How can poetry help heal a deeply divided country?

How can poetry help heal a deeply divided country?

Last week’s inauguration was like no other: It took place two weeks after a deadly insurrection at the Capitol, and a week after the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Donald Trump a second time. Many were struck by the outfits of attendees. But the showstopper was Amanda Gorman, the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate, who read her inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb.”

Can poetry and the arts help a country heal from deep division? And how political is poetry itself? Kojo sits down with literary activist, poet and memoirist E. Ethelbert Miller and the 2020 D.C. Youth Poet Laureate Marjan Naderi to talk about poetry and language during tumultuous times. And we hear how the pandemic has shaped their writing.

Produced by Cydney Grannan


  • E. Ethelbert Miller Literary activist and author of two memoirs and several poetry collections, including "If God Invented Baseball" and two forthcoming books, "When Your Wife Has Tommy John Surgery and Other Baseball Stories" and "the little book of e."; @Ethelbertpoet
  • Marjan Naderi Poet and educator; 2020 D.C. Youth Poet Laureate; @marjanxpoetry


  • 12:32:14

    KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. When many people think back to last week's Inauguration, the first thing they think about is not President Biden's speech, nor is it Bernie Sanders, whose outfit became an instant meme. They think first of Amanda Gorman, and her poem, "The Hill We Climb." Let's take a listen to part of it now.

  • 12:32:33

    AMANDA GORMANIf we're to live up to our own time, then victory won't lighten the blade. But in all of the bridges we've made, that is the promise to glade the hill we climb, if only we dare it. Because being American is more than a pride we inherit. It's the past we step into and how we repair it.

  • 12:32:56

    AMANDA GORMANWe've seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it, would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy. And this effort very nearly succeeded. But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated.

  • 12:33:19

    NNAMDIAmanda Gorman reading "The Hill We Climb" at last week's Presidential Inauguration. Joining me to discuss the intersection of poetry and politics are two local poets. E. Ethelbert Miller is a literary activist. He's the author of two memoirs and several poetry collections, including "If God Invented Baseball." He has two forthcoming books, "When Your Wife Has Tommy John Surgery and Other Baseball Stories." And the other's called "The Little Book of e." E. Ethelbert Miller is anything but little. He is a giant of poetry in this region. Ethelbert, welcome.

  • 12:33:58

    NNAMDII can't hear you, but presumably you can hear me, and I will soon be hearing you. Also joining us is Marjan Naderi, poet, educator and the 2020 D.C. Youth Poet Laureate. Marjan, can you hear me?

  • 12:34:13

    MARJAN NADERII can hear you, indeed. How are you, Kojo?

  • 12:34:16

    NNAMDIGlad you can hear me, and we should be hearing from Ethelbert pretty soon. Marjan, what was your reaction to Amanda Gorman's poem?

  • 12:34:23

    NADERIYeah, absolutely. So, Amanda, and I are actually from the same youth poet laureate program with (unintelligible) in New York. And I've been familiar with her work for a little while now. And first and foremost, I give her major props for not only being the first youth poet laureate, but also being a black woman who is serving with that position. And in this space that she had at the Inauguration, I think she did a really beautiful job of intertwining and weaving the truth about democracy and the state that it is currently in, and bringing hope forward into our hearts to hold onto and latch onto as we move forward under these new rules.

  • 12:35:06

    NNAMDIWhat is your view of the relationship between poetry and politics, Marjan?

  • 12:35:12

    NADERIYeah, in this conversation we've -- brings up so much for a lot of Americans who are writing their...

  • 12:35:24

    NNAMDIOh, oh, we seem to be losing Marjan, but as luck would have it, E. Ethelbert Miller is with us now. Ethelbert, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:35:31

    E. ETHELBERT MILLERThank you for the invitation, Kojo.

  • 12:35:34

    NNAMDIEthelbert, what was your response to Amanda Gorman's poem? How does it compare to the works of past poets who read their work at presidential inaugurations?

  • 12:35:43

    MILLERWell, you know, Kojo, I wrote the following a few days ago, and I wrote: "We are a country in need of believers in truth. And so, a woman takes center stage, recites a poem. We first see her blackness, and then her age. She is standing on sacred ground, and so her words are holy. She has climbed to this height so that we might not simply see, but listen. Our nation divided once again, our soldiers standing before us. She is our Whitman now, our witness to our ugliness, but believing in our beauty." Those are the words I said, and I was very thankful for Amanda Gorman for writing her poem.

