Before podcasting, the community I was most involved in was spoken word/slam poetry. The communities have a shocking amount of overlap: they’re both subversive art forms with diverse creators who usually have a punk rock, DIY method of making art.
When most people think of the poetry scene, they think of sleepy open mic nights and affected quiet, NPR-esque voices. The Poetry Foundation and Postloudness’s VS, though, breaks that stereotype–and so many others–just beautifully.
The VS podcast is a bi-weekly series where poets confront the ideas that move them. Hosted by poets Danez Smith and Franny Choi, produced by Daniel Kisslinger, and presented by the Poetry Foundation and Postloudness.
Before diving into the podcast as whole, an education on what makes the hosts Danez Smith and Franny Choi such perfect choices as hosts would be prudent. Both are notable and brilliant voices in the poetry scene, both on the stage and on the page.
Danez Smith is the author of [insert] boy and Don’t Call Us Dead. Smith has also written two chapbooks (short poetry collections), hands on ya knees and black movie, the latter of which won the 2014 Button Poetry Prize. They’ve been on the finals stage for multiple poetry competitions, including taking second place at the 2014 Individual World Poetry Slam.
Franny Choi is the author of Floating, Brilliant, Gone and the upcoming Soft Science (coming April 2019). She’s also written a chapbook, Death by Sex Machine. Choi has been on the finals stage for multiple poetry competitions including the National Poetry Slam, the Individual World Poetry Slam, and the Women of the World Poetry Slam.
But Smith and Choi aren’t just great hosts because of their impressive work. They’re great hosts because of their vibrant energy, their casual and open chemistry with guests, and their ability to open discussion on heavy topics without them feeling overly heavy.
Each episode of VS opens with a burst of percussive, quick tempo music and the hosts introducing each other in a silly, sweet way. Immediately, the production and the hosts signal that this podcast won’t be the understated affair the listener might expect if they haven’t been involved with the spoken word poetry scene. As the hosts introduce the episode, they riff off of each other with silly conversation and plenty of laughs–while still signaling what topics the featured guest will cover in the interview.
Poetry obviously deals with intimate and often devastating subjects, and VS takes those subjects head-on. The name, VS, is pulled from the podcast’s structure: using boxing jargon, Smith and Choi ask their guests to “confront the ideas that move them” and dive into the social issues that motivate them to create. Jonathan Mendoza discusses the United States’ lack of education on Chicanx issues and his work with housing rights organizations; H. Melt discusses trans liberation, connecting with trans youth, and the lack of wide education on trans history.
But interspersed with these discussions are moments of Smith and Choi connecting with the guest, telling jokes and keeping the rhythm of the conversation energetic and engaging without feeling tonally confused. It’s the perfect listen for poetry fans who want the social issues, but also want a casual interview podcast. In terms of the podcast’s vibe, it’s likely to be beloved by fans of podcasts like Nancy and Spirits. VS doesn’t shy away from the important subjects being broached–it just allows those subjects to exist in a space that’s comfortable for both the guest and the listener, both of whom might be living through what’s being discussed. It’s a space that allows listeners be educated on subjects, process them, or a combination of both.
Photos taken by Qurissy Lopez
Each episode features a poem for the guest, and the piece is always given an intimate sense of space and room within the episode. It’s not only a lovely moment of quiet and focus to break up the energy of the podcast, but also a completely different venue for a poem than most get. The reflections from Smith and Choi add context, analysis, and a deep appreciation of the work and the form.
And each episode ends with segments like “Knockouts,” which asks the poet to discuss something wonderful that’s knocked them on their feet, and “This vs. That,” which puts two concepts in two different corners (think “beauty vs. the grotesque”) and the poet has to decide which would win in a fight. With silly sound effects and a sweet setup, it’s a great way to return to the initial tone of the podcast while also revealing interesting, unexpected sides of each poet.