'Interesting People Reading Poetry' podcast takes the pretensions out of poetry

Amanda Anderson

Amanda Anderson

Poetry is a hard sell, but brothers Andy and Brendan Stermer are trying to make it more appealing and accessible to the masses with their new podcast, Interesting People Reading Poetry.

Brendan hosts, asking prominent Minnesota artists and changemakers to read and discuss their favorite poems while Andy contributes original music and sound design as well as editing and mixing each installment. At the end of every episode, a segment called the “Haiku Hotline” features three listener-submitted voicemail poems on a given theme, selected by an acclaimed contemporary poet. Anyone can participate by calling 612-440-0643 and leaving a short, original poem after the beep.

Funded with a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, Interesting People Reading Poetry launched on Stitcher and iTunes on August 14, and will run weekly through December. Among the guests appearing this season are State Rep. Ilhan Omar, OnBeing’s Krista Tippett, Dakota activist Waziyatawin, musician Gaelynn Lea, and Minneapolis mayoral candidate Nekima Levy-Pounds. A live taping is taking tomorrow at Java River in Montevideo.

We spoke with Brendan Stermer, a new media artist best known for the web series Manhood in Rural America, about Interesting People Reading Poetry.

City Pages: What prompted this poetry podcast?

Brendan Stermer: When I was in school at the University of Minnesota – Morris, I did a podcast called The Motown Poetry Hour where I would, every week, choose a theme and read poems and play hip-hop tracks that were centered around that theme. Then I would have my friends call my phone and leave voicemail haikus and I would broadcast those as well. I got a lot of good feedback from that. Last fall, I did an internship with OnBeing and I became interested in podcasting. That’s when my brother, Andy, and I started developing the idea for Interesting People Reading Poetry. We got a grant from the state arts board to make that happen.

CP: It's difficult to get people to read poetry, much less listen to it. Why did you decide on that genre of literature?

BS: We made the show with the assumption that nobody is going to want to listen to it if it has poetry in the title. So everything that we do is trying to make it as enticing as possible given that we assume our audience doesn’t enjoy reading poetry.

I really think poetry is important, because it’s able to express the inexpressible. In our show, we use poems as prompts to explore topics that we wouldn’t otherwise know how to talk about. We’ve explored questions like: What is the meaning of home to a refugee? What does justice look like for indigenous Americans? What is God and what does God feel like? Poetry gives us permission to pose these questions. It also gives us language to use as we try to answer them.

The other thing is poetry is originally an oral art form so it was never really intended to live in books. I believe that podcasting is the perfect medium for poetry because we’re essentially just taking poetry back to its roots as a spoken art form.

CP: Why do you think poetry gets such a bad rap in pop culture or even among readers?

BS: For me, as somebody who only recently entered the poetry universe and started reading poetry really seriously, in order to be good at reading poetry, you have to get used to the experience of confusion. In our culture, so much revolves around certainty... and poetry is a space in the arts world where oftentimes reading a poem means reading something that profoundly confuses you and that you don’t necessarily understand and that can be scary for readers who haven’t experienced something like that before.

For me personally, as I read more and more poetry, I’ve begun to allow myself to not understand it and to accept that that’s okay.

CP: How did you decide to do the Haiku Hotline and involve listeners in the program?

BS: Like everything we do in the show, we want it to be about inclusivity. Part of that is encouraging people who listen to the show to write their own poems. We’re also interested in experimenting with new ways of soliciting poems and new types of poetry journals. We thought it would be fun to experiment with creating an audio poetry journal that is solicited via text and voicemail. People aren’t sending us manuscripts or emails or letters, they’re just texting us their poems or reading into the voicemail – everybody from poets who are in MFA programs who are serious about poetry to people who have never written a poem before.

CP: Who selects the listener poems that make it on the podcast?

We have a contemporary poet curate the hotline. We send them a list of all of the poems that we received that week and ask them to select three favorites. That gives us a chance to promote the work of the contemporary poet as well.

In all of my work, I’m really interested in juxtaposing things that we see as high culture and low culture. I like the fact that we’re sending an established contemporary poet a bunch of texts and asking them to select three.

CP: Are the poems by listeners anonymous or are they attributed to their writers?

BS: People are welcome to share their identity, but most people don’t.

CP: Who do you have on your wish list for guests?

BS: We’d really like to get Will Steger, the arctic explorer. Hopefully that’s gonna happen. We really wanted to talk to Sean Sherman, the Sioux chef. There are certain art forms that haven’t been represented our first season, like we don’t have any actors. Otherwise, we’re pretty well-booked. We’re still sending out requests and people have been incredibly generous and responsive.

CP: Looking at the roster, it appears you place an emphasis on diversity.

BS: Yeah. We’re really interested in how the poem can intersect with whatever line of work our guest is in. For instance, we interviewed a comedian, Mary Mack, and she was talking about how she would often go to poetry readings to test out new jokes and how she learned a lot about good jokes from observing how good poems works. Just one word can change the meaning of a joke or a poem. The same thing with brevity – it’s really important to both comedians and poets. 

CP: You have a live taping coming up on October 14 in Montevideo. What will that involve?

BS: We’re going to have Chris Koza from Rogue Valley and we’ll do a live interview. He’s going to read a poem by Tracy K. Smith, poet laureate. Then he’s going to play a few tunes. We’re setting up some other guests as well. Then we’re going to do a live, improvised Haiku Hotline where we’ll have some local poets in the audience who will be writing poems during the interview inspired by what’s being said. Then they’ll read those at the end. It’s going to be like an experimental poetry reading.

Interesting People Reading Poetry: Live Taping
With: Chris Koza of Rogue Valley
Where: Java River, Montevideo, MN
When: 3:30 – 4:30 p.m., Sat., Oct. 14