Poetry in America and Temple Beth Zion present an Interfaith Dialogue on Tracy K. Smith’s “Hill Country”

By Colby Meeks

On April 8, 2024, Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, Massachusetts hosted an interfaith screening of our season four episode “Hill Country,” followed by a panel discussion with the poet Tracy K. Smith, episode guests Rav Claudia Kreiman and Rav Tiferet Berenbaum, and PIA’s own Elisa New. 

The poem explores both the religious and the mundane of an experience in the Texas Hill Country. Audience members at Temple Beth Zion had the opportunity to hear opening remarks from Rav Claudia who extended a warm welcome to the event. Elisa New also spoke to the crowd, sharing insights into the choosing of the poem for the fourth season of Poetry in America and the poem’s connection to themes of divinity, nature, and human experience.

Tracy K. Smith was invited to give an in-person reading of her poem for the crowd before the accompanying episode was screened. The audience saw a varied group of guests – from religious leaders to country singer-songwriters – interpret Smith’s poem in the episode.

After the screening, Rav Claudia, Rav Tiferet, and Tracy K. Smith participated in a panel discussion moderated by Elisa New. This interfaith panel included discussion about the poem and its relationship to religion, isolation, faith, and the environment. Probing into questions about  poetry’s relationship to the world beyond the page, Tracy K. Smith remarked to the panel: “I think this is one of the most productive things we can do. To talk about what we imagine, what we notice, and what it activates.”

One line summed up the discussion best: “There is a paradox with poetry where it can feel very solitary,” said Elisa New. “If only the audience of poetry felt more like a congregation!” 

The season 4 episode “Hill Country” can be viewed on your local PBS station or streamed free beginning April 29 at https://www.poetryinamerica.org/seasons/4/