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Poetry Unplugged with Michael Wiegers

Michael Wiegers is the Editor-in-Chief at Copper Canyon Press, an independent nonprofit press that publishes award-winning poetry. Under his leadership over the past 30 plus years, CCP has published over 400 titles, including winners of the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes and the National Book Award. In this episode, Michael gives us a masterclass in poetry. If you’ve ever felt that poetry is unattainable, Michael will convince you otherwise. You’ll walk away with a reading list and his answer for why poets are always writing about death.

You can learn more about Michael’s work and Copper Canyon Press at:


[00:00:00] Sarah Cavanaugh: Hi, I'm Sarah Cavanaugh, and this is Peaceful Exit. Every episode, we explore death, dying, and grief through stories by authors familiar with the topic. Writers are our translators. They take what is inexpressible, impossible to explain, and they translate it into words on a page.

Today, I'm talking with Michael Wiegers. He is the editor in chief at Copper Canyon Press, an independent, nonprofit press. They only publish poetry, and under Michael's leadership for the past 30 plus years, the press has published over 400 titles, including winners of the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes, the National Book Award, among others. They're a leader in the publishing world, and Michael, he's a poetic genius and a good friend of mine.

[00:00:55] I met Michael when I joined the board of Copper Canyon Press. We worked together to support William and Paula Merwin and the Merwin Conservancy, a palm forest on Maui that they planted by hand over the course of 40 years. Michael and I talk about a wide range of poems and poets today, including the anthology he edited for Copper Canyon's 50th anniversary.

[00:01:19] That title is A House Called Tomorrow, Fifty Years of Poetry. The companion piece is called Come Shining, More Poems and Stories from Fifty Years of Copper Canyon Press. Michael talks about his process for creating A House Called Tomorrow and how he took submissions from the whole press’ community for the companion book, which includes a submission of one of my all-time favorite poems that we read in this episode. If you were on the fence about poetry, Michael will certainly convince you to jump in. We read some really great poems, and Michael explains why poets are always writing about death.

[00:02:05] Welcome to Peaceful Exit.

[00:02:07] Michael Wiegers: Thank you, Sarah.

[00:02:08] Sarah Cavanaugh: As you know, I love poetry, and so let's start just like Poetry 101. A lot of people talk about how poetry is inaccessible, and what would you say to them from the perspective of a long time poetry editor?

[00:02:24] Michael Wiegers: Well, I hope I don't get too esoteric here, but I think that every word is a poem.

[00:02:29] One of our shared favorites, W. S. Merwin, talks about the first poem was when a humanoid mother cried over the death of a child. That is a poem. Any expression of passion or grief or joy, each of these expressions are, in ways, poems. I would, though, say that poetry has developed over the centuries into something that's more than just expression.

[00:02:56] Actually, one of my favorite poems. In our anthology, um, has the line that a poem is neither expression nor object, yet somewhat partakes of both. And what a poem is, is never to be known. Um, one of the things that a lot of people perhaps struggle with is that unknowing. That uncertainty that a poem will often hold.

[00:03:21] And it makes us feel things that are unfamiliar or that we've always felt and been unable to express. And, you know, that sort of vulnerable uncertainty and intimate uncertainty is something that is made into a poem. It's built into a poem, I think. I believe that we all have poetry accessible to us. My own father who Died over a decade ago, went to his deathbed, never understanding what it is that I did.

[00:03:52] And we would talk about it, and he was a very religious person, I was like, okay, you know, tell me a psalm. And he could tell me a psalm, and I was like, that's a poem, you know. A lot of our earliest forms of expression, from nursery rhymes to our most sacred texts, are in the form of poetry. So, I think we all have it within us, and yet, somehow, in the development of humankind, we've grown away from, or learned away from, that form of self expression.

[00:04:25] Sarah Cavanaugh: Mm hmm. Yeah. How did you come about reading poetry?

[00:04:29] Michael Wiegers: I think as a young high school student largely, but you know, when I think back to it, I was reading Shel Silverstein or having it read to me, but early on I remember having a dynamic young teacher who had us reading poetry and um, you know, I may have even written a poem or two and…

[00:04:48] Sarah Cavanaugh: Do you still have them?

[00:04:49] Michael Wiegers: God, no. I hope my mother doesn't either. So, um, but, but I also, I was very much, you know, in my teens, I was very much into punk rock. And I remember at one point riding along in the car with my mother and playing her, you know, the Sex Pistols or, or The Clash or something. And I was like, you know, this is poetry.

