The Exceptionals

Billy Collins: The People's Poet - Is one of the best-selling poets alive; Gemma New: In Name & In Nature - The conductor, Gemma New, has followed opportunity around the world; Ming Peiffer: Not A Usual Girl - Award-winning writer Ming Peiffer forges works for stage and screen that deconstruct her own observations and experiences of life today.

AIRED: March 06, 2020 | 0:26:46

(low electronic music)

- Welcome to Articulate,

where some of the world's greatest creative minds

help us explore the human condition.

(upbeat strings music)

I'm Jim Cotter, and on this episode, The Exceptionals,

Billy Collins is one of the best-selling poets alive,

perhaps because his works effortlessly magnify

the small details that make life worth living.

- Look around, you get this!

Dig it!

- [Jim] The conductor Gemma New has followed opportunity

around the world, as Tori Marchiony reports.

A decade in, she's finally arrived.

- A lot of it is soul searching.

And, and seeing what kind of person you are most naturally,

you, you know, strengths and weaknesses,

and also who you want to be.

And start to grow in that direction.

- [Jim] And the award-winning writer Ming Peiffer

forges work for stage and screen

that deconstruct her own observations and experiences

of life today.

Sometimes that means embracing an unhappy ending.

- I'm angry, this piece is angry,

and I don't feel like I should apologize for that.

- [Jim] That's all ahead on Articulate.

(upbeat music)

- [Billy] You could be the man

I held the door for this morning,

at the bank or post office,

or the one who wrapped my speckled fish.

You could be someone I passed on the street,

or the face behind the wheel of an oncoming car.

The sunlight flashes off your windshield

and when I look up into the small, posted mirror,

I watch you diminish,

my echo,

my twin,

and vanish around a curve

in this whip of a road

we cannot help traveling together.

(upbeat funk music)

- [Jim] Billy Collins is America's most popular,

most widely-read poet,

but each time he sits down to write,

he's not thinking of a big audience.

He's imagining a single friendly reader,

also sitting comfortably in happy anticipation.

- I feel like each person is getting ready to be something,

and I feel that I'm ready to be delighted.

I'm not delighted all the time. That would be insane.

But I'm ready to be delighted.

- [Jim] And there's been much delight in his 78 years.

Collins is a former U.S. Poet Laureate

whose books sell in quantities

that most other living poets would die for.

Happily retired from teaching, he now lives in Florida

with his long-time companion and fellow poet,

Suzannah Gilman, whom he recently married.

He still writes, but it's clear

that Billy Collins the person is not the same

as Billy Collins the poet.

- Persona is like a filtered-down version

of myself,

and a lot of is, a lot of it is, a lot of it has to be

kind of rinsed out before you get this kind of pure form

of the persona who is, ah, really like Emerson says,

a kind of transparent eyeball.

He's just an observing person, almost always in the present.

- Okay, but, but then conversely...

- Yeah.

- I really think that writing

is an act of love for strangers.

You're, you are, you are giving of yourself

to somebody you've never met.

- Well, that's very nice of you to say that.

I think it's more like, I, I think the poem

is more like bait to get strangers to love you.

To, to, it's a, it's an act of seduction.

And, and reader manipulation.

- You cynical, cynical man.

(Collins laughs)

- I know.

Can we have both?

- If you'll take it, I'll give you both.

- Sold.

(calm guitar music)

- [Jim] Like the man himself,

Collins's work is candid and open, but at four years old,

he was, he says, the world's youngest phony.

He would memorize books, hoping to trick his parents

and their friends into thinking that he could already read.

Only long after he actually learned to read did he realize

what he'd lost.

- "First Reader".

"I could see them standing politely

on the wide pages that I was still learning to turn.

Jane in a blue jumper,

Dick with his crayon-brown hair,

playing with a ball or exploring the cosmos

of the backyard.

Unaware they are the first characters,

the boy and girl who begin fiction.

Beyond the simple illustration of their neighborhood,

other protagonists were waiting in a huddle.

Frightening Heathcliff, frightened Pip,

Nick Adams carrying a fishing rod,

Emma Bovary riding into Rouen.

But I would read about the perfect boy and his sister,

even before I would read about Adam and Eve,

garden and gate, and before I heard the name Gutenberg,

the type of their simple talk was moving

into my focusing eyes.

