Build your brand! Optimize your keywords! Like, review, subscribe! Writers now believe they have to carry on with this nonsense. Maybe some must, even though for most of us the returns are minimal and the requisite skills aren’t always inborn. Much good writing goes unread because a poet or novelist lacks the hucksterism of a real-estate agent or a window salesman. It’s a trend we won’t reverse but can resist, by writing whatever the heck we want and earning nothing, versus writing what a publisher wants to buy from us and earning something close to nothing.
And so I cheer when I discover writers who are willfully deaf to marketing trends, the siren song of self-promotion, or the empty allure of becoming Fame’s latest love-child. Since last year, a poet friend of mine has been doing just that with “Human Voices Wake Us,” and a more refreshingly uncommercial podcast I simply can’t imagine. He runs no advertising, not even for his own excellent books, and he doesn’t put his name on the podcast, wishing to be if not anonymous, then at least a wallflower, to let literature enjoy a rare moment of pure attention.
“HVWU” has no set format. Sometimes you might get a week of brief readings of poetry by Seamus Heaney, Robinson Jeffers, and other 20th-century stalwarts—but between those episodes, settle in for hour-long selections from a biography of Walt Whitman and scholarly books about ancient Egyptian religion, or thoughts on re-reading Gilgamesh. As I write this, he’s spending a week mulling over quotations from scientists, politicians, and military leaders about the making of the atomic bomb, to chilling cumulative effect. All of “HVWU” follows the whims of one man’s whirring, well-read mind, but only occasionally does the host consciously focus on his own work. In one episode, he speaks abashedly but with candor about the jealousy with which less successful writers look upon their better-selling peers. In another, he digs up one of his T.S. Eliot-inspired teenage poems about suburban life and reviews it with the pensive, tolerant eye of the 40-year-old husband, father, and poet that high school kid became.
If you find National Public Radio unlistenable for its commercialism, predictability, and lazy arts reporting, and you don’t give a damn what everyone else is reading or talking about, and you appreciate an unrushed, gentle-voiced host sharing his favorite poets, ancient myths, and centuries of writers’ thoughts about creativity at a pace that’s entirely his own, then the “Human Voices Wake Us” podcast might fulfill a craving of your heart and mind. You can listen through Google Podcasts or Anchor.fm or whatever other podcast app you use; as long as you see the graphic with the self portrait of Vincent Van Gogh, then you’ve found it.
After enjoying more than a hundred episodes during my long drives through rural Maryland, I know the “HVWU” intro by heart:
The poem says, “Human voices wake us, and we drown.” But I’ve made this podcast with the belief that human voices are what we need. And so, whether from a year or three thousand years ago, whether poetry or prose, whether fiction or diary or biography, here are the best things we have ever thought, written, or said.
That’s a heady promise from someone who records episodes in a grocery store parking lot or in a basement after putting his toddler to bed. If the podcast turns out not to be for you, it might at least remind you what independent thought about books and art is supposed to sound like, and how much you’ve missed it.