Podcasts

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Photo courtesy of Adrian Matejka

Poet and NEA Big Read Author

Jack Johnson is an unlikely subject for a book of poetry. But that’s exactly what poet and NEA Big Read author Adrian Matejka did when he wrote The Big Smoke-- a collection of 52 poems about Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight world champion. He held the title from 1908 to 1915 when Jim Crow ruled and white America was outraged—by Johnson’s holding the title, certainly; but, also by his propensity to live large and live large with a white wife. White America called for “a great white hope” to take the title from Johnson, and that “hope” emerged when boxer Jim Jeffries comes out of retirement to take up the challenge. The Big Smoke follows Johnson’s journey from the son of formerly-enslaved parents to the victor in the ”fight of the century” against Jeffries through the perspective of Johnson himself and occasional observations of three women who figure prominently in his life. In this podcast, Adrian Matejka takes us through his interest in Johnson and boxing (spoiler: it was his mother who introduced him to both!), reaching across a century to find Johnson’s voice and the music he finds in poetry.

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Photo by Tony Cook

Two-time National Book Award winner

Today, we re-visit a discussion with two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward about her memoir Men We Reaped. In her memoir, Jesmyn attempts to understand the death of five young black men, including her beloved brother Joshua. But more broadly, her subject is what it means to be a black man in the south. Jesmyn uses her formidable literary skill to give voice and texture to poor, rural, black Mississippians struggling against poverty and racism in a world with no forgiveness. It’s an important and beautifully-written work with much to teach us today. And, Jesmyn Ward is as clear-eyed and thoughtful in discussion as she is in her writing.

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Photo by Andria Lo

Author and 2020 NEA Literature Fellow

Author and 2020 NEA Literature Fellow Vanessa Hua has a sense of humor and a feel for an apt turn of phrase. She describes her novel A River of Stars as “a pregnant Chinese Thelma and Louise.” She’s just as wry in her description of her book of short stories, Deceit and Other Possibilities, whose theme she says is “model minorities behaving badly.” And while both descriptions are spot-on, they only hint at the complexity of the lives she explores in fiction. She vividly explores the lives of immigrants in San Francisco’s Chinatown, single mothers hustling to support themselves and their children while agonizing over the daily separation, and first-generation parents and second-generation children facing a divide as wide as the Yangtze River or San Francisco Bay. Hua began her career as a journalist, and she has a keen ear for the struggles of people on the streets and has the ability to give them voice. In this podcast, she talks about her experiences as a journalist, as a writer of fiction, as a mother, and as a second-generation Chinese American. She is clear these experiences don’t exist in silos but are always informing one another.

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Photo by Dezel Golart

Author, National Book Award winner and four-time host of POL finals

Elizabeth Acevedo is a poet and novelist whose books are alive with Dominican-American and Afro- Caribbean culture and community and have at their centers teenage girls learning to navigate life, relaxing into and pushing against their upbringings. A National Poetry Slam Champion, Liz’s second book The Poet X won the National Book Award for young people’s literature in 2018. (And in case you haven’t read it—and if you haven’t, you should-- The Poet X is a novel in verse that tells the story of 15 year-old Xiomara as she wrestles with her mother’s expectations and discovers herself through slam poetry.)

Since The Poet X, Elizabeth Acevedo has written two more highly acclaimed books: With the Fire on High, a novel told in prose about Emoni a high school student who’s a mother and who’s also determined to become a chef. And now, most recently, Clap When You Land -- once again a novel in verse—that has as its jumping off point a tragic plane crash, the lies and secrets it reveals, and what’s lost and what’s found in the face of terrible grief. Clap When You Land looks at family and community across two cultures from the perspective of two generations of women—all fierce, capable and imperfect. Elizabeth Acevedo is as lively and charismatic a guest as she is a writer. In this podcast, she talks about her own family who inflamed her imagination with stories, her love for the Dominican Republic even as she understands its flaws, the profound difficulty of uprooting oneself and leaving one country for another, and the challenges and joy of having deep connections to multiple worlds.

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Photo by Makita Wilbur

Poet Laureate of the US and NEA Big Read author

Joy Harjo (Muscogee/Creek) the Poet Laureate of the United States (and NEA Big Read author) joins me this week for a far-ranging conversation about poetry and music. We talk about—and she reads poems from—her most recent collection An American Sunrise. She talks about her family history on the Trail of Tears and how it led to An American Sunrise, her long deep relationship with the spirit of poetry, her equally long love of jazz and her commitment to honoring her poetic ancestors as well as her familial ones. It was a great conversation—she’s deeply thoughtful, engaging and funny. If you enjoy the interview half as much I did, you’ll love it.

