Poets, The Life Boats April is National Poetry Month, so on this episode, we're passing the mic to a handful of talented poets — the people who narrate our lives and help us better understand our own experiences.
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Poets, The Life Boats

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Poets, The Life Boats

Poets, The Life Boats

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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

This is CODE SWITCH. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:

And I'm Karen Grigsby Bates, sitting in for Gene.

MERAJI: And it's April, which is national poetry month, and we're not going to let it pass without passing the mic to a handful of talented poets.

HIEU MINH NGUYEN: (Reading) I have a hard time believing winter is somehow, all of a sudden, over.

FATIMAH ASGHAR: (Reading) I know you can bend time; I'm merely asking for what is mine.

ADA LIMON: (Reading) Will you tell us the stories that make us uncomfortable but not complicit?

JERICHO BROWN: (Reading) I'm sure somebody died while we made love - somebody killed, somebody black.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: We're highlighting poets of color on this episode who often write from their personal and cultural perspectives, and some of them are going to share their favorite poets, too. Oh, and I should stop and note here that, speaking of poets of color, Shereen...

MERAJI: Mmm hmm.

BATES: ...The poet laureate of the United States, Tracy K. Smith, had a birthday last week. Happy birthday, Tracy.

MERAJI: A poet born in poetry month - that's very poetic, I think.

BATES: Yep.

MERAJI: Happy birthday, Tracy K. Smith. And don't worry, y'all, we're going to have a comprehensive list for you online, with even more poets and poems we couldn't fit into this episode. So get ready to be inspired because we're about to drench you in poetry.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: I'm going to start with my people. Karen, which people is that, do you think?

(LAUGHTER)

BATES: Well, they'd actually have to be Persians or Puerto Ricans. So I'm guessing they might be Persians.

MERAJI: Yes, the Iranians - us - we are famous for our rhymes.

BATES: (Reading) Be melting snow - wash yourself of yourself.

MERAJI: Ooh (ph).

BATES: Yes, that's Jalaluddin Rumi. He's my favorite Persian poet. And although too many places are turning his beautiful work into sayings on refrigerator magnets, but still, I do know that Persians or Iranians and poetry go back thousands of years.

MERAJI: Indeed. Iranians even clap back in verse. Here's a little story for you. Last month was Persian New Year, and President Trump used this opportunity to wish all Iranians a very happy new year, saying, quote, "We pledge never to turn a deaf ear to the calls of the Iranian people for freedom, and we will never forget their ongoing struggle for human rights." And the National Iranian American Council, which is a lobbying group in D.C., responded to President Trump's statement with a verse from a 13th-century Persian poet, Saadi, and he says, (reading) empty words disgrace the one who speaks them, like serving a walnut shell without the net.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: And on that note, let's introduce our first poet, Kaveh Akbar. He's gotten a Pushcart award, which is a big deal; I'd say it's kind of like the Oscars for poetry that's published by small presses.

MERAJI: So we should probably call him the award-winning Kaveh Akbar.

BATES: Yeah, absolutely. You may have read Kaveh's brand-new poem "The Palace" in The New Yorker, and if you haven't, go check it out; the illustrations are amazing, too.

MERAJI: They are.

BATES: Kaveh was born in Iran and raised in the U.S. His most recent book of poetry is "Calling A Wolf A Wolf." And Shereen, you had the chance to talk with him about language in poetry.

MERAJI: Kaveh, have you always had a relationship with poetry?

KAVEH AKBAR: Yeah, I've had a relationship with poetry my whole life. You know, coming to America, when I was 2 1/2, I was very aware that there were these two different strands of language that I carried with me, and that they could be sort of wielded and manipulated in different ways, and I could tell secrets to my family in one of them, or I could use words to talk to nonfamily members with another, you know. So I think that I was made aware of language as a material thing and a malleable thing and something that could be pulled and stretched and warped very early on.

MERAJI: And you came to the United States from Iran?

AKBAR: I came to the United States from Tehran when I was 2 1/2, yes.

