Singular Purpose

Poet Terrance Hayes and clarinetist Anthony McGill have been resolute in pursuit of their destinies.

AIRED: November 19, 2021 | 0:26:46

- Articulate with Jim Cotter is made possible with generous

funding from the new Bower family foundation.

(synth music)

- Welcome to articulate the show that explores how really

creative people understand the world.

(orchestral music)

And on this episode,

singular purpose.

Poet Terrance Hayes has been hailed for his

fearlessness in pushing the boundaries of convention.

But in life he's learned to practice caution.

- I'm a kind of person who maybe do nine

miles over the speed

limit, but not 10.

You know, like I've bend the rules as far as I can,

but breaking it. It's like anarchy.

- [Narrator] And it took Anthony McGill,

multiple attempts to become principal

clarinet of the New York Philharmonic.

Failure was never an option.

- There are a lot of people

that don't want you to succeed.

The worst thing you could possibly do is believe them.

- That's all ahead on articulate

(orchestral pop music)

(electronic music)

- [Narrator] Terrence Hayes wears two wristwatches,

he's obsessed with

time and how to make the most of it.

- If someone told you you had a definitive 20 years versus

like, maybe you'll die anytime,

which would be more frightening?

So for me to like, say,

"What will I do if I just have 20 more years?"

That's not that much time,

but I would rather think about it like that.

- His desire to control the uncontrollable comes from living

in what he describes as a land of assassins.

- I just thought like, I'll never see 50.

I thought like a young black man in America, I thought like,

"I'll be lucky if I get to 30." So when I got the 30,

I was like, "Holy smoke."

When I got the 40, I was like, well,

"John Coltrane died at 41. You know, MLK died at 36."

I can get a lot accomplished if I think that that's as much

time as I have.

You ask, you know, friends I've been with

since the fourth grade,

I've always been like, man,

I don't think I'm going to have very long.

I never thought I would get the 50.

I just thought for some reason or nothing.

- [Narrator] But he did make it to 50.

And he's accomplished a lot in those years.

He's influenced his own generation of poets and the next by

bending formal traditions and modeling an emotional honesty

that might've surprised his younger self.

- The subject is allowed up to 20 years

after leaving the home

of his or her parents to reconcile all

but the darkest of infractions.

The deeper the wound,

the more heroic the healing.

- [Narrator] Hayes grew up in a home bound by rules.

He was raised on military basis by a mother who worked as a

prison guard. And, from age four, a soldier stepfather.

The family settled in Folkestone, South Carolina,

a small black suburb of Columbia,

a place where Hayes learned to live and play by the rules.

- I was always like having to engage a certain kind of like


So I'm a kind of person who maybe do nine miles over the

speed limit, but not 10.

You know, like I I've been the rule as far as I can,

but breaking it. It's like anarchy.

So I've always thought about these kinds of things.

And I got that from my dad because he was very like reliable

and disciplined and patient and kind.

- His stepfather,

James Hayes, was a good father and role model,

but young Terrance felt his absence

during the long stretches

when he was deployed away from home.

- He was in the army. So he actually was not with us a lot.

It was like, I really didn't have a dad.

I mean, from like when I was in the third grade

to the eighth grade,

I think he was in Alabama. And then for a long time,

he was in Korea.

When he went to Germany,

my mother was like, I don't want to go to Germany.

We'll go back to South Carolina.

So it was me, my mother and my brother for that year.

And then he retired pretty much when I was like 24, 22.

So it was just an illusion.

I mean, the best example of that

is that I always thought he loved working in the yard

because when he would come home,

that's what we would do.

And so I had this affinity, still, for like gardening and

cutting grass and these kinds of things.

And maybe just a few years ago when I went back there

and I was like, "Dad, you know,

one of the first ones I wrote

was about working in the yard with you.

And he was like, "Man, I hate working in the yard."

And I was like, "What?"

I mean, this was just a couple of years ago.

I must've been 45, no idea that he never really

- And he was doing it to be with you.

Well, it was like,

you know, my mother was like, "The yard needs to be cut.

