"I think we all actually need poetry. We need the immersive experience in our humanity that poetic language can give us. We are all looking for these immersive experiences that allow us to contemplate what matters in our lives." -- Elisa New
The following highlights are from a conversation with Elisa New about her PBS production, "Poetry In America." To hear the full conversation, click the link above or subscribe to our podcast.
Sarah Aronson: I have a sneaking suspicion that you might be trying to make poetry cool again. How accurate is that?
Lisa New: Laughing
I’m definitely trying to make poetry cool. I’m trying to make poetry less scary because people are very intimidated by poetry and there’s no reason for them to be intimidated.
You’re the creator and director of “Poetry in America,” which is dubbed “a new public television series and multi-platform digital initiative that brings poetry into classrooms and living rooms around the world.” Why do we need this type of initiative?
I think we all actually need poetry. We need the immersive experience in our humanity that poetic language can give us. We are all looking for these immersive experiences that allow us to contemplate what matters in our lives. One new phenomenon I’ve observed that goes to why we need poetry, is how much we love podcasts. How suddenly, in a world where we can be looking at a million screens at a time and multitasking our brains out, what we want is a human voice in our ear that actually pushes everything else away. I feel very friendly to podcasts because I think they provide a chamber for a certain kind of mental relaxation and exercise. And that is what poetry can do if one doesn’t begin with a kind of coughing and sneezing, allergic, terrified reaction to it, or if one doesn’t go lunging after the meaning. “What does this poem mean? I don’t know!” or “I’m stupid. It’s stupid. Goodbye.”
After years of teaching poetry, especially to students . . . who are math students or biology students or economic students and are like “Uh, I might not want to read long novels. Okay, I’ll take a poetry course; poems are short.” The experience of drawing these students in to that refreshing kind of exercise of reading a poem, is the most important work I do. In bringing it to television and other digital platforms, I’m trying to expand that experience and offer it to others.
Shaquille O’Neal dubs you the “Warlord of Poetry.” Do you accept that title or would you revise it?
It’s really funny. Who wouldn’t want Shaquille O’Neal to call her the Warlord of Poetry? I love that. We really clicked in a very funny way and really enjoyed the experience of reading together. I can just say one funny story for viewers who watch that episode which is that in order to bring me in any kind of level with S O who is very, very, very tall man and I am 5’7”. They had to twist my chair up so high that Shaquille O’Neal’s feet are just kind of splayed on the ground and that mine are about two feet above the earth. So it looks like I’m just a little toddler sitting on the chair in order to be eye level with him.
About Elisa New
Elisa New is the creator, director, and host of Poetry in America, the director of Verse Video Education, and the Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature at Harvard University, where she teaches courses in classic American literature from the Puritans through the present day. Her multi-platform initiative, Poetry in America, includes for-credit, professional development, and free courses in American literature for global learners offered by Harvard's Extension School and HarvardX. She is the author of The Regenerate Lyric: Theology and Innovation in American Poetry (Cambridge University Press, 1992); The Line’s Eye: Poetic Experience, American Sight (Harvard University Press, 1999); Jacob’s Cane: A Jewish Family’s Journey from the Four Lands of Lithuania to the Ports of London and Baltimore: A Memoir in Five Generations (Basic Books, 2009); and New England Beyond Criticism: In Defense of America’s First Literature, A Wiley Blackwell Manifesto (Wiley Blackwell 2014).