MERAJI: So the languages you're talking about are English and Persian?

AKBAR: Yeah, yeah. My first language was Farsi, and then when we came to America, my brother, who was seven years older than me, was immediately enrolled in English-speaking schools, obviously, and really struggled. And so my parents banned speaking Farsi in the household in an effort to accelerate his English-language acquisition, which really kind of stunted both of our growth as Farsi speakers. And so to this day, I speak about as much Farsi as a 2 1/2-year-old would speak.

MERAJI: That's probably more Farsi than I speak.

AKBAR: (Laughter).

MERAJI: And that for me, personally, has really affected me.

AKBAR: Yeah, yeah.

MERAJI: I mean, it's - there's an emptiness inside of me, and I don't know if this is for you.

AKBAR: Absolutely.

MERAJI: There's this deep, deep hole inside of me, and I'm constantly mourning for that language, my language, which I know that I could go and learn.

AKBAR: Yeah. But see; I mean, even if you went and learned it, it would be after the fact, right? It wouldn't be sort of mitochondrial in the same way. I have this exact same thing; you know, I have the exact same mourning, and hearing you talk about it, I was nodding and sort of weeping inside my soul, you know, because I have that same sense of loss, right?

In a room full of Persian people, I feel like the least Persian person, and in a room full of Americans, I certainly don't feel American. And that's an occasion for grief. It's potent; it's potent for art and creativity - right? - because it grants a vantage point that is sort of outside of. And so you can take things in a little bit more holistically, and you're a little bit less habituated to the textures of language and both of the languages. But as just a human being and as a spirit, it's an intense occasion for grief.

MERAJI: Has it inspired poetry for you?

AKBAR: That liminality? Yeah, I mean, I...

MERAJI: I don't even know what liminality means, Kaveh (laughter).

AKBAR: Oh, I'm sorry. Just the...

MERAJI: No, no, no.

AKBAR: ...The being in between-ness (ph). Yeah, yeah. Sorry.

MERAJI: I learned a new word today, thank you.

AKBAR: I apologize. Like...

MERAJI: No, don't; don't apologize. I want to learn new words. I (laughter)...

AKBAR: Well, no - actually, when we came to America, my mom - you know, those, like - do you know those SAT preparation books that...

MERAJI: (Laughter) Yeah.

AKBAR: You know, they have all the vocabulary words in the back or whatever? When we came to America, my mom got all of these SAT prep books from the local library, and she would teach herself all the vocabulary in the back, like, those really advanced sort of four-letter - four-letter - you know, $4 words or whatever.

MERAJI: (Laughter) Right.

AKBAR: You know, that people don't actually use in colloquial speech. She would teach herself all of those words, and then pepper them into her vocabulary with us because she thought it would, you know, make us smarter and make us better English speakers, right? But consequentially, I was the kid in kindergarten who - you know, I couldn't differentiate between these two kinds of language. So I would say things like, you know, I'm ambiguous about whether I want the apples or the peaches for lunch today. You know what I mean?

MERAJI: (Laughter) Right.

AKBAR: Like, I would just be speaking with this kind of artificially elevated vernacular. Once I became aware of it, I became aware also that people thought that I was just showing off - right? - or that I - you know, when in reality, I just literally didn't know, like, what were the words that you were supposed to say in conversation and what were the words that you were only supposed to read in books.

MERAJI: Hence the apologies.

(LAUGHTER)

AKBAR: Hence the extensive apology tangent, yes. I don't even remember what your question was (laughter).

MERAJI: It was getting to this feeling of grief and loss - how that inspires your poetry or if that does inspire your work.

AKBAR: There is a language and a culture and a heritage that a version of me, in a parallel universe, has been indelibly inflected by - not only inflected by but has participated in and contributed to. And I mourn the absence of those contributions in my own life; like, I want to be able to participate in that conversation. The conversation of Western poetics is one that I'm fascinated by; I've thrown my life into it. It's kind of a conversation that belongs to someone else, in a way. You know, it's kind of a conversation that I am an interloper in.

