MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.
We're continuing our series on National Poetry Month. TELL ME MORE will be celebrating the art of poetry all through April, and we're sharing your poetry on the air. We'll tell you how you can send your poetic work to us in just a minute.
But first, O, the Oprah magazine, is also celebrating National Poetry Month with its first-ever poetry issue. It features interviews with poet Mary Oliver, poet laureate W.S. Merwin and several well-known names like Diane Sawyer, Demi Moore and, of course, Oprah, talking about why poetry is important to them.
Here to tell us more is Susan Casey, editor-in-chief of O magazine. She's with us from our bureau in New York. And in a moment, we'll also be joined by Aracelis Girmay, a writer who was featured in O's poetry issue as one of eight emerging women poets. And she'll be here to help those who might be just a little bit intimated by poetry learn how to appreciate it.
But first, Susan, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. SUSAN CASEY (Editor-in-Chief, O Magazine): Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Now, obviously, there's much more to the April issue, but what prompted you to focus on poetry for the April issue?
Ms. CASEY: Well, I'm remembering back to a Sunday morning, and I got a call from Oprah early. And she was very excited. I think it was sometime in the fall. She wanted to tell me about an idea that she had hatched with Maria Shriver, who is the guest editor for this issue, to do a whole issue devoted to poetry. And I was - I mean, I was thrilled.
MARTIN: One of the things about the edition is that many people talk about what poetry means to them. You have these interviews with people like Jesse Norman, Steven Spielberg, Diane Sawyer, of course, Oprah, talking about what poetry means to them. Was there a common thread?
Ms. CASEY: The thing that we really wanted to convey with the poetry issue is that poetry resonates with everybody. Every human heart is touched by poetry, and we are the most mainstream mass women's magazine out there. And we reach one in eight women in America, 16 million readers. We believe that every one of those women cares about poetry. We don't think poetry belongs in the ivory tower, where it sometimes kind of gets relegated and people get intimidated by it.
And I was, of course, fortunate enough to spend some time with W.S. Merwin and write about him. And that was his message. You can read it and be moved by it. You don't have to have your PhD in English literature to do that.
MARTIN: Well, you know, talk about intimidating. I mean, W.S. Merwin has won every literary prize there is. He's written - what?
Ms. CASEY: Twenty-six books.
MARTIN: Twenty-six books. I love that he's saying that you don't have to be intimidated by it, but we are.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CASEY: He's the most successful and accessible.
MARTIN: Well, you had the very tough assignment of going out to Maui to interview him, where he lives on, apparently, a beautiful piece of land that he has restored. What do you think he would say poetry is for?
Ms. CASEY: I think that he would say that poetry is a common thread that can access us humans, and he believes that thread is the imagination. We have the ability to sort of project ourselves empathetically into another character. And he believes that that characteristic is what we need to do more of these days.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our celebration of National Poetry Month, and helping us celebrate, Susan Casey, editor-in-chief of O, the Oprah magazine. The current issue, the April issue is dedicated to poetry. And in addition to editing the magazine, Susan Casey also had an interview with W.S. Merwin, who is the 17th poet laureate of the United States.
And joining us now is one of the poets featured in the issue, Aracelis Girmay. She is assistant professor of poetry at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. And she joins us from our bureau in New York, also.
Welcome to you. Thank you for joining us.
Professor ARACELIS GIRMAY (Poetry, Hampshire College): Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Well, so the same question that I asked Susan and that I asked her by extension to give us a thought from W.S. Merwin: What do you think poetry is for?
Prof. GIRMAY: Hm. So many things. I mean, I think of poetry as a place to connect with language, with emotion, with the world, and a deep, deep place to grow as a human being. I think this idea that you can sit inside of a poem that was written hundreds of years ago and literally your body changes, you know. I'll get the chills when I read a Nazim Hikmet poem, or my heart starts beating fast when I would read Gwendolyn Brooks. And I think, oh, language can do that. You can arrive, you know, to a page and be moved and change.
MARTIN: Now, you have a very diverse background. Anybody who's seen the Oprah spread will see a beautiful picture of you, will also learn that you have a very diverse background. Your roots are in the African-American tradition, from Puerto Rico and Eritrea. And, you know, the American poetry tradition also includes many diverse voices. But I'm curious, Aracelis, do you find though, when you're first trying to introduce students to poetry is there still kind of a hurdle? Are there many people who say gee, I don't understand. That's not for me. That's just for fancy people?
Prof. GIRMAY: Yes. I mean certainly, I've had the good fortune of getting to work with young people - elementary school age, middle schoolers, high schoolers adults, college-age students - and some people are absolutely thrilled and open-armed about poetry. Some people think that's not for me. I don't know how to approach it or people like me don't write poems. Their sense of what poetry is it's something that's hard to penetrate.
And one of the most wonderful things is getting to bring the writing of poets who people don't think of first when they think of poetry. A lot of my students they've heard maybe of Shakespeare and Eliot. But it's really exciting to say yes, Shakespeare and yes, Eliot and yes, Neruda, you know, and yes, there are poems written in Spanish and English and yes, there are poems written in Tigrinya.
