poetry quarterly

10th anniversary


Poetry is in the Air: "The Poet & The Poem"

by Grace Cavalieri


"The situation of radio is the situation of poetry backwards. If poetry is an art without an audience, radio is an audience without an art. A great many people of the kind a writer must reach if he is to feel himself alive among other men are parts of this audience. They are waiters and watchers and listeners; but nothing is given them to see or hear—nothing or very little. If means might be found to bring together in a magazine or in some other form of common publication a group of poets, and if this group of poets might be brought to study radio as they might once have studied the stage, it is not impossible that an audience might be found. It has already been proved that a certain audience for verse on the air exists. No one has yet discovered the limits of that audience because no one has yet explored the limits of verse on the air."

Archibald MacLeish, from a letter to James Angleton
(reprinted from Against the Grain: The Literary Life of a Poet, by Reed Whittemore, edited by Merrill Leffler, Dryad Press with the University of Alaska Press, 2007)

Grace Cavalieri interviews Kyle Dargan for "The Poet and the Poem" in 2009.

In 1975, Pacifica Radio won litigation to obtain the last FM dial on the band, which had been in dispute for years because certain powers in Washington did not want those lefties having a say with 50,000 watts behind them. The new station needed a drama and literature director. What kind of station would have such a thing? Not your usual radio station. There were four Pacifica stations on-air in Berkeley, Houston, New York, and Los Angeles. WPFW was to be the fifth. I went to work—of course—fundraising. How else does anything happen? Leonard Randolph, now dead, was an inspired literature program officer at the National Endowment for the Arts, which was less bureaucratized then. He had some individual leverage and facilitated a grant for $40,000. With that we helped put poetry and WPFW on the air. Early on I asked E. Ethelbert Miller and three other poets to meet the station manager Greg Millard, and after hearing the talent in Washington, DC., Greg agreed that poetry was not only golden, it was to be our vindication in broadcasting.

We went on the air with Duke Ellington’s “A Train” in February of 1977, along with Sterling Brown’s poetry—two cultural anthems emblematic of the new station—all jazz, America’s classical music, from the first Black-managed noncommercial FM station in radio. As a volunteer, I produced eight arts programs a week. It was a sandbox of happiness. I somehow managed to give credits for “writing workshops on the air” from Prince Georges Community College. There was film criticism as well, and we did original radio dramas. Among all these energy rockets was “The Poet and the Poem.” The series has run now, without interruption (my husband says, “Who could interrupt her?) for 31 years.

What kind of poetry advanced to the airwaves? The Cultural Revolution had been running high in the 60’s, and in the early 70’s we were still in its throes. We had, for the first time in social history, a situation in which ten percent of the poets did not own 90 percent of the territory. We now were introduced to more women poets, more African American poets. Gay voices were being heard. In fact, we were hearing a lot of startling new voices—also a lot of ranting and polemics, because people had waited a long time to say what they wanted to say. But at last we were beginning to experience the people’s voice in poetry, and WPFW offered a perfect opportunity to call it in. I started a program called “Dial-A-Poem,” an idea originated by Sigidi Braudy, our music director. People were invited to call in and read a poem on the air, live. I was to run the board as Thursday’s engineer, take the calls and respond on the spot to what I heard. We didn’t have a bleep system then. I learned quickly that poetry was not the province of the young, the inspired, the love-struck or even the drug-induced. I began to know vividly—too vividly—what people on the street felt. We had drunks. We had grandmothers. We had taxi drivers. We had prize fighters call in. Everyone had a poem and no one to tell. With no delay time, much of the language was a challenge to the FCC, and a worse challenge to me. Some days I scrambled to know how to comment on the small offerings; some days I could only say to a caller, “Keep writing.”

Let me describe life in those early times at WPFW. One day the transponder had been shut off for repair. Our station was in the back of a drug rehabilitation center at 18th and U Streets. I had to climb up through the window of our station as the front doors were locked. Not knowing how to turn the station “on,” I had our engineer Robert Frasier talk me through it over the phone. Conditions improved, but there were times when the only way a tape could run on a reel was with a pencil at the center until a spindle could be found. We often edited broadcast tapes with scotch tape instead of editing tape. In the meantime, an army of poetry writers called in. “Keep Writing!” I kept saying.

Interestingly enough, several real poets emerged. Fareedah Allah was one of the first call-ins and became a regular on the station, as well as a great favorite in Scandinavia, via her radio life with us. She read her poetry to a jazz background, leading a trend for which the station would be noted. I am still haunted by her poem “They run in packs”; I hear her chanting the words to Miles Davis, phrasing the lines like lyrics, letting the music fill in the narrative.