  • 12:36:22

    NNAMDIWhy is it that the other poem that stands out most for me -- and I know a lot of us -- was Maya Angelou, at Bill Clinton's Inauguration?

  • 12:36:33

    MILLERWell, the reason for that is because we don't remember Miller Williams, "Of History and Hope," in 1997. And we don't really remember Richard Blanco's poem. And we go back and remember Walt Whitman -- I mean, Robert Frost, because the sun was in his eyes during Kennedy's (unintelligible).

  • 12:36:53

    MILLERBut I think when we look at Maya Angelou and also Amanda Gorman, it's performance, as well as poetry, okay. I tell people that, you know, Maya Angelou could've read the phone book and people would've still got excited, because she comes out of that Negro Ensemble Company, she knows how to enunciate, you know, that Paul Robeson tradition.

  • 12:37:10

    MILLERAnd I think Amanda Gorman, you know, is a young writer that we see many writers who are dealing with spoken word, you know, who are not just going to stand there and recite a poem. They're going to move their bodies. They're going to move their hands. And so, what happens is, I think, Amanda Gorman is a writer in the tradition of, you know, Maya Angelou.

  • 12:37:30

    MILLERBut when I went back and looked at all of the poems, okay, Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Alexander, Richard Blanco, Miller Williams, Amanda Gorman, I go back to Elizabeth Alexander, "Praise Song for the Day." When I sat back and read that poem again, I said, oh, wow, this is really beautiful, okay. And I got something more than what I got out from when she recited it at Obama's Inauguration. And that has a lot to say about poetry. Sometimes we hear it or we read it, and we have to go back again to fully appreciate it.

  • 12:38:01

    NNAMDIWhat do you see, Ethelbert, as the relationship, when it occurs, between poetry and politics?

  • 12:38:08

    MILLERWell, I think any time somebody steps outside their door, especially if they're black, (laugh) they're dealing with politics. That's how you have to navigate the world. Now, whether you want to put it into rhyme or reason, (laugh) you know, that throws in the poetry.

  • 12:38:20

    MILLERBut what happens is that, you know, this is a conversation that I think even Marjan would say, there's an ongoing conversation between art and politics. And what happens within our country, we try to keep it sometimes separate, because we want the artist to have that freedom. We don't want that person to be told what to say. And we don't want to be sometimes talked or dictated to.

  • 12:38:38

    MILLERSo, what happens is that we look for art to be something where we can find our freedom and our discovery. And so, what happens, we want to give the artist that space. But because of the times that we live in -- and this gets into Amanda Gorman -- the poet has to rise to the occasion. He or she has to provide that vision for the community. So, when we look at these Inauguration poems, we see the poet speaking to the land and to the people. And that's something that is very important, especially if the country's divided.

  • 12:39:07

    NNAMDIMarjan Naderi is back with us. Marjan, you have written a lot about being an Afghan-American and about being a Muslim. How do politics and activism influence your work? You know, everybody who knows Ethelbert knows that he started out as an activist, but how about you?

  • 12:39:24

    NADERIYeah, well, I think it's really important to reiterate that any American that is living on the soil and participating in this democracy and was born, you know, with that conversation of being equal, starting at that equal ground. And also working their way up and having the opportunity to achieve equal worth, as well. And as someone who has been in this country since my birth and has been carrying these other identities, I feel that it's difficult to carry myself with both identities fully both as an American, as an Afghan, as a Muslim.

  • 12:40:00

    NADERIBut my writing has been the vessel and the tool that I use to not only heal those aspects that have spoken, but also empower other elements and other people in my community, and bringing light to those voices. So often, we forget that we are carrying an entire nation on our backs, as first generation. And when we have these poems, these documents that can not only reiterate our existence, but also become the tool for others to learn of and support us, it carries into everything we then do.

  • 12:40:37

    NADERIAnd with Amanda Gorman's poem, I think she did a really brilliant job of unifying the people, rather than, you know, going back to the past four years and specifically pointing them out. And she became all of America, in that poem. And I did feel connected to her, intertwined in that piece while she read it. And so, I give her major props for that, as well. And as someone who has been writing in the political scene...

