Fresh Air Extraordinaire

A while back, I wrote a post about the expert kindness of Ira Glass, where I said that Glass’ gentle touch was the secret to his success in a risky interview situation. But I’d like to revise my argument here, to take into account the tactics of another interviewer par excellence, NPR’s celebrated Terry Gross.

Terry Gross is kind, don’t get me wrong, but she’s not gentle in the same way as Ira Glass. She has a way of probing her interviewee about their apparent contradictions, or their less than noble deeds, and once identifying a difficult point, she does not stop after a single question, but tends to push the point, and then push it again. Somehow, her persistent jabs do not come across as attacks.

How is this possible? Is it the neutral tone of her voice? Is it her genuine curiosity? Is it that her critical questions are preceded by and interspersed with praiseful ones?

In this interview with Robert Hass (Stanford ‘65 and ‘71), which centers on a recent reprinting of Walt Whitman’s poem ‘Song of Myself,’ Gross address a conflict between Whitman’s ‘huge ego’ on the one hand and his ‘great mystical exuberance’ on the other. That Hass is then obliged to defend poor old Whitman against the arrowlike questions of Gross, and does so with such casual eloquence, is what makes this interview as affecting as it is.

After introducing her subject, Gross begins the interview with an easy question: ‘Why is ‘Song of Myself’ so important in American history?’ This gives Hass the opportunity to get comfortable in the interview, and to relate some basic information about the poem, its style, Walt Whitman’s education, and some historical context around its (first) 1855 publication. Her next question is also an easy one.

But her third question is a little more challenging. She opens the door to the more contentious territory carefully, by asking for Hass’s opinion of a third party’s critique of her subject. Ralph Waldo Emerson, she says, who was an early champion of Whitman, eventually got tired of his constant list making. ‘How do you feel about that?’ she asks Hass, ‘That constant list making?’ Hass laughs, and says, ‘I think everybody gets tired of that.’

But the next question is more personal, and downright difficult: ‘I always find that when I read Whitman I never know which part is a huge ego and which part is this great mystical exuberance. What do you think? Do you feel that way too?’

The difficult questions about Whitman’s character continue from here, and each one gives Hass the opportunity to more fully elaborate his understanding of the poet and the poem. If Whitman’s appears to be a personal narcissism, says Hass, it’s only that he means to write about himself for everybody’s sake. What a paradox! Hass is suggesting that Whitman’s ego is some kind of exuberant selflessness. This is the jewel that Gross has been working towards with her hard questions.

The progression in this interview is one that Gross uses often: she starts by surveying the territory, then asks for an opinion about a third party’s critique, then comes in with with the more personal, rigorous probes. By establishing a neutral tone from the start, and prefacing her tougher questions with more welcoming ones, her interviews achieve a sense of vulnerability and intimacy, without being contentious.

Imagine that Gross didn’t push the point about the big ego. Then all we would get from this interview would be, Isn’t Walt Whitman lovely? Isn’t he great? But instead we get, Wow, what a brilliant and complicated person. Which I think is way more interesting.

I stand by my claim to the importance of kindness. But we should all take a lesson from Gross in identifying the difficult questions and creating a comfortable atmosphere in which they can be approached in a nonthreatening way. This technique will take your interviews somewhere more profound.

Terry Gross interviews Robert Hass about Walt Whitman’s poem, ‘Song of Myself.’
‘Fresh Air’ July 15, 2011. [24:30]

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