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American Poet Leah Naomi Green Releases Her First Book

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

April is National Poetry Month. It was established by the Academy of American Poets 24 years ago. Each May, the academy gives its Walt Whitman Award to an emerging poet. And last year's winner, Leah Naomi Green, published her first book this month in connection with the award. Tom Vitale visited Green at her home in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley before the lockdown and brought back this story.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: At Leah Naomi Green's homestead, you would never know there's a pandemic ravaging the country.

LEAH NAOMI GREEN: So this is our trout pond. Maybe we'll go here first.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Oh, there comes one. Here comes one.

VITALE: Leah, her husband Ben (ph) and their two young daughters live on 80 acres of woods in the mountains, a half hour's drive from Lexington, Va. They have no television and no Internet, and they grow their own food.

GREEN: So you can see here's - we have our chickens. They do the job of weeding our garden for us and fertilizing our garden for us.

VITALE: In addition to chickens and trout, the family lives off vegetables from their garden and the deer that Ben hunts.

BEN: Actually, up on this ridge is one of the main places I hunt. There's about 30 acres of woods there that is a great place to hunt.

VITALE: The experience of life on the homestead is the subject of Leah Green's poetry - her pregnancy, childbirth, motherhood and living in nature. The title poem of her first book, "The More Extravagant Feast," begins with a deer and a Christmas parade.

GREEN: (Reading) The buck is thawing a halo on the frosted ground, shot in our field predawn. Last night we pulled a float in the Christmas parade. It was lit by a thousand tiny lights. My daughter rode in my lap and was thrilled when the float followed us.

VITALE: Green says the poem tells it the way it happened, starting with her husband pulling a float in the parade, then shooting a deer the following morning.

GREEN: An image connects with another image. So to me, the image here was the red and white of the Santa's suit and the red and white of the bloody fur - the deer fur. That's the poem. It's when that connection happens.

VITALE: The poem reconciles those images.

GREEN: (Reading) And Santa was bright, though my daughter shied from the noise of him. She studied the red-and-white fur of his suit. She woke this morning when the rifle fired outside. I lifted her to see the sunrise and her father kneeling above the buck's body in the middle distance. She asked if they would be cold.

VITALE: Green's first collection of poetry was just published as part of the Walt Whitman Award.

LI-YOUNG LEE: Each time I read "A More Extravagant Feast" (ph), the more I love it. I just find more depth, more mystery. And I trust the poems more and more.

VITALE: Poet Li-Young Lee is the judge who selected Green's manuscript for the Whitman Award. Of the 2,000 manuscripts submitted to the Academy of American Poets, Lee read the 20 finalists. Of those, he says Green's language was the most beautiful and her subjects the most personal.

LEE: You can feel throughout this book she's thinking and feeling her way into the interior - her own interior - even as her eyes are looking outward into the outer world. I just think it's brilliant the way she does that.

GREEN: (Reading) When I come back in, she asks me to draw a picture of her father on the hill. I pick her up, the miracle of her lungs that grew inside me kept long dark, her working heart let out into the rounder world, the more extravagant feast.

VITALE: Green says looking inward isn't hard to do when you live in the woods. She is 36 years old. She was born Jewish in Greensboro, N.C. She attended Quaker schools, and she met her husband at a Buddhist monastery.

GREEN: I've always been interested in spiritual concepts, but they were concepts, right? But then when you're in the garden and you see how much my life is responsible for and responsive to the garden and the spring and the wood in the woodpile, they are in the world. They aren't just internal. They are external. I think poetry does that exact same thing that the garden does for me, and it says, here is one image. Here's one thing from one life that can help us understand something much, much larger.

VITALE: Leah Naomi Green took one of the epigraphs for "The More Extravagant Feast" from Walt Whitman's "Leaves Of Grass" - for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

GREEN: (Reading) Afterward, how he and I hold each other differently, feeling the collections of muscles and organs held somehow together, the miracle of bodies, formed whole like fruits, skins unruptured and containing the world.

VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.