Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Radio Rhymesters? An Interview with "Irving Toast, Poetry Ghost"

A couple of weeks back, news broke in Iowa City that the local public radio station WSUI would no longer commit to broadcasting visiting authors reading from their work on "Live from Prairie Lights." When literary luminaries such as Marvin Bell and current Poet Laureate of Iowa Robert Dana started getting all hot and bothered over the apparently dismal future of radio poetry, it got "Poetry & Popular Culture" wondering about how other poetry radio shows are also faring. So we went a-looking. Turns out, we didn't have to look (or listen) all that far. Just down the road from Iowa City, radio poetry appears to be doing just fine on KRUU 100.1 Fairfield.

Every Monday and Sunday, KRUU airs “Irving Toast, Poetry Ghost” with host Rustin Larson, who features live readings and interviews with new and established poets. "Poetry & Popular Culture" managed to catch up with Larson and chat a little bit about radio, poetry, “Live at Prairie Lights,” and the mysterious KRUU muse—Fairfield’s turn-of-the-century poet laureate Irving Toast.

Chasar: When did you first think "Aha! I need to put poetry on the radio in Fairfield," and how did you make that happen?

Larson: I said "Aha!" in April 2008. In years past I'd attempted to create a venue for poets through a magazine called The Contemporary Review. That lasted a few years and had maybe 80 subscribers at its peak. Even cheaply produced magazines cost more than what they bring in, so I eventually lost heart and gave up the project.

But I still wanted to create some sort of showcase for writers. James Moore, KRUU’s station manager, had for a long time wanted to get me on board with a show. He told me I could do whatever I wanted, so I told him I wanted to do this poetry reading/interview show. I'd made lots of contacts over the years, and my first interview was in mid-April 2008.

Chasar: What happens to poetry when it's on the radio?

Larson: Many things can happen. In a phone interview the distorted sound of a voice on the line can make a poem sound even more elegiac, kind of like a long lost love speaking from the other side. Face to face in the studio, poets give their all. They produce better than regular readings—maybe because they know it's not live but a pre-recorded show; it's almost like they’re creating short recorded books. Since it's also an interview program there isn't this sense of floating aimlessly in space. I'm there to help channel the flow of ideas.

Chasar: Was there really a Fairfield poet named Irving Toast?

Larson: Irving Toast is the true spirit of poetry that lives in the hearts of all people. In some cultures he may go by a different name, but in my household he is known as Irving, and he has a robust imaginary history I hint at in my blogs.

Chasar: The true spirit of poetry? Didn't that go out with the Edsel?

Larson: What's an Edsel? I'm kidding. The spirit of poetry is alive. There’s so much interest in poetry here in Fairfield. A fellow here has created a kind of dinner theater out of poetry at a local cafe. The Maharishi University locksmith is a poet, and quite a good one. The bookstores and coffee houses are wonderful about hosting readings, open mics, and concerts. It's not just here, though. I have nearly 1000 Facebook contacts from all over who are into poetry; many of them have literary presses or host podcasts or radio shows too. Some have appeared on my show (archived and downloadable at

Chasar: How can you make a go of it when WSUI and “Live from Prairie Lights” can't?

Larson: I'm sad "Live from Prairie Lights" was canceled. It did great things for writing, and it really created an event rich in atmosphere each time folks gathered for a reading. But as my station manager says, KRUU is Local Public Radio, not National, so we're not beholden to NPR for sponsorship, consultants or dictates. We don't have any specific formula for how each slot must bring in X amount of money or listenership.

We are who shows up, and our mission is to give voice to the community—to empower folks to ask questions and create programming themselves. We have 100 people producing 80 shows a week, have logged 60,000 volunteer hours, draw 100,000 visitors to our web site, and last year had an entire operating budget of $24,000. We do it without shoestrings—via listener support, underwriting, benefit concerts, small grants, partnerships and donations.

Chasar: Has Garrison Keillor called you yet?

Larson: No, but it would be great to talk to him! I think his Writer's Almanac is another great example of the spirit of poetry being alive. I don't know how many hits his web site gets, but I bet it's a bunch. It's a resource I've used to find poems myself.

A version of this interview appeared in the Iowa City Press-Citizen on Wednesday, December 17, 2008.

1 comment:

Pat said...

as a past interviewee of Irving Toast, let me say that it was fun to be part of Rustin's show. He put me at ease immediately and made the over-the-phone much less intimidating than I'd thought it would be. Blessings on those who work hard to bring others poetry into the world!

Patricia Fargnoli