Celebrate National Poetry Month with On the Line

Listen to this episode.

Rhody Radio @RhodyRadio · Apr 12 We're celebrating #NationalPoetryMonth with @CranstonLibrary  and the On the Line poetry call-in service! Zach talks about the project and shares his lifelong love of poetry. Listen and subscribe to #RhodyRadio anywhere you find podcasts! https://rhodyradio.org/podcast/episode/2410a663/celebrate-national-poetry-month-with-on-the-line Logo for "On the Line with Cranston Public Library" featuring an illustration of a cell phone with a quill pen and inkpot in the center. Rhody Radio logo banner at the bottom of the image, featuring an illustration of the State of Rhode Island wearing headphones. Logo for "On the Line with Cranston Public Library" featuring an illustration of a cell phone with a quill pen and inkpot in the center. Rhody Radio logo banner at the bottom of the image, featuring an illustration of the State of Rhode Island wearing headphones.

Zach: [00:00:00] You're listening to Rhody Radio: Rhode Island Library Radio Online.

[phone calls]

Thank you for calling On the Line with CPL, call to hear a new poem each week. This week's poem is Darling Coffee by Meena Alexander from the poets.org Poem-a-Day website.

Darling Coffee

The periodic pleasure of small happenings is upon us behind the stalls at the farmer’s market snow glinting in heaps, a cardinal its chest puffed out, bloodshod above the piles of awnings, passion’s proclivities; you picking up a sweet potato turning to me "This too?" query of tenderness under the blown red wing. Remember the brazen world? Let’s find a room with a window onto elms strung with sunlight, a cafe with polished cups, darling coffee they call it, may our bed be stoked with fresh cut rosemary and glinting thyme, all herbs in due season tucked under wild sheets: fit for the conjugation of joy.

This has been On the Line with CPL. Thank you for listening to Darling Coffee by Meena Alexander from the poets.org Poem-a-Day website. Poetry titles by Meena Alexander are available through Ocean State Libraries. Visit cranstonlibrary.org/ontheline for more information.

[music]

Dave: Hi, I'm Dave Bartos and the voice you just heard is Zach Berger, adult services librarian at the Cranston Public Library and the voice of On the Line, a call-in poetry service. For the past year, Zach has been recording a new [00:02:00] poem every week that's just a phone call away. Patrons can call 401-900-1090 to get a weekly dose of poetry, no internet or computer required. To celebrate national poetry month, I sat down with Zach to discuss his love of poetry and this project.

[music]

Zach: Hello, my name is Zach Berger. I'm an adult services librarian at Cranston Public Library. In my spare time, I'm a poet who loves dogs.

Dave: Before we jump into talking about your poetry project at the library, I wanted to ask you a little bit about your interest and experience with poetry.

Zach: I guess I'd have to say that it goes way back. I was lucky to grow up with an uncle who was a poet. I have a copy of one of his books here that I'm showing to Dave, Blow the Man Down. My uncle's name was Art Berger. This is probably out of print, so it's unlikely you'd be able to find a copy. For some reason, he and I really hit it off, and he was a regular provider of poetry to me. That was probably one of the seeds that got me writing.

I always did a lot of writing as a kid: poetry, short stories, plays. I was fairly creatively hold up in my room a lot of the time. I took it from there and got a real boost when-- After my parents split up, my mother joined an organization called Parents Without Partners, which had a providence chapter, and they had a newsletter. I remember looking at the newsletter one day and it had a poetry contest for kids. It would accept entries from anywhere in the United States, Canada, I think the UK, and maybe also possibly Australia.

I was inspired to write a poem about my mother's mother, who was the sweetest woman imaginable. She was an immigrant from [00:04:00] Italy. She spoke barely any English whatsoever. I can still picture her nulled arthritic hands, which never stopped her from plucking tomatoes, growing tomatoes all summer long. That was her passion. I wrote a poem about her, and I actually won first place internationally with that poem.

I wouldn't say that it's any great poem these days looking back on it, but for-- I think I was 10 when I wrote it, and then by the time the contest was over and the award was announced, I think it was a couple of years later that it was published. That really gave me a kick in the butt to keep going. I've been writing ever since.