You're never here."

I mean, he's a man of duty. He's a soldier.

So he did everything he needed to do with the very like,

without complaint. And so I always took that as patience.

And I took it as like, focus.

It is that, but he was like, "No, no, I, you know,

I never really liked it.

I don't want to be out in the sun like that, you know?

And I was like, what?

I love it. You know, because I had this idea.

So that little example is very much how I think I,

I had a lot of kind of things that weren't true about a very

good person.

I think my brother's the same way.

So we never like pine for him.

Whenever he came, he was present.

So it wasn't like I thought I didn't really have a dad until

I got older.

- [Narrator] Together or apart, Hayes

strived to follow his stepfather's example.

But as a teenager, he got into mischief.

- [Hayes] I did get arrested when I was 15.

My brother was there.

We were out,

we had just gone into like a hotel and I saw a truck that

was open. A U-Haul.

(engine starting)

We found a pickup truck unlocked outside a small hotel and

its cab: trash bags, fat with clothing and hardware,

a toaster and vacuum waiting to be used again by someone.

Checked in for the night,

maybe a runaway wife reversing her dreams,

a streak of red wine,

sleeping on her tongue while elsewhere.

Her husband was in the dark because he didn't know yet.

She was gone. She was gone.

For no good reason, we took the bags

from the truck and propped them below the

pine trees, which like everything in the dark

belonged to us.

And to anyone approaching

our laughter must've sounded like the laughter

of crows, those birds that leave everything beneath them,

trampled and broken open.

those birds dark enough to bury themselves in the dark.

But we were not crows.

And we were not quiet until it was too late.

I was thrown against the tree as if I weighed less than a


A hand clutched the back of my neck as if it wasn't a neck.

I was the one that got caught. When they had me in the back

seat and I was handcuffed and I looked up,

it was South Carolina with all the pine trees.

I actually could see my friend, Boomie, up at the top of the

tree. He was like, so afraid, no branches.

He climbed up the tree and held onto it.

And nobody saw him. The cops didn't see him,

the forensic people came and cleaned everything up.

But because I was bent over,

I saw him and I never said anything.

So the point of the story is that when they had me in the

backseat, the two cops, I was like, just, I was like, man,

I guess I can't be a cop now, if I'm going to get arrested,

you know, and just general conversations.

I talked about my mom and my dad and yeah,

they were at ease.

Maybe it just comes from feeling fairly like, you know,

like nobody was going to hurt me.

I think people always just were maybe more intrigued,

even if they were unthreatened by whatever I was,

they were still intrigued, you know?

But once I got north, ironically, in my twenties

and I was so like, not in that space, a dude in the city,

I was shocked because obviously the story of what you would

experience in the south to the north,

I thought it would only be better.

But I certainly got a real education, you know,

about like whatever that looks like to be in my skin.

- [Narrator] The world around him

and the violence that might be waiting

there felt unpredictable.

Hayes began focusing on what was in

his control, using his time to do what he wanted to do.

Writing offered a world where he could feel free, alone.

- I think from a very early age, even in South Carolina,

people thought there was something unusual about me.

So my family thought it, but they sorta just was like, okay,

whatever. But certainly in school, I mean my art teacher,

my English teacher, my basketball coach.

So I always felt like through a long period,

somewhat like walled off from like real facts.

No one knew that I was a poet except for like one English

teacher in high school.

'Cause it was always very secret.

It was just a thing where I like to not have any other kind

of like pressures on it.

- [Narrator] Those who knew Hayes back then

saw a gifted athlete and an aspiring artist,

a future painter or pro bowl player rather than a poet.

And when Hayes left for Coker College in South Carolina,

it was on a full scholarship as an All-American athlete.

Writing was still his private joy,

but an English professor, impressed by his poetry,

encouraged him to pursue it further.

So he applied for a master's in creative writing at the

University of Pittsburgh.

Once there, he kept writing privately,

still protecting his inner world, still counting time.

- I think my core self is probably like, you know,

people aren't going to get any of this.

I feel this longing, this melancholy.