“The Poet and the Poem” went on the air the first week of 1977, and was on “live” weekly for 20 years on WPFW-FM. The program continues today, housed for the last eleven years at the Library of Congress, as an annual series for public radio. “The Poet and the Poem” has allowed me to interview all of the Poets Laureate of the United States since 1987, when Richard Wilbur came into the office. The series has given me the opportunity to meet the people who are making a difference in the world, and some of the people who should be. To make the point that poetry is as important as any other news, once a year I would fill the schedule all day long. I produced poetry on-air “live” for twelve consecutive hours. As an annual event, from morning till night, it was one long ribbon of song, with live musicians and live poets. For 15 years, that magnificent chaos was broadcast, drive time, day time, all day long, and it won the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Silver Medal for Entertainment. This event opened a door through which poetry and jazz proliferated in DC.

The people who came on the air were not always easy. Allen Ginsberg, for instance. In 1976, I was taping poets before we launched the station on air. He’d been up all night marching, protesting WGTB, Georgetown University’s station, being pulled off the air for its programming. Exhausted, he groused at everything I said. Finally, I stopped the tape, “Allen, I don’t know why anybody would want to stay in a room with you for an hour.” Later we became friends. There have been other stellar moments throughout the years. Joseph Brodsky began every sentence with "NO! Nyet!” Countering each notion then agreeing. I edited out all the “NO’s” and the tape was a congenial interview with a separate reel of “NO’s” all in different octaves.

And there was a panic moment when my favorite poet in the world, Louise Glück, stopped halfway through the show because she was tired, saying she could not continue (with 25 minutes to go). Happily, I knew and loved her work, and she warmed to that. I had noticed that the way she read a line sounded as if it were in parentheses, so I took a leap, blurting out, asking to see the page. I was right. The parens were there bracketing the line just as I had heard it. We both marveled at the way that spoken line worked as written. We were fascinated with such other devices up to the hour, and it became one of the program’s best shows ever. This may be the only interview of Glück on radio.

A.R. Ammons arrived empty-handed for a one-hour poetry reading. He was my idol from the time of his early book, Tape for the Turn of the Year (“…when you are nothing / you can say / and do / anything”). Reading those words in 1965, I became a writer. I had the credentials. But what was Ammons thinking, coming to read without a book? Fortunately, I had the volume that had won the Bobbitt Prize in my hand for his autograph. Not long after, W.S. Merwin came in the same way. Book-naked. I had ten of his books with me. (Now I never leave home without one.) And there were countless heart-filling hours: Wilfred Cartey, a blind man, Trinidad’s great poet, the last of the Negritude movement, talking his poems on the air, sharing in his great glory. I don’t know what happened, but when the studio door was opened, we were both crying.

Sometimes outside influences affected the program more than the guests. The station had begun on 15th and L in Washington, moved to 18th and U, and was at one time on 7th and H Streets in Chinatown. My show was on Sunday nights then, and I wish I’d owned a calendar showing the Chinese New Year. But it always seemed to come on Sunday nights about 8 pm—with firecrackers and cymbals of celebration drowning out the whisperings of the muse inside the studio.

Technical problems caused mischief through the years. Fast thinking Henry Taylor tackled a near disastrous moment with virtuosity and improvisation. We were “live” on air, buried deep in poetry. There was a phone on the table between us for programs with call-in shows. Somehow while Henry was reading, some wires got crossed in the engineer’s booth and all the messages from people buzzing open the front door of the station came on the air. “Charlie, let me in.” “Do you have a cigarette?” “Hey, it’s cold out here.” Henry stopped everything and took the calls and braided them into his poem. It was a high moment of language, when poetry was peppered by a great narrative voice and fragments from people in the street. Henry conversed with those trying to get into the station, kept reading and never broke his rhythm.

Anthony Hecht did not fare as well. After his reading highlighting his work on John Clare and the gypsies, a caller asked to speak with the poet. Usually these are praise calls asking where to buy the books. This one blasted him for prejudice against gypsies and other minorities and upset Hecht very much. It was the day before his inauguration as Poetry Consultant at the Library of Congress. The problem with radio is that people listen while walking through the room or in the car while others are talking. Hearing partial comments, the listener can misunderstand or distort what’s been said. It was a long while before I felt comfortable with Anthony Hecht again.

The program reflected the changing literary scene with directness and energy. For example, the Hispanic element came into its own in the 80’s, and I believe Latino poetry at this time in history has grown to be one of the greatest poetic forces in America. There are millions of Hispanics in America, kicking America’s story up a significant notch. My interview with Quique Avilés has recently been one of the most popular shows on my LOC website.

The Humanities Council of Washington and DC Commission on the Arts allowed publication of a WPFW anthology in the early 90’s featuring the first 300 poets who had been on my program. DC’s Reed Whittemore, former poet consultant to the Library of Congress, wrote the introduction, pointing to Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the person to use the radio with a fresh approach in this “fireside chats.” That was when radio opened up an era, talking to the audience in a personal way. Reed Whittemore saw my program as an outgrowth of a conversation between poets. Stanley Kunitz added that it was a “conversation between friends.”