  • 12:41:07

    NNAMDIOh, oh. Marjan seems to have departed temporarily, I can assure you, again. But I'd like to pick up with you, Ethelbert Miller, because President Joe Biden's Inauguration address focused on unity, and Amanda Gorman's poem had similar themes. Do you see -- especially in the politically divisive times in which we now live -- do you see poetry playing a role in either, A., bringing us together, or B., giving us a deeper understanding of the process we're involved in?

  • 12:41:42

    MILLERI think it's -- and I like the fact that, you know, he selected a younger writer, because that echoes what we saw happening in our streets last year, young people coming into the political process, young people concerned about black lives matter, young people, you know, registering to vote. So, we saw that. And I think sometimes we forget -- especially with our poets -- if you look at Langston Hughes, many of the poems that we celebrate, which are thanking Langston Hughes, was written when he was very young, okay. So, that should not be forgotten.

  • 12:42:11

    MILLERAnd we shouldn't overlook the fact -- and we talk about somebody being young -- well, how young was Julian Bond and John Lewis? How young was Martin Luther King when he was, you know, in Montgomery, Alabama? That is something that what we realize is that every generation, young people move to the forefront and they change America, because they believe in America.

  • 12:42:31

    NNAMDIHere now is Susan in Washington, D.C. Susan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Oh, I don't think we can pick up Susan, at this point. I'll try to get Susan on the line later on, and hopefully we'll have Marjan back with us pretty soon, also. Ethelbert, I said earlier that everybody who knows you knows that you began as an activist, but you are still an activist. You are a literary activist. Exactly -- explain to our audience exactly what that means.

  • 12:42:59

    MILLERBeing a literary activist today means I put emphasis on promotion and preservation. You know, over the years, I've always promoted writers. I always felt there was a need to take time away from your own work to promote a person in terms of writing a letter of recommendation, doing a book blurb, providing at one time, for me, initially, a reading for others, you know, with my (unintelligible).

  • 12:43:20

    MILLERBut then later on, you know, to this point now, I'm very much concerned about preservation. You know, what documents are we keeping? What writers are we remembering, you know, whether it's Owen Dodson, whether it's Joey Brown. I talked to a writer today and said, well, what are they going to do with their libraries? You know, I've been, you know, giving some of my personal collections for writers who I feel have promise. And these books will be helpful to them in their development, as it was for mine.

  • 12:43:45

    MILLERAnd so that thing, in terms of being a literary activist, is that caring the same way you would be caring about your community or the environment, you care about for other writers.

  • 12:43:53

    NNAMDII should mention that one of the reasons we and everybody else seems to be having problems is that there's apparently a major outage on the East Coast, a major internet outage on the East Coast. So, that is what accounts for some of the problems we're having. But I think I can speak now with Susan in Washington, D.C. Susan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:44:13

    SUSANHello, there. I am both a poet in the District of Columbia and an activist, political activist in the District of Columbia. And going back a long ways, Marion Berry asked me to read a poem for him at his second inaugural, which was great, most exciting. If you'd like to hear it, I'd...

  • 12:44:43

    NNAMDII was about to say, is it a long poem?

  • 12:44:46

    SUSANI'll give you the shorter half of it.

  • 12:44:49

    NNAMDIThank you, Susan.

  • 12:44:52

    SUSANPicture it now, tendrils of green curling, spreading through the city, growing stronger because we care to help those who waited a year of nights. Where will we find all those who come? What am I saying? I tell you that God hears the prayers of the poor, the daily walkers of the line, those who suffer sidewalk slaps of the heart. And you have brought new hope where it's not been seen before, and redemption is cast to the heavens a thousand times. A thousand, thousand hands lifting in praise, (unintelligible) rising into the night air like stars to wish on, glowing where no light shown before, and the Power Ball isn't the only way to win anymore.

  • 12:45:37

    SUSANBe a winner. You know you're someone, passed your help around like french fries and lipstick among friends. Like a Goodwill collection just in time. Like voting for the first time, double Dutch dare to call your name. We can rise from terrors and death, from days of (unintelligible) of mice and men, that truly mean no good to us, and swing into song because God loves a prodigal, and so do we, because that's who we are, each of us, and stronger the knowing, and we know that we, too, stand by the will and wait for someone who cares to bring us water.