And certainly, you know, I'm inflected by the Persian poets, too, and I'm inflected by, you know, my study of them. And - but, you know, Hafez isn't a part of my consciousness the way that Hafez would be a part of my consciousness if I grew up in Shiraz.

MERAJI: Right. It is so rooted in what it means to be Iranian.

AKBAR: Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, I do think that there is a part of me that is inflected by just that generational, epigenetic proclivity towards poetry and towards lyric, you know. I mean, Persian poetry is a tradition that's, you know, 2,500 years old and counting. It's a tradition that wasn't just limited to the realm of literature, right? Like, all of the ancient Persian science texts and physics texts and astronomy texts and medicine texts were written in verse. There really is an element of it that is, I think, hard-wired into the language, into the rhythms and cadences of the language.

I'll also say we grew up speaking Persian and English in the house - right? - but we also prayed in Arabic, which is a language that no member of my family actually spoke. From this really, really early age, from the age of 3, 4, I was parroting these sounds that my parents were making, these prayer sounds. And I didn't understand them as semantic units, but I understood that they were beautiful, mellifluous arrays of language spoken earnestly. And that's poetry.

MERAJI: You know, April being national poetry month...

AKBAR: (Laughter) Yeah.

MERAJI: Do you roll your eyes? Is it meaningful to you? What do you think about it?

AKBAR: No, no, it's meaningful. I mean, it's like - there are 168 hours in a week; I maybe sleep 30 or 35 of those. The rest of my time, truly, from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep, is poetry. So it's one of those things where I love it because I love giving people points of entry into this thing, but it's also - you know, it's not something that is sort of cordoned off to a particular temporal space in my living. You know what I'm saying?

MERAJI: Yes, I do. Actually, you were quoted in Slice Magazine saying that you approach poetry with the same obsessiveness and compulsiveness that you used to approach the substances that you were addicted to; you're sober now. And I was wondering if you could...

AKBAR: Absolutely, yeah.

MERAJI: ...Talk about that and this relationship that you have with poetry.

AKBAR: Yeah, yeah, that was a beautiful segue. My first book, "Calling A Wolf A Wolf," was largely an account of my late addiction and early recovery. And it has very much been, for me, a story of one set of obsessions and compulsivities (ph) orbiting the narcotics sphere have now moved into a separate but no less intense set of obsessions and compulsivities orbiting poetry.

You know, I wake up in the morning, and the first thing I think about is the poem I'm working on or the poem that I'm going to be talking with a student about. Or the thing that keeps me up at night - I'm a terrible sleeper - and the thing that keeps me up is thinking about the poem that I'm working on or the project that I'm working on or the student poem that I'm reading or the friend's manuscript that I'm looking at. You know, if there is a 25th hour in the day, I would spend it with poems. And thus far, it seems to have been relatively easier on my liver.

MERAJI: (Laughter) Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: I'm all for going easier on your liver...

MERAJI: Me too.

BATES: ...'Cause it needs to last a lifetime. And if you got to be addicted to something, poetry is a great thing to be addicted to.

MERAJI: I agree. But I also think Kaveh doesn't sleep enough.

BATES: It's not enough.

MERAJI: There's seven days in a week.

BATES: Even if you spend all of them writing poems...

MERAJI: (Laughter).

BATES: You've got to bed at some point.

MERAJI: Kaveh, you need to sleep more. But other than that, you're wonderful, amazing. And one thing we're doing on this episode is we're going to ask every poet to read one of their poems. And I asked Kaveh to read one inspired by his favorite childhood restaurant.

AKBAR: We lived all over the place growing up, but a lot of our all-over-the-place was in the American Midwest. And there were so few Iranian anythings around that once a year, we would take these miniature pilgrimages to Reza's Restaurant in Chicago. And it was the biggest deal in the world to us. I mean, it's literally, to this day, a thing where the site of the Chicago skyline makes my mouth water. Like, I get hungry just seeing the Chicago skyline, it was so much of a thing.

