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BEHIND THE SCENES with Matthew Power


This story was first published in print. Why did you decide to make it into a radio story and how did it change during the process

I got a call from Emily Botein, a senior producer at The Next Big Thing . A colleague had given her a copy of the piece, and she wanted to know if I would come in and read it. It hadn't ever occurred to me to do the piece for radio. Having been influenced so much by Dave Isay's style at Sound Portraits, where his voice almost never appears in any of his pieces, I found the idea of putting my voice on the air a little unappealing, or somehow counter to the principle of telling other people's stories that got me interested in radio in the first place. But I agreed to come in and try it. I had brought a copy of the story, and had planned to just sit in the sound booth and give it a nice dramatic read, and then be done with it. Well, Dean Olsher had other plans. As soon as we were locked in the booth, he informed me that I was not going to read the story, but rather absorb each paragraph and then tell it to him. TNBT tries to have a very fluid, conversational style, a sort of naturalistic storytelling. The absolute worst thing you can say about a piece is that it sounds "read." So I found myself in a sound booth with Dean as my coach, trying to tell a very personal story the way I would tell it to a friend. And if something didn't come out right, I got to do it again. Of course, we aren't afforded those sorts of opportunities in real life, but through the magic of ProTools you can add a great deal of fluidity to the telling of a story. In some ways I think that's the central paradox of radio documentaries that we labor to manufacture a moment that seems to occur in real-time. So anyway, the piece came out quite differently than the written version, and it was steered away from a more literary tone. Some things that work fine on the page sound forced or hollow when read aloud. So a lot of the darlings I labored over in print had to get killed, as Faulkner would put it

Holy Soul is such a personal story; were you at all hesitant to share it with the world

The world, not so much, because you're never going to meet most of them anyway. But it is certainly the most personal thing I've done. I was actually sort of pressured into writing it by my friend Jenn Bleyer, who was the founder of Heeb . She sent me my first edit on the morning of 9/11. But as far as publicizing the story to the world, I was more concerned about how my own family would accept it. I had never told them about the thing with Allen, so I found myself having to tell my mother about it. There's no easy way to tell your mom you had an affair with someone 50 years older than you when you were a teenager, and now you've published an article about it. She actually laughed when I told her. And I let her tell everyone else. Except my father and stepfather, who I figured would never find out about it unless I published the story in Golf Digest or Heeb bought an ad on Dale Earnhardt's bumper

Public radio usually resists sexually explicit material. How did listeners respond to this aspect of it

I've gotten more fan letters and more positive feedback on this story than anything else I've done. The novelist Rick Moody sent me an e-mail, he had heard the piece while he was stuck in traffic on the Throg's Neck bridge. And almost universally, the response was "Wow that really pushed the envelope. I don't hear stuff like that on the radio. But I really liked it." A lot of gay couples wrote me these joint letters thanking me. Maybe the people who were horrified and/or sickened by it didn't bother to write. But of course, the piece was more suggestive than graphic. And if public radio is afraid to address the real issues of life -- which is inherently, profoundly graphic -- then it will languish in irrelevance. I think real courage in radio has nothing to do with shocking people but with showing them an unblinking view of the world. Otherwise, Ashcroft and Falwell win. I did, however, get to slip the word "bullshit" under the FCC radar, which is a source of pride

How do you think Ginsberg might have responded to this story

I'd like to think he would have been proud. He told me once that there were very few moments in art today -- film, literature, poetry -- that had a real sense of tenderness. I think that is something I tried to infuse in the piece, some sort of sympathy with our own mortality. We all have the same broken heart. And that sort of empathy wasn't so hard to conjure up, as my neighborhood (the Lower East Side, the same one that Ginsberg had lived in) was filled with smoke from the World Trade Center the whole time I was working on the story. Those nights, I had a real sense that I was trying to deliver Allen into this very specific moment, personal and historical, that he had missed and in many ways predicted in his own work

Does Ginsberg still influence your work

Always. I don't write poems so much anymore, but I've really carried some sense of Allen as a person through my life. I've spent the last seven years living in New York City, and he's been a real presence in my coming to understand and love the place. He had an expansiveness, a sense of lonely empathy that made him turn outward into the world, which I think is really crucial to telling stories that reach people. And as far as radio, he had this rich voice, and every time I heard him read he was totally invested in it, emotionally. And something of those cadences seeped in to my own radio voice

How does radio compliment your work as an artist

It seems to stretch different muscles, which is great. Particularly with my longer narrative pieces -- say, the train hopping or dumpster diving stories -- I went out into the world, I spent three days under a bridge in Portland, Oregon, waiting for a train, I dug through trash bags up to my neck in Greenwich Village, and met all these fantastic, amazing characters. I think it's that sort of forced engagement, having to stick a microphone in someone's face and ask something, and having to listen, that really gets me excited about radio. So the microphone is sort of a shield and an olive branch. You live for those moments that you know you're getting great tape, and you can barely contain yourself. And of course maybe you go to load it and it's too hot, but that's just part of the learning process. I came away from that train-hopping foray with about 12 hours of interviews for a 12-minute piece. And sifting through it, finding the great moments, and cobbling them together into a piece is a really extraordinary process, and makes me think much more critically about pace, structure, how a narrative works best. I've been lucky to work with a lot of great producers at TNBT who have been patient collaborators in all my pieces. That said, I have been a character, more or less, in all of my pieces, and I think that's something I'd like to move away from, at least some of the time. I tremendously admire the work that Dave Isay has done, and I think airing the stories of people that would never reach a wider audience is the great virtue of the medium

As an artist coming from another medium, what unique potential do you see in radio

The great thing about radio is it has this stealth intimacy that gets inside people in a way that other media don't. You listen alone, ultimately. And that gives you an opportunity to bring important, untold stories straight to an audience. I'm living in India right now, and the illiteracy rate is upwards of 40 percent in many places here. Between poverty, illiteracy, and the sheer fact of geography, radio is the only connection for many people in rural areas. It's absolutely indispensable to people's lives, not just for crop reports but for a sense of community, of being part of something larger than yourself, your family, your village. And there are a lot of very interesting progressive radio projects going on here, community stations, women's voices, pirate radio in the Bombay slums. I've been reading about similar projects in Afghanistan right now, or Radio Soleil in the Haitian community in New York, and it seems like a very efficient way to connect and improve people's lives. I think the more people who engage and make radio, the better it will be. And during the blackout last summer, I sat on a stoop in Spanish Harlem drinking beer, and the ONLY way to find out what was going on was to gather around a car radio

If you could make a radio story about anything or anybody, who/what would it be

My father. I think you travel out into the world and sometimes the hardest stories to do are back where you started.