It was always Saturday, and he and she

were always pointing at something

and shouting 'Look!'

Pointing at the dog, the bicycle,

or at their father as he pushed a hand-mower over the lawn.

Waving at aproned mother framed in the kitchen doorway.

Pointing toward the sky, pointing at each other.

They wanted us to look, but we had looked already,

seen the shaded lawn, the wagon, the postman.

We had seen the dog walked, watered and fed the animal,

and now it was time to discover

the infinite clicking permutations

of the alphabet's small and capital letters,

alphabetical ourselves in the rows of classroom desks.

We were forgetting how to look, learning how to read."

(gentle guitar music)

- [Jim] Collins was not just an early reader,

but also an early writer.

He penned his first poem at ten,

peering out his parents' car window at a sailboat

on New York's East River.

In the front seat of the car that day were two people

who would shape him in very different ways.

- If you take the, the twin fonts of my parents

and how they're tributaries that lead to me,

it's part of my development as a poet,

really feeds into that,

because when I first was writing poetry, at least,

I was writing, it was kind of quick, jokey, cynical.

It's, uh, wise guy kind of cynicism where the poem

just kind of falls on itself

and it, it has, it has a showoffy click to it.

That's my father, 'cause he was full of one-liners

and jokes and, and, and quite cynical,

and I think as I developed as a poet, I let my mother in,

who was full of heart and, ah,

joyous for life and, and

much more capacious in her talking to me.

I think, in a way, I'm, I'm kinda combination of my parents.

- [Jim] Billy Collins remembers his mother

as beautiful, resilient, and in her twenties, adventuresome.

Born in rural Ontario, she disregarded her father's wishes

that she marry the local haberdasher.

Instead, she headed for Toronto, earning a nursing degree,

then began a nomadic existence,

moving from hospital to hospital, city to city,

throughout the United States.

She ended up in New York, where she met Collins's father,

a stylish practical joker who came from a poor family

in Massachusetts and had worked his way up the ranks

of an insurance company.

They were loving parents who both lived into their nineties,

and in one poem, their only child brings them back to life.

- So, this is, uh, this actually happened.

At least the first part.

"No Time".

"In a rush this weekday morning,

I tap the horn

as I speed past the cemetery

where my parents lie buried side by side

under a smooth slab of granite.

Then, all day long I think of him

rising up

to give me that look of knowing disapproval,

while my mother calmly tells him to lie back down."

And that is the two of them in a nutshell.

He would be disapproving, and she would say, "It's okay."

- Let it go. Let it go.

- Let it go.

- Live a little.

(Collins laughs)

- Leave the boy alone.

(subdued harp music)

- [Jim] Resurrecting those who have passed

is not typical for Collins.

He prefers to focus on the here and now.

Unlike his Catholic parents,

he isn't waiting for death to experience heaven.

(subdued harp music)

- I don't believe in an afterlife.

- [Jim] No.

- I mean, when I use mortality, I mean mortality.

I mean, that's the end. I think if I can, you know,

if I can imagine the Creator.

I mean, we, this, again,

this is all presumptuous guesswork, shooting in the dark,

the Creator is saying, "Wait a minute.

"I gave you all this, look around.

"Look at the world you have, you want more?

"You want to be immortal now?

"No, I'm immortal.

"You get this!

"Dig it!"

(subdued harp music)

(birds singing)

(soft chiming music)

(strings music)

(lively orchestral music)

- [Tori] The New Zealand-born conductor Gemma New

is a fresh face on the international concert scene.

Each time she steps to the podium,

it's with a measured confidence and humility

that elicits trust from even the most hallowed orchestras.

Philadelphia, Cleveland, San Francisco, and beyond.

(lively orchestral music)

Wherever New goes, she appears fully composed

and self-possessed,

but this commanding presence wasn't innate.

It was learned through years of trial, error,

and of course, practice.

- We always need to figure out who we are most naturally,

and that personality is the best building block

on which to then find how to be a conductor.

If you try to go up there and pretend to be something else

that you're not, that's not gonna be genuine,

from who you are,

so a lot of it is soul searching,

and seeing what kind of person you are most naturally,

your, you know, strengths and weaknesses

and also who you want to be,

and start to grow in that direction.