[00:05:11] She's like No, no, no. And, and then handed me a copy of E.E. Cummings’ Collected Poems and Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Coney Island of the Mind, which was different than what I was being taught in school at that time. And it's like, wow, this is fun. It's playful. It's humorous. And I just became infatuated with it and enthralled with it.

[00:05:36] And so, graduating as an English major, I did what you would do, and that's get a job in a bookstore. And working in bookstores led me to working as an editor. It was just being comfortable in the world of poetry, and I was never intimidated by it. And just felt that, to quote Roque Dalton, the Salvadoran poet, Poetry, like bread, is for everyone.

[00:06:02] Of course, some people are gluten intolerant, but, um,

[00:06:04] Sarah Cavanaugh: Like me.

[00:06:05] Michael Wiegers: Exactly, but, but you're not poetry intolerant.

[00:06:09] Sarah Cavanaugh: I remember years and years ago when I was a high school teacher, I brought in Bob Dylan as a poem, and then I played it on the taped deck. Of course, it was cassette tapes back then, and everyone was slayed by his voice.

[00:06:21] They couldn't believe that he was actually a, a famous artist, but the words were poems. So if you were going to teach poetry appreciation, what would be part of that curriculum?

[00:06:35] Michael Wiegers: I would aspire to teach the same way that I edit, in that there's no single poem, there's no single poetry. To quote one of my favorites, Hayden Carruth, poetry is the voice that's great within us, and that means a plurality of voices.

[00:06:51] And so I think that I would want to show a wide range, everything from Bob Dylan and Joe Strummer to W.S. Merwin and, and John Keats. And then I would probably want to go further afield to, you know, great poets, some speaking in languages other than the English language. So Mahmoud Darwish, the great Palestinian poet, or Taha Muhammad Ali, who I believe you know, and um.

[00:07:21] Pablo Neruda, or Anna Swir, or, I mean, the list goes on of the great poets that I would want to expose students to, to see that poetry isn't just the purview of tidy old Englishmen, but it's a language that crosses all languages. And, as we've been thinking of what's going on in Palestine and Israel, my introduction to Palestinian poets was through Zionist poets who were saying, you need to read this poet.

[00:07:54] And so that was how I read Taha Muhammad Ali, through the encouragements of Shirley Kaufman. And to think of Peter Cole, you know, a Jew living in Israel, one of the premier translators of Arabic poetry, and particularly Palestinian poetry, and poetry of the, the Levant, I should say, the whole region.

[00:08:16] Through his work that I learned a little more about the conflicts, um, and learned a little more about the complications of that region.

[00:08:28] Sarah Cavanaugh: I think that was an inflection point for me. Such a learning for me when I hosted an event for the two of them. And I realized that when Taha began to read the love poem in Arabic, that I had never heard that language in the context of a love poem versus The hatred on the media and the way that Arabic is sort of portrayed in the media, it was profound.

[00:08:52] I remember really welling up and feeling like I had never heard this extremely ancient and beautiful language. I'd never heard it before I heard him speak his poetry.

[00:09:03] Michael Wiegers: Similarly, the first time that I met him, I was at the Dodge Poetry Festival. And to hear him read in Arabic, not knowing a word of it, um, just hearing the music in it. Yeah.

[00:09:18] Sarah Cavanaugh: How do we translate a human experience into language? When I talk about this podcast, the reason I'm interviewing authors and editors, Is really, because of that, translating what's not, what's not expressible. I remember William used to say about translating that it's an impossible task. But how would you talk about translating human experience into language?

[00:09:46] Michael Wiegers: There's a great quote that precedes William Irwin, Tradutore Tratore. It means translator, trader. It's an impossible task, or seemingly impossible task, and yet without it, in the West we wouldn't know the Bible, we wouldn't know the Tao Te Ching, we wouldn't know the sutras, and on and on. So again, some of the great teachings, religious teachings, philosophical teachings, we wouldn't know them if somebody didn't risk being a trader to the original language.

[00:10:14] And so if you then transpose that to the poetic experience, how do we translate human emotions to words? In the sense, you're going to fail, but you may create something new in the process. I believe that's what a poem does. You might open a window. Right. And the first way in which you translate is through listening.