We know there is still no stall in the marketplace for poetry, even though poetry is a necessary vitamin for humanity. I’ve often been faced with perplexity of how to do what I do, if poetry is a line item on no one’s budget but my own. So, every year I face the task of grant writing. The Witter Bynner Foundation in 1989 allowed a trial series of “The Poet and the Poem” to see how it would float nationally—and it did well. Most broadcast facilities that take this format are educational. We are welcome in the West, where poetry is a needed oasis. The five-minute module does not do justice to poetry. When I was teaching a course on radio at Mt. Vernon College, students would ask about interviewing. My response: “Ask only questions to which you really want to hear in-depth answers.” A segmented radio format doesn’t allow a portrait of a poet or an understanding of the poem to emerge.

“The Poet and the Poem” series is given to public radio stations free of charge. The program itself receives no revenue. Stations tape the programs and then put them on the air whenever they want, so I can’t tell where it’s going to be: Billings, Montana, or Atlanta, Georgia. It’s as if I shoot an arrow in the air and people, somehow, somewhere, discover poets. In the past, the only way I knew where we were being heard was if some station wrote a frantic letter saying it didn’t get the satellite feed. I’d mail a CD. Now, there is something called Content Depot, where the computer has taken over, and all radio is automated. Our programs are uplinked onto the computer at Public Radio Satellite Service, and they hang there, on the computer, for up to a year. Stations can just pluck a plum off the tree anytime they want. Mike Turpin, our intrepid engineer, uploads on a weekly basis so that if people want to have a weekly show they can pull it down the same time every week. If they would like to tape all at once and get 12 programs for National Poetry Month or a college course, it’s there for the taking. “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” has recent programs on its website for all to hear. The Pacifica Program Archives, under the direction of Brian De Shazor, has many tapes and has just selected 50 to be preserved under the largesse of an NEA grant. The Library of Congress has archived our tapes since 1989.

The George Washington University Melvin Gelman Library has approximately 1,000 of “The Poet and the Poem” tapes dating from 1977. In the summer of 1989, I sat in my garage in West Virginia, identifying and labeling tapes—600 that I retrieved from a dumpster because WPFW was moving and some volunteer’s helping hands were not too helpful. These programs were finally boxed and driven in my van to GWU’s loading dock.

The GWU Gelman Library now receives inquiries for information on poets who are deceased. In some cases, my show may be the only record of the poet’s voice. Some recent requests were for James Merrill, Jane Kenyon, and David Kresh, to name a few. The library is grappling with problems of tape preservation and also trying to develop a process for letting the public have copies. The roster of those poets who have “gone on” grows larger each year, but the collection stays and continues to grow larger itself.

Now, in 2010, “The Poet and the Poem“ celebrates 33 years on air, uninterrupted. Bless my husband, Ken Flynn, whose Navy pension for what he calls “government funding for the arts” kept us on the air more than once. I need to point out other private donors like Maria van Beuren, owner of Toad Hall Writer’s Retreat, James H. Beall and the Word Works, who did other rescue operations; and Avideh Shashaani who made the donation of more than 100 programs to Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room possible in 2009.

Since radio waves never die, wouldn’t you love to be in the next galaxy when Kenny Carroll and DJ Renegade hit? We all know Walt Whitman never disappeared, even though he wrote “I depart as air.” And the same is true of all the poets I ever knew. They departed as air but are still around, just waiting on tape for you to listen.


(Grateful acknowledgment to Poet Lore, where some parts of this article previously appeared.)



Grace Cavalieri has written several books of poetry and 21 produced plays. Among production awards, "Quilting the Sun" received a key to the city of Greenville S.C. at its 2007 premiere. Her book of poems Water on the Sun was listed on Pen American Center's "best books list," and won the Bordighera Poetry Award. Her collection Anna Nicole:Poems received the 2009 Paterson Award for Literary Excellence. Her latest books are Sounds Like Something I Would Say (2010), and the anthology The Poet's Cookbook: Recipes from Tuscany (2009, co-edited with Sabine Pascarelli).



Published in Volume 11, Number 2, Spring 2010.

Read more by this author:
Grace Cavalieri
Cavalieri's Intro to Vol. 5, No. 2 (Spring 2004)
Cavalieri on Roland Flint: Memorial Issue
Grace Cavalieri: Whitman Issue
Grace Cavalieri: Wartime Issue
Grace Cavalieri on Louise Glück: Profiles Issue
Grace Cavalieri: Evolving City Issue
Grace Cavalieri: Split This Rock Issue
Cavalieri on Ann Darr: Forebears Issue
Grace Cavalieri on Joseph Brodsky: US Poets Laureate Issue
Grace Cavalieri: Tenth Anniversary Issue

Grace Cavalieri on Ahmos Zu-Bolton II: Poetic Ancestors Issue