So when I say to you,

like my mother thinks I'm quiet and lots of my relatives are

always shocked. You know, if they,

if they see something like this and they see me talking,

like I've never had that many words with Terrence.

So I was listening and observing.

- [Narrator] But Hayes thrived in spaces where

he felt understood.

The literary retreat Cave Canem was one of them.

A sanctuary for Black American poets.

This was where Hayes began to feel less alone in 1996.

- Certainly I've benefited from that space for so many

reasons. Like it totally put me at ease.

It made me feel that I wasn't totally an alien or a freak of

nature, which is how I've always felt.

And sometimes, still feel like that.

But that space of my guard being down,

was also because it was just weird black people.

Not only because there weren't any like kind of normal


but because it was a very like particular,

unusual, and really talented group of writers and poets,

it was really important for me to see that that at that age.

- [Narrator] There Hayes had found his people,

and eventually his person, fellow poet, Yona Harvey.

The two kept in touch long distance and were soon married.

Children followed, daughter Ua in 1999 and a son Aaron,

four years later.

The couple had twin lives writing and teaching in

Pittsburgh. But the more time passed,

the more Hayes pressured himself to achieve.

Time was of the essence.

And he was achieving, writing five books of poetry and

receiving widespread recognition during his tenure in

Pittsburgh. The prestigious Whiting Award in 1999,

the National Poetry Series in 2001, and

a National Book Award

in 2010.

- I've had success being like something like a perfectionist

of being something like an obsessive with, with work.

That's why I'm always alone,

'cause I'm always like I can only think about poems.

You know,

my mother thinks I'm super quiet because we don't talk about

poems. So if you're not going to get me to talk about music,

poetry, you know, movies,

sometimes I'm just not going to save very much.

So I just find myself not having a lot of people that I want

to talk to. You know what I mean?

- [Narrator] But his success was turning him

into a local celebrity with growing international acclaim.

It was inviting attention he'd never fully planned for or

wanted. When Hayes and Yona Harvey's marriage ended after

nearly two decades,

he moved to New York city in search of anonymity.

Once again, he was alone with more time for his poems.

- I'm essentially a very much a loner.

All of my relationships, my marriage,

everything comes out of the fact that I'm just a person who

likes to be by himself for long, long periods of time.

- [Narrator] And while Terrance Hayes's need for

solitude and creative freedom has led to great success

as a poet,

there have been consequences despite his efforts to split

his time between Pittsburgh and New York.

He's now painfully that his own son will recall the ways in

which he was absent.

- And I thought like, you know, I can get there any time.

You'll certainly see any more than I saw my dad.

So divorce or not, it won't be a big deal.

But I think it has been.

My problem was I decided to make myself a poem.

It made me sweat and private selfishly.

It made me bleed, bleep and weep for health.

As a poem, I can show my children,

the man I dreamed I was.

My mother and fathers.

My half-brothers,

the lovers I lost.

Just morning as a poem.

I asked myself if I was going to weep today.

- [Narrator] Terrance Hayes has come to understand that

when confronting his own wounds or

those he may have caused others,

the potential for discomfort is worth the emotional honesty.

- I think like the truth is the truth.

And so, you want to get to the place where

something you want to share, not something you want to hide.

Oh, I still think like, of course I could get hit by a car.

I could die in a wreck going back,

but that, I'm so secure thinking like that,

that thinking that I actually could have 20 years,

is like a whole other way of thinking.

- [Narrator] Like all of us,

Terrance Hayes doesn't know what the future holds,

but he does know that it will be best lived in an honest

search for truth.

About himself, about the world, and as ever,

time is of the essence.

(piano music)

(clarinet playing)

- [Narrator] Growing up on the south side of Chicago,

Anthony McGill's family instilled in him

a belief in limitless possibilities.

- If you're never told that you can't do something

and you're allowed to like, explore the world and find out

what, maybe, is your talent and is your gift.

And not more importantly,

your interest.

Your imagination of what you could possibly be

does not have a ceiling on it.

- [Narrator] As it turns out,

tenaciousness runs in the McGill family.

