The Unterberg Poetry Center’s Sophie Herron talks to us about the genesis of Read By, our literary podcast, and creating intimacy between readers and the greatest writers in the world during the pandemic.
How did you hatch the idea for Read By? Why do you think the podcast has been necessary during the pandemic?
In March, our reading series ground to a halt as New York and much of the country went into pandemic lockdown, and all 92Y programming moved online. It was an incredibly alienating time for everyone. Our reading series brings people into the same room with some of the best writers in the world, and if we couldn’t do that we wanted to figure out a way to help our audience feel connected to those writers. The idea for a podcast came in those first days, when closeness and intimacy felt like it was in short supply. Podcasts are inherently intimate — it’s a listener and a voice, frequently in kitchens and bedrooms and headphones. We wanted to create a kind of story time for adults. And we thought it would be especially intimate to ask those writers to choose a story, or a poem, or an essay that moves them — someone else’s work, not their own — and share it with our community.
How do you choose who to have on the podcast? Have you noticed any common threads in what the authors have been choosing to read? What binds this together as a series?
Readers are friends of the Center — George Saunders, Rachel Cusk, Terrance Hayes, David Mitchell, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Ada Limón, Yiyun Li, and so many more. That list is nigh-inexhaustible, as eclectic and exciting a group as one could hope for. All these famous authors are experiencing the same world we are. Together, I think the recordings make a collage of ways we’re responding to a historical moment, a picture that is more complete and compassionate than any one version alone would be. We have recordings of love poems and poems written after political imprisonment; essays of Greek stoicism and about living ferociously; fiction of difficult choices and unbearable empathy. I love it for being not only a vision of ways we respond, but a collection of gifts. Here, each author says. Here is something I love and find meaningful. May it touch you also.
Which episodes have been most surprising to you? Which have delighted you most? Which have resonated most deeply?
We have an increasing number of bilingual episodes, which delights me every time. Recently, the Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail translated a Louise Glück poem into Arabic especially for us, on the occasion of Glück’s winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. As a poet, I about lost my mind when Mikhail proposed it. As producer, I can only hope it means our audience will be as wide as possible, and know how much we value each of them.
It feels wrong to pick favorites, but — Ann Patchett’s reading of “Self-Reliance” made me cry; Douglas Kearney’s “Playing the Changing Same,” a look at poetry in response to lynchings, from Gwendolyn Brooks to Lucille Clifton to himself, is an essential essay, and among the best uses of the audio medium I’ve ever heard; Lila Azam Zanganeh’s reading of Aimé Césaire in English and French taught me about the texture of his language in a way I hadn’t experienced before. But this is for our community, and they’re really responding to it — we’ve heard from a lot of people who love the series. This weekend’s episode will be our 48th and we’ve had about 31,400 listens and counting. It’s incredibly gratifying to know that this is reaching and affecting people.
Beyond your work on Read By, you’re extremely involved in putting together 92Y’s literature and creative writing classes, particularly the Young Writers Workshop over the summer. These classes have been remote since March, and they’ve been extremely popular. Why do you think these workshops and seminars have been so in demand?
This is a harder one to answer. I think that it comes back to a few things — in a time of limited social connection, those spaces where we can build it are more precious than they have ever been. Additionally, there is something particularly luminous about a writing workshop: they are places of vulnerability and of honest support. Of striving to communicate as truthfully and effectively as possible. I think it’s possible we hunger for those moments especially right now. It’s a goal of mine, in every class, that our students know that we know how delicate these communities are, and how honored we are by them sharing their work with us.