On Being with Krista Tippett and Ocean Vuong

May 6, 2020

When the apocalypse comes, what will you put into the vessel for the future?

Ocean Vuong

On the eve of a global shift, writer Ocean Vuong (On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, Night Sky with Exit Wounds) and Krista Tippett recorded an episode of On Being in front of a live audience at On Air Fest. Listening back, this interview feels especially profound, foreshadowing both the pain and beauty of the new world that has emerged since.

Two months after that interview was recorded, On Air Fest Producer Jemma Brown interviewed Krista about what it was like to listen back, and learn from this conversation. Here is their interview:


On Air Fest:
You recently released an episode of your radio show and podcast On Being recorded live with Ocean Vuong on March 8th in front of a room full of people at On Air Fest in Brooklyn. This was just days before New York City and much of the country went into quarantine. At the time, we didn't know the coronavirus was going to take such a toll on all of our lives. What is it like listening back to this conversation knowing what we know now?

Krista Tippett:
It’s quite astonishing for me to think back to that day. A state of emergency had just been declared in New York City - but none of us could imagine how this would unfold and didn’t really believe in it yet. Ocean and I made a nod to it when we first met backstage, bumping elbows instead of shaking hands. But by the end of the interview, we threw caution to the wind and fell into a hug. It’s bittersweet to remember the physical energy in that room as a whole - bodies packed together and learning into each other and those wooden floors soaking up the din of us.

A theme that kept arising in your conversation was the idea of language and storytelling as embodied practices. Do you also think of listening as an embodied practice?

Yes! We actually listen to each other with our bodies before any words are spoken in any conversation. We pick up cues at a physical, animal level that shapes the conversation to follow and infuse what and how we’re hearing and responding. In my experience, that kind of connection carries (kind of mysteriously) through headphones across distance. So, for example, whether you are really curious (which means, most basically, ready to be surprised) or just pretending (arriving with pre-determined assumptions intact) will communicate at a bodily level. Your questions will be met with a corresponding guardedness, or openness.

The room that day was really listening. Even from my vantage as a producer standing in the back, the audience felt charged with attention. Do you find recording conversations live to be a different experience for you, and how does a live recording change the podcast?

So I think that’s also an example of how listening is embodied. Listening is a basic social art. I was listening deeply, and that ripples out to other bodies, physically invites others (in the room and later) to lean in and do the same. Of course it helped that every word out of Ocean’s mouth was wondrous. To your question, I do love the intimacy and discipline of the in-studio interview, meeting someone through headphones directly voice to voice and mind to mind. You only have the human voice to draw everything from - which is all in the end the audience will have to work with. That said, I’ve learned to love the live interview too. Though part of making that work, both in the room and for audio later, is to not rely on all the physical cues you have with a whole body in front of you. Not to let the visuals override the voice, which is how our brains default. Because those of us who make radio (and all its 21st Century manifestations) know that radio is the most visual medium - the pictures conveyed by the voice tap into the particular pictures and imaginations of every listener. Who among us did not walk away from the conversation with Ocean with our very own fire escape in our hearts and memories and minds?

Many people listen to your podcast, On Being, with a level of attention and care not usually reserved for “on-demand audio,” and I think it’s because you bring such an exquisite level of intention to your conversations. How did you prepare for this interview, and do you have any advice for people who are learning how to interview?

I describe my interview preparation process as the Vulcan Mind Meld approach - your thoughts to my thoughts, my mind to your mind. I immerse in the writings and other interviews, whatever I can find, of the guest. I start out with some questions I think I’ll ask but usually that evolves. I’m more interested in understanding how someone thinks than just what they believe. I’m trying to discern how they walk the intersection of what they do and who they are; what they know and how they live. I’m looking for the questions they hold, not just the answers. I prepare intensely - and I think of this as work of hospitality as much as preparation. It goes back to that matter of embodiment, too, even if we’re meeting voice to voice. We all know the difference between meeting someone and knowing, right away, that we will have to explain or defend ourselves - and meeting someone and sensing, oh, they get me. You relax, and much more is possible in what comes next. The other paradoxical thing about preparing deeply, of course, is that it means I can that much more easily put my notes down and let the interview surprise both of us. But I also retain my ability to hold the narrative arc of the conversation, which will mean so much to the listener - a beginning, an eventful middle, and a satisfying end.

At one point in the conversation, Vuong describes the central question of his work to you. He says, "as much destruction as there always has been in human history, there was love and beauty, simultaneously. They don’t cancel each other out. They exist as independent truths, interlocked." In this new world order where there has been so much destruction, have you been able to find glimmers of love and beauty?

The both/and in Ocean’s description of our strange human condition is the source of my hope. We are living/breathing both/ands and this is on full technicolor display in this extreme moment of crisis. But it’s always true that when the worst happens, many many human beings rise to their best, often surprising themselves. In journalism we’ve too often treated that like a feel-good sideline instead of a central part of the story. It must be taken seriously as part of the story beyond this moment, because we have a world to remake if we’re going to really honor, and structure around, those things we’ve now deemed “essential.” And what I’ve learned, through all of my conversations, is that wisdom and growth always emerge - in a life or a community and maybe a world - through moments when we have to hold seemingly opposing realities in a creative tension and interplay: power and frailty, birth and death, pain and hope, beauty and brokenness, mystery and conviction, calm and buoyancy, mine and yours.

Krista, thank you so much for your time, and for what you bring to the podcast form. We're grateful for your work!