But I also want to say that some students come and their families love poems and poetry, and they really have a sense of that.
MARTIN: Well, what's your device to somebody who would like to get into poetry, would like to learn to appreciate it, but isn't lucky enough to have you as a teacher?
Prof. GIRMAY: I...
MARTIN: But they're here now, so what would you tell them?
Prof. GIRMAY: I'd say, you know, my father said to me a couple of months ago, he said, you know, the problem and he's an engineer - he said the problem with poetry is no one can understand it and he kind of laughed. You know, I think once take time. I think sometimes you read a poem and you can you get a layer of it instantly. And I encourage myself and people to read the poems out loud. Hear the music. Allow the poem to help you to ask questions and really spend time with it. Read it over and over and over again. And I've lived with poems for years and years and the same poem will reveal a new lesson to me five years later.
Prof. GIRMAY: And I think it's just matter of living with them, taking time.
MARTIN: Aracelis, would you give us a sample of your work? Do you have something with you that you could read for us that we could enjoy?
Prof. GIRMAY: Okay. This poem is called "Explaining the Land Mine to the Small Child."
(Reading) Weapon, shrapnel, like uncontrollable fire. Like knives, angry sun, killer of everything. What words anyway can be used to warn the children when no word is as terrible as the hand and the mine. What words anyway can be used to warn the children who sing so beautifully the names of their favorite friends, of the heart and the moon to the roosters in the yard?
MARTIN: Hmm. That's very poignant. What was your inspiration?
Prof. GIRMAY: I had spent a lot of time in Eritrea. One of my cousins is, his job is to go and look for land mines. And I was thinking of language and what we use language for and how beautiful it is and also how it reflects the imagination, so we need language to explain all kinds of things. And so I was thinking about, you know, how do you explain this job to, you know, the nephew who is two years old, three years old? And the fact that it's a part of the reality. I can walk outside in Brooklyn and not be afraid of a land mine and I think I was thinking of the beauty of the world and also the difficulty and the terror right next to each other and then these young kids who sing to the roosters also have to learn how to survive other things.
Prof. GIRMAY: Yeah.
MARTIN: Well, thank you both much for joining us. Aracelis, how will you be celebrating National Poetry Month?
Prof. GIRMAY: Books, reading books, going to all kinds of readings; that's what's so wonderful. Being in Brooklyn and Amherst I get to move in and out of different readings in celebration of National Poetry Month.
MARTIN: And Susan, you've already helped us start celebrating with this issue of O, so thank you for that. First, I wanted to ask you finally, before we let you go the same question I asked Aracelis, which is that for those who think poetry is not for them, how would you encourage them to get started to break down that barrier?
Ms. CASEY: You know, I think just as Aracelis said, let yourself just be with the poem. Find something that somehow gives you an entry point. I mean I think Mary Oliver and W.S. Merwin are both poets that they have a lot of depth in their work, that you can start off in a way that I think is not intimidating by reading their work.
Merwin's "Migration" is a collection of a lot of his work throughout the years is an absolutely magnificent book that I would recommend to everybody. And Mary Oliver has written a book that I personally love called "Rules for the Dance" that talks about poetry in very accessible ways about how it comes together. And I mean maybe, you know, you eventually get to Milton or, you know, T.S. Eliot and things like that to really understand what they're talking about. But you don't have to start there.
MARTIN: And Susan, I'm going to put you on the spot. Do you have a favorite poem?
Ms. CASEY: My favorite poem is - let me think about, this is such a hard question. When my father died I had a deep need he died very suddenly to have a poem with me that was written by Jim Harrison called "Sullivan Poem." It's about a father's death and actually had a friend email it to me because I just I had this incredible need to read that poem. It was so emotional.
And one thing that W.S. Merwin said to me was did you know that after 9/11 everybody turned to poetry? That was something that actually united us. And after World War I Merwin told me that the poem that he looked to was Yeats "The Second Coming." So I went back and read that poem and I just got chills down my spine when I read it, because it was written after World War I to sort of make sense of that violence and, you know, couldn't be more appropriate at that moment either.
MARTIN: Well, I'm sorry for your loss, but thank you for that.
Ms. CASEY: Thank you.
MARTIN: Thank you for sharing that.
Ms. CASEY: But that shows how powerful poetry can be just in a sort of a deep and emotional way. I didn't even know that I needed that poem so much until I did.
MARTIN: Susan Casey is editor-in-chief of O, the Oprah magazine. She was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Also, Aracelis Girmay, she's assistant professor of poetry at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. She was featured in this month's O magazine. Her latest book "Kingdom Animalia" will be released later this year.
Ladies, thank you both so much for joining us and happy Poetry Month to you.
Ms. CASEY: Thank you.
Prof. GIRMAY: Thank you.
MARTIN: We will post the poem that Susan Casey referred to so you can read it and enjoy it for yourself. Just go to npr.org, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE.