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Arji’s Poetry Pickle Jar with Maia Elsner

In the words of its creator Arji Manuelpillai, this podcast “is a place where we pickle the poems you’ll love”. Each week, Arji and a guest poet take a poem of the guest’s choice, take it apart, put it back together again, analyse, open it up and hold the pieces up to the light. In the episode our writers listened to, Arji was joined by Maia Elsner who is a London-based poet, author and performer. The pair pickled the poem ‘Five Men’ by Zbigniew Herbert.

So what does pickled poetry sound like? Read on to see what our writers thought…

A stylised illustration of a jar, flanked by red poppies on either side. Inside the drawing of the jar, there are a series of white outlines of abstract side profiled heads. Across all of the heads is a stroke of red paint. A mystical image.
Illustration by wonderful rrramble illustrator, Cat Crawford

Grace

As a caveat to my review of the fantastic Arji’s Poetry Pickle Jar, I will describe my average podcast-listening session: I will typically be engaged in another activity, between crocheting (yes, I know, I am a grandmother-in-training at nineteen), or running somewhere — the chatter in my ears an attempt to distract myself from the ultimately cursed activity of exercise.

This podcast, however, is different. This episode — number 25 in the series — opens with the host, Arji Manuelpillai, and his introduction of Maia Elsner, the poet and guest for the episode. The pair cover a great deal of ground, from the difference between working as a poet in the US and in the UK, to the featured poem of the episode, which is routinely chosen by the guest. Maia Elsner then gives a short reading of Zbigniew Herbert’s ‘Five Men’, translated by Czesław Miłoz.

Two minutes into the episode, I had completely stopped whatever it was that I had been doing, and made listening to this podcast the priority of that moment — an incredible feat for a form of audio which I had viewed as more of a soundtrack to daily chores than an all-consuming, incredibly captivating pastime. 

It is extremely refreshing to hear people discuss the essential futility of art (or, I suppose, what happens when we must reconcile beautiful words with the real, lived experiences of others), and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Maia Elsner discuss these lines: 

“so why have I been writing

unimportant poems on flowers

what did the five talk of 

the night before the execution” 

This episode of Arji’s Poetry Pickle Jar feels like a very good (but incredibly low-pressure) Literature class, or a late-night discussion at a professor’s house. Maia and Arji’s conversation is both understated and profound, and they touch on certain topics (like the relationship between violence and voyeurism) briefly, as if everything is already understood, and so their musings are not condescending (or, alternatively, too complex for casual listening). 

Both Arji and Maia, people who have presumably made careers on the art form of poetry, reflect that poetry is “probably not [ ] enough”. It is perversely wonderful to hear people in the art world discuss the idea that there is something small but beautiful about literature, especially when people in the art world have a reputation for being ‘up themselves’ (as my mother might say, shaking her head). 

Despite the essential “littleness of poetry”, I am grateful to have been introduced to this podcast, and I appreciated all seventeen minutes of it. 

A stylised illustration of a jar, flanked by red poppies on either side. Inside the drawing of the jar, there is a dark brick wall, topped with barbed wire. It is pockmarked with damage and holes so clearly suggests conflict.
Another fantastic Cat Crawford illustration

Eve W

Reading poetry is the equivalent to listening to jazz to me: I feel this need to decode it, to intellectualise it, to say “woah, I’m way more into John Coltrane’s hypnotic, godly sax playing than Charlie Parker’s bebop style.” With poetry, I want to think about the metaphors, the rhythm, the placement of the poet in a literary movement. And I think this is what has killed poetry for many of us. Arji’s Poetry Pickle Jar takes a candid approach for a poetry podcast, and it stops itself from getting too overly intellectual. For each episode, host Arji Manuelpillai brings on another poet and they discuss a poem that the guest has chosen. It can be a poem that’s been special to the poet for a while, or one they’ve recently discovered. In episode 25, Arji is joined with poet Maia Elsner and her poem of choice was ‘Five Men’ by Polish writer Zbigniew Herbert. He’s a poet I’d never heard of before, but really appreciated him for his stark, more minimalist style. And what’s great about Arji’s Poetry Pickle Jar is that they don’t try and deconstruct the poem in a classroom type of way. It’s very much an equal conversation between two fellow poets — just picking out their favourite parts of the poem and discussing the broader questions about the role of poetry it raises. 