MERAJI: So here's Kaveh reading "Reza's Restaurant, Chicago, 1997."

AKBAR: (Reading) The waiters milled about, filling sumac shakers, clearing away plates of onion and radish. My father pointed to each person, whispered, Persian - about the old man with the silver beard, whispered, Arab - about the woman with the eye mole, Persian - the teenager pouring water, white - the man on the phone. I was 8 and watching and amazed. I asked how he could possibly tell, when they were all brown-skinned, dark-haired like us. Almost everyone in the restaurant looked like us.

He smiled a proud, little smile, a warm nest of lips, said - it's easy, said - we're just uglier. He returned to his lamb. But I was baffled, hardly touched my gheimeh. I had huge glasses and bad teeth. I felt plenty Persian. When the woman with light eyes and blond-brown hair left our check, my father looked at me. I said, Arab? He shook his head, laughed.

We drove home. I grew up. It took years to put together what my father meant that day - my father, who listened exclusively to the Rolling Stones, who called the Beatles a band for girls, my father, who wore only black even around the house, whose arms could cut chicken wire and make stew and bulged with old farm scars. My father, my father, my father built the world. The first sound I ever heard was his voice whispering the azan in my right ear. I didn't need anything else. My father cherished that we were ugly, so being ugly was blessed. I smiled with all my teeth.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: I love that poem.

AKBAR: (Laughter).

MERAJI: I love it.

AKBAR: Yeah. Yeah, it's an important one to me.

MERAJI: It's awesome.

BATES: So Shereen, as you said, the other thing we're asking all our poets to do is recommend a poet they love. Did you get a recommendation from Kaveh?

MERAJI: I did. He told me everyone should check out Solmaz Sharif, who's also Persian.

BATES: Surprise.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

AKBAR: Yeah, yeah. Solmaz is one of our greatest poets without qualification. You know, she's not one of our greatest Iranian poets or Iranian American poets or American poets. She's one of our - mankind's greatest living poets. When we encounter words over and over and over again, we become a little bit dull to their violence and dull to their histories. And Solmaz's work makes the language new again in a way that every poet aspires to do, but so few poets do as well as she does.

MERAJI: A little bio about her before we hear her, read her poetry - she was born in Turkey to Iranian parents, and she grew up in the U.S. She's currently a lecturer at Stanford University, and her first poetry collection is called "Look." And this poem she's about to read is called "The End Of Exile." It's about a trip she took to Iran after her grandparents died. And she said that trip made her feel like a tourist in her homeland.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SOLMAZ SHARIF: (Reading) As the dead, so I come to the city I am of, am without, to watch play out around me as theater. Audience as the dead are audience to the life that is not mine, is as not, as never. Turning down Shiraz's streets, it turns out to be such a faraway thing, a without which I have learned to be. From bed, I hear a man in the alley selling something - no longer by mule and holler, but by bullhorn and jalopy. How to say what he is selling - it is no thing this language thought worth naming, no thing I have used before. It is his life I don't see daily - not theater, not play - though I remain only audience. It is a thing he must sell daily. And every day, he peddles this thing - a without which I cannot name, without which is my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF VICTOR BARTOK'S "ALBENIZ: MALLORCA")

MERAJI: And that audio was from a reading Solmaz Sharif did for the Poetry Magazine podcast, which was produced by the Poetry Foundation.

BATES: And after the break, more poetry.

MERAJI: Poetry about hair and horses and the end of a cold winter.

BATES: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF VICTOR BARTOK'S "ALBENIZ: MALLORCA")

MERAJI: Shereen.

BATES: Karen.

MERAJI: CODE SWITCH. It's poetry month, and we're talking to poets of color about their work and about poets they love and think we should know.

