Whose Words These Are (20): Rick Benjamin

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Rick Benjamin. (38 minutes, 18 meg mp3)

Rick Benjamin says the threshold instruction of most good poems is: slow down, be alert, wake up. The reason to write poetry is to be of use, he says. The reason to read poetry is that it might change your life.

In our series “whose words these are,” on the practice of poetry today, Rick Benjamin stands out as an activist, a communitarian, a Buddhist, a globalist, a family man who’s always telling his kids: “Remember, talk to strangers.”

He lives by Rumi’s line from 13th Century Persia: “The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep.” It’s the idea that gets him up in the morning, and animates his classes at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design on “Poetry in Service to Schools and the Community.”

In an essay on pedagogy, Benjamin writes: “Poets are such good teachers, and their learning catches you in ways that very few other things will. . . . Making poetry is not worth doing if you aren’t trying to bring someone else along with you.”

Q: What’s your favorite poem?

A: Here’s one, but I don’t know if its my favorite poem, because I can’t even pick my favorite meal. I’m just going to say one poem that I know I like a lot. “In Black Water Woods” by Mary Oliver.

Q: What is the talent you most want that you don’t have, yet?

A: I’d like to be a much better glass blower than I am. I dabble in it, but I’m very bad at it. I think I’m too interested in the medium to be good at it – maybe that’s paradoxical. I like paying attention to it so much that when asked to do any of my own work I’m at a loss. I’m kind of a glass-blowing voyeur.

Q: What’s the keynote of your personality as a poet?

A: It would have to be something about circulating love, unabashedly and without embarrassment. The love that we are lucky enough to find in structures like families, in our communities, between countries — to honor it, fully.

Q: Who are your fellow travelers in other mediums?

A: Visual artists like Andy Goldsworthy, who are willing to work with ordinary and organic materials and make something beautiful and impermanent out of them. That’s all I aspire to as a writer, to hope fully with fidelity, make a snapshot of something and know that it will have changed and be gone tomorrow.

Musicians: like poetry, I have a range of music that I really love: some of it is Jazz, people like John Coltrane, and some of it is something more contemporary, like the hiphop music my kids listen to, K’naan.

Q: What is the quality you most prize in a poem?

A: Wisdom. All I ask of a poem is that it has some wisdom, and then my job, I think, is to become a vehicle and vessel and to circulate that wisdom if I have the opportunity and the possibility to do so.

Q: Who is your favorite fiction character of all time?

A: The unnamed narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

Q: What is your motto?

A: “I want to love as if my life depends on it, and when the time comes to let it go, I want to let it go and be on to the next thing.”

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  • Thank you for inviting Rick Benjamin on your program. I believe he’s one of the most important and under appreciated voices in America today. I treasure his beautiful words and smiling face each day of my life. And to hear him in conversation with a master interviewer like Christopher Lydon is quite a gift. Much gratitude on the dawn of a new year. Peace and love from Brooklyn, NY.


  • nvl

    i agree with csd: what a warm and inviting interview. Rick Benjamin’s wisdom truly inspires

  • Mr. Benjamin is a glorious poet as well as a master teacher.

    His work and this interview make the New Year happier.

    Thank you!


  • katemcshane

    I don’t know Rick Benjamin’s work. I’m sorry. I know Mary Oliver’s IN BLACKWATER WOODS and it’s one of the best poems in — what? history? I remember reading it when I attended the Advanced Poetry Seminar at the Radcliffe Institute in the early 1980’s. I’ve read it many times. I’m not really a fan of Mary Oliver’s work, but I envy her life. The fact that Rick Benjamin cited this poem makes me want to read his work.

  • backwatersprouts

    Thanks to Christopher Lydon and the Watson Institute folks who have made this interview with Rick Benjamin and the whole Whose Words These Are series. I LOVE this series. The program is fast becoming an amazing resource for/about contemporary poets and I can’t get enough of it. Keep It Up. Keep it up!

  • Thank you all for putting this together what a gift to hear Rick’s voice again! Rick was one of my many incredible poetry teachers at RISD and to be able to connect with him again through his voice and this podcast is a blessing. Rick, the scar poem from Passing Love brought me to tears and thank you for being and doing all that you are. Sat Nam and many blessings brother.

  • Ed Baranosky


    Sorry our paths haven’t crossed, but I left RISD in 1969, and I think sometimes some of

    my best moments, splinters of memories. I appreciate your presence there though. In

    a grim world, a genuine smile itself is healing.


    -Ed Baranosky

    “…Anyone who

    walks with his back to the sun is

    following his shadow. Move into your

    own quietness. This word-search poem

    has found you, ready for silence.”


  • Rick was my teacher in 2003 at RISD. The insights and inspirations i gained from one semester of his teaching continue to inspire my own creativity in my writing, painting, and architecture.

  • 2046

    If he is not how he sounds to me I wish he is.

    He sound awesome to me.

    thanks for this nice interview

  • I’ve known Rick since the early days of the Dodge Poetry Festival. He’s an amazing, giving talent. My anthologized poem, THE BABY, was written watching his wife hold their then baby in her arms at a picnic in Princeton for the Dodge poets.
    Michael Downend
    Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico