This week on The New Yorker Radio Hour, I interviewed Heinz Insu Fenkl. Fenkl is in the process of translating the poems included in that mysterious manuscript said to have been smuggled out of North Korea. He talked about the unusual, propaganda-inspired poetic devices at work in “The Red Years,” and explained what the poems reveal about the North Korean dream of reunification.
I wrote about the poems of the “The Red Years,” by Bandi, which are being translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl for US publication, for The New Yorker.
I recently spent a glorious spring afternoon with Gregory Pardlo, the winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize in poetry. We chatted on his stoop, and then we walked to a few of the neighborhood spots that feature prominently in his poetry– including the Fulton Street Foodtown, which is the setting for his poem “Problema 3.” There, we talked about Baltimore, Toya Graham and being a black parent. Hear my story for The Takeaway and listen to him read and discuss a few other poems on The Takeaway’s site.
UPDATE: A second version of the story I filed for the WNYC newsroom is now online too. In it, we talk about the changing visual landscape of his neighborhood, and why his young daughters have mixed feelings about his Pulitzer.
For National Poetry Month, in April I produced a series of stories on The Takeaway highlighting poems submitted by listeners around the country. The project grew out of the #ThisIsWhere poetry contest WLRN and O Miami held this month for south Floridians; The Takeaway expanded the call for submissions to include listeners around the country, inviting listeners to send us their poems the places that really matter to them.
New Jersey listener Jane Byron described moving to Camden as a young single mom with a dream of revitalizing the city. Worcester, Massachusetts resident Augustine Kanjia wrote about the love he discovered for the city that welcomed him in after he fled war-torn Sierra Leone. A poem from Cathy Wells of east Texas paid tribute to the family land her parents purchased, cleared, and settled together. And in Miami, WLRN listener Eduardo Lis wrote about finding freedom and solace on North Beach as a new immigrant with not much more than a Walgreen’s bathing suit to his name. Hear their stories at: http://www.thetakeaway.org/series/thisiswhere/.
Goli Taraghi’s The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons was the standout of this set:
Born in Tehran in 1939, Goli Taraghi was a teenager during Iran’s 1953 coup and a grown woman during the 1979 revolution. Both upheavals feature prominently in her writing, but the stories collected in The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons are hardly polemical. Political tumult instead merely provides the backdrop of the transformations of her characters, young and old. The adolescent girls of “Flowers of Shiraz” can hardly comprehend the change underway in their country: In the run-up to Mossadeq’s ouster, they ride their bikes through the city, meeting for ice cream, flirting with boys, and racing through the hills, despite the protests on the streets. Mitra, Gol-Maryam and Parivash wear their political allegiances as lightly as their crushes. That’s not to say Taraghi isn’t interested in history’s course; she plays a long game in many of her stories, following the fates of characters across decades and continents. In “The Gentleman Thief,” a math teacher-turned-smalltime-burglar sneaks into the narrator’s house. “Excuse me,” he says. “With your permission I will take this bowl and clock and I will leave.” (Before escaping out the window, he asks for a glass of water, too.) Only many years later does his full story emerge, when the narrator returns from Paris to visit her ailing uncle. Much to her surprise, the former thief is now her uncle’s caretaker and loyal companion. A similarly complicated fate unfolds in “Amina’s Great Journey,” the tale of a big-eyed Bangladeshi maid named Amina who spends her days daydreaming of movie stars. The story charts Amina’s slow transformation from a gullible young girl who is complicit in her greedy husband’s abuse to a confident woman intent on educating her children. Taraghi carves out space for mysterious forces—powerful coincidences, supernatural spirits and uncontrollable compulsions—in her stories. But at the heart of these tales are just ordinary people, caught in strange times.
For the rest of the week’s reviews, head over to The Daily Beast.
When I was in Florida for the Miami Book Fair this past November, I got the chance to see The Takeaway’s Miami affiliate, WLRN, launch a cool crowd-sourced short story project on Twitter. They recruited Junot Diaz to supply their story with an opening line, sent it out over Twitter, and then watched as listeners pieced together a narrative. It was a real, live, many-headed story — messy but compelling.