Born 1979, Anthony was raised by two gentle,

but strict public school teachers.

Ira Carol and DeMar McGill, Sr. surrounded their family with

art and music.

His father an amateur flutist would eventually leave

teaching and become Chicago's deputy fire commissioner.

- What I saw in my parents was

a work ethic

that was very high,

and an attitude ethic

about the world,

which they believe and believe to this day is very important

in the pursuit of things.

If I look at a percentage of what my success as a musician

is as a person,

I wonder what percentage I would give my parents.

I'd probably give them

90% or something

or maybe more.

- [Narrator] Anthony's brother DeMar, Jr. was seven

when he found his father's flute in a closet and began


At nine Anthony followed suit on the clarinet.

When his first choice of wind instrument,

the saxophone, proved too large for him.

By age 12,

the brothers were playing with the Chicago Youth Orchestra.

In 1994,

Anthony was 14 and DeMar was studying

at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia

when they were invited to play Saint-Saens Tarantella

on the PBS show Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.

After following his brother

through the Curtis Institute of Music

McGill joined the Cincinnati Symphony as

Associate Principal Clarinet.

Then became Principal Clarinet of the

Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

When he joined the New York Philharmonic in 2014,

he was the first African-American Principal in the

organization's 179 year history.

And he took over from the, by then, legendary

Stanley Drucker who had played with

the orchestra for 61 years.

But attaining this vaulted position didn't come easy.

He had to audition several times before he got the job.

What eventually convinced the New York Phil

that he was their guy was,

at least in part, McGill's technical prowess

and emotional depth.

Anthony McGill's playing reflects

his day-to-day lived experiences.

He's at his best in the moment and performance toying with

tempo, tone, and color.

(clarinet playing)

(clarinet playing)

(clarinet playing)

(clarinet playing)

(clarinet playing)

(clarinet playing)

(clarinet playing)

(clarinet playing)

- Every experience, every interaction, every thing I do,

every book I read, every conversation I have,

all of it, I'm absorbing,

just kind of experiencing this, right?

And all of that is going to be,

and sometimes I like to use that actively in,

you know, how I approach music,

from an intellectual standpoint or how I feel music.

What I'm experiencing in every way.

The sounds I hear.

The things I love.

Those great experiences,

the sad experiences, the pain, the agony, whatever it is,

it's all going into here, which, you know,

when I'm performing or when I'm playing music will

probably show up somewhere.

(clarinet and piano play)

(clarinet and piano play)

(clarinet and piano play)

(clarinet and piano play)

(clarinet and piano play)

(clarinet and piano play)

(clarinet and piano play)

(clarinet and piano play)

(clarinet and piano play)

- [Narrator] Yet unlike many of his colleagues,

most notably string players,

McGill is not creating this extraordinary music on a

centuries, old priceless antique.

- No, they're just, just clarinets.

Well, the clarinet specifically, you know, it's a,

it's a band instrument.

It's a wind band instrument.

It's one of the spitting instruments.

You blow and you spit in it.

That's not exactly like the height of refinement,

you know, as far as the quality.

So that's one of the reasons why they don't really

appreciate because you know,

like with all of that air blowing and whatever,

it's like nature in there and it erodes.

And so it doesn't preserve itself that well.

(clarinet playing)

(clarinet playing)

(clarinet playing)

- [Narrator] And though he doesn't give them names.

McGill does form close relationships with his instruments.

He tinkers with the reads and other moving parts,

all searching for a more beautiful sound.

(clarinet playing)

(clarinet playing)

(clarinet playing)

(clarinet playing)

(clarinet playing)

(clarinet playing)

(clarinet playing)

(clarinet playing)

Anthony McGill also forms close relationships with other


particularly with those just starting out.

In 2019, the Julliard school appointed him

artistic director of its music advancement program,

where he and conductors such as Simon Rattle,

mentor students from a wide range of backgrounds.

Through the music, these students learn to connect

with the world around them.

They learn about their obligations to the group,

as well as to time, rhythm, and space.