  • 12:46:18

    NNAMDISusan, thank you very much for sharing that poem with us. Did Mayor Barry enjoy it?

  • 12:46:24

    SUSANHe sure did. (laugh)

  • 12:46:25

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much. Ethelbert, how has your writing changed since the coronavirus pandemic started?

  • 12:46:32

    MILLERI've changed in a number of ways. It made me more aware of times of loss. It made me also aware of how to deal with solitude. I started, last year, writing a lot of haiku, which, you know, immediately connected me to, you know, thinks happening in my backyard. I was connected to nature, paying more attention to the squirrels and birds.

  • 12:46:52

    MILLERBut it was a time of reflection. And because of, you know, the confinement, you know, I thought a lot about my brother, who passed away a number of years ago. But my brother, when he was very young, entered a Catholic monastery. And I said, well, okay, if this is what he was going to do for his life, I can get through a pandemic, you know. And so, I drew upon that, you know, for inspiration, you know.

  • 12:47:15

    MILLERAnd I connected to something that we just saw, you know. My friend Jamie Raskin lost his son, you know, and he sort of committed himself to deal with this impeachment, okay. That's how he would honor his son's memory, and that would give his life meaning. And I felt, you know, going through this pandemic, not knowing how long it was going to last, the fact that I could go back and I had an example within my own family of a person who made the decision to take a vow, that this is how I'm going to live, I find that to be something of considerable inspiration.

  • 12:47:46

    NNAMDII've heard that you've been working on haiku since the pandemic began. Tell us about your forthcoming poetry collection called "The Little Book of e."

  • 12:47:54

    MILLERWell, "The Little Book of e," in a little while, I will be doing a talk to faculty and students at the Hebrew College in Massachusetts. "The Little Book of e" it's 50 of my haiku in English, translated into Hebrew, and it's with my friend Robbie Ellison, who's doing the translation. He's going to be interviewing me later on this afternoon, we'll have a conversation. And I've been fascinated by how, you know, these poems -- and poetry, in general -- brings people and communities together. And so, the collaboration is one I'm really excited about.

  • 12:48:26

    NNAMDIMarjan Naderi is back with us. Marjan, the last time we spoke with you was right before the pandemic began, when you had just become the 2020 DC Youth Poet Laureate. What was your year as DC's youth poet laureate supposed to look like, and how did it change, because of the pandemic?

  • 12:48:44

    NADERIYeah, that's a really heartbreaking question. (laugh) But, beforehand, we had a lot of conversations planned around, you know, really uplifting our communities and homing in on what those community service work looks like. And so, we had started a few initiatives with (unintelligible) resources, hoping to gear some more funds being raised for children in Afghanistan and having educational facilities built.

  • 12:49:12

    NADERIThat was one awesome project that we were looking forward to. And then we were also going to be touring Busboys and Poets and doing some poems and hopefully traveling across America, just hosting different workshops at different schools, primarily public middle schools. And so, we didn't get to do all of those things, but I did manage my way around getting some of the work I wanted to do online.

  • 12:49:34

    NADERIAnd so, I worked really closely with DC schools, reading poetry and helping students document their time at home, and a lot of just online poetry events. And so one of the highlights of my entire 2020 as a poet laureate was the Strathmore Creative Forces Monuments, where they had honored six different artists in the area, and had actually carved our faces into massive trees as a monument for the public to come see, with light projectors and everything.

  • 12:50:03

    NADERIBut I think the most heartwarming thing was really to see young poets being highlighted at the Inauguration and seeing that the entire (unintelligible) of what it means to be a poet is now being opened for young people to move forward with, as we open this new avenue. And also owning our voices and owning our narratives when moving forward. And hopefully now, my fingers are crossed for the book that is coming out under the Urban Word Program for my Youth Poet Laureate program. And that should be coming out next spring. So, some very exciting things.

  • 12:50:36

    NNAMDIHere now is Brady in Charlottesville, Virginia. Brady, your turn.

  • 12:50:42

    BRADYHi. I've watched, like a lot of people, the Inauguration and Amanda Gorman's recitation, and was blown away by them the other day. At the same time, I noticed afterwards that everywhere I looked in the press, everything that was said about the poem was positive. And whenever everybody's saying the same thing, I get a little suspicious.

