Spotlight: Teaching through podcast

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Google defines a podcast as “a digital audio file made available on the Internet for downloading to a computer or mobile device, typically available as a series, new installments of which can be received by subscribers automatically.” Podcasts can be used to share information and/or teach people about your interests. That’s certainly the reason behind Martin Bidney’s podcasts. Bidney, a professor emeritus of English and comparative literature at Binghamton University, noted in an e-mail interview that “like the teacher that I was at BU for 35 years, I use each podcast as a chance to ‘teach a class’ on a book I’ve published. I always loved teaching, and now I have a new way to do it – and become an actor, too.”
Bidney’s original reason for doing the podcasts was to help him sell the 27 books of poetry he’s published, but his ideas changed once he began making them. “Each podcast is a dramatic reading of poems with comments,” he noted. “After doing a few, I realized that I also love acting, and now I think of them each as a performance act, with just enough clarifying context to make the lyrics come alive. I recite or vocally scan the metrical patterns, too, and I’ve even sung on a podcast (‘Reviving Ancient Wordsong Forms’) a few of the 14 original poems I’ve set to music.”
He does some initial planning before the recording, but is open to surprises occurring. “Before each lecture-and-performance, I write out on a single page a ‘synopsis’ with poems I plan to feature and major points I’d like to make about them,” he said. “I don’t read from it, but occasionally I may glance at it to quote something well-phrased. After the performance, which never conforms wholly to plan, I’ll revise it a bit to print on YouTube as a little preface to the podcast.”
Bidney calls his podcast “The Be-loving Imaginer” because he says he is “not a believer, but a be-lover. The roots of ‘lieve’ and ‘love’ are closely related.” He believes there is an “Ultimate Being [who] is beyond naming, it is the Unnamable. Propositions about it in human sentences can’t be accurate ways of naming or knowing it. But metaphor can give us glimpses, ways to reach out (or in). I’m in love with the Unnamable, so I will be its poet, telling the truth of my feeling. Every human being, created in the likeness of the Unnamable, is also unnamable, unknowable. ‘Know yourself’ sounds good, but it can’t be done. We can’t know, but we can imagine, and ‘imaginer’ is the job description of the poet.”
As to how he approaches the writing he does about each poet, Bidney says he imagines his work as an interview between himself and the poet. “I fall in love with the works of a poet, and I choose that poet as my mentor,” he added. “When I interview the poet, I emulate the verse forms I’m hearing; we are friends and collaborators. I imagine my way into the mentor’s world by emulating the verse forms in which the beloved poet’s soul is expressed.”
For example, he notes that “my podcast ‘Bisexual Shakespeare’ is about my book ‘Shakespair [Sonnet Replies to the 154 Sonnets of William Shakespeare]’, where the bard is my guest and I’m the host, so every time he recites one of his 154 sonnets, there’s one by me on the facing page, responding to his thought, feeling and perception in his own sonnet form, rhythm and rhyme pattern. In ‘Qur’an and Poetry’ and ‘Jews & Christians in the Qur’an,’ I interview the speaker persona of the Islamic scripture in responding with original poems to passages I love. In ‘Rilke: Love and Conflict,’ I interview the greatest German-writing poet of the 20th century, replying to him in the stanza forms he taught me. In ‘King Solomon the Lover,’ I quote from my complete verse rendering of the biblical Song of Songs, and then reply with nearly 300 love poems of my own.”
Bidney also explores other themes in his work, including “expanding approaches to gender in verse ranging from Renaissance England to 19th century Germany to medieval Persia,” making connections between eastern and western culture, and reviving ancient poetry formats. Each of these is reflected in his podcasts and the works of poetry he’s written.
As of this interview, Bidney is working on a podcast called “Sufi Lyrics in the Egyptian Desert,” which will show the inspiration for his latest book. “In 2011, I spent a month in Egypt, teaching English in a desert farm settlement, reading widely in Sufism, and listening to legends and songs recited or sung by my neighbor, Pakistan-born Sufi calligraphic painter Shahid Alam,” he said. “The podcast, like the introduction to my poetry book, will show how seeds planted in the 90 poems I wrote during that month-long stay at Sekem (an hour from Cairo) grew and flourished in later poems and books.”
Bidneys’s podcasts are available on www.youtube.com; his website, www.martinbidney.org; and his Facebook page, www.facebook.com/martin.bidney.