[00:10:37] That translation starts from the moment of listening. You were listening to Taha read in Arabic. You don't know anything about it, but you can start to intuit the feeling, the emotion, the expression, the body language. Similarly, that's translating from one language to another. And I think similarly, translating from the human experience to word, you kind of listen to what the heart tells you, what the head tells you.

[00:11:04] Find the right words, and I think that for somebody like Merwin, he practiced that over many years so that he could come to a simple language that would convey so much in a minimal amount of words.

[00:11:17] Sarah Cavanaugh: Yeah. Yeah. I talked with Dacher Keltner about awe, and he studies awe, and those moments where you're hearing a poem and you're just letting it wash over you, and then the last line just makes you have this moment of, like you get chills, because it's the way a poet can sort of offer you something.

[00:11:38] Michael Wiegers: Yeah, I think as an editor, I usually look for those last lines in the middle of poems. Because sometimes a last line for me seems

[00:11:48] Sarah Cavanaugh: Too contrived?

[00:11:49] Michael Wiegers: Too contrived. And I'd rather, I mean, I was, another of your favorites before I came over, I was editing Ted Kooser's new manuscript. And one of the things that I see in Ted's poems, it's, you don't need this last line, the poem ends earlier.

[00:12:03] And sometimes I think that you can find awe in what's unsaid. And back to, you know, translating human experience into a poem, you know, many have referred to poetry as the unsayable said. And so there's a lot of unsaid work that happens within a poem, and sometimes I worry that at the end of poems, people will try to tidy it up and package it, and if you will, almost commodify it, turn that expression into an easily digestible, um, but I'm probably in the minority here.

[00:12:38] It's just, you know, I want the whole experience of a poem to be magical.

[00:12:43] Sarah Cavanaugh: Well, I would say congratulations on A House Called Tomorrow, 50 years of poetry from Copper Canyon Press, and This is a volume that you have not only edited individual poets and their work, but also created an incredible anthology here.

[00:13:02] Michael Wiegers: Thank you for, um, the acknowledgement on House Called Tomorrow and, you know, the excitement about this project was not personal. Story I wanted to tell as much as I wanted to, you know, show and tell the story of the community of people who have made the press possible. So if you start with the word publishing, it's about making public.

[00:13:25] So, you know, I wanted to look beyond myself as an editor and realize that my work is made possible by the imaginations and the work of many others. And so I decided I wanted to, rather than go through and Pick Michael's favorite poems from 50 years to invite our poets, staff, current and former board members, current and former volunteers.

[00:13:52] I even invited our banker to submit a poem that was their favorite and then tell me a story about the poem. One of the most chosen poets was Anna Swir, a Polish poet from World War II. And I was surprised to see the number of people who had picked up this book that, you know, we published 20 years ago.

[00:14:12] And it's like, wow, I've always loved that book. And to see it get a new life through the voice of other readers. It's pretty extraordinary, but I got more responses than I thought was possible and such that there was too much to get into one volume, and so we decided to make a second volume. So really when I look at these collections, they're about celebrating a larger group of people, and I get to be the factotum, the person who is just, you know, putting together all these translations of human experience.

[00:14:46] Sarah Cavanaugh: Yeah, I just love that you trusted the community to really bring forward. And you never know, like, what book is sitting on someone's nightstand, that it's dog eared.

[00:14:55] Michael Wiegers: And what happens in that process is they start telling me their experience of a poem, and suddenly this poem that I may have edited a year ago or 20 years ago, it takes on a whole new life.

[00:15:07] And so I felt like I was revisiting and rediscovering poems through the imaginations of others, of readers. And I think that's one of the beauties of the publishing process. For me, it's not just about the poet, it's about the poet and the reader. And if you consider that writing and poetry, it begins and ends in isolation or in solitude.

[00:15:31] So it begins with the solitude of the writer writing the poem and ends in the solitude of the reader, of the individual reader reading the poem. And in between there are so many worlds, and that's also kind of the space that I get to live in, this large world of different imaginations, of designers, of copy editors, of, you know, reviewers and critics, and the ordinary readers.

[00:15:54] The moms and dads and sisters and brothers and children, um, that are in our lives. And that's in between those two spaces of solitude. And that's what I love about publishing.

[00:16:07] Sarah Cavanaugh: You mentioned one of the people to submit a poem and a story to A House Called Tomorrow was your banker. Which poem did she share?