- [Tori] New moved to the U.S. just over a decade ago

to study at the prestigious Peabody Institute in Baltimore.

She was already something of a hometown star,

having become chief conductor

at the prominent Christchurch Youth Orchestra

at 19 years old.

Moving across the world showed her just how much

she still had to grow.

- When I first came to the States

I realized what a quiet person I was.

I'm very shy, I had a bit of a stutter,

and I realized I needed to speak more clearly,

and be more calm within myself.

If you speak, ah, calmly and quietly, it does help sometimes

for musicians to listen more carefully,

or audience members.

And I think also it,

being shy is sometimes just being,

having an anxiety about meeting someone new

and hoping that they'll like you and, you know,

and so just realizing that

okay, I need to be comfortable in myself and then

open to meeting this new person and joyful about it.

And warm, rather than having that anxiety

and once I kind of thought about these things,

that it just made, made everything

a little bit more relaxed.

(lively orchestral music)

- [Tori] But relaxation is not New's top priority.

In addition to a busy touring schedule, she's music director

at both the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra in Ontario

and St. Louis Youth Orchestra.

Ahead of every rehearsal she prepares obsessively,

analyzing and memorizing the score

to plan her next interpretation.

(lively orchestral music)

It's all-consuming work, but for New, that's a good thing.

- When I was younger especially,

but I always get this even now,

they say, "Don't work too hard, you'll get burned out."

- [Tori] Mm-hm.

- I've learned that that's actually not really,

for me it doesn't apply too much.

I enjoy working hard for long hours,

and if I don't do that work, I feel so much more stressed.

You know?

So I'd, I'm gonna do as much work as I can,

as I want, and maybe I won't go out for dinner

and relax

too many times in the week,

but it's because I would prefer

to be at my desk and and learning the music,

which I'm really excited to do.

(lively orchestral music)

- [Tori] But music isn't the only thing

New is captivated by.

Growing up, she also loved numbers.

In college, she majored in physics and math,

alongside violin performance.

And even today she's still making space

for the elegant logic of mathematics in her daily work.

- I found that the algebra could be used

to analyze scores, and I started to

create a language, if you will, that

helped me memorize music.

For a conductor to go through a piece in their mind,

you could very easily learn it incorrectly.

So, I found writing this short code,

which I could write in the time of me playing the music

in my head, I could then go back and mark it

and say, "Oh, the flute is playing that solo,

"not the oboe as I had in my mind."

So, I did find it really useful,

and that's what mathematics is,

an application for many life phenomenons.

- [Tori] The countless hours of meticulous,

solitary preparation haven't turned Gemma New

into a lone crusader.

She's a generous collaborator who understands

that the most fruitful relationships are rooted in trust

and an open exchange of ideas.

- You don't say, "I've imagined this thing in my head,

"and it's gonna be perfect for you,"

when I haven't even met you.

Like, I can't do that, so I think of many different ways

in which it could go.

And I'll start with an idea that I think is right,

but the first run-through is a lot of listening

and, and just hearing how the orchestra are doing.

Trying to be sensitive to that,

so then we can come together in harmony.

(dramatic orchestra music)

(audience applauds)

(soft chiming)

(light strings music)

(light piano music)

- [Jim] First a poet, then an actor,

now a writer for both stage and screen,

Ming Peiffer is turning personal tumult

into provocative, award-winning drama.

Her 2018 off-Broadway hit "Usual Girls"

made her the first female Asian-American playwright

ever to be nominated for a Drama Desk Award.

But being mixed race is, for Peiffer,

both a blessing and a curse.

- [Ming] It's this weird thing

where you're simultaneously allowed

to be in all these spaces because you're not,

they can't quite put you anywhere,

but because they can't quite put you anywhere,

you also don't belong anywhere.

- [Jim] Mm-hm.

- So amongst white people, I'm Asian,

amongst Asian people, I'm white.

- [Jim] Peiffer grew up in 1990's Columbus, Ohio

with a Taiwanese mother and a white father.

Her dad was an unsuccessful poet

who struggled with addiction

and regularly subjected the family

to emotional and physical abuse.

Peiffer's mother, on the other hand,

was a positive influence.