Dave: That's fantastic. I'm curious, just to back up to your uncle, when you say he provided you with poetry, was that poetry he was writing, or were there influences and authors he introduced you to at that point?

Zach: It was both. He wrote and published a lot and he also hung out with some fairly notable people. He was friendly with Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I don't know how they all met him. It might have been in the Merchant Marine or something like that because my uncle was in the Merchant Marine. He used to tell stories about hanging out with Ferlinghetti and a few of the other beats and some other names that I don't remember right off the top of my head. Between that and just making sure that, when I went to the library, I wasn't forgetting to check out what he thought were some of he classic poets that he wanted me to expose myself to.

Dave: Sure. What were those classic names, not to put you on the spot?

Zach: He was much more into 20th-century contemporary poetry than anything much older than that, but he had a real thing for Keats. A lot of reading of Keats's poems when I was a kid. Maryanne Moore was another one. I am in love with Maryanne Moore and it's really thanks to my uncle that I carry that with me.

Dave: Fantastic. [00:06:00] Getting back up to speed here, you're an internationally recognized poet. What's next after that?

Zach: A lot of writing, a lot of rejections, of course. I've been published once as an adult. I was published in 1993 in the California State Poetry Quarterly, which unfortunately doesn't exist anymore. I was living in Brooklyn at the time, and that was just the jolt that I needed to feel good about myself as a poet, but that was a long time ago as I said. Since then, I tend to do a lot more writing than I do submitting, and I take a lot more online poetry courses and things like that just to keep going with my craft and to keep my mind stretched. It's not that getting published doesn't matter to me, but I try not to put as much weight on it as I used to.

Dave: That's incredible to just to keep it up and to keep it up as a for you thing. Is it almost like a, would you call it a diary, something that's a more personal project like that?

Zach: I don't know if I would call it a diary, but it almost takes that form because, every day, I have a specific note in my notes app on my phone that I call jottings, and that's where I put whatever lines come to me so that I can keep track of them when I'm not at my desk working on something. It's definitely more than a calling for me. It's a necessity in some way, especially as a visual person. I'm very visual oriented, and I'm a visual learner.

I see poetry as a visual medium in some ways because of the way that the words play with each other, the words on the page, the white space around it, the music of listening to a reading, whatever it might be. It all comes back to some [00:08:00] kind of vision that I can't describe really. That includes the creative process too. When I'm trying to figure out words and lines for whatever it is that I'm working on, I will frequently close my eyes and lean my head back and look up towards the ceiling or if I'm outside towards the clouds and see what comes.

Dave: It almost feels like-- I think about my mother-in-law as a knitter, and it's the same thing where she cannot knit. She's just always got something. She's right now on a seaplane flying to a remote island in the Pacific Northwest to visit her sister. I guarantee, if she's not knitting on that bumpy jolty seaplane, she's definitely got it with her, because she's going to be sitting on the shore and knitting and that kind of-- It has the same feel. It's just something you have to do, not to put words in your mouth.

Zach: Right. That's accurate. Even though there are stretches when I don't feel up to the task or I just can't because of other obligations, but I'm always thinking about it if not doing it.

Dave: Now I know your husband, Mike, is an English teacher. Does he get in on the poetry? Is he a sounding board for what you're working on or a critic of what you're working on?

Zach: All the above. He really loves during April poetry month, every year on his Facebook page, he will post a new poem every day for the entire month. I don't have the ambition to keep up with that, but I love reading what he posts. Of course, I share my stuff with him. He is, 99% of the time, the very first reader of a draft, and I get lots of great feedback and critiques from him as well.

Dave: Fantastic. One of the other things we do aside from make podcasts and recordings of poetry together is we purchase all the books for the library. I know one of the sections I've put you [00:10:00] in charge of is the poetry section. Are there any authors that you want people to be watching out for their poetry or should be interested in as far as what you've been purchasing for the library?

