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TV: The Writing Life

The Writing Life is a series of half-hour literary television talk shows, produced for nearly three decades by HoCoPoLitSo in the television studios of Howard Community College, featuring some of the most illustrious names in contemporary literature. The Writing Life has been honored by the National Hometown Video Festival and the BRAVO network’s “Art for Change” Award.

From six Maryland Poets Laureate to a pair of Noble Laureates – Saul Bellow and Seamus Heaney – more than one hundred poets and writers have appeared in HoCoPoLitSo’s cable television series since 1986. The half-hour shows are hosted by such well-known area writers as Lucille Clifton, Michael Collier, E. Ethelbert Miller, Linda Pastan, and Henry Taylor. Guests range from fascinating new writers to the most distinguished names in contemporary letters: Joy Harjo, Stanley Kunitz, W. S. Merwin, Grace Paley, Frank McCourt, Amiri Baraka, Li-Young Lee, Lucille Clifton and a hundred more.

The Writing Life has won funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Maryland Humanities Council, The Columbia Foundation, The Columbia Festival of the Arts, The Rouse Company Foundation and friends of HoCoPoLitSo.

“The format is ingenious,” writes critic Geoffrey Himes. “The notable writer talks not with a glib TV personality, but with a fellow writer who has not only read the guest’s books but genuinely loves them. We come away with the privileged feeling of having eavesdropped on a private conversation between two real artists talking shop.”

HoCoPoLitSo is about finding your tribe – a group of writers and readers that speaks your language. Our talk show, The Writing Life, features literary rock stars, discussing what matters to writers and readers of contemporary poetry and fiction.

What follows are just a few samples of quotes from authors interviewed on The Writing Life.


Writing your beginnings

Poet and activist Martín Espada:

“I started writing poems at the age of 15, and it came out of a classroom setting. I have to add here that I was a terrible student. I flunked English in the eighth grade, and now I’m a professor of English, which only shows you the bizarre directions your life can take.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a0aHZVZR2rQ

Poet, translator, and researcher Jane Hirshfield:

“I began to write as a very young person because it was a way for me to craft and know and create a self. It was a pathway into being a human and knowing what it is to be human that the outward circumstances of my life were not fostering.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZdyEDu5LEE&t=1s

Edward Hirsch, poet and author of the bestselling How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry:

“I suppose I had a sense of my early days when I moved from writing diary entries to beginning to write poems, I had a sense that I needed other poetry to help deliver me to my own life and my own feelings.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQ0cZ874U3w

Saul Bellow, Nobel Prize winner:

“I think of myself as a working stiff. If I got up in the morning and say to myself, “well, great writer, what are you going to do today?” I’d be paralyzed, so I duck the whole thing.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u-wMQIm_4Vw

Frank McCourt:

“If I had achieved any success in my 20s or 30s, I would be dead now of women and whiskey.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTyPRnoKe_A&t=1338s

Advice to fellow writers

Edith Pearlman, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award:

Brevity is useful to all forms of writing — the essay, the poem, the short story, the novel. Life is short; art should respect that and not waste words.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K0qhVTIvUZM&t=570s

Pulitzer Prize-winner Gwendolyn Brooks:

“You never know what is in the magic moment, so I am encouraging to anyone who is writing with a seriousness.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVZ6KTLN7O8&t=1s

National Book Award-winner and novelist Colum McCann:

“I don’t want to write about my family, about me. I think it’s much more liberating to be in the imagination. People always tell to write what you know about, but I say no, write about what you don’t know about.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t6-l9WsAoWs&t=1s

Novelist, playwright, journalist and essayist Colm Tóibín:

“A novelist’s job is almost to be as stupid as possible.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xZzX1CXieOI&t=3s

Poet and musician Sekou Sundiata:

“When is a poem a poem? When is a poem finished? To me that’s nothing that anyone else can tell me, or can tell you. There is a sense of roundness or completeness or resolution. When I say resolution, I’m not talking about a nice pretty ending, a bow at the end. There is a sense of balance of all the various energies in the poem that the poet finally gets to, that says, “This is it.”” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M0FIzRj7prY

National Poet Laureate Donald Hall

“Every poem, to be any good, has to have its own opposition built into it.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=prrOkStQ640&t=5s

Poet Mark Doty:

“Poetry can’t solely occupy the position of directness. Metaphor likes to sneak up on things. Poetry likes to find oblique ways to approach its material. Otherwise it seems incomplete.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=370KX3n2q6o&t=678s

Writing for understanding:

National Book Award-winner Alice McDermott:

“What I’m trying to write about, and what I’m trying to figure out for my characters is how do we live in time? How do we live with this overwhelming awareness of our mortality?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rijd7236aHA&t=1104s

Lannan Literary Award-winning poet Li-Young Lee:

“I always have the feeling that when one is writing a poem, the poem spends the knowledge as it is being written, so there is nothing left afterwards.”

“I’ve always felt like a guest in the English language. … Any thinking person, who spends enough time thinking about language, he or she is humbled by the experience. Maybe we all are guests in a language.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HkB0DJ154Nk 

Poet Mark Doty:

“What we forget is as revealing about us as what we remember. Memory revises the past. It brings certain things into the foreground, it pushes other things back into the shadows. Memory shifts the order of things. In other words, memory is another way of making narrative. It’s what we do as human beings, we make stories of our lives.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=370KX3n2q6o&t=678s

The Power of words

Poet Rita Dove, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a National Poet Laureate:

“I’ve always been attracted to the small moments, and the quiet, the kind of quiet that can break a heart or change the world, and I think poetry does that. For me poetry at its best, is something that works very quietly, but is monumental, is cataclysmic, but it’s an implosion, more than an explosion.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7KRgFWvSdzo

Joy Harjo, winner of the William Carlos Williams Award, and the first Native American to serve as National Poet Laureate:

“Poetry for me was soul talk, crafted soul talk. Words literally had power to change the weather, to make things happen. Poetry was a way to document the spirit of people.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJJLtJnl8qM&t=3s

Stanley Kunitz, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and twice served as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress:

“Poetry is most deeply concerned with telling us what it feels like to be alive.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KGmzr1kGeoQ

Writing for witness

Lucille Clifton, winner of the Robert Frost Medal, the National Book Award, and a former Maryland Poet Laureate:

“If a poet does anything, it is to look past the obvious, look past the conventional wisdom.”

“One of the things you can’t do if you’re a poet is to ignore things. You see what you look at and you hear what you listen to, and you witness.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PPr6EOggzm0&t=1453s

Poet and activist Martín Espada:

“I do believe that poetry has the power to humanize, that poetry humanizes, it gives a human face, voice, eyes, nose, mouth to those who are dehumanized.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a0aHZVZR2rQ

Award-winning novelist Carrie Brown:

“I think I have always believed that literature has a kind of moral component that just by virtue of what it asks of a reader, that it asks you to experience the world through somebody else’s eyes, that it creates the opportunity, and often experience, unwitting perhaps, of empathy. And in that regard, everything we read and everything we write, takes place on a kind of moral canvas.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gr-RDibh6sk


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