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Fady Joudah shares his favorite #NPRPoetry submissions

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally, it's the last day of National Poetry Month for this year. We're sad, but we've loved the poems, as we do every year when we invite you to submit your original poems via Twitter and TikTok using the #nprpoetry hashtag. And every weekend, we've invited an accomplished poet to come and share a few of the entries that stood out to them. For our last conversation - for this year, anyway - we've called upon Dr. Fady Joudah. And yes, he is a physician as well as a poet. His latest poetry collection is called "Tethered To Stars." And he is with us now. Dr. Fady Joudah, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

FADY JOUDAH: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: You know, I saw an interview you gave where you talked about why you wanted to be a doctor. You said - this is in your childhood where you kind of embraced this idea. You talked about how you just wanted to heal people. And I remember you saying to your family, if you fall down, I'll fix you. But do you remember when you first started writing poetry and why?

JOUDAH: I remember when I first started memorizing poetry. I must have been 4 years old. And it was first in Arabic. And it was a response to a family environment. My father, my uncles, sometimes they would just tell me stories around verses. And sometimes they would offer me coins if I were able to recite or memorize and recite what I memorized, especially if it was a contemporary poem or a famous poem. And I realized when I did that as a child that there was something in me that was absolutely ecstatic about the music language makes in the mind. And I was never able to shake that off.

MARTIN: That's lovely. You know, I think it might be different in other parts of the world and in other cultures, but in this culture, poetry and medicine aren't usually things that people think of together. And I was wondering if one shapes how you do the other.

JOUDAH: I think it does simply because it is life. You know, being a physician is two things for me as far as poetry is concerned. It is face to face. It is being face to face with other people who are in moments of despair, in moments of grief, in moments of doubt or of elation, even on the edge of survival, even if it's a temporary survival, you know, you've recovered from a pneumonia. It doesn't have to be something as complicated as cancer or a heart attack. And being so close to people in those situations has taught me to listen and, you know, just taught me that the life we speak is full of poetry all the time.

MARTIN: Well, that's lovely. I also had this image of you wandering - well, in between rounds of kind of writing a poem in your phone or something like that, something that you would keep in your pocket.

JOUDAH: You would not be incorrect. You would not be incorrect.

MARTIN: Oh, good. OK. Because I just made that up. But I just had this image in my head of you kind of, you know, say, dipping into the hallway or something like that after visiting with somebody or, you know, checking on somebody or maybe - I don't know. Where do you dip into in a hospital, supply closet? Where can you hide? I don't know. There's no place. Where can you hide? Cafeteria?

JOUDAH: Well, I don't have to hide. No - at the nursing station.

MARTIN: Nursing station. OK. There you go. OK. All right. Well, let's get into some of the submissions. Let's start with a Twitter poem, one of the ones that you picked.

JOUDAH: OK. Do you want me to read it or...

MARTIN: Yeah. Please. Yeah.

JOUDAH: (Reading) They did not ask, can I fly? They did not ask anything at all. Instead, they just opened their wings and rose up, three cranes sharp against the sky.

MARTIN: And who wrote this one?

JOUDAH: PoetryForce.

MARTIN: PoetryForce. OK. Great. And what struck you about it?

JOUDAH: Its simplicity and its conversation with a eternal longing we have as humans with birds. We're almost always jealous of not being birds. And we can't quit, you know, we can't quit our fascination with birds. Nothing cures us of it.

MARTIN: Well, that's well said. All right. Let's listen to a TikTok poem you've chosen. It was submitted by a user who goes by Portman Toad (ph). Let's hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)

PORTMAN TOAD: (Reading) There are days I slink to the floor, just open and close the cupboard until there are moths in my hand and I can fold fingers in to crush them. A thin film of dust, I brush my palms clean.

MARTIN: OK. That's kind of brutal.

JOUDAH: It is.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I wasn't expecting that. Why did you pick that one?

JOUDAH: Well, so we do also negotiate our grief. And if one wants to be kind of cliche and traditional in thinking about it in our modern age, one of the stages of grief is anger. And then the violence in the poem is really - is in the opening. I imagine it in four lines. I didn't see it written. So the first line and the fourth line are flanked by what maybe Samuel Taylor Coleridge would call the suspension of disbelief. You know, the hand is opening. The hand is closing. The cupboard is opening. The cupboards are closing. The moths are flying in and flying out. And before you question that, you're brought to clarity instantly. So the poem does this magical thing that poetry does about the suspension of disbelief and brings you back to this image, our relationship to the moth. We become the fire. This person speaking becomes the fire for this moth and crushes it.

MARTIN: Oh, yeah. I hadn't even thought of that. Oh, OK. Before we let you go, it's the final day of our celebration of National Poetry Month for this year. But people should keep writing. I mean, we're always so gratified that people send us this work and put effort to it. And as - you're a busy person, and you have multiple responsibilities that you're juggling. How do you find time? How do you find time to do this, to devote to your writing? And do you have some advice for other people who would say, oh, I just don't - I'm just too busy? I just don't - I just can't - I don't have time for that. What do you say? How do you make space for your art?

JOUDAH: I could answer in practical ways, but I will say to others out there, guard your madness. It might be the last - one of the last private freedoms we have. So, you know, let poetry guide you into a sense of freedom and then you'll write.

MARTIN: That was Dr. Fady Joudah, poet and physician. His latest collection of poems is called "Tethered To Stars." Dr. Joudah, thank you so much for joining us. Thanks for helping us to celebrate Poetry Month.

JOUDAH: Thank you so much, Michel.

MARTIN: And to all who submitted poems throughout the month, we thank you so much. You heard what the doctor said - keep writing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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