How the ‘Poetry’ of PBS celebrates the voices of America – Orange County Register

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There might be no better time to engage with poetry than right now.

“Poems allow us to explore very fraught issues,” says Elisa New, host of the PBS series “Poetry in America.” “Maybe that’s some of their value.”

New and I spoke this week ahead of the show’s fourth season, which will be available in April on PBS stations and websites, PoetryinAmerica.org and a range of streaming services. She discussed poetry’s ability to, as she described it, “grapple with the complexities” of life now and in the past.

“The series takes us into history, and by leaving our own moments we often gain perspective on how people – well-meaning people like us – saw things very differently. Having their perspectives, in addition to those of this moment, is really valuable,” says New, with whom I had a memorable conversation in 2022 ahead of the third season.

“I think that any activity we engage in that allows us to encounter tension and resistance and survive it is good for our brains and our hearts,” says New.

That phrase – “good for our brains and our hearts” – is about as fine a way to describe the PBS series as any I can think of. If you haven’t seen it and are imagining a dry, droning academic slog, that’s not it at all. “Poetry in America” confound expectations with episodes bursting with smart conversation, affecting music and vibrant visuals tailored to each poem.

“One of the great privileges of making this series is thinking about how to use image and music, not to eclipse the language, but to help you see these poems and hear these poems and feel these poems,” says New, who credits the team she works with to make the show. “The opportunity to be coordinating those things – the visuals, the music, the language, the interviews –is what makes this show for me such a joy.”

The show strives to approach the work in ways you’ve not seen before.

“The poems are not disembodied typography,” she says.

Host Elisa New and Terrance Hayes discusses the poem "Steps" in Season 4 of PBS's "Poetry in America." (Image courtesy of Verse Video Education)
Host Elisa New and Terrance Hayes discusses the poem “Steps” in Season 4 of PBS’s “Poetry in America.” (Image courtesy of Verse Video Education)

The new season of “Poetry in America” looks at works by Phillis Wheatley, Joseph Brodsky, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Tracy K. Smith, Frank O’Hara and more.

“What we try to do, season by season, is show every kind of poem written for every kind of purpose and audience. We really strive for a lot of variety, so that whatever experience you had with the episode you’ve just watched, you’re going to have a completely different experience with the next one,” says New. “So that it’s always surprising: ‘Wow, I didn’t know a poem could do that.’

New says this season looks at the ways in which American poets help define the values and vision of America. The contributors provide a range of intelligent and interesting voices – from country singer and ice-cream maker to student poets and a former Supreme Court Justice, Stephen Breyer.

In the past, the series has featured Bono, Gloria Estefan, Nas and President Joe Biden among its guests; this time we hear from Richard Blanco, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Amanda Gorman, Bill Kristol, Maria Popova, Clint Smith, Tracy K. Smith, John Turturro, Andrew Weil, M.D. and more.

Toward the end of our call, New and I discussed Wallace Stevens’s “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” a poem I studied in college. Even though I had some background with it, I discovered new things about it as I watched the episode. I also learned more about the poet, who famously worked in insurance and apparently was not as delightful as his poems or the art objects he collected.

New shared that through “a very weird set of circumstances” she’d ended up owning some of Stevens’s things, including the paintings you see in the episode. She bought the items, which had been slated for a Stevens museum that didn’t take off, in hopes of keeping them together to donate to an institution.

“It was all his stuff, including his desk. I own that, too. I need to give it to somebody,” says New, who hopes to find an institution to take the items. “Stevens is a really great poet, but he would not be my favorite person in the world. And so I have a lot of ambivalence about sitting at his desk in his chair.”

So, what’s his chair like?

“It’s very uncomfortable.”

“Poetry in America” returns for its fourth season on PBS stationspbssocal.org and the Poetry in America website and other streaming services.

Host Elisa New and Justice Stephen Breyer discuss Martín Espada's poem "Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper" in Season 4 of PBS's "Poetry in America." (Image courtesy of Verse Video Education)
Host Elisa New and Justice Stephen Breyer discuss Martín Espada’s poem “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper” in Season 4 of PBS’s “Poetry in America.” (Image courtesy of Verse Video Education)

• This week, Vroman’s announced it will be closing its Hastings Ranch store after more than 20 years in that location. Earlier this year, the business, which is the oldest bookstore operation in Southern California, announced it was looking for a buyer.

• In a surprise announcement yesterday, Small Press Distribution, which handes distribution for more than 300 independent and poetry presses, said it was shutting down operations.

• In response to the passing of Ordinance 4318 by the Huntington Beach City Council, Authors Against Book Bans members Elana K. Arnold, Gretchen McNeil, MariNaomi and Molly Ostertag teamed with councilmembers Rhonda Bolton, Dan Kalmick, and Natalie Mosier, who opposed it, on a virtual press conference to protest the ordinance, which created a community review board that could potentially restrict children’s library books.