Zach: I love that you asked that question. When I started this, I wanted to-- First of all, I had made a vow to myself a few years ago, for my own reading, to read outside of my experience as much as I could. Then, of course, I use that information to enhance the poetry collection here at the central library. There are lots of poets that people might want to check out that might be less familiar.

Some of them are making a name for themselves. Danez Smith is a great poet. My favorite right now is probably Ocean Vuong, and I think they have a new book that's just about out if it's not quite out yet. Jake Skeets is another one. Emily Jungmin Yoon was the guest on a really great podcast episode. I'm trying to remember which podcast it might have been, Poetry Off the Shelf, which is my go-to podcast that I listen to when I want inspiration and find out about new voices. The host, Helena de Groot - I hope I said her name correctly - is really a wonderful interviewer because she brings so much warmth and empathy to her interviews that every conversation is like a revelation.

Noor Hindi is another new one. New to me, anyway. Caleb Parkin, Torrin A. Greathouse. Those are just a few that I'll name.

Dave: Awesome. Is there anything else that--? I didn't ask you about you, in particular, your life and poetry, and with poetry is an art form that you wanted to share.

Zach: One of the things that I think is so important about poetry for me because the writing process itself can be very isolating, [00:12:00] but poetry as a builder of community is so important. I'm still getting to know the Rhode Island poetry community and would feedback from other poets in the state on how they find time to make their work happen, how they communicate with each other, how they support each other. It's interesting.

I seem to be more heavily involved, especially on Twitter, with the UK Twitter poetry universe than anything this side of the Atlantic, but I'd like to balance that out a bit more. The reason why I got involved with a lot of UK poets is because the online poetry courses that I've been taking are by a really talented woman named Julia Webb, who is from the UK. A little shout out to Julia there. I'd love to learn more about what is available right in my home state.

Dave: Yes. Well, if you're a Rhode Island poet listening to the sound of our voices, feel free to get in touch On the Line at cranstonlibrary.org. It would be a great place to reach out. We're going to take a quick break and hear some more poetry and then come back and talk more about On the Line.

[music]

Zach: Poetry Is The Art Of Not Succeeding by Joe Salerno.

Poetry is the art of not succeeding; the art of making a little ritual out of your own bad luck, lighting a little fire made of leaves, reciting a prayer in the ordinary dark. It’s the art of those who didn’t make it after all; who were lucky enough to be left behind, while the winners ran on ahead to wherever it is winners go running to. O blessed rainy day, glorious as a paper bag. The kingdom of poetry [00:14:00] is like this - quiet, anonymous, a dab of sunlight on the back of your hand, a view out the window just before dusk. It’s an art more shadow than statue, and has something to do with your dreams running out - a bare branch darkening on a winter sky, the week-old snow frozen into something hard. It’s an art as simple as drinking water from a tin cup; of loving that moment at the end of autumn, say, when the air holds no more promises, and the days are short and likely to be gray. A bland light is best to see it in. Middle age brings it to flower. And there, just when you’re feeling your weakest, it floods you completely, leaving you weeping as you drive your car.

[music]

Dave: Turning to On the Line, tell us a little bit about this project and what inspired you to get it started?

Zach: As everyone who's listening to this knows, everyone had to pivot when the pandemic started. At the library was no different. In the spring of 2020, we were all turning our attention to how can we pivot from in-person programming to virtual programming? I was taking an online class with a woman who's-- I'm forgetting her name at the moment. I apologize. She is the person in charge of programming at Princeton Public Library. I happen to notice somehow through things that she was sharing that someone at her library was promoting a storyline. You could call Princeton Public Library, dedicated phone number, and hear a story being read. I immediately thought, "h, I want to do that, but with poems."

I contacted the teacher of the course, and she put me in touch with the person who [00:16:00] started their recorded storyline. That person said, "Oh, I really got the idea for this from this person at Denver Public Library who's been doing it for, I think, 18 years." There was a recorded webinar that I was able to watch, and I sent out a bunch of emails to a bunch of people to ask questions and get more input. Then I worked with our administration here at CPL to figure out how we could do this and then got it up and running.