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Courtesy of Amy Stolls

Director of Literary Arts

The National Endowment for the Arts' Literary Arts Director Amy Stolls joins me for a conversation about books that can see us through difficult times. From children's books to YA to short stories to novels...and oh yes, there's poetry too, we discuss the many ways books can bring the world to us as we shelter in place. Amy and I also talk about the almost magical power of books to open ourselves to imagined worlds in other universes and then intensely inhabit the perspective of a single human being in a barren landscape. And, Amy is known as the agency wit--so it's a fun podcast! The books we discussed are below:

Metropolitan Stories: A Novel by Christine Coulson

Culinaria Italy: Pasta Pesto Passion edited by Claudia Piras

The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman

Here by Richard McGuire

In the Distance by Hernan Diaz

Severance by Ling Ma

At the Same Moment Around the World by Clotilde Perrin

The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies

Barn 8 by Deb Olen Unferth

The Murderer's Ape by Jacob Wegelius

All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva

American Journal: Fifty poems for our Time, selected and introduced by Tracy K. Smith

 

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Photo by Kirsten Lara Getchell

Playwright

It may come as a surprise to discover that in the 2019-2020 season, (Shakespeare aside) Lauren Gunderson is the most produced playwright in America. She’s achieved this in no small part by putting women’s stories at the center of her work. And she doesn’t just create the lone female protagonist—she has women interacting with other women-- sharing dreams, hopes, disappointments and successes. Her protagonists who are smart, funny, and determined and if they’re involved with science—so much the better. Science is a topic Gunderson returns to again and again in her work. As Lauren said in our interview, “I think theater is made for the biggest questions we can manage, and science like religion, like the arts-- is the thing that says, “What are we doing here?” That literally was the question at the center of her play Silent Sky that was recently produced at Fords’ Theater in Washington DC (and partially funded by the NEA). Silent Sky is based on a turn of the century astronomer named Henrietta Leavitt, who worked at the Harvard Observatory. Although she is little-known, Leavitt’s work and discoveries are crucial to our current understanding of the stars and the universe. In this podcast, Lauren talks about Silent Sky, her adaption of Peter Pan (in which Wendy is an aspiring scientist), her love of theater and science, and most crucially, what changes when women take the center stage.

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Photo by Keith Bormuth

Television writer

Cord Jefferson began his career as a journalist, but six years ago he began writing for television. Since that time, he has put together a jaw-dropping resume—writing for shows like Succession, Master of None, The Good Place (for which he just received an NAACP Image Award) and the ground-breaking series Watchmen. Watchmen is a super-hero series set in an alternative world that nonetheless shares much of our racial history. In fact, the series opens with 1921’s Greenwood Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma—where whites rioted and razed Greenwood, a prosperous black part of town, killing hundreds of African Americans and destroying the community. A bold way to begin a super-hero series—but then Watchmen is a smart and profound examination of African-American history and how it shapes our world today. In fact, the episode Jefferson wrote with showrunner Damon Lindelof has a character living out her grandfather’s memories of vicious racism in the 1930s. In this podcast, Jefferson takes us inside the writers’ room of Watchmen; we talk about Lindelof’s vision for the series and how the writers worked together to bring it to fruition. We also talk about the process of collaboration, world building, and weaving real history into a fantasy series. Jefferson is immensely talented and a great storyteller.

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Photo courtesy of Nate Powell

Cartoonist and 2016 National Book Award winner

Cartoonist Nate Powell is the 2016 National Book Award co-winner for Young People’s Literature. He shared the prize with Rep John Lewis and Andrew Aydin for the graphic memoir/history March. March is a trilogy, and it tells the story of the Civil Rights movement through the eyes of Congressman John Lewis. From a very young age, John Lewis was involved in the fight for racial equality through non-violent action. As one of the leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis was present at pivotal moments in the struggle for civil rights, including lunch-counter sit-ins, freedom rides, Mississippi Freedom Summer and the March across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In this week’s podcast, Nate Powell talks about how he captured those moments in cartoons, the challenges of representing figures who well-known like Dr, Martin Luther King, Jr. and how he grappled with portraying the horrifying violence endured by protestors in a medium so often occupied with super-heroes and super-villains. Nate is thoughtful, smart, and in love with cartooning. I learned a lot.

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Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Palmer

Filmmaker

Christmas has come early this year: filmmaker Jeffrey Palmer has made N. Scott Momaday: Words from a Bear a documentary about novelist, poet and painter N. Scott Momaday. Momaday is an artistic force of nature, and it's a nature embedded in Kiowa art, culture and history. He's received many awards; most notably the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Literature--the first and only time it's been awarded to Native-American writer--and the 2007 National Medal of Arts. For his long career, N. Scott Momaday has been profoundly influential for Native artists and extremely significant for anyone interested in American culture. Although they are generations apart, Momaday was an influence on Jeffrey Palmer. Kiowa and born in the same area of Oklahoma as Scott, Jeffrey met him when he was a kid and while overwhelmed by his size and deep voice, (Jeffrey remembers it was like shaking hands with a catcher's mitt), he also was instantly inspired by him and the possibilities he represented. And thirty years later, he found himself making a documentary about M. Scott Momaday for American Masters. Jeff and I talk, of course, about Scott Momaday and his deep importance to American culture, as well as Jeff's decision to present Scott's story within the larger story of the Kiowa and add visual elements of magical realism. (It's a visually stunning film that partners beautifully with Scott's poems and stories.) We also have a couple of excerpts from the documentary, so you'll get to hear N. Scott Momaday distinctive voice and get a sense of his captivating presence. He is a national treasure.

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