Katie Gee Salisbury got a little too interested in one topic

Katie Gee Salisbury was a 19-year-old intern at Los Angeles' Chinese American Museum when she first heard of film star and TV actress Anna May Wong, who is the subject of Salisbury's new book, "Not Your China Doll." (Photo by Jmar Teran / Courtesy of Dutton)
Katie Gee Salisbury was a 19-year-old intern at Los Angeles’ Chinese American Museum when she first heard of film star and TV actress Anna May Wong, who is the subject of Salisbury’s new book, “Not Your China Doll.” (Photo by Jmar Teran / Courtesy of Dutton)

Katie Gee Salisbury was working as an intern at the Chinese American Museum in downtown Los Angeles when she first learned of the film star Anna May Wong. Now, the Arcadia-raised, Brooklyn-based writer has just published a book all about Wong’s life and work. “Not Your China Doll” takes readers inside the  life of the Chinese American actress, who challenged racial stereotypes and worked to create more diverse storytelling opportunities in Hollywood. Here, Salisbury lets us in on a few of her own favorite books. 

Q. Is there a book that you always recommend to others?

The first that comes to mind is “The Book of Salt” by Monique Truong. It’s a novel about a Vietnamese chef working for Gertrude Stein in Paris during the 1920s. It’s a fabulous novel. I’ve recommended it to many people over the years.

I’ll mention some others: “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen. The HBO series based on it is coming up. It’s a beautifully written book and the lead character is also mixed race, so I related to it a lot.

Another book I’ll mention that’s more film related is Rebecca Solnit’s “River of Shadows.” It’s about the invention of film and Eadweard Muybridge, who did all these photographic experiments for Leland Stanford. That’s basically how film was birthed. Back then, the camera technology was pretty rustic. It took a while before they could take a photograph that was fast enough to capture a fraction of a second.

Actually, I had a whole section about this in the book because I was fascinated with it. I went to Stanford and the history of Stanford, all of his wealth came from the railroad, which was built by the Chinese. At one point, Leland Stanford was justice of the peace in Michigan Bluff, which is the town where Anna May Wong’s dad grew up during the whole gold rush era. I got a little too interested in that, and we had to cut it. It was way too long. I would highly recommend her book because it’s really fascinating and beautifully written.

Q. What are you reading right now?

I’m reading a novel by Ed Park “Same Bed, Different Dreams.” It’s about a lot of things, but there are all these different narrative threads that are woven throughout. A lot of it is about the Korean Provisional Government, but it’s fiction. This is a speculative version of it.

Q. Is there a genre that you read most frequently?

I recommended a lot of novels. I read a lot of non-fiction generally. I think that what the “genre” is, is that I read a lot of Asian American writers and authors. I think that’s what I read the most, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction.

Q. What’s your all-time favorite book?

I think it would be a tie between Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” and Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” because they’re so different and I also want to have a woman author in there.

Q. What’s next on your reading list?

I do have a novel that I’ve been waiting to read. Vanessa Chan’s “The Storm We Made.” I’m looking forward to that. It’s based in Malaysia during World War II.


More books, authors and bestsellers

Percival Everett, the author of more than 30 books, discusses his latest, "James," a retelling of Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." (Photo credit Michael Avedon / Courtesy of Doubleday)
Percival Everett, the author of more than 30 books, discusses his latest, “James,” a retelling of Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” (Photo credit Michael Avedon / Courtesy of Doubleday)

A fresh perspective

Percival Everett’s new novel reworks Mark Twain. But ‘James’ has a different mission. READ MORE

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Award-winning author Stephen Graham Jones' latest novel, "The Angel of Indian Lake," is the final book in a horror trilogy that began with 2021's "My Heart is a Chainsaw." The new book is out on March 26, 2024 via Saga Press. (Photo by Gary Isaacs; Image courtesy of Saga Press)
Award-winning author Stephen Graham Jones’ latest novel, “The Angel of Indian Lake,” is the final book in a horror trilogy that began with 2021’s “My Heart is a Chainsaw.” The new book is out on March 26, 2024 via Saga Press. (Photo by Gary Isaacs; Image courtesy of Saga Press)

Killer trilogy

Stephen Graham Jones finishes off horror series with “The Angel of Indian Lake.” READ MORE

• • •

"The Hunter," a new novel by Tana French, is among the top-selling fiction releases at Southern California's independent bookstores. (Courtesy of Viking Books)
“The Hunter,” a new novel by Tana French, is among the top-selling fiction releases at Southern California’s independent bookstores. (Courtesy of Viking Books)

The week’s bestsellers

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Bookish (SCNG)
Bookish (SCNG)

Next on ‘Bookish’

Author and “Dear Sugars” podcaster Steve Almond talks about his new book on writing, “Truth is the Arrow, Mercy Is the Bow,” and novelist and licensed death row investigator Rene Denfeld discusses her novel “Sleeping Giants” on the next Bookish on April 19 at 5 p.m.

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Thanks, as always, for reading.



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