She fled poverty in Taiwan

to make a very successful career for herself

as an executive in the fashion world.

An ambitious woman, yes, but not, as Peiffer recalls,

a stereotypical helicopter mom.

- My mom came here with just one suitcase

and, like, 300 bucks, you know?

But she never, it was never in the, like,

"You need to play violin or blah, blah, blah."

I think she was more just, "I want you to succeed

"because this is the whole reason I did this,

"was so you could kind of do this as a jumping-off point."

But I never felt, I think I more put on the pressure

to myself because, because I know what my mom went through,

so I always felt the pressure was self-imposed,

was I have to live up to her legacy and build upon.

- [Jim] Now 32, Ming Peiffer

has already started building an impressive body of work.

In 2012, while living in Shanghai,

she wrote "Pornography For The People",

a play set in China about four individuals

acting out their fantasies on the internet.

Her 2014 play, "I Wrote On Your Wall And Now I Regret It",

continued her exploration of human relations

in cyberspace.

Then, in 2018, she turned inward, mining her own life

for her breakthrough off-Broadway hit, "Usual Girls".

It followed a group of ethnically-diverse,

uninhibited young girls as they navigate

a late-twentieth century culture that, on one hand,

punishes them for being sexually curious,

and on the other, tacitly condones their sexual predators.

- He brought me home that morning.

Bought me a coffee on the way.


Kept saying things like, "Man, I was so drunk last night."

I remember laughing.

When he brought me to my door,

I kissed him on the cheek.

Something about politeness, maybe.

A thank you, for walking me home.

- [Jim] The curtain closes on a solitary weeping figure,

processing her traumas.

No happy endings here, then.

- I wanted people to feel angry.

I wanted them to feel this needs to stop.

I wanted them to feel motivated

to go out in the world and point out these things

and say, "No, that's wrong!"

Because, to all of a sudden put this sheen over it,

this glaze and act like, "Oh, now that we're all

"telling our stories, everything's gonna be hunky-dory."

I just felt was, one, not true.

Two, possibly dangerous.

Three, was not even, that's not how I felt, you know,

and, and I thought a lot about my responsibility

as a storyteller.

Am I supposed to, you know, take care of the audience?

Am I supposed to do that work for them?

And, you know, I went back to, sort of,

the original motivation behind the piece,

which is that I'm angry, this piece is angry,

and I don't feel like I should have to apologize for that.

- [Jim] Speaking out about identity,

as well as sexual experiences, both healthy and otherwise,

is important to Ming Peiffer, and it's keeping her busy.

Among a handful of other film

and television commitments underway,

she's working on a no-holds-barred coming-of-age

television series for the FX Network.

It's drawn from life and what she calls

her incredibly mixed household.

The complicated, often troubled place

that laid the foundation for her success.

- I think because my upbringing was so tumultuous,

and I survived it, I sort of felt like,

you know, things are already.

Like, how much worse can they get?

And so that's why I never was afraid of

moving to New York,

not knowing what was going to come with it.

You know, going and living in Shanghai,

not knowing what was going to come of it.

Maybe even in some sick way, I'm like, I like that.

I like not knowing what's going to happen.

Having an alcoholic parent that's constantly,

you know, you never know, is it a good mood?

Bad mood?

Gonna hit me?

Gonna not?

I think, in maybe some weird way--

- No, I absolutely think you're right.

You seek out uncertainty, and in the process,

you make phenomenal discoveries.

- Yeah, yeah, and so, and I, I guess for me,

I'm like, you know, the only way to grow,

I think, is to kind of put yourself

outside of your comfort zone, and I did that.

(melancholy piano music)

- [Jim] And Ming Peiffer continues

to push the boundaries of her comfort zones,

bringing us along with her to explore

often uncharted, sometimes uncomfortable places,

and come out better for the journey.

(melancholy piano music)

(low electronic music)

For more Articulate, find us on social media

or on our website,

On the next Articulate,

the highly-distinguished musician Esperanza Spalding

does more than just make music.

She's trying to change the world.

- I think, stepping into the work of engaging

and activism as this sort of big umbrella term,

which, hopefully means acting on your impulse

to serve and to help, to not just be angry

'cause stuff's messed up.

- [Jim] Lee Child left his former life behind

