of human experience speak to each other and can be translated across the bridge of language is what the show is always trying to convey — that each poem isn’t just sitting in your English class. It is touching other worlds.
Q. What are some of your favorite moments of the season?
I love when Gloria Estefan bursts into song – that an important artist of our time felt a poem so deeply and felt it was so in line with what she was trying to do as an artist that she had to singing it was definitely one of my favorite moments of the season. It’s also something that happened the season before, like when I asked Herbie Hancock, ‘What do you think of that Langston Hughes poem,’ and he just turned to the piano and said started playing.
A very emotional but also very funny episode about childbirth has Donna Lynne Champlin, whom you may remember from “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”. I love this episode because it’s about something very profound, having a child, which is an unacknowledged sporting achievement. But the episode is really also very funny.
I’m so honored to have been able to work with Kennedy Ambassador Caroline Kennedy on the Robert Frost episode with Julia Alvarez and David Gergen because the Robert Frost episode is really about how we live in a society civil. And it’s about, you know, some of the toughest questions of our time.
Q. There has been a lot of attention on a Tennessee school board banning the graphic novel “Maus” by Art Spiegelman. What do you think about this?
Great works of art like “Maus”, the bigger they are, the more difficult the topics they help us explore. I’m sad when we ban or censor almost anything, because I believe the best response to speech we don’t like is more speech. But “Maus” by Art Spiegelman is a masterpiece.
Art is sometimes disturbing. This does not mean that all art is suitable for all audiences of all ages. But finding ways as a society to deal with our human failures and experiences that are terrible to consider, I think that’s what art helps us do.
Q. Can you tell us a little about the music of the series?
We consider musicians to be people who are really sensitive to lyric poetry, and many of them – another example would be Mary Chapin Carpenter – who are songwriters or interpreters, as Cassandra Wilson is, of the lyrics of others and have a special kind of insight. Bono was an incredible performer in Allen Ginsberg’s first season. Nas [who discusses Walt Whitman]. Musicians therefore have special magical powers. And we like to include them. We are hiring composers – our episode Whitman, most of the music was composed by a composer extraordinaire named Yvette Jackson.
We work with an amazing composer named Wendy Ultan who also does a lot of illustrations. We also have an extraordinary Native American composer named Jerod Tate, who is also composing for this season. So another thing we’ve been trying to do is bring some really talented new artists into the show.
Q. Do you think or how do you think the pandemic has affected our appreciation of poetry? Or made it more popular?
Oh yes. I think people were slowed down. They have become more aware, more reflective. We walked away from the rush and thought about the meaning in very broad terms of our world: will pandemics continue to sweep the world? How long will I live? How long will the people I love live? These are very important basic questions and we were all referred to them and given more time to reflect.
So yes, poetry was for many people newly discovered as a life tool.