Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Don't like poetry? These podcasters have some tips to get you into it

A cup of cold Darjeeling surrounded by some pretty basic poetry
A cup of cold Darjeeling surrounded by some pretty basic poetry
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Even if you are not a fan of poetry, there’s a podcast out there about poetry that might capture your interest: “Interesting People Reading Poetry.”

The show was created by two Minnesota brothers, Brendan and Andrew Stermer. They joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk poetry and podcasting.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Even if you're not a fan of poetry, there's a podcast out there about poetry that might capture your interest. It's called Interesting People Reading Poetry. It's a podcast created by two Minnesota brothers, Brendan and Andrew Stermer. They're with us right now to talk poetry and podcasting. Hey, you guys, how are you doing?

BRENDAN STERMER: Hey, Cathy, it's great to be here.

CATHY WURZER: Thank you for joining us.

ANDREW STERMER: Thanks for having us.

CATHY WURZER: Thank you, Brendan and Andrew. Now, you have been doing this podcast since 2016, I believe. Brendan, how did it start?

BRENDAN STERMER: Well, it started about a year before then. When I was a student at the University of Minnesota Morris, I had a radio show on campus called the Motown Poetry Hour, where I would curate a mix of hip hop tracks and poetry selections on a given theme. So that was my first experiment in poetry and radio. And then it evolved into Interesting People Reading Poetry over the years after conversations with Andy about what a podcast might look like.

CATHY WURZER: And by the way, thank you for being in student radio. We appreciate that.

BRENDAN STERMER: Absolutely, it was a blast.

CATHY WURZER: Andrew-- or Andy, what did you think when Brendan said, hey, I got this idea?

ANDREW STERMER: Well, I was really excited because my background is as a musician. But I also, at the time, was getting really interested in audio production. And I had actually applied to be an intern at a number of podcasts and didn't hear a positive response. So when Brendan offered the chance, I was really excited to dig in and start something of our own.

CATHY WURZER: I want folks to listen to a little bit of your podcast to get a feel for how it sounds and what you're making.

MAKOTO FUJIMURA: My name is Makoto Fujimura. I am an artist. This is part of Four Quartets by TS Eliot. "Time past and time future allow but a little consciousness. To be conscious is not to be in time. But only in time can the moment in the rose garden, the moment in the arbor, where the rain beat, the moment in a drafty church at smokefall be remembered, involved with past and future. Only through time, time is conquered."

CATHY WURZER: That is visual artist Makoto Fujimura reading Four Quarters by T.S Eliot. Say, Brendan, why did you choose Mr. Fujimura and that poem, and the music for that matter.

BRENDAN STERMER: Well, our guests are encouraged to choose their favorite poem. So we don't choose any of the poems that appear on the podcast. We reach out to artists that we admire. And our only rule for guest selection is that no poets are allowed on the podcast because we're very interested in hearing how luminaries from diverse disciplines can teach us to approach poems in new ways. So I was familiar with Makoto Fujimura as an incredible painter. And I just sent him an email asking if he would be willing to read and talk about his favorite poem. And Andy can share a little bit more about how we developed the score for that episode.

CATHY WURZER: Go ahead, Andy.

ANDREW STERMER: Sure, so the music was developed-- the inspiration was through the interview and through some of the research we did, we learned that Eliot had been influenced by some of Beethoven's string quartets when he was writing the poem and that Makoto also had a connection to one of those quartets as he was coming to love this poem. And so we used that as inspiration. And I ended up sampling a couple of lines from the quartet and stretching and warping and otherwise mangling that, and then layering some other synths on top of that. So it's this idea of the inspiration behind the poem is present there in the background.

CATHY WURZER: Did he say why he chose that poem specifically? There's always a story behind something.

BRENDAN STERMER: He did, yeah. In every episode, after the guest reads the poem for the first time, we ask them questions about how they first encountered the poem. And in Mr. Fujimura's case, he first came to read the poem after 9/11. His studio was close to Ground Zero and he was not able to access the studio. And he told us a story of reading that poem aloud every time he got on to the subway in New York City in the days and months following 9/11. And it was a great source of comfort for him.