In their discussion, Arji and Maia tackle the philosophical questions the poem poses. For Maia, the rose metaphor is the most moving element of the poem. Arji is more interested in how history and dates are not spoken about directly in the poem but only hinted at, with what the narrator imagines the platoon were discussing before shooting five men (brothels, automobiles, sea voyages, cards). Although much of the discussion was making interesting critical analysis, there were times where I found it rambling somewhat. At some points, it felt like ideas just sprouted from nowhere and didn’t follow up from the previous points made. Sometimes I wanted a bit more detail on why this poem’s stark, direct language worked so well, and whether poets ever truly can remove themselves from a political stance. 

Over lockdown, I tried a similar thing to Arji with Eve’s Poetry Jam Jar, where I put 80 newer and older poets of different nationalities in a jar. From Baudelaire to Instapoets like r.m. drake: my family and I would read 3 of their poems and talk about them at the family table. What happened occasionally was that we’d pick up a metaphysical poet like Richard Crashaw, and everyone would be half asleep listening to the Biblical imagery and references to saints. Instead of taking the poetry discussion seriously, we’d all burst into laughter. But I guess part of the problem is that some poetry is harder to talk about because it’s too stale (sorry Richard Crashaw). It’s harder to find the splendour there. ‘Five Men’ worked so well because it’s a universal poem that uses simple words to create an insightful message on the gruesomeness of war. But I wonder if the format could work for a poem with less accessible vocabulary and more challenging metaphors, less podcast-friendly if you will.

Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed Arji’s Poetry Pickle Jar. I’ll definitely be listening to more of it in the future with other literary podcasts like The New Yorker Fiction podcast (I’m a bigger short story fan!). And, who knows, it might make my next Eve’s Poetry Jam Jar session a lot spicier.

A stylised illustration of a jar, flanked by red poppies on either side. Inside the drawing of the jar, there are two crossed guns, as though the backdrop for a coat of arms. In front of them is a large eye with a cloud over the iris, and clouds fill the background.
rrramble illustrator Cat Crawford’s final knockout illustration

Becky

A while back, I reviewed Ours Poetica for Rrramble, so when the chance to explore another poetry based thing I jumped at the chance. As I said in that previous review, 

I enjoy poetry. The only problem is that I find it hard to read. Sometimes when written down, I find it quite hard to connect to poems. I find I kind of skip over the words and don’t let them fully percolate. This means I don’t get the full feeling conveyed by the beautiful words. They very rarely stick with me. But then I find a live reading of them somewhere, and suddenly that gut punch, those words, they land as I connect with them fully.”

It was fantastic to be introduced to yet another resource that means I can hear poetry pieces being read aloud that I may have never come across otherwise. The difference here is, it’s a podcast. I loved Ours Poetica (I mean, go back to the review). To say I was enthusiastic is an understatement. I had a grand idea of watching a poem a day. 172 days of poetry ahead! I even made it one of my bookmarked browser tabs when my laptop starts up. That did not materialise, however, which is a shame. Watching some now, I think that would be a lovely daily practice to explore poetry. However, that’s just not how my days are all the time. I have gone back to Ours Poetica a couple of times to watch some, and it is brilliant, but it doesn’t fit into my day. 

A podcast, however, now that fits! Beautiful things can make art forms more accessible to explore and understand. But no matter how brilliant they are, not every one that you find will fit into your life. I listen to podcasts constantly, so Arji’s Poetry Pickle Jar has already integrated into my life. I have subscribed, I have bulk downloaded, and I have scattered them throughout my listening queue. 

The structure is simple yet effective. Hear the poem, hear them discuss it, and then hear it again. The episode we listened to featured a poem that I can honestly say I would never have read or heard otherwise. ‘Five Men by Polish writer, Zbigniew Herbert. At first listen, I liked the poem. I thought it was beautiful. Parts of the language jumped out at me, the use of colours, the way we are slowly fed information and context. I loved the imagery of the rose at the end. 

I enjoyed the discussion that followed, and it was nice to hear them highlight, albeit in better language, aspects of the poem I liked and gravitated towards. I enjoyed that their discussion was based on interpretations: it was explorative, not definitive. I think that’s why I feel worried sometimes sharing my thoughts around something like poetry – I don’t want to be wrong. But this helped with that fear. They were excited by each other’s ideas and interpretations and built on it. That excitement is so nice to hear. People enjoying art, without anxiety or explaining away their opinions is always fun. When I listened to the poem again after the discussion, I connected to it deeper and appreciated it more. 

I am looking forward to hearing more episodes of Arji’s Poetry Pickle Jar as they come up in my podcast queue. 

p.s. I also realised that The Poetry Foundation, a collaborator on Ours Poetica, has lots of poetry podcasts that I have absolutely been sleeping on. They are added to the queue too.

All episodes of Arji’s Poetry Pickle Jar, including episode 25, are available to listen to for free on Anchor.fm, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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