MICHELLE OTERO: (Reading) To walk the Rio Grande in March means grit in teeth, means always I am eating my hair. I hardly know the tall boy living in my house. He speaks in short grunts. Above his lip - hair. To boost sex drive, my doctor prescribes testosterone, warns - you might notice unwanted hair. Under a bridge in El Paso, children warm their hands in the nest of a ma's (ph) hair. A father in Christchurch prays - Allah is sufficient. He is my protector. Blood soaks his boy's hair. Lover says to Michelle, feed your hunger. Bite my nails. Always eat my hair.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: That's "Hair Ghazal" by Michelle Otero, the poet laureate of Albuquerque, N.M. A ghazal is a form of poem where a word's repeated in couplets. The subject to the couplets don't have to be related. What ties the poem together is the word that's repeated. Michelle is a poet and a teacher whose family has been in New Mexico for ten generations. When we spoke, Shereen, she told me she wasn't much exposed to poetry as a child. She says she was interested in the language, but she didn't see how it connected to her daily life. Those poets, she said, didn't look like her or anyone she knew.

MERAJI: So she obviously changed her mind because she is a poet now.

BATES: Yep.

MERAJI: Did she end up finding poets who inspired her after all?

BATES: She says she found them by changing how she looked for poetry.

OTERO: In retrospect, I realize I was surrounded by artists and poets and storytellers and writers my whole life, even though in their day jobs, they were mechanics and teachers and people who worked with their hands. You know, now that I am writing poetry on purpose (laughter), I find myself going back to my parents and my grandparents and my aunts and uncles and, really, just trying to recapture their speech patterns and the really beautiful way that they spoke and told stories.

MERAJI: That's what I'm going to do in my own life. I am going to look for poets amongst people who don't consider themselves poets.

BATES: Well - and she believes poetry's all around us. And she says we need it, that these are aggravating times. And she feels like we need poetry now more than ever.

OTERO: Today when we have so many words coming at us in so many different ways - like through Twitter and Facebook and other social media platforms - we're not so careful with language. And I think that causes a lot of damage. And what I love about poetry is that it slows us down.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Our next poem is from Jericho Brown. He grew up in Louisiana and worked as a speechwriter for one of the mayors of New Orleans. And he's written three collections of poetry. His newest is called "The Tradition." It came out this year. And here he is reading his poem "Stand."

BROWN: (Reading) Peace on this planet or guns glowing hot, we lay there together as if we were getting something done. It felt like planting a garden or planning a meal for people who still need feeding - all that touching or barely touching, not saying much, not adding anything. The cushion of it, the skin and occasional sigh all seemed like work worth mastering. I'm sure somebody died while we made love - somebody killed, somebody black. I thought then of holding you as a political act. I may as well have held myself. We didn't stand for one thought, didn't do a damn thing. And though you left me, I'm glad we didn't.

MERAJI: Whew, that me the chills.

BATES: Loved it.

MERAJI: Jericho says he loves that he got to write a love poem, a poem about something as human as a love story and a breakup, especially now, when he says everyone feels the need to be an activist all the time.

BROWN: So what I'm really interested in is how love and, in this particular case, how black love stands up in the midst of so many trials; how black love, how love itself survives no matter the world or national climate, that people still fall in love.

BATES: Thank God for that - that even in the most dire circumstances, people still fall in love. Did he have a poet he loves?

MERAJI: Jericho recommended the poetry of Lucille Clifton.

BATES: Oh, that makes me so happy, Shereen. I love her work. Lucille Clifton is of the June Jordan, Nikki Giovanni generation. She died in 2010. And she has a famous poem called "Homage To My Hips."

MERAJI: Karen, are you going to recite that one for us?

BATES: Uh, no. But I'm going to do better than that. Here's the late Lucille Clifton reciting "Homage To My Hips" to a live audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LUCILLE CLIFTON: (Reading) Homage to my hips. These hips are big hips. They need space to move around in. They don't fit into little petty places. These hips are free hips. They don't like to be held back. These hips have never been enslaved. They go where they want to go. They do what they want to do. These hips are mighty hips. These hips are magic hips. I have known them to put a spell on a man and spin him like a top.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: Yes. I love that poem. Thank you for that recommendation, Jericho. I never knew Lucille Clifton and her poetry.

