NPR’s Morning Edition collected over 1,000 poetry submissions about the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery and transformed them into a larger communal poem.
Morning Edition host Rachel Martin and Kwame Alexander, the show’s “poet in residence,” asked listeners May 13 to submit poems as a creative way to share their thoughts and feelings about Arbery, a black man killed in Georgia Feb. 23 after he was pursued by two white men. The killing has drawn increased attention in recent weeks after a video of the incident was released.
Police arrested the man who recorded the shooting for felony murder and charged two men with aggravated assault and murder in the case. The attorney for Arbery’s family has described the killing as a “modern lynching.”
Alexander created a crowdsourced piece by choosing and combining lines from the submissions. He and Martin read the result Wednesday on Morning Edition, and it is on NPR’s website. The poetry callout segment, which Martin and Alexander have hosted for the past two years, collects poems around a specific theme in the news or for a holiday. Past callouts have focused on themes such as memories of home, grief and healing, and love for Valentine’s Day.
The programming allows listeners to express a range of emotions and “feel personal empowerment” by writing poetry, said Morning Edition Senior Editor Jacob Conrad.
Alexander, a New York Times bestselling author, said he believes that the medium of poetry helps simplify and express complex topics, such as Arbery’s death.
“That’s the beauty of poetry,” Alexander said. “It takes these heavy, emotionally weighted things, and it distills them into this very palatable sort of language.”
Choosing the best snippets from hundreds of submissions to create one poem can be “daunting,” Alexander said, but he appreciates the impact.
“Poetry has a way of uniting people. It has a way of connecting people,” he said. “That’s always been my belief.”
Poetry on Morning Edition differs from the news-focused content that the show prioritizes and that listeners associate with it, said Morning Edition EP Kenya Young.
“Our priority is also variety,” Young said. “It shows the range of storytelling that we are able to do.”
“Our listeners are hungry for this kind of release from the daily news,” Martin told Current. “It can just seem like a barrage of negativity, and I think our audiences have really responded.”
Martin confesses that she is not an “avid” poetry reader or performer, but she enjoys reading the crowdsourced poems on the air.
“I find it to be such an unexpectedly beautiful part of my job that I didn’t anticipate I would get to do as the host of Morning Edition,” Martin said.
Ultimately, Martin believes that producing interactive poetry segments is something that can be utilized by stations across the country to capture listeners’ feelings.
“People want to work out what’s happening in the world. Frankly, the COVID crisis is a great opportunity for stations to kind of explore these lives and just have people record what’s happening in their lives,” she said.
Update: An earlier version of this article said the crowdsourced poem would be read Thursday on Morning Edition. It was read Wednesday instead. The article has been updated to reflect the change.