  • 12:51:10

    BRADYAnd so, I come from a written poetry background. And as I looked back at the poem, I couldn't notice that there were some features of it that, if they'd been in a written poem, might not have gotten the adulation that they got when they were spoken. Clichés, platitudes, there were things that one would be maybe less likely to do if the poem were written. And I'm wondering if there's space for spoken poetry to be critiqued, or if it's kind of anything goes.

  • 12:51:51


  • 12:51:54

    MILLERWell, you know, I think more than the spoken-written, it's when you have to write a poem for an occasion. I've only done that once in my life, where, you know, you have a deadline. You also realize that you're going to have a poem that you're reciting in public, as opposed to, you know, a silent reading in private.

  • 12:52:11

    MILLERAnd so, what happens, I realized that, you know, it was a different type of poem, and I'm happy I did it, because it wound up being a poem that I wrote in the memory of Oscar Romero. You know, he was killed in El Salvador. And so, what happens is that the thing that you would do with a poem, because you're going to present it, especially in a public arena, it's a different thing.

  • 12:52:34

    MILLERI love the fact that Amanda had to probably deal with first, oh, they're inviting me to read the poem at the Inauguration, (laugh) then second, what am I going to do? You know, then who am I going to call? What am I going to talk on? What am I going to research? And then you still have to perform it, okay. You still have to perform it.

  • 12:52:51

    MILLERUnless, like, for example, if I gave you the sheet music to my favorite thing, you think that was John Coltrane played? No. (laugh) And you could give your poet that license, because it's going to be a public appearance. And when I look at the sheet music, if I look at it now, we're going to workshop Amanda's poem in an MFA program, okay, I might say, well, the wordplay here's a little technical, but no. What we're looking at, what was the poem for? What was she asked to do, okay?

  • 12:53:16

    MILLERAnd then I'd have to give, you know, Joe Biden as much credit as I would give Vachel Lindsay for discovering, you know, Langston Hughes at the Wardman Hotel. Biden heard Amanda and gave her opportunity and promote her work. You can't ask for anything better than that. And this is some of the things we have to be celebratory. We can be critical, you know. I mean, if you want to be critical of Amanda Gorman's work, then read all of the poems that were given at inaugurations, okay.

  • 12:53:41

    MILLERAnd begin with Robert Frost who, because sun's in his eyes, couldn't read the poem that he wanted to read, and so he recited a poem from memory. That's right. Okay. So, this shows you that, okay, he combined that he came with a poem, a written poem, couldn't read it, and so he fell back on memory.

  • 12:53:59

    NNAMDIFascinating. Marjan, you have won various poetry slam competitions, so talk about this, the difference between what we see on the page and the performance of it.

  • 12:54:11

    NADERIYeah. So, I mean, there's a lot of conversation that comes around the idea of being a page poet or a performance poet. But with this specific moment, this specific event, first and foremost, it's important to know that this poem is for all of America, and not just the writers who stay in their room, enjoying reading and critiquing. This poem was meant to be available and accessible digestible for all of America, and that's including our beautiful American clichés, right. And she made room for those things.

  • 12:54:40

    NADERIAnd secondly, she did an incredible job of becoming a vessel for the poem. When Amanda was reading her work, it wasn't Amanda reading a poem. It was the poem reading Amanda. And that's what we want to see when we do see poetry becoming the forefront, taking the spotlight, especially in a conversation politics, right. We're depersonalizing this work and we're allowing it to exist on its own body, on its own two feet, taking...

  • 12:55:05

    NNAMDIGot to interrupt because we're almost out of time. But Marjan Naderi, hopefully the next time you come along we won't have technical difficulties. Marjan Naderi, thank you so much for joining us. And E. Ethelbert Miller, thank you for joining us. This discussion on poetry and politics was produced by Cydney Grannan. And our conversation on what President Biden's executive orders mean for LGBTQ locals was produced by Ines Renique.

  • 12:55:33

    NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, officials across the region are pushing schools to reopen, and DC plans to bring some students back next week. DC Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee joins us to discuss how safety concerns will be addressed. That all starts at noon, tomorrow. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

Topics + Tags

Most Recent Shows