[00:16:15] Michael Wiegers: The poem from the banker was a Greg Orr poem. Gregory Orr from Book of the Beloved. This is the poem that Joan Broughton Wrote, and this is what she said, How beautiful the beloved remains my favorite Copper Canyon Press book of their many published books and poets. Within it there are so many strong poems. 

[00:16:35] I admire Orr's brevity and power in the right words chosen. Poem that opened you, the opposite of a wound. Didn't the world come pouring through? And then she chose the poem, Loss and Loss and More by Gregory Orr.  

[00:16:52] Loss and Loss and More. Loss. That's what the sea teaches. The need to stay nimble against the suck of receding waves, the sand disappearing under our feet. 

[00:17:07] Here where sea meets shore, the best of dancing floors.  

[00:17:13] Sarah Cavanaugh: Wonderful, thank you.  

[00:17:14] Michael Wiegers: You know, going back to when I was an undergraduate, I read Gregor's poems and a lot of his early poems were about the death of his brother at his own hand, accidentally shooting him. And so I knew all these poems of grief and loss. 

[00:17:31] And when Greg came to Copper Canyon, that's when I knew of his work and we started talking and he wanted to do a retrospective. But then he also had this really kind of extraordinary book, which was a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth about going into the underworld and trying to recover the beloved. 

[00:17:48] And he started writing this long sequence poem, and it was very simple and beautiful. And that was him working toward this larger project, which he called The Book of the Beloved, which kind of scans the history of reading, the history of poetry, and why do we express ourselves in times of grief, of passion, of love. 

[00:18:10] And so all those poems in the Book of the Beloved, when he first came to me, he said, I'd like to do a trilogy. And I was like, Greg, trilogies just always, you know, everybody buys the first one, buys fewer of the second, and by the third, they don't listen. And he's like, okay, well, I'll just do a bigger book. 

[00:18:28] And he did this larger collection. And then after that, he came back with the second one and then a third and a fourth, and it just became this, you know, beautiful obsession, really. And it was hard to, you know, disagree with it, and he's constantly looking at the great stories of humankind, and looking at myths, and the arts, and why are we compelled to make poems? 

[00:18:53] Why are we compelled to write and express ourselves? And the entirety of this book of poems, now over several books of poems, are about exploring what compels us to make poetry, to make art. And so I love it that Joan picked that poem. And it's really about what can we recover out of loss? We can find a dance floor anywhere on the ocean shore. 

[00:19:18] That makes me think of, let's see if I can find the David Budbill poem. David Budbill wrote a beautiful short little poem that echoes this whole project that Gregory Orr was doing, and it's a poem called What Isa Heard  

[00:19:34] 200 Years Ago. Isa heard the morning birds singing sutras to this suffering world. I heard them too this morning. 

[00:19:43] Which must mean, since we will always have a suffering world, we must also always have a song.  

[00:19:53] Sarah Cavanaugh: Beautiful.  

[00:19:54] Michael Wiegers: You see that sort of thing popping up across all of poetry, I think. Why do we feel compelled to write? Why do we feel compelled?  

[00:20:04] Sarah Cavanaugh: Compelled to write about death, and grief, and loss.  

[00:20:09] Michael Wiegers: There's a great poem that precedes the one I just read to you. 

[00:20:13] Joseph Stroud's poem Provenance is all about looking into the mirror and seeing the face of his dead father and just, you know, wandering streets filled with art and trying to find himself in his father, find his father in himself. There's a poem by Marvin Bell, who I should say, like Gregor, ended up having an obsessive, beautiful, extended engagement with a particular type of poem called The Book of the Dead Man. 

[00:20:41] And he just took off years ago from the Zen admonition to live as if you were already dead. And so he's living this whole world in his poems through the eyes of a dead man. And it's quite extraordinary. But even before that. He wrote this just beautiful poem. This is a poem by Marvin Bell called Poem After Carlos Drummond de Andrade with a little epigraph. 

[00:21:07] It's life, Carlos. 

[00:21:12] It's life that is hard. Walking, sleeping, eating, loving, working, and dying are easy. It's life that suddenly fills both our ears with the sound of that symphony that forces your pulse to race and swells your heart near to bursting. It's life, not listening, that stretches your neck and opens your eyes and brings you into the worst weather of the winter to arrive once more at the house where love seemed to be in the air. 

[00:21:42] And it's life. Just life that makes you breathe deeply in the air that is filled with wood smoke and the dust of the factory. Because you hurried and now your lungs heave and fall with the nervous excitement of a leaf in spring breezes. Though it is winter and you are swallowing the dirt of the town. 