CATHY WURZER: Now, this is Interesting People Reading Poetry. What's the definition of an interesting person? What makes someone interesting, Brendan?

BRENDAN STERMER: [LAUGHS]

Oh, my goodness. I think all people are interesting. So yeah, I do have a problem with our title on that respect. But particularly we're interested in, like I said, artists who are not themselves poets. That's very important to us. And we've interviewed everybody on the show from journalists to painters to a biblical translator to rock stars. So occupational diversity is very important to the concept of the show. And in general, we're just interested in people who are like leaders in their field, leading minds and how they might bring new light to poems that poets might read differently, that they can use the width.

CATHY WURZER: I see. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt you. Did I hear Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, one of your-- was she reading a poem?

BRENDAN STERMER: Yeah.

CATHY WURZER: Yeah.

BRENDAN STERMER: Yeah, she was one of our very first guests. And she read a poem. And she was incredible. I'd really encourage people to seek out that episode.

CATHY WURZER: Do you write poetry yourself?

BRENDAN STERMER: I do. Yes, I read and write poetry every day.

CATHY WURZER: And how did you both get into-- not only you, Brendan, with the poetry, but Andy with the music? How did that happen for you both?

ANDREW STERMER: So I have a background in-- I've always loved music and was trained mainly as a drummer and studied jazz drumset in college, and eventually got into jazz composition and arranging, which led to other types of music composition, and eventually music production and audio production. So that's been my path.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, wow, that's quite a path. Brendan?

BRENDAN STERMER: How did I get interested in poetry?

CATHY WURZER: Yeah.

BRENDAN STERMER: I guess I would trace that back to growing up in Montevideo, Minnesota. We had a great artist-in-residence program in the elementary schools. And in fourth grade, we had a poet by the name of Florence Dacey come to my classroom. And I've been writing poetry ever since.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. Say, I understand that you have a haiku hotline, which I adore. This is a great idea. Tell us about it.

BRENDAN STERMER: Yeah, at the end of every episode, we feature one listener poem. So we encourage listeners to call the haiku hotline. And basically we encourage people to submit haikus. But it can really be any short poem or fragment. And so they leave us poems in our voicemail inbox. And then we select one to play at the end of every episode.

CATHY WURZER: I love that. What have you run into? I bet you've got some really great ideas and really great entries.

BRENDAN STERMER: Yeah, gosh, we used to have a different prompt that we would send out on social media to try to get specific poems. But the one that's coming to mind most recently, in our last episode we put out, I was just sorting through our voicemail inbox and came across a poem that was submitted by a nurse at Regions Hospital. She said, I'm in my break room. And I just witnessed this really troubling encounter, somebody really struggling medically. And she wrote a poem about it and decided to call us. And it was a really beautiful reflection.

CATHY WURZER: Say, what do you think about why does this podcast touch people? What is it about the words and the music that resonate with listeners?

BRENDAN STERMER: I think it's a really important experience for people to experience poetry as a sensual and as an oral art form. Very often, people's experience of poetry is on the page, which is obviously a great way to experience it. But it's something completely different to hear a poem read aloud. And then to have somebody share on a personal level and incorporating in memories and experiences, like what the poem means to them, I think it creates a doorway into the poem for people who otherwise might be scared or find the text difficult.

CATHY WURZER: Andy, what do you think?

ANDREW STERMER: Yeah, I agree with everything Brendan said. I also think that people are drawn to it and it resonates with them because it's a different way to experience poetry that's outside of an academic context where a lot of people may first encounter poetry in high school English class, trying to understand it and analyze it. And we're trying to remove that context and present it more as an experience. Our guests aren't usually analyzing the meaning of the poem and digging into certain words and what they mean and the phrasing so much as they're sharing their personal connection with it. And I think that connects with people.

CATHY WURZER: What a beautiful, creative thing. I wish you both well. Thank you so much.

BRENDAN STERMER: Thank you, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Brendan and Andy Stermer are the creators of Interesting People Reading Poetry. You can hear their podcast at interestingpeoplereadingpoetry.com.

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