April 6, 2021, was the first time we did it. Just about a year following the germination of that idea, the first poem that I read was Loving Humans by Alice Walker, which is from her book, Hard Times Require Furious Dancing, which seemed appropriate. That's how things took off.

Dave: Fantastic. One of my favorite things about working in libraries is how you could just ask somebody, "Hey, can you tell me how you did this?" Not only does that person say, "Yes, I'll tell you everything I know, but here's who I got that from." Just tracing thoughts all the way down the line. In that year you were learning, what other kinds of steps did you have to take to get this project off the ground?

Zach: I wanted to develop a framework that would be easy for others to follow, either in my absence or if I eventually wanted other people to do the reading. I thought very carefully about, how would I want to structure this? I developed a standard intro and outro that I use. Other than that, I keep in mind, the time limits of the audience who's listening because not everyone has longer than a few minutes in their day to call and listen to something, even if it's a poem that could inspire them in some way. It was important to make selections in [00:18:00] advance so that I could swap things out as the mood struck me or respond to current events.

Sometimes I'll have a poem that's related to either the season of the year or a particular holiday that's coming up or something in the news if I can think on my feet quickly enough for that. Then there were all of the logistical things like, what kind of a phone line can we use for this? Can we do something with our existing phone line? Did it have to be something special, like Google Voice? Which is what some of the libraries do. They set up a Google Voice account and do it that way. Keeping a spreadsheet of everything that's been done, making a webpage. All the little things that go into just staying organized with a project.

I have a whole binder on my on-the-line binder that has all the previously recorded poems. I try to stay ahead a good month or two in my planning, sometimes a little bit more because I don't want to have to scramble at the last minute. All that stuff is in my binder, and I just pull out the current week's poem when it's time and go into a quiet place and do my little recording.

Dave: Yes. For listeners who don't know, you're about to learn. Zach, your binder game is just so well organized and something I would emulate as I am always scrambling to get everything done at the last second. You've actually got your first guest reader coming up next week, right?

Zach: That's right. I will be away on vacation the third week of April. One of our colleagues here, Catherine, has graciously offered to step in and do the recording of the poem that week, and I can't wait for her to have the experience. I do hope to bring in other readers down the road. Not just to take some of the weight off of me having to do it week after week because I really do love it, but just to give others a chance to have the same opportunity and give listeners a chance to hear a different voice [00:20:00] once in a while.

Dave: Yes. I was going to ask what goes into making a selection. Maybe you've already answered that as far as length and what's going on. Is there anything else that says to you, "This is a poem that would be great for On the Line"?

Zach: The main criterion, hopefully, every week, is that it's from a source that is available through the library. We're not just talking about poetry here; we're talking about programs that the library provides for the public. I want people to hear a poem and say, "I want to hear more by that poet, and now I know that I can go to the library and get the entire collection that the poem came from."

That's not always possible. Sometimes a poem just really sticks with me and I want to do it, and maybe we don't own a book that has that particular poet in it because it was published on the Poetry Foundation website, but we have other poetry collections by that poet. I'll go with something like that, and I'll make that clear in my outro of the recording that other poetry collections by this poet are available at Ocean State Libraries.

Otherwise, I tend to favor what I might call more narrative poetry because I think it reads a little more smoothly. If all you're doing is listening to some disembodied voice coming through the phone line, if it's somewhat narrative in structure, I just find that it's less likely to cause too much confusion for a listener who might wonder, "What did that line mean, and where's this coming from?" Not that I completely shy away from that, but I think for a general audience, I try to stick with that.

Dave: Okay. Nothing too like epic poetry or tune in for the next thousand installments?

Zach: Right. [00:22:00] Nothing too experimental, nothing with the kind of line breaks that make it sometimes difficult to really decide, "What's the best way to read this poem, these line breaks?" It's hard to incorporate that into an experience that's entirely audio in nature.

Dave: Right. Do you have a sense, after having been doing this project for a year, of the impact or response of people? Have you heard anything or know how many people are listening out there?