BATES: She's got some wonderful stuff.

MERAJI: Well, I'm going to, like, dig in and really get to know Lucille's work. And this next poem we're about to hear also speaks to me. It's from Ada Limon. She's a Northern Californian, like me. And the poem's about something I feel like most of us people of color have felt at one time or another.

BATES: Yeah, it's about how she feels when people try to make her a cultural mascot. Here's Ada Limon reading "The Contract Says: We'd Like The Conversation To Be Bilingual."

LIMON: (Reading) When you come, bring your brown-ness so we can be sure to please the funders. Will you check this box? We're applying for a grant. Do you have any poems that speak to troubled teens? Bilingual is best. Would you like to come to dinner with the patrons and sip Patron? Will you tell us the stories that make us uncomfortable but not complicit? Don't read us the one where you are just like us - born to a green house, garden. Don't tell us how you picked tomatoes and ate them in the dirt, watching vultures pick apart another bird's bones in the road. Tell us the one about your father stealing hubcaps after a colleague said that's what his kind did. Tell us how he came to the meeting wearing a poncho and tried to sell the man his hubcaps back. Don't mention your father was a teacher, spoke English, loved making beer, loved baseball. Tell us again about the poncho, the hubcaps, how he stole them, how he did the thing he was trying to prove he didn't do.

MERAJI: Hmm.

BATES: Oh, I can just hear that happening. And unfortunately, that's not an isolated incident, Shereen. Someone told me a similar story last weekend.

MERAJI: Oh, I don't doubt it (laughter). Ada said she was inspired to write this poem after she was asked to read at an event, and they wanted her to do it in both English and in Spanish, which she found weird.

LIMON: Because I don't write in Spanish. I am not bilingual. I do identify as Latinx. However, I do feel like at a time when we are all very interested in diverse voices, it's always a wonder what that means when we think of commodification of a thing. I - for me, I pushed back immediately because I felt like, at that experience, that I was being asked to be someone I'm not. And I take that very personally. I also feel like it's about the difference between tokenization and representation. One thing is to be on a stage because your work is being recognized, your work is being heralded or supported or just in conversation with. But it's another thing to feel like your work is there because they needed someone brown.

BATES: Ada Limon recommends poet Sarah Borjas's new book, "Heart Like A Window, Mouth Like A Cliff."

LIMON: It's just, you know, an amazing, full-throated, heavy-hearted book that has to do with the familial landscape. It has to do with what it is to be Latinx growing up in California. It has to deal with trauma. And it really is a writer finding out what it is to make and create and imagine a world on the page.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: This next poem is by Fatimah Asghar. She's a screenwriter and a poet. And she identifies as a Pakistani Kashmiri Muslim American. Her poem is called "Kal," and it's from her book "If They Come For Us."

ASGHAR: The story behind this poem is really just about the Urdu word kal. And I was thinking about how it means both yesterday and tomorrow and what that kind of does to a conception of time and how sometimes in - you know, when we think or read or write in one language, it actually can be these weird limitations on our imagination. So that's really what that poem is about - and thinking about my mother who passed when I was really, really young and kind of reimagining a world where we get to be together.

MERAJI: Here's Fatimah reading "Kal."

ASGHAR: (Reading) Allah, you gave us a language where yesterday and tomorrow are the same word - kal, a spell cast with the entire mouth, back of the throat to teeth. Tomorrow means I might have her forever. Yesterday means I say goodbye again. Go means they are the same. I know you can bend time; I'm merely asking for what is mine. Give me my mother for no other reason than I deserve her. If yesterday and tomorrow are the same, pluck the flower of my mother's body from the soil. Go means I'm in the crib, eyelashes wet, as she looks over me. Go means I'm on the bed, crawling away from her, my father back from work. Go means she's dancing at my wedding not yet come. Go means she's oiling my hair before the first day of school. Go means I wake to her strange voice in the kitchen. Go means she's holding my unborn baby in her arms, helping me pick a name.