[00:22:03] It isn't death when you suffer. It isn't death when you miss each other and hurt for it. When you complain, that isn't death. When you fight with those you love. When you misunderstand. When you, when one line in a letter or one remark in person ties one of you in knots. When the end seems near. When you think you will die. 

[00:22:23] When you wish you were already dead. None of that is death. It's life, after all, that brings you a pain in the foot and a pain in the hand, a sore throat, a broken heart, a cracked back, a torn gut, a hole in your abdomen, an irritated stomach, a swollen gland, a growth, a fever, a cough, a hiccup, a sneeze, a bursting blood vessel in the temple. 

[00:22:49] It's life, not nerve ends that puts the heartache on a pedestal and worships it. It's life, and you can't escape it. It's life, and you asked for it. It's life, and you won't be consumed by passion. You won't be destroyed by self destruction. You won't avoid it by abstinence. You won't manage it by moderation, because it's life. 

[00:23:12] Life, everywhere, life at all times, and so you won't be consumed by passion, you will be consumed by life. It's life that will consume you in the end, but in the meantime, it's life that will eat you alive. But for now, it's life that calls you to the street where the wood smoke hangs and the bare hint of a whisper of your name. 

[00:23:36] But before you go Life got its tentacles around you, its hooks into your heart, and suddenly you come awake as if for the first time, and you are standing in a part of the town where the air is sweet. Your face flushed, your chest thumping, your stomach a planet, your heart a planet, your every organ a separate planet, all of it of a piece, though the pieces turn separately. 

[00:24:03] Oh, silent indications of the inevitable, as among the natural restraints of winter and good scents, life blows you apart in her arms. 

[00:24:13] Sarah Cavanaugh: Thank you. Mm. I submitted Rain Light by W. S. Merwin William. Uh, you and I were, I would say, friends of William's, and I remember you told me once that you never edited his poems. I remember Paula also said that he would present them sort of as finished on the corner of the dining room table and she would pick them up and read them and Was there ever a time or a poem that you had any shifts or changes in lines for him? 

[00:24:46] Michael Wiegers: I think Paula was being a little humble because she was kind of his final reader and would, you know, and I think would make remarks to him. So one of the most extraordinary moments I had with him was his last book, Garden Time, when Paula was very ill and she couldn't do the work. And so they asked me to come to Maui. 

[00:25:10] And I sat on the Lanai with him and I read the entirety of his book back to him and asked him at times, you know, did you mean this or did you mean that? And so there were some clarifications that happened, which is not really rewriting. It's just asking him, okay, what do you mean here? And then he might change a certain order of things, or he might change a line break or something along those lines. 

[00:25:37] But what I did do is sometimes I would rearrange things. So, for example, Shadow of Sirius. That manuscript came in and there, there was some confusion. I thought that this whole middle section were elegies for friends and it was kind of unclear. At first, who he was talking about, and later it became clear that it was talking about his dogs. 

[00:26:02] Exactly. Yeah. And so it's like, okay, well, let's figure out a way to, you know, gather those poems together. Together. Yeah. And to kind of identify what's happening in the book. And that also fit very much with the title of the book, Shadow of Sirius, The Dog Star Sirius. Mm hmm. So that, that was more the type of work that We would do together. 

[00:26:24] I mean, my God, when, when am I going to tell William Merwin?  

[00:26:29] Sarah Cavanaugh: Before you read Rain Light, um, for a little bit of context, this poem, we were in a board meeting and it was one of the last board meetings he attended. And it was one of the last poems I heard him recite by heart. And it was one of those moments of awe for me. 

[00:26:48] And During COVID, I re read this poem, and re read this poem, and re read this poem, and I, I don't think it's understatement to say that it got me through our lockdown.  

[00:27:02] Michael Wiegers: It's an extraordinary, extraordinary poem. Um, I'll just read it. 

[00:27:10] All day the stars watch from long ago. My mother said, I am going now. When you are alone, you will be alright. Whether or not you know, you will know. Look at the old house in the dawn rain. All the flowers are forms of water. The sun reminds them through a white cloud. Touches the patchwork spread on the hill, The washed colors of the afterlife That lived there long before you were born. 

