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Behind the Scenes with producer Curtis Fox


Readers typically interpret, experience, and sometimes struggle with poetry on their own. What happens when you lift a poem off the page and present it on air/in a podcast? Or what do you hope will happen? I might be able to answer these questions with a personal anecdote. I got into this profession originally because I wanted to create a poetry program for public radio. All my friends read great fiction but they never cracked a book of poems. The reason, I thought, was that poetry had dismal associations with high school and college, where more than likely it was boringly inflicted rather than engagingly taught. So my idea was to create a program that presented poetry casually, entertainingly, by supplying some of the context which poets often assume their readers already know and by talking about it not as as an educational experience that will be good for you but as a pleasure, like baseball. I wanted to subvert the inhibiting idea people have about poetry that it's difficult and arcane and talk about it in a way that shows that it really is a kind of entertainment. It may require more attention than a baseball game but it can give a tremendous amount of pleasure once you're more comfortable with some of the conventions and personalities. So that was my idea at least, but apart from a few segments on other programs I worked on I never saw an opportunity to do a poetry show for public radio. And besides, there is a troubling weakness in poetry on the radio. Radio listeners get only one shot at a poem, and the range of poems that can be understood on first hearing is rather narrow. Unless, that is, you take some time introducing a poem you're about to play. If you build up some expectations and explain in advance some of the references or complexities, or just flat out say that a lot of this poem is going to go right by you and it's the sound that matters most, listeners are less likely to feel at sea. Also, you can talk about a poem afterwards, and quote from it again, and do some tight editing that keeps people engaged. Podcasting has a particular advantage over radio when it comes to poetry, in that listeners can replay a program or parts of it, so they can listen again to a poem if they want to. (I don't know if anyone actually does, but it's a nice option.) So basically that's what I hope happens in the poetry podcasts I produce. Listeners are introduced to poems and poets in a down-to-earth way, and by hearing people talk about poems with pleasure and interest they get comfortable with the idea of poetry as an interesting pleasure, not homework. Also, I hope it engages active readers of poetry who get to hear how their favorite poets read and talk about their poems. Do you ever worry about influencing people's poetic encounters too much? How do you explore a poem without dictating its meaning to your listeners? It's a worry. We overdo it at times, I'm sure. But PoetryFoundation.org also puts out a daily poem podcast without any commentary, so listeners who want their poems straight can subscribe to that one. And there is also the Poetry M agazine Podcast , in which the editors of the magazine present poems from the upcoming issue and talk about them in a more literary way. When I first started consulting for the Poetry Foundation, I had to convince them to do a hosted program rather than just put out audio poems. Their mission is to build the readership for poetry, and I felt very strongly that, in order to engage people who were interested in the idea of poetry but frustrated by finding any way into the rather complex contemporary poetry scene, poems had to be introduced and talked about. I think there's a way to do this without dictating meaning. I myself am often flummoxed by poems, and I say so openly on the program. I don't think of myself as a teacher but as a fellow reader/listener who asks the questions that the audience might be wondering about. I did a few segments called Call the Poet. We hear an actor read a difficult poem that seems to make no sense whatsoever, then get the poet on the phone and politely ask what the hell is going on in the poem. Poets usually hate to explain their poems, but it's fun to make them squirm -- and illuminating

Career-wise, you've recently traded the radio world for the podcast world. In creative terms, what have you gained or lost by that choice? Maybe the contrast between the two pieces we're featuring can illuminate some of the differences.* I still think of myself as a public radio producer, even though I haven't produced any pieces for public radio for a few years. I (with the freelancers who work with me) are busy cranking out podcasts every week for The Poetry Foundation, the New Yorker , Parents magazine, and other clients. I like this work; I've learned a lot, and it fulfills a lot of my creative needs. But I do miss having the huge general audiences that come with public radio, when friends from across the country hear your stuff and give you a call afterwards. I also miss the scale that public radio can bring to certain projects, like the Whitman documentary. It's unlikely right now for a podcasting client to pay me to produce an hour-long documentary. Podcasting is a very good medium for tailoring an audio product to a niche audience; that is its strength. But it is not a medium that is going to attract a lot of money for more ambitious documentaries -- not yet.

What do we really know these days about the ways people listen to podcasts? Not a lot. We know that the audience for podcasts is still relatively small but rapidly growing. The technology is still not simple enough to be a ubiquitous mass medium, but we know that as cell phones and MP3 players continue to converge that podcasts will play a much more central role in the way people consume media. We know that people listen to podcasts in the darndest places --in the street, on their bikes, even while swimming. This is not always a good thing. Other than that, it's still a new medium and no one knows a lot about how people are using it. How does this information (or lack thereof) influence the production decisions you make (for example: length, your role as host, use of sound)? We do hear from listeners, but usually they say little about the production itself and focus on content -- what they liked or didn't like. With so little feedback on form, length is a tricky question. In my experience, super-short podcasts (under four minutes) can be a pain because you have to stop driving or working out and click through your MP3 to find something else to play. I've heard other people say that they tend to get bored after ten minutes of any podcast. But some of the programs I produce (the New Yorker Fiction Podcast and the Poetry Magazine Podcast ) can run as long as a half-hour. The New Yorker Fiction Podcast probably appeals to the books-on-tape crowd, and they're in the habit of listening for hours, so length is not a concern with that one. I do think it's important to publish frequently in order to build an audience and get good exposure on iTunes, so in general it's probably better to do shorter podcasts more often rather than longer ones less frequently. But one of the beauties of podcasting is that you're not stuck to a clock and you don't have to pad out an hour with sub-standard stuff. The most important thing, in my view, is to produce a program with consistently high production values and with elements that stay the same (music, hosts, segments) week after week, so that people put you on like an old shoe.