Inspired by WLRN’s success, last week, my WNYC colleagues and I decided to attempt a similar project– this time with poetry rather than prose.
The inauguration provided a theme. The Takeaway invited poet Kwame Dawes to kick things off with a discussion of inaugural poetry last Wednesday. In that interview, Dawes presented the first (original) line for what would become our crowd-sourced poem: Say nation. In the wake of quarrels, say hope. We Tweeted out the line and asked listeners to follow up with subsequent lines of their own using the hashtag #prezpoem.
Almost immediately, the lines started pouring in. By the end of the week, we’d recieved hundreds of Tweets. On Friday, Dawes returned to the program to survey the lines– and to share the poem he’d assembled from them. (He was joined by poet Elizabeth Alexander, who delivered the 2009 inaugural poem — and who had some very smart things to say about poetry and politics. Hear their whole interview here.)
But it didn’t stop there. For me, the best part of the project was the grand finale, which aired this morning. After picking out a couple dozen of the strongest Tweets, I asked their authors to send audio of themselves reading their line (plus a few stanzas before and after). Piecing together the lines with the help of The Takeaway’s resident audio wizard Jay Cowit, a gorgeous audio poetry mash-up emerged.
This is what audio of the final poem sounded like. And this is what the final text of the poem looked like:
A People’s Poem for the Inauguration
Say that freedom, both the blessing and right,
remain the provenance of open minds.
Acknowledge the dreams that birthed a great nation — say “freedom.”
Speak it into action and watch our dreams reshape the future.
And heart in hand, for the sake of the young,
of the old,
of all those who
wade thru injustice’s tide, say “freedom.”
Say and shout and sing! Progress is a storm and our voices the thunder.
Say “peace” for the hearts of a nation’s people, in times of grief.
Say one, say all. To abandon hope is to further the fall
Say “take my hand” to the downtrodden, the lost.
Sing harmonies that blend in a spectrum of love.
In the dark of failures, say “try”; encourage, persist to light.
Say friend, my hand for your strength, your eyes for my light as we forward together.
Say hope is ours.
Wash away morose pessimism and the failings of the nascent.
Remember our virtue; remember our lofty intent.
In the wake of the struggle, speak, so that together we all may speak courage.
Say “hope,” eyes turned not to the gauzy sky
nor to the brassy gates of power
but to the frost-bitten grass beneath our feet.
I need to hear, again, those antiquated words
in this new light.
As I was waking up for work early yesterday morning, on the other side of the globe Japan was observing a moment of silence for the victims of its twin natural disasters.
When I arrived at the office that day a month before, 32 people had been killed from Japan’s earthquake and tsunami. By the time I left work that day, the estimated death toll was between 200 and 300– a nearly tenfold increase.
Just one week later, the number of people dead or missing from the disaster had risen to more than 20,000– almost twice the population of my hometown.
Now that number is closer to 25,000, and I’m no less stunned by the effects of the disaster. In the past weeks, The Takeaway has heard from nuclear experts, relief workers, professors of Japanese culture, and even Yoko Ono, but there’s no getting around the basic incomprehensibility of the damage.
Yesterday as I was thinking about how the story has unfolded, I stumbled on this moving poem by Tadashi Nishimura:
“It’s safe, but” / they say over and over / that’s worrisome
Watching the story develop in the role of a journalist, my eyes have been trained on the facts (many of them numerical in this “level 7” disaster).
But poetry cuts past the numbers — the thousands dead or missing, and many more without electricity or water, a home or word from their families; the hundreds of millisieverts of radiation being emitted; the billions of dollars in economic losses — and pierces the heart of the catastrophe’s uncertainty. It emerges from the rubble of destruction, confusion, and misinformation to describe the very things which evade measurement: loss, blame, guilt, fear, upheaval, meaninglessness.
Another thing about poetry is its eerie timelessness. From an anthology compiled in 13th century Japan:
Like a driven wave,
Dashed by fierce winds on a rock,
So am I: alone
And crushed upon the shore,
Remembering what has been.