[00:27:42] See how they wake without a question, Even though the whole world is burning. Kind of reminds me of that Marvin Bell poem, you know, Life is just happening, you know, and life is gonna go on. So I can see, and it's all around us, And I can see how, in those particularly dark moments, when the world felt like it was burning, that this poem would remind us about life all around us. 

[00:28:13] Sarah Cavanaugh: What is it like for you when a, one of your poet dies?

[00:28:18] Michael Wiegers: Um, it's becoming more and more common and it's, it's hard. I was on a plane and I had just landed when I heard that William had died and The unfortunate thing is through my editing work, I establish friendships. I, you have to, I think to be a good editor, you have to have a certain degree of intimacy and vulnerability and, and just to be able to be, you know, I always felt like, you know, Cam, I'm going to be the idiot asking questions of William.

[00:28:55] And he was always so generous with me. And so, there was a friendship there. And yet, as his publisher, there's also the business aspect. So, even before he died, I had been thinking, we have to have a press release. We have to have all the, the things in which you manage a public figure's death have the obituary written.

[00:29:21] And so it's interesting, you know, trying to allow for the personal grieving at the same time that you have to, my, my job is to take care of his work, take care of his legacy, and to make certain that the poems withstand and survive and continue to thrive in the world. And so when he died, it was really hard.

[00:29:45] Here was somebody I had worked with him for nearly 30 years. He was one of the first poets that I met when I started at the press. The first book of his that we published came out just as I was starting at the press 30 years ago, so he was there, the entirety. But then I've had many other poems, and when I was reading the Marvin Bell poem, there's the line about A hole in your gut, or what have you, and he died of something similar to that, so it's hard for me to not read those lines that he's written years before his own death, and to find him in there.

[00:30:24] And I just think of, I'm in the process right now of starting a large project by a poet whose work I just absolutely love and worked with for years, the poet C. D. Wright.

[00:30:38] Sarah Cavanaugh: I was just gonna ask you about C. D. Wright.

[00:30:39] Michael Wiegers: Yeah, who passed away unexpectedly and that was completely shocking and devastating because I felt like, you know, when I was this young editor, she was, One of my champions, who is like, those teachers, is just like, you know, you can do this.

[00:30:55] Be weird. Take risks. Be adventurous. And so, when she passed away, I just felt like we lost, communally lost, somebody very important. And maybe it's because I'm getting older, but as I see older poets dying, I'm seeing some of the wisdom go with them. And I'm hoping that younger generations of poets will pick up the mantle and carry forward some of their lessons.

[00:31:25] You know, I love publishing new poets, but I also love really going into the archives, going into the forgotten work of poets and trying to elevate it. So you look at somebody like Ruth Stone, who had been all but forgotten, and At the end of her life, we started publishing her work and we were able to get her a larger readership.

[00:31:50] And she won the National Book Award. So suddenly people were reading her work more widely. And I'm particularly committed to honoring those poets who brought us to where we are now.

[00:32:07] Sarah Cavanaugh: How do you deal with your own personal grief around losing these friends of yours?

[00:32:12] Michael Wiegers: You know, I, I again, I kind of go into that professional mode.

[00:32:16] Um, you know, it's just, okay, this is what I can do. And then in private, I sit down and I read their work. I go back and turn to them for a little bit of guidance. When Marvin Bell died, you know, that, after Carlos Drummond de Andrade poem, that was one that I turned to and can hear it in his voice. Even when I'm reading Rain Light, I'm hearing William's voice.

[00:32:41] And so, so he becomes, he becomes, you know, alive again in ways. There's a great movie, I don't know if we've ever talked about, by Heddy Honigmann, and it's called Forever. And what she does is she goes to Père-Lachaise Cemetery, and she just parks her camera at the gravestones of famous artists and musicians, and people who visit, she asks them to tell their stories.

[00:33:05] And, and through the movie, you understand that one of the keys to immortality That's how we can live on, that's how, you know, those we love live on, is through the art. I strongly recommend that movie.

[00:33:23] Sarah Cavanaugh: There was a thought I had as you were speaking about the power of what you don't say, and you mentioned it earlier.

[00:33:30] Sort of the white space of the poem, like, there's such a power in that. And I'm kind of trying to tie it back to our subject at Peaceful Exit, which is really about death and loss and the things we don't say to the people we love as we let them go. And maybe it is just a look, or maybe it is just a holding someone's hand, or have you had an experience where you wish you'd said words to someone who you lost?