BATES: That is heartbreaking

MERAJI: That is a gorgeous poem. Thank you, Fatima. And Fatima recommended the writings of Ross Gay.

ASGHAR: I think he's just an incredible poet. And I'm reading his book of essays right now, "The Book Of Delights," and I would highly recommend it for everyone else.

ROSS GAY: Hello, my name is Ross Gay, and I am a writer and a gardener, etc.

BATES: Ross read his poem "Becoming A Horse," which he says was inspired by the very first time he met one in a true way.

GAY: (Reading) It was dragging my hands along its belly, loosing the bit and wiping the spit from its mouth made me a snatch of grass in the thing's maw. A fly tasting its ear. It was touching my nose to his made me know the clover's bloom, my wet eye to his made me know the long field's secrets. But it was putting my heart to the horse's that made me know the sorrow of horses, the sorrow of a brook creasing a field. The maggot turning in its corpse made me forsake my thumbs for the sheen of unshod hooves. And in this way, drop my torches. And in this way, drop my knives. Feel the small song in my chest swell and my coat glisten and twitch and my face grow long. And these words cast off, at last, for the slow, honest tongue of horses.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Karen, we started this episode talking about Persian New Year.

BATES: Yep.

MERAJI: Which also marks the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere, and it's the last full week of April; April being national poetry month. Poetry and spring are definitely in the air, so we're bringing things full circle with this last poet. His name is Hieu Minh Nguyen, and he identifies as a Vietnamese American poet, and he's based out of Minneapolis.

BATES: The poem Hieu shared with us he wrote after the end of a very long Minnesota winter. He says most people think that talking about the weather is small talk, but in the Midwest, it's also a way of checking up on each other.

NGUYEN: And a way of saying, hey, we are all enduring the same thing, especially since it's, like, so brutal, and it's such a big part of our daily lives. There's this magical thing that happens at the end of a long winter, where, as soon as it gets warm again - and by warm, I mean, like, in the 50s maybe - where everyone is outside in their summer clothes, they've shed their winter coats, and they're acting as if it is July, and the city becomes alive again. But there's also this thing that happens where we forget to check in on each other because when the weather is nice, we assume that everyone around us is happy.

BATES: We'll let Hieu close out the show with his poem, "Uptown, Minneapolis, Minnesota."

NGUYEN: (Reading) Even though it's May, an ice-cream truck parked outside my apartment is somehow certain, I have a hard time believing winter is somehow, all of a sudden, over - the worst one of my life, the woman at the bank tells me. Though I'd like to be, it's impossible to be prepared for everything. Even the mundane hum of my phone catches me off guard today. Every voice that says my name is a voice I don't think I could possibly leave.

It's unfair to not ask for the things you need, even though I think about it often, even though leaving is a train headed somewhere I'd probably hate. Crossing Lyndale to meet a friend for coffee, I have to maneuver around a hearse that pulled too far into the crosswalk. It's empty. Perhaps spring is here. Perhaps it will all be worth it, even though I knew that even then it was worth it - staying, I mean. Even now there is someone, somehow, waiting for me.

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MERAJI: And that's our show.

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MERAJI: You can follow us on Twitter; we're @NPRCodeSwitch. And sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/newsletter/code-switch.

BATES: Today's episode was produced by Kumari Devarajan and Leah Donnella and edited by Sami Yenigun and Leah. Shout-out to the rest of the Code Switch fam - Steve Drummond, Gene Demby, Adrian Florido, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Kat Chow and L.A. Johnson.

MERAJI: Our intern is the incomparable Tiara Jenkins.

TIARA JENKINS, BYLINE: Yes.

BATES: Gene will be back next week. I'm Karen Grigsby Bates.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

BATES: See you.

MERAJI: Peace - and poetry, of course.

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