Ep. 35: Prof. Mary Jo Salter — The Powerful Effects of Poetry on the Human Spirit

My guest this week is highly acclaimed poet Mary Jo Salter, whom Dan Chiasson described as “one of America’s most accomplished formalists” in the New York Review of Books. I first met Mary Jo on the day I married her niece, over 22 years ago. Since then I’ve been fortunate to speak with her on several occasions, and always enjoy our discussions. I’m very pleased to share with you our latest conversation, which focused on the creation and experience of poetry, including:

  • The difficulty in defining poetry
  • The universality of poetry, told from a specific human being’s point of view
  • The connection between poetry and dreams
  • The involvement of the unconscious mind in creating poetry
  • The challenge of transforming experience into language
  • What inspires us to create art
  • The unpredictability of writing poetry
  • Being open to the possibility of poetry
  • The difficulty in being objective about one’s own writing
  • The use of Biblical allusion in poetry
  • Why it’s hard to binge read poetry
  • The poet Amy Lowell, author of “To a Friend
  • The connection of poetry to place
  • Poetry as a way of entering more fully into our moment-to-moment experience
  • The importance of concision and lyricism in poetry
  • The intersection of emotion and poetry

Whatever your background in poetry, I encourage you to listen to this episode, as Mary Jo has a gift for making poetry accessible.

Mary Jo was kind enough to read some of her poetry, including “Distance” and “Wreckage” from A Kiss in Space (one of my favorite collections), an excerpt from “Another Session” from Open Shutters, and “Little Men” and part of the title poem from The Surveyors. (A percentage of sales through these affiliate links will be used to support the podcast, at no additional cost to you.)

As Mary Jo describes in our discussion, “The Surveyors” was inspired by a letter from Matthew Yeager; you can find some of his work here: Matthew Yeager poetry.

Photo by Marina Levitskaya

Mary Jo Salter is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of eight books of poetry published by Alfred A. Knopf, most recently The Surveyors (2017) and Nothing by Design (2013), as well as a children’s book, The Moon Comes Home (1989).

She is an essayist, playwright, and lyricist, whose poems and lyrics have been set to music by Fred Hersch and Caroline Shaw. She is also one of three co-editors of The Norton Anthology of Poetry (6th edition, 2018).

To hear Mary Jo read more of her poetry, please visit the PoetryArchive.org. You can find more of her work at PoetryFoundation.org and Poets.org.

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