Poetry, story, podcasts and the power of telling (and listening)

I’m not alone in this: Serial turned me on to podcasts. I wasn’t entirely new to them, but it had been years since I’d listened… so many years, in fact, that despite having iPhone after iPhone, I’d never downloaded any onto that device. When I’d been listening (back in the day, said the old lady), I’d used my laptop. Hence the reason my interest faded: like everyone else, I hadn’t been tethered to such a clunky thing in ages.

I learned about Serial from a co-worker and quickly became addicted, avoiding all spoilers, shushing my kids in the car and wearing headphones to my son’s basketball games. When the season ended, I missed it, but (strangely) returned to my podcast-poor lifestyle.

And then I had the chance to introduce someone new to Serial, and my lust for a new season or new podcast was renewed. I began to wonder what else was out there.

I’d been getting increasingly cranky about my commute and had also started taking walks at lunch and after dinner. Music wasn’t cutting it, so I began to explore the world of podcasts, and trust me on this: as amazing as Serial is, there are lots of other story-based podcasts that really kick ass. Some of my current favorites are Invisibilia, This American Life, Snap Judgment, Lore, Radio Lab, StoryCorps and The Moth. I also listen to Dear Sugar, Call Your Girlfriend and podcasts related to poetry. I am trying to settle into Welcome to Night Vale and have abandoned many on meditation.

I became aware immediately that listening was making my commute more tolerable and helping me look forward to walks. It was clear I was being entertained. What I wasn’t aware of was how much I was being moved. Informed and moved. I wasn’t aware until a recent evening when I stepped out of my car, my boyfriend greeted me and saw on my face that something was wrong. I mean, nothing had happened to me, so I was fine in that way. But I’d just been listening to an episode of This American Life, which had sickened (literally: nausea) and saddened me. Apparently, I was also visibly shaken.

It was “The Problem We All Live With,” an episode on how, as much as we say we want to reinvent education and save failing schools, we refuse to talk about desegregation. As in so many things, we refuse to discuss race and poverty. “In school” we were taught about Brown vs. the Board of Education, including the heroes and villains of that struggle and the right to an equal education. Of course, we know that today’s school districts are far from diverse, but our classroom lesson on desegregation ended with Brown vs. Board as victory, a big fat exclamation point on history.

Two things in the podcast really got me: 1) recorded comments from a 2013 parent meeting (2013!) where racism was extremely palpable and 2) the fact that, historically, when desegregation failed it was often because white families abandoned newly integrated districts. In other words, people a lot like me (white parents in modern suburbia) were being total assholes at the expense of children *and* I was reminded about how my own supposedly good education had failed to tell the whole story. Conveniently, in neither, are we supposed to blame racism. It raises important political, social and cultural questions (for me, for all of us), and we ought to honor those more with thoughtful reflection and — obviously– action/change.

Story — as in each person’s voice — is an important piece of that. Even though I’ve been immersed in the creative work of myself and others for years, podcasts have been an important reminder about sharing stories. I’m grateful to people who dare to be interviewed and reporters who invest themselves. Platforms are important, too, and I’m grateful to outlets who provide them. And fresh off my final MFA residency, I am full of admiration for writers and other artists who find not only the courage to explore and shape their stories, but also the courage to send them out into the world.

Like others, I have examples where writing (having a voice, finding my truth) has created trouble for me. I’ve been harassed/stalked a bit here. I’ve been attacked on Facebook and asked to stop writing. For one blog topic, my neighbors at the time came after me with (metaphoric) torches and pitchforks. And in the first draft of my divorce decree, my ex’s attorney inserted a clause that amounted to a gag order about my ex and our relationship. I’m aware that these are petty; the risks fairly small. For others, the danger is real, and yet they continue.

What it means in any case is that good writing / storytelling / art making has incredible power: it scares the shit out of people. I had the incredible honor recently to hear Patricia Smith read from a work in progress, difficult and honest poems about police shootings and related events. I’ve since heard that there were people in that room who were uncomfortable and offended. I say that means the poems were successful.

I say it means the poet did the work, the poet honored the work. It’s a very personal quest, and it takes guts. My friend Mat addressed that idea in the intro to his thesis defense. He said, “However difficult it has been to admit that I am gay, it has been even more difficult to confess my struggle with suicide. But each poem and each line that I have written in this program has been a crawl forward toward an unbearable light — the light of life that I often find difficult to believe that I deserve to be a part of. It’s for this reason that I … write — I [do] it to survive.”

Think about all that wants to remain hidden. Think of the reasons people insist on silence. I love all of you who refuse to be complicit with it. I love you who sweat it out to tell your stories, whether they feel small and personal or large and political, whether they feel like entertainment or literature or information or activism. I love you who make stories and poems and trust that they’re worth a read/listen. Write and publish and podcast the shit out of them. I’m not sure we can find our way without you.

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