- [McGill] When I see a kid who was not able to like,

look me in the eye was like,

when I first started hearing them play in a group,

was almost like cowering from the world.

You know, scared of the world and to see them speak up

and be proud and communicate.

In a way that I think music helped them to,

because they got pride in doing that thing.

But also you learn a lot of skills that help you express


(orchestra playing)

(orchestra playing)

(orchestra playing)

(orchestra playing)

(orchestra playing)

- [Narrator] McGill views an orchestra as

a metaphor for community.

100 plus individuals subverting their feelings

in favor of one goal, a great performance.

The utopian vision, to be sure,

but something to always strive for.

- [McGill] Playing in a symphony orchestra is

an interesting experience, because you know,

you do have so many different personality types

in an orchestra.

So if we're on the orchestra stage together

and we believe

that those people over there,

the bassists,

are the terrible ones

that are creating the bad play, playing all the bad notes.

Or we think that, "Oh no, we're the violins.

And we are superior to those other people because they play

those instruments."

And it becomes a competition instead of a concert.

When the competition gets so unfairly balanced

and rigged

towards the violins

or towards the trumpets.

Then it becomes very difficult to play that concert


And when things work

you know, in our cities, in our communities,

they work, because first of all,

we understand that we are the same.

And when I have felt that kind of peak experience

as a musician.

It feels as though

you as a human,

like you become a part of this organism

of energy, of sound,

of all of those things that comes together.

That brings a feeling of

ecstasy to you.

You know, the chills,

it's the thing,

it's the whatever.

And you can kind of feel it like being transferred around

you, with all of the other players,

into the audience, and back after the performance.

- [Narrator] Perhaps due to his family successes,

Anthony McGill believes the change can happen.

One person at a time.

- I was sitting around a room with some young students

recently in a performing residency somewhere.

And one of them said, "What do you do about all the,

those barriers in the world?

It's difficult because of the people are putting these

barriers in front of me."

And I said,

"If you think of the world is like being a space where there

are a lot of people that don't want you to succeed.

The worst thing you could possibly do

is believe them.

Is agree with them,

that there's no way you can possibly succeed.

And that you don't deserve to."

And so, that's what I mean by success.

(orchestra performing)

(orchestra performing)

(orchestra performing)

(orchestra performing)

- [Narrator] Anthony McGill is proof that to excel,

talent and dedication may not be enough.

A tenacious belief that anything is possible is something he

learned at an early age and one that he models every day.

And how he teaches others and

how he makes music every time he

steps onto a stage.

(orchestra performing)

(orchestra performing)

(orchestra performing)

(orchestra performing)

(orchestra performing)

(orchestra performing)

(orchestra performing)

(orchestra performing)


- [Narrator] For more articulate,

find us on social media or on our website,

(electronic music)

- On the next articulate,

feeling like an outsider for much of her life has been a

driving force in much of Deborah Eisenberg's work.

- [Eisenberg] I was always a weirdo.

Also, I came from a suburb where everybody

was blonde, and, you know,

I was a weirdo in the house and I was a weirdo out of the


I mean, I didn't want to be unusual.

I suffered for it,

but there's kind of special status given to the pariah.

And I had that, I feel.

- [Narrator] And Sheila Ehrlichman's bipolar disorder

went undiagnosed for years.

Naming it was just the start of

her journey to self-acceptance.

- If you into the burn,

the pain, the struggle, the vulnerability,

the shame, whatever it is,

you're going to come out refreshed.

Now, that's not easy to believe if you haven't done it.

- [Narrator] I'm Jim Cotter.

Join us for the next articulate.

(electro-classical music)

(electro-classical music)

(electro-classical music)

(electro-classical music)

(electro-classical music)

(electro-classical music)

(electro-classical music)

(electro-classical music)

(electro-classical music)

(electro-classical music)

(electro-classical music)

(electro-classical music)

(electro-classical music)

- [Announcer] Articulate with Jim Cotter

is made possible with generous

funding from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

(percussive music plays)


  • ios
  • apple_tv
  • android
  • roku
  • firetv