Zach: Yes. We actually are lucky to be able to log into our phone system and get statistics every week, which I do regularly. We've done 40 recordings in 2021. We've done 13 or 14 so far this year. We're at like 53, 54. We have an average number of listeners per week of 10. We wish it was higher, but that's not bad. At least it's double digits. The highest number of listeners we had in one week was 36. That was for Mary Oliver's piece, Ropes, from her wonderful book, Dog Songs, which was published in 2013. When I looked at the stats for last week's poem today, I was a little sad because only three people had called in. That's just the way it goes. Sometimes we get more and sometimes we get fewer listeners.

Dave: I know, speaking from an indie podcast at a library perspective, we tell ourselves that's 10 people coming to a weekly program. If that was an in-person program at the library, that would be fantastic to have 10 people come and hang out with us. Just trying to have the metrics to speak to our projects with data, but also, it's more than just what we can count as far as the things that we're doing. That's fantastic. Is there any thoughts to the future of On the Line? Do you have anything else as far as growing or changing the project? Do you want to just keep it going? Aside from, I guess, you would talk about [00:24:00] guest voices, anything else you're planning.

Zach: I'd love to figure out a way to get our patrons more involved with the On the Line web page. You can go to the web page, which is cranstonlibrary.org/ontheline, and you can click on a link that will bring you to a list of all the poems that have been read, not the recordings of those poems because that would be a violation of copyright if we kept the recordings around, but a link to all of what was selected, with links to more information about the poets.

I'd love to find a way to have more interaction with listeners so that, if they have suggestions, if they want to make some kind of a remark about something that they heard. I post about On the Line on my personal social media regularly, and I will usually get a comment or two about what someone thought about the poem, but I'd love to see that broadened in some way. I'd really love to hear suggestions from listeners about what they'd like to hear.

Dave: All right. Well, thank you so much for introducing the project. If anyone listening to this anywhere in the world wants to call in and hear you reading a poem, how do they get in touch with On the Line?

Zach: They can call On the Line directly once a week to hear the new poem at area code 401-900-1090. If they want to ask questions, they could send an email to ontheline@cranstonlibrary.org.

Dave: Fantastic. Well, thank you very much, Zach, for talking with me today.

Zach: Thank you, Dave.

[music]

Dave: Thanks for listening. You can hear a new poem every week, just by dialing 401-900-1090. If you want to get in touch with Zach about On the Line, send an email to ontheline@cranstonlibrary.org. The theme music for this episode [00:26:00] is Twilight in Your Head by Lemon Music Studio. Rhody Radio is proud to be a resident partner of the Rhode Island Center for the Book. It is brought to you by library staff and community members all around the Ocean State.

You can find more from Rhody Radio on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If you enjoyed today's episode, subscribe to Rhody Radio and give us a review on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or wherever you listen to help us reach more Rhode Islanders. Rhody Radio was funded by a grant from the American Rescue Plan Humanities Grants for Libraries, an initiative of the American Library Association made possible with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. Thanks again for listening and Happy National Poetry Month.

[music]

Zach: Summer Haibun by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. A haibun is a traditional Japanese poetry form that combines prose poetry with haiku.

Summer Haibun.

To everything, there is a season of parrots. Instead of feathers, we searched the sky for meteors on our last night. Salamanders use the stars to find their way home. Who knew they could see that far, fix the tiny beads of their eyes on distant arrangements of lights so as to return to wet and wild nests? Our heads tilt up and up and we are careful to never look at each other. You were born on a day of peaches splitting from so much rain and the slick smell of fresh tar and asphalt pushed over a cracked parking lot. You were strong enough - even as a baby - to clutch a fistful of thistle and the sun himself was proud to light up your teeth when they first swelled and pushed up from your gums. And this is how I will always remember you when we are covered up again: by the pale mica flecks on your shoulders. Some thrown there from your own smile. Some from my own teeth. There are not enough jam jars to can this summer sky at night [00:28:00]. I want to spread those little meteors on a hunk of still-warm bread this winter. Any trace left on the knife will make a kitchen sink like that evening air the cool night before star showers: so sticky, so warm, so full of light.

[00:28:19] [END OF AUDIO]