Poet, journalist, podcast host Al Letson urges audience to ‘do something extraordinary’

Milena Berestko

At his talk Tuesday afternoon, Al Letson opened up about his journey: from realizing his true passion to making a career out of it. He is a poet, playwright, journalist, podcast and radio host for Reveal: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Letson won the Peabody Award in 2014 and three consecutive National Edward R. Murrow Awards in 2012, 2013 and 2014, according to Reveal: From the Center for Investigative Reporter website.

Letson shared that when he was younger, he lacked support from those around him because of his dyslexia. People did not have high expectations for him, he added, but there were individuals in his life that pushed him and thus propelled a change in his mindset.

His high school teacher who taught a speech class was one of those individuals.

His teacher gave him an F after Letson delivered a speech which he believed deserved a good grade, although he was ill-prepared. He recalled the teacher saying, “you could do so much better than that.”

Letson gathered himself and came back the next day to present another speech in class, this time with adequate preparation. He was rewarded with a standing ovation from his classmates.

Letson was proud of his speech, although it was short-lived after the teacher erased that sense of fulfillment. Letson recalled his teacher telling him, “You don’t get points for being late, you need to come in and do it when it really matters.” 

That was the first principle that became a bedrock for this resilience and artistic stamina, he said. 

Throughout the talk, Letson repeated that “we have to do something extraordinary.” That philosophy applied to making a difference in the community and for his family. He urged the audience to keep in mind that philosophy and apply it to their own lives.

He further spoke about how he found love for poetry and how that love led him to use poetry as a catalyst for all creative endeavors. He did not attend college himself, but Letson discovered poetry through a tape of a poem he found in his friend’s dorm room by Sekou Sundiata called “Space: A Monologue.” 

The first stanzas of “Space: A Monologue” moved him and proved that poetry is something more than “the white, dead, old men,” he said.

Letson added that he believes “there is poetry in the everyday language I use.” He related this to working as a flight attendant, earning practically nothing and traveling from city to city to share his work at slam poetry competitions. He didn’t mind sleeping on the floors of his friends’ apartments, because he valued his work, until he found about the opportunity to become a host for PRX. 

“Art without purpose is vanity,” Letson said, adding that he doesn’t mean to offend anyone, but it is only his personal opinion.

He stressed that in his career, he took on the tasks that would enrich or aid the community. From that approach, he established his own show called, “State of the Re:Union” and used that as his vehicle for change.

Letson received a myriad of hate emails for his work in the show but what bothered him were not the emails, but the rage in which he responded to that criticism. He had a heated argument with one of the authors of these correspondences but at the end, he extracted morals from it.

“The only way forward is through. We cannot yield back on our truth,” he said. “You gain more from taking that closed fist into an open palm. You need to bring people together and have an open conversation.”

He began his work as a journalist because he saw it as a platform to document and respond to what he observed, and to communicate the truth to people. He closed his remarks by once again encouraging the audience to make an impact.

“People doing something extraordinary is the only way we can change the world,” Letson said.