While public broadcasting covers poets and their work, a new anthology may be the first book of poems inspired by public media stories.
Poet Robbi Nester of Lake Forest, Calif., edited The Liberal Media Made Me Do It: Poetic Responses to NPR & PBS Stories (Lummox Press), featuring works of 56 poets reacting to segments and programs aired by public stations.
Nester answered a few questions by email. This exchange has been edited.
Where did the idea for this book come from?
I listen to public radio all the time when I am in the car and often when I am at home. My home radio station is KPCC and I watch both KOCE and KCET on television.
In the evening, whenever my son and husband are not watching some variety of men playing games with balls, I also watch PBS NewsHour. Or occasionally Masterpiece Mystery! on Sunday nights.
Since I am a poet, I write about things that are a part of my experience, whether they are the books I am reading, the food I am making for supper, my cats, my family — or public media. After a while, I found that I was writing quite a few of these poems, and felt I ought to make a book out of them. But it took too long. I could never tell when I might hear a story that inspired me. I got impatient.
One day last year the publisher of the book [poet RD “Raindog” Armstrong of Lummox Press in San Pedro, Calif.], who also writes poems inspired by public media, showed me one of his poems about a documentary on public television. I told him that I had always wanted to edit an anthology of such poems, so he said, “Go ahead.” And I did.
How did you find all the poems?
There are well-established ways to find poems in the poetry world; most involve the Internet these days. There are listservs full of calls for submissions for various kinds of books, anthologies, journals, contests, etc. We added our book’s listing to a couple of those. And also I spread the word on my Facebook page and by word of mouth in the poetry community.
I found that there were many people out there who had been writing poems about what they were hearing and seeing on public media, writing about nationally aired shows, like All Things Considered and Radiolab and others, and also about regional shows I had never heard of.
It took a while for many people to respond. By the end I was getting many more than I could use. The whole project took about a year.
Were the poets surprised to hear about this project? What were some of their reactions?
Responses varied, although many said they wanted to buy the book even if I didn’t use their poems, and that it was a terrific idea for an anthology. Some thought it was an awful idea. Some didn’t quite get what I was after. Did I want poems with a uniform political slant on topical news-based subjects? They couldn’t get their minds around the idea that I wanted the anthology to be as diverse as public media is, full of stories about people, the arts, culture and everything imaginable.
There are poems in there about recipes, jokes and even a poem I wrote about a fistulated cow, inspired by a Radiolab story [below].
The book’s publisher came up with The Liberal Media Made Me Do It, which I immediately liked. It captured just the right sense I wanted, harking back to the question of where poems come from, how they are inspired by things in our lives, particularly stories others tell us. And we are compelled to retell them in our own way.
The “liberal media” part of it is meant ironically. While I think it’s impossible for anyone to be perfectly objective in telling stories (whether it’s in fiction, a poem or journalistically), I have always felt that public media does its best to represent as many perspectives as it fairly can. Commercial television and cable channels already present narrow forums for just about any audience one can imagine — except for those who don’t want to watch or listen to what is available commercially, or those who want to see and hear programs that represent their own experience.
This anthology is of interest to the public broadcasting community because of the subject matter. Beyond that specialized focus, do the poems stand on their own?
The poems absolutely stand on their own. I have very high standards both as a writer and as an editor. I took only a fraction of the poems submitted to me, selecting the poems that worked well individually and together and that represented a fair sample of the subject matter, tones and moods of public media iself.
I am very pleased with the way the book turned out, pleased also to have been introduced to so many wonderful writers and to introduce them to each other. I have encouraged them to get to know other contributors who live nearby and perhaps even to do some readings together.
The best thing about this book is that I can introduce others to these terrific poets’ work. Most of them have books we can now all go out and buy and read. I want to promote their work. That’s why I have a page for the book on Facebook where I post news about the contributors, their latest publications or readings, and weekly interviews with a few of the writers.
Nester wrote the poem “Fistulated Cow” after hearing a Radiolab segment on April 2, 2012, on its episode titled “Guts.” Producer Tim Howard traveled to Rutgers University to interact with a cow with a hole cut into its side for research purposes.
Beneath a shield of hide and flesh
the cow’s stomach hangs
like a hammock from the triangular
scaffolding of the pelvis.
You’ve always guessed it was there
that alchemical apparatus
working away in the steamy darkness,
transmuting grass and hay
to silky curds, an ivory flow.
But now, you can see for yourself.
No need to hang back, to cower there
in a corner. Slip on those rubber gloves.
Enter the inner chamber.
We think of the stomach as a sack,
soft and loose as a pocket
in a much-laundered jacket.
It’s more like a muscle.
Feel it grab your hand,
sucking the fingers down
into the vortex where intestines,
ribbed as a vacuum cleaner hose,
coil, and the sweet grass
travels the length of each helix,
each pearly arc, like tourists
queued at Disneyland, and the billions
of bugs do their work. And in you as well
the same mysterious everyday magic
you don’t like to think about
Now we’ll put back the plug,
let the cow wade knee-high into a field of clover,
a body linked to other bodies,
making the most of the world.