[00:33:58] Michael Wiegers: Definitely, from my poet friends, I wish I would have just expressed gratitude to William for what he's meant to me in my life. I wish I would have had some more laughs and dark humor, um, shared with CD. I talked with her two days before she died, and she was so happy, and I wish I would have said, I can't wait to see you again.

[00:34:22] I just think, you know, of so many of the poets that, that I've lost over the years, I wish I had said my gratitudes to them. Similarly, as my own father was dying. His fear, I actually earlier had said, you know, if you need to go, don't hold on for us. But I wish in that moment of fear, I would have just said, you know, it's okay.

[00:34:48] Um, because I could see for him, it didn't strike me as a very peaceful exit and I wish there could have been a little more comfort and I wish that all the people in his life could have offered him some of that.

[00:35:04] Sarah Cavanaugh: Is there a way that poetry could provide that comfort at the end of your life?

[00:35:08] Michael Wiegers: I have to believe so.

[00:35:10] I believe that it does allow us to say the unsayable and death is an experience that we all go through. And so throughout humanity, we've been trying to express how to And so we know there are others who offer some sort of, again, voice to this shared experience that we may not be able to come up with on our own.

[00:35:44] And, you know, again, thinking of the communal, communal nature of this endeavor, you know, the work that you do helps me think about death and illness. in those around me. I think of W. H. Auden's quote that poetry makes nothing happen. And there are a variety of ways in which you can read that. I mean, so the Buddhists, you know, they're, what's that joke of the Dalai Lama gets a gift wrap present for his birthday and he opens it and there's nothing in it.

[00:36:16] And he's like, it's exactly what I wanted. Nothing. And I think that in that way, you know, if poetry is making nothing happen, it's making all of life happen in its various incarnations. I don't think that any single poem is going to help us express the experience, but I think the great teachings and knowledge that we get through poems and through the shared voices.

[00:36:44] Again, I look at poetry not just in English, in my language, my adopted language, whatever we want to call it, but I think that it is a shared language that so many of our poets have looked at death and, and again, to the Marvin Bell poem, it's life that we're, we're really celebrating in a poem.

[00:37:08] Sarah Cavanaugh: Is there a poem you'd want to hear at the end of your life?

[00:37:11] Michael Wiegers: Is there a poem I'd want read at the end of my life? And it would be the one that's yet to be written.

[00:37:17] Sarah Cavanaugh: Well said. So the last question I ask in all my interviews is what does a peaceful exit mean to you?

[00:37:27] Michael Wiegers: Peaceful exit to me would be an exit that was filled with beauty and gratitude. I would hope that I've lived a life dedicated to beauty and being able to reflect on the beauty of the experience of living as it comes to an end.

[00:37:51] Again, I think of that Marvin Bell poem. It's really reflecting on what's beautiful, what's painful, what stirs us, and to be able to gracefully and peacefully exit, I think, I would hope to do so with a sense of gratitude and not a kind of clinging. There's the great quote by John Keats about Poetry, you want to live in, in a state of negative capability, and he goes on to say that that means to be able to live in a state of mysteries, uncertainties, and doubt without clinging for the rational.

[00:38:34] I would want to exit as I would want to read a poem with uncertainty and with kind of embracing that uncertainty and embracing the magic of the moment and not understanding. There's a beauty in not understanding and in not knowing and accepting that we don't know. And for me, Peaceful Exit would be the ability to embrace not knowing.

[00:39:03] Sarah Cavanaugh: Thank you.

[00:39:05] Michael Wiegers: Thank you.

[00:39:07] Sarah Cavanaugh: Thank you so much for coming in.

[00:39:09] Michael Wiegers: Thank you for having me.

[00:39:15] Sarah Cavanaugh: Thank you for listening to Peaceful Exit. I'm your host, Sarah Cavanaugh. You can learn more about this podcast at And you can find me on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram @apeacefulexit. If you enjoyed this episode, please let us know. You can rate and review this show on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

[00:39:38] This episode was produced by the amazing team at Larj Media. You can find them at The Peaceful Exit team includes my producer, Katy Klein, and editor, Corinne Kuehlthau. Our sound engineer is Shawn Simmons. Tina Nole is our senior producer, and Syd Gladu provides additional production and social media support.

[00:40:02] Special thanks to Ricardo Russell for the original music throughout this podcast. As always, thanks for listening. I'm Sarah Cavanaugh, and this is Peaceful Exit.


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