Could a Daily Poetry Podcast Save Your Mental Health?

“The Slowdown,” from U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith, may be the first daily podcast that’s good for your feelings

Why produce a daily podcast? If your subject matter is the news, it’s the only time frame that can keep up with the snowball-rolling-down-Mt.-Everest pace of what’s going on. If your subject matter is poetry, the point is to slow everything down and keep slowing everything down.

That’s the goal of The Slowdown, from U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith, the Poetry Foundation, and American Public Media. For five minutes every weekday, Smith introduces a new poem, explains why she selected that poem, and reads it. That’s the whole podcast. It’s a REAL THING. You can actually subscribe to a show that gives you permission to listen to a poem for five minutes read by the woman who was nominated twice to spread poetry all over the country. This is a literary once-a-day multivitamin to keep your body going a little bit longer.

Even if you don’t think you’re interested in poetry, a podcast that asks you to spend a few minutes sitting in thought is good for the mind and the body. At the crest of 2019, it can be hard to find the opportunity (or even the willingness) to slow down. We spend so much time multitasking, flipping from task to task to get everything done — not to mention fretting over it all. But the science says that multitasking drains our brain and is destructive in the long run. According to the American Psychology Association, we expend all our energy on “goal shifting” (“I want to do this now instead of that”) and “rule activation” (“I’m turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this”) that we never get anything done. By taking time to do one thing for five minutes, we can reorient our brains to focus on one thing for a little while. There is mounting evidence that mindfulness and meditative thinking — let’s say, about one topic or feeling, like in a short poem — can contribute to future health and mental state. And a few minutes is all you need.

There is mounting evidence that mindfulness and meditative thinking  can contribute to future health and mental state.

“One thing about five minutes is that it makes it really accessible and really approachable. There’s no excuse for saying you don’t have time to listen to it,” said Tracy Mumford, the show’s producer. “I don’t think of five minutes as a constraint, I think of it as the perfect package.”

The simplicity of the show — theme song, introduction, poem, credits — is one of its greatest strengths. You can tell how intentional every choice is on the show, like making every single episode exactly five minutes long. As a podcast listener and a poetry reader, there is nothing more comforting than seeing the same episode length over and over again. Like any daily podcast, I can start to build trust with the show because I know it won’t drop an epic into my ears.

The show’s production stays consistent, while Smith’s expertise leads us forward. And there’s no one more suited to lead than her. Smith addresses each piece of work with care and an uncanny ability to see our emotional futures, as if she knew what you wanted to hear even before you did.

Smith addresses each piece of work with care and an uncanny ability to see our emotional futures, as if she knew what you wanted to hear even before you did.

“I draw both from poems I’ve loved a long time, and poems that are the result of careful sleuthing,” said Smith. “I seek poems that will fit in 1 or 2 or 3 minutes, and that use vivid, evocative language to examine familiar aspects of life. Some poems are topical, like Franny Choi’s Gentrifier, while others shed new light on ordinary feelings, like gratitude, or experiences, like coming-of-age.”

While The Slowdown asks for a moment of your time, it isn’t fluffy escapism. The poetry doesn’t shy away from the emotional, the heavy, and the real. In the first few weeks of episodes, we’ve heard poems about alcoholism, Portrait of the Alcoholic in Withdrawal by Kaveh Akbar; the torrid history of blues singers, True Stories about Koko Taylor by Eve Ewing; the contradictions of living, Spring by Adra Collins; and the happiness of owning and living in a body, Hip-Hop Ghazal by Patricia Smith. There’s no theme that unifies the works, and they’re not specifically topical, since Smith and Mumford record in batches weeks before each episode airs. But, Smith continues, “The only thing every poem has in common is that it speaks to me personally while also holding up as a solidly-crafted piece of writing. And that leaves open space for a great deal of range and variety.“

The show’s intention also springs from how Smith introduces each poem. It’s not an academic primer, nor an urge to get you to listen in the first place. Before each poem, Smith relates a memory, a feeling, or idea that she feels is related to the work coming up.

In one episode, as she introduces the poem Spring by Arda Collins, Smith remembers a fight she thought she had with her cousin when she was a kid. One night, she sat up in bed and realized it was about her childhood friend and felt awful. “How reliable is anyone’s memory, and not just things that happened years ago,” she says, “but anything, everything that happens. how clearly can we see ourselves?”

As she introduces Spring, she explains the poem is “about memory, how far we sometimes feel from the things that we’ve done, but we’ve done them. And in a way, even when we don’t remember them or can’t seem to properly acknowledge them, we’re still living with them. I think this means that our lives are full of unacknowledged contradictions, we are full of unacknowledged contradictions.”

“[My] preface is an attempt to open up the thought space, or the emotional space, where the poem might productively land,” Smith wrote to me via e-mail. “I’m getting the reader — who is likely in the middle of doing something else — ready to listen deeply to the poem as it does its own particular work.”

The narration isn’t necessary — as Smith notes, each of the poems she selects could stand on its own — and yet, as a listener, you appreciate that she points you in the right direction every time. It is an honest orientation, like a hiker who has walked this path many times before and knows what mood you should be in to wander amongst these trees.

In 2019, I bet another outlet will declare poetry to be dead yet again. But we’ll know it’s alive and kicking, sending us five-minute missives every Monday through Friday.

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