<em>Poetry in America</em>: An Interview with Leah Reis-Dennis

Poetry in America: An Interview with Leah Reis-Dennis


Longtime Nursing Clio readers will remember Leah Reis-Dennis, who wrote the “Versing Clio” series for our blog, with each essay featuring a poem from the American canon that integrates gender, history, and medicine. Now Leah is producing Poetry in America, an exciting new series that is airing on public television around the United States. Have you ever wanted to hear Bono talk about Allen Ginsberg? How about learning about Emily Dickinson through the eyes of cellist Yo-Yo Ma and actor/politician Cynthia Nixon? We talked to Leah about how this project came together and what you’ll get out of watching the show.

What inspired the creation of Poetry in America?

Poetry in America is the brainchild of Elisa (Lisa) New, an English Professor at Harvard who actually advised me as an undergraduate. After decades of teaching American poetry, Lisa decided to take on the crazy and exciting challenge of teaching the entire history of American poetry in a single semester. The motivation behind this course was that non- “poetry people” at Harvard might not want to dedicate an entire semester to the study of one, or even a few, great American poets. Lisa wanted to create an experience that would reach math majors and basketball players and musicians — the whole gamut of students from a wide variety of academic backgrounds — by making a poetry sampler platter of sorts: a way to dip into the history of American poetry without devoting one’s entire life and academic energy to it.

When Harvard made its initial foray into massive open online courses (MOOCs), Poetry in America became one of the first humanities courses on offer. As we developed video materials to share with the world online, we attracted the participation of some major figures not known for poetry: Bill Clinton, Elena Kagan, Herbie Hancock, Nas, to name a few. These big names helped us to show that poetry could be understood and enjoyed by everyone, and that life experiences outside of the poetry world can be meaningfully brought to bear on the close reading of a poem.

Poem. (Hine/Library of Congress)

So, long story short, we decided to start a non-profit production company and create a TV show in partnership with WGBH Boston, the nation’s largest public media producer. Though it’s now much higher production quality than it was three years ago as a MOOC, the idea behind Poetry in America is still the same: to make poetry accessible and meaningful for everyone. You might not be a poetry fan, but you might be a basketball fan — so you might tune in to watch Shaquille O’Neal discuss a poem on Poetry in America, and, over the course of a half hour, you might realize that you’ve come to understand and love that poem, too.

What do you think is the role of poetry in American society today?

One advantage of poetry is that it’s short. You can show up to a poetry class without having done all of the reading, and still have a deeply engaging experience with a single poem over the course of an hour.

As a result, poetry has the power to act as a relatively accessible and universal springboard for conversation across divides in American society today. Two people can sit down to read the same poem and have two very different takeaways — no advance preparation required. We’re hoping that Poetry in America models the possibility of using poems as windows into big questions about family, society, ethics, life, and death.

“The Nation Mourns.” (Magnus/Library of Congress)

On a personal level, I love poetry because it helps me make meaning and sense from complex feelings that can be difficult to articulate. It also helps me slow down moments in my fast-paced life. Every time I read a poem, it feels like a short meditation.

What do you hope audiences will walk away from the show with?

I hope that audiences walk away from the show having experienced an “aha!” moment of understanding with a poem. We want viewers to come away with an empowered curiosity to read more poetry (or to read more, period), without the fear of “not getting it.” Our hope is that Poetry in America can strip away some of the trepidation often associated with poetry, and to help people understand poetry’s relevance to their lives, and the joy that reading can bring.

The series features a mix of celebrities, experts, and “regular people” reading and talking about poetry. How did you decide who would work with each poem?

Our poem and guest selection varied from episode to episode. Sometimes, we began with a particular poem in mind and tried to find the best people to talk about that poem with us. That was the case with our “Fast Break” episode — we knew we wanted to feature Edward Hirsch’s basketball poem, and so we were determined to find the best group of athletes who could lend their professional experience and intellects to the episode. We lucked out with Shaquille O’Neal, Shane Battier, and Pau Gasol. Other times, a guest would agree to film with us, and then we would go back and forth on what poem to read together. Some guests had strong attachments to particular poems. Bill Clinton, for instance, had a strong connection to Langston Hughes’ “Harlem,” as did Bono to the “Hymmnn” section of Allen Ginsberg’s long poem “Kaddish.”

What was your favorite episode to work on?

I really loved working on the “Fast Break” episode. As a long-time basketball fan, it was exciting to travel down to Atlanta to film Shaquille O’Neal on the set of Inside the NBA, and to talk with Shane Battier and Pau Gasol about their careers through the prism of poetry. I got to give my dad, who was my childhood basketball coach, a cameo as the “gangly starting center” in the group of pick-up players we used for the episode. In addition, “Fast Break” is one of the few episodes in which we feature a poem by a living poet, and so it was gratifying to work with poet Edward Hirsch on the production of the episode, too. We had Ed actually coaching the pick-up players through the fast break play that he had outlined in his poem.

If you had to pick one more poem to feature in the series, what would it be?

We are beginning to put together a lineup for Season 2 right now, and so I can’t say too much! But I think I would have to choose a Walt Whitman poem — probably the canonical “Song of Myself.” Whitman is my all-time favorite poet, and the real father of modern American poetry. (Emily Dickinson is the mother of modern America poetry, and she kicked off Season 1.) The multitudinous reaches of “Song of Myself” would be an exciting challenge to present in a half-hour episode, and the poem is on the list of Common Core texts for high school students, which is an added bonus. We’re always trying to create materials that will have a long life in the classroom after their initial broadcast.

Full episodes can be found on your local public television station, as well as streaming online for a limited time at the Poetry in America website and on the PBS app. The series is also available for purchase via iTunes and Amazon.

Laura Ansley is an editor, writer, and historian with degrees from Case Western Reserve University and the College of William & Mary. In her day job, she is managing editor at the American Historical Association.

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