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With 'Dear Poetry' podcast, journalist finds reprieve from burnout

MILES PARKS, HOST:

And finally today, you know we love poetry. And a new podcast says it might even be able to fix your problems. The "Dear Poetry" podcast is like a poetry advice column where listeners call in and share something that's troubling them. Then a guest poet or author finds a poem that connects with the listener's situation. One caller expressed his worries for humanity, and author Cheryl Strayed responded with "Good Bones" by Maggie Smith.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DEAR POETRY")

CHERYL STRAYED: Life is short, though I keep this from my children. Life is short, and I've shortened mine in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways, a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways I'll keep from my children. The world is at least 50% terrible - and that's a conservative estimate - though I keep this from my children.

PARKS: We wanted to talk more about this concept and even get some recommendations for ourselves. And for that, we called Luisa Beck. She's the host of "Dear Poetry," which is a podcast distributed by Audible. I should also note here that Audible is a subsidiary of Amazon, and both provide funding for NPR. Luisa, welcome and thanks so much for joining us.

LUISA BECK: Thank you so much for having me. I'm really excited to be here.

PARKS: Yeah. Can you just tell us a little bit about how you thought up this podcast? It's so unique.

BECK: Yeah. So I actually got the idea from this book that I got as a teenager from my East German godfather. He loved poetry. And it's called "Erich Kastner's Lyrical Apothecary." And it was written in the 1930s, and Erich Kastner was a dissident and satirist and poet. And he wrote this book and sorted poems by ailments. So the table of contents reads something like, you know, if aging is putting you in a bad mood, turn to pages 21, 56 and 60. And so it goes on and on.

And, you know, at the height of COVID, I was reporting in Berlin for The Washington Post. And I had this time when I was feeling just a lot of despair and burnout because it was just so devastating to see, you know, what is happening. And I remembered this book, and I picked it up and I just - like, I was laughing and sort of crying and just finding bits of reprieve and comfort. I just remembered that poetry can offer these insights and relief and just a different way of viewing and seeing the world.

And I thought about, what would an audio version of this look like? What would it be if callers could share their problems and dilemmas, big and small, and - you know, and some of my favorite writers and poets could respond with poems that have moved them or inspired or comforted them? And that's how it started.

PARKS: Yeah. I want to get to some recommendations for people because I know that over the last few months and really even the last couple years, it feels like, between the pandemic and between all of the kind of economic uncertainty that's happening in the world, you know, everything in our politics, people are feeling burnt out. They're feeling disheartened. I wonder, is there a poem that you have in mind that could bring people some comfort or some peace in these times?

BECK: One poem that came to mind - it speaks about anger. It speaks about feeling anger. And I think that anger is, like, really important. And it's a sign that something is wrong or that something we sort of care about has been hurt. So it's called "Angier, North Carolina," or "Angier, N.C." And it's written by the poet Eric Tran. And Angier is a town in North Carolina, but the speaker in this poem, he's standing at the checkout of a Harris Teeter supermarket. And he reads that name and confuses it for the word angrier because, you know, that's sort of his emotional state at that moment. So, yeah, the poem - it leaves a lot up for interpretation, but I think it - yeah, it really beautifully expresses the difficulty of holding both anger and rage about injustice but also this love that's underneath it. So let's see. I - do you want me to read the full poem?

PARKS: Yeah, I would love to hear you read it.

BECK: OK. Let's see. All right. "Angier, N.C." by Eric Tran.

(Reading) I read about the winner of the Harris Teeter gift card and saw Angrier, N.C., a mistake small enough to slip in your pocket in the checkout line. But I admit, I'm angry. Four of my friends died this year. I would have more save-the-dates for wakes than weddings on my fridge if 30-year-olds did that. You maybe see now why I am angry. My friend said he was scared to die alone, and I said he was silly instead of, let's get married. I admit my fist has tightened around my steering wheel as if to say I am OK if I'm not screaming, as if to say look at all the control I have.

(Reading) I admit I am so angry that I cry at surprise proposals now. I'm so angry, I write down everyone's birthday. So angry, I demand unending hugs. I am lousy and bloated with love. In anger, I apologize for not congratulating you soon, Lisa M. of Angier, N.C. I'm angry, and I wish you the bounty of double coupon day, of dented cans sold for cheap, a slab of bloody roast with the most perfect marble, a flat of strawberries near spoil right when they're sweetest.

PARKS: Wow. I - yeah, I mean, the softness - the connection of the tenderness and the anger there is just unbelievably powerful.

BECK: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I love this line - you know, there's so many lines that I love, but this, you know, I am so angry, I write down everyone's birthday. So angry, I demanded unending hugs. I am lousy and bloated with love. Like, to me, it expresses this idea that underneath anger there is love - you know? - because I think that we get angry when something that we love gets hurt. And I love that this poem acknowledges that. And it also suggests that, you know, the thing to do with anger and despair is to reach out to the people we love and to remember their birthdays and even to wish, you know, a stranger that they get to taste the maximum sweetness of a strawberry. I think that sort of well-wishing and that reaching out is an antidote to despair.

PARKS: Yeah. I want to selfishly ask for another recommendation, specifically for me. I'm curious about - I'm getting married in September of this year, and I have been thinking a lot about just what makes, you know, a long-lasting, healthy, happy relationship. And I'm curious on if you have any poems for that specific set of circumstances.

BECK: Yes, I love this. It's not quite a dilemma, but I love this question. It's so good.

PARKS: (Laughter) I mean, it's a lifelong dilemma, right?

BECK: It is.

PARKS: It's trying to keep, you know, your relationship, you know, working and positive and, you know, that's - it - exactly, yeah.

BECK: Well, Miles, I have the perfect poem for you. There's a poem called "Here," and it's by Grace Paley. She was an American poet and short story writer, and she died in 2007. And you could also say that it's a tried-and-true poem for successful long-term relationships because it was recommended to me by friends who recited it at their wedding, actually. And they've been together for six years and very happily married. So, yeah, let me read it to you.

PARKS: OK, a good sign, a good sign.

BECK: (Laughter) "Here" by Grace Paley.

(Reading) Here I am in the garden, laughing, an old woman with heavy breasts and a nicely mapped face. How did this happen? Well, that's who I wanted to be. At last, a woman in the old style, sitting, stout thighs apart under a big skirt, grandchild sliding on, off my lap. A pleasant summer perspiration. That's my old man across the yard. He's talking to the meter reader. He's telling him the world's sad story, how electricity is oil or uranium and so forth. I tell my grandson, run over to your grandpa. Ask him to sit beside me for a minute. I am suddenly exhausted by my desire to kiss his sweet explaining lips.

PARKS: Be careful. I might end up stealing that for my own wedding ceremony. That's gorgeous.

BECK: (Laughter).

PARKS: I'll credit you. I guess I'll credit Grace Paley.

BECK: Yeah. We can credit my friends. I think they had such a great idea. I mean, I love that this poem describes, you know, not a honeymoon love but the love of two people who know each other's quirks and flaws and who have also changed over the years. And despite that, you know, they lean in towards each other - you know, despite the summer perspiration and grandkids and stout thighs and all of that. And I also love this phrase exhausted by desire, which I had never, you know, heard those words put together before. But, yeah - but because - they sort of made sense to me because it seems like when you're with someone for, you know, for years and decades, you know, life is really exhausting. And love can have its ups and downs, but still making a life with someone and leaning in and - you know, that is worthwhile. So I thought this poem, like, really beautifully expresses that.

PARKS: Yeah. Thank you. Lastly, Luisa, I don't want to put you on the spot. But whenever we - at the end of our interviews with musicians, we ask them if they want a song to play them out. And I almost wonder, is there a poem that you love, you know, that you can recommend for people - anything that you read recently that you loved, that you want to recommend people go check out.

BECK: One of my favorite poets - his name is Ross Gay, and he wrote this book called "Be Holding." It's actually about basketball. It's about this move made by Dr. J., where he is sort of reaching and almost flying through the basketball court. And I'm a big fan of basketball, but the poem is about so much more than that. It is about American history. It is about slavery. It is also about reaching. It is about holding each other. It is utterly beautiful and heartbreaking, and I just - I was really, really moved by it.

PARKS: Luisa Beck is the host of the "Dear Poetry" podcast, which is distributed by Audible. Luisa Beck, thank you so much for being here.

BECK: Thank you. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.