Interesting People Reading Poetry

Interesting People Reading Poetry

A few weeks ago I saw a tweet pointing to a website featuring Benjamin Percy reading poetry by Brian Turner. Intrigued, I followed the link and landed on a website called Interesting People Reading Poetry. I immediately thought, ‘This would be great content.’

I fired off a message to the email associated with the site and received a prompt reply from Brendan Stermer, who with his brother Andy, started Interesting People Reading Poetry.

Brendan describes Interesting People Reading Poetry as “a weekly podcast where artists and changemakers read a favorite poem, and talk a bit about what it means to them.”

“The goal of our show is to make the poetry world more accessible to the general public, and also to demonstrate that you don’t need to be a poet or an academic to enjoy and engage with poetry,” he says. “Our guests range from politicians to scientists, comedians to musicians.”

The end of every episode includes a selection of short, listener-submitted poems on a given theme. Listeners submit poems via text and voicemail on what the brothers call the Haiku Hotline. Three favorites are chosen to play on the show.

I asked Brendan quite a few questions, about the podcast, their background, the technical whatnot, and the criteria necessary to qualify as an interesting person. And he was gracious enough to answer my questions. Every. Single. One.

Can you share with me the backstory of this idea?

The podcast evolved out of a radio show I did in college called the Motown Poetry Hour. I’d read poems and play music on a given theme, and I’d also broadcast poems that people left in my voicemail inbox. Last fall, during my final semester of college, I did an internship with On Being, and became interested in podcasting. So Andy & I started developing the concept for Interesting People Reading Poetry as a way to present poetry in a short-form podcast format, combining some of the ideas from the Motown Poetry hour with interviews and a modern production aesthetic. We were lucky enough to receive a grant from the MN State Arts Board to make it a reality.

I’m mainly interested in how booksellers can share Interesting People Reading Poetry as content… through social media, on their websites, etc. (And possibly to share the haiku hotline themes through their poetry newsletters, which all independent bookstores should have.) I’m assuming the best way to have access to episodes is to subscribe. Do you have a content calendar planned out, and do any of the episodes coincide with the release of poetry books?

Our show can be streamed for free from our website, iTunes, and Stitcher. The best way to share is by linking directly to an episode post on our website, like this:

Often, our guests are well-known public figures. I think this presents an easy promotional opportunity for booksellers. For example, a recent episode featured Krista Tippett reading a favorite Rilke poem. Booksellers might share this episode and advertise Krista Tippett’s favorite Rilke translation as a featured poetry pick of the week (perhaps at a special discount).

None of our episodes intentionally coincide with poetry releases. This would be difficult because we don’t choose which poems to feature on the show – our guests pick the poems. However, often guests often pick fairly new poems. For example, our next episode (Monday, October 2) features memoirist Kao Kalia Yang reading a poem from Mai Der Vang’s book “Afterland”, which won the Walt Whitman Award in 2016 and was recently announced as a contender for the 2017 National Book Award. For booksellers, this upcoming episode could serve as a compelling, ready-made advertisement for a book that they probably already have in stock.

As far as the Haiku Hotline, we publish the theme for each week in our newsletter and on our website:

We also announce the theme for the next week at the end of every episode.

How do you decide who qualifies as an interesting person?

When deciding who to have on as a guest, we do tend to choose folks who our listeners may already be familiar with. Public figures. Our hope is that this will attract people to our show who didn’t previously have any interest in poetry. However, the “interesting people” in the title refers both to guests and listeners who read poems on the Haiku Hotline, promoting the idea that everyone is interesting (public figure or otherwise), especially those who read poetry!

I stumbled upon Interesting People Reading Poetry after it was shared on a tweet. You only had three episodes at the time and now you have seven. Do you produce one a week? And a follow-up, I’m curious about how long it takes you from idea to finished production.

We produce one a week, releasing a new episode every Monday morning. I would estimate that the entire process (recording, editing, and sound design) takes ten to fifteen hours per episode.

Can you describe your audio recording set-up? And what do you use for audio editing? (This is pretty much for me, because I’m a geek.)

We record all our interviews on location with a mobile recording setup (AT8035 shotgun mic, and a Zoom H5 digital recorder). We record voiceovers in a makeshift recording booth in our basement. We use Pro Tools software for editing and mixing.

I see that Andy is a composer and he composed the music used on the podcast. Music plays a pretty important role in a podcast. Can you talk a little about that?

In his other life, Andy is a talented jazz musician and composer. With this project, he’s dipping his toes into electronic sound design for the first time – and I think it sounds fantastic. He composed our theme music, and he also composes original music to accompany all of our interviews.

Using music effectively in a podcast is tricky. The danger is that the score will manipulate or limit the range of possible emotional responses to whatever is being said. What I like about Andy’s scores are that they bring listeners further into the universe of the poem without telling them how to react. That’s not easy to do.

I noticed that your podcast “is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.” Can you tell me about that? Does the project have a timeline?

I am the recipient of a 2017 Artist Initiative Grant in media arts from the Minnesota State Arts Board. As the result of a legislative amendment passed in 2008, the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund receives a percentage of the MN sales tax. Part of this money is appropriated to organizations like the MN State Arts Board, who use it to fund grant opportunities for MN artists and arts organizations. Without their support, we wouldn’t have been able to purchase the audio equipment we needed to create the sound we wanted for the show.

The grant period ends this winter, but we’ll continue to produce the show at the same frequency. We’re on the lookout for potential funders or networks to help sustain our future work.

I’d love to know a little more about you and your brother.

Andy and I grew up and currently live in Montevideo, a small town in western Minnesota. It’s a place with a rich folk arts and literary tradition, and an active arts community.

Andy studied jazz performance at Minnesota State University Moorhead, then went on to obtain a masters degree in jazz composition from the University of Miami. Recently, he’s written scores for short films, choral music inspired by the prairie landscape, and a program of new work exploring the fusion of large jazz ensemble and Afro-Uruguayan candombe drumming.

I recently graduated from the University of Minnesota, Morris with a degree in philosophy. Over the past couple years, I’ve been experimenting with different projects that fall under the umbrella of new media – works that exist primarily on the internet. Prior to Interesting People Reading Poetry, I created a web series called Manhood in Rural America – an exploration of how men are experiencing the rapid transformation of gender roles in rural communities.

Beth Golay

Beth is a reader, writer, marketer and Books & Whatnot founder. Even though she knows better, she's a sucker for a good book cover and will positively swoon if a book is set in appropriate type. @BethGolay