Friday, March 03, 2006

Life Distilled: Four Decades of U.S. Poet Laureates

Life Distilled: Four Decades of U.S. Poet Laureates

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Many casual fans of poetry do not know who the U.S. poet laureate is or, for that matter, what the poet laureate does. Who appoints the poet laureate? What are his or her official duties? More importantly, why should you care? New Letters on the Air, a nationally syndicated literary arts program, answers those questions and more with the series Life Distilled: Four Decades of U.S. Poet Laureates.

This special five-episode series of one hour programs features readings and conversations with 16 of the U.S. poet laureates, using archive interviews from one of the longest-running literary shows in public radio, thanks to a reversioning grant from the Public Radio Exchange ( The series spans over four decades of poet laureates, from the late Howard Nemerov, who held the position in 1963, to the current laureate, Ted Kooser.

Many poets laureate have used the position to expose new audiences to poetry. Billy Collins discusses his Poetry 180 program for American high schools. He says, “I picked 180 poems that I think are clear and interesting and smart and contemporary, and I encouraged high schools to have the poem read as part of public announcements every day. So you don’t have to respond to the poem at all. You just have to listen to it.”

Life Distilled: Four Decades of U.S. Poet Laureates also includes former laureates Rita Dove, Robert Pinsky, and Maxine Kumin, who read some of their most famous work and give insight into the creative process that drives them to write. James Whittemore, William Stafford and Stanley Kunitz talk about the political power of poetry, while Joseph Brodsky explains how poetry helped keep his mind active while serving time in a Soviet prison. Gwendolyn Brooks recalls meeting Langston Hughes as a young girl and recollects his encouraging words that inspired her to continue writing. In a rather cantankerous interview, Howard Nemerov reads “On the Occasion of National Mourning,” a poem about the space shuttle Challenger disaster, as well as some humorous poems about his dog.

Even if listeners don’t think they’re into poetry, this series has something to offer. “Most people have a creative streak, whether they’re interested in writing or not,” says Angela Elam, host of New Letters on the Air. “I hope by exploring the writer’s process and hearing work that captures the essence of life, this series will inspire listeners to do something creative in their own way,”

The shows will be available for preview at beginning in March. Individuals interested in hearing the series should contact the program director of their local public radio station, and ask if the series is airing for National Poetry Month in April. For more information about the series, visit the New Letters homepage at or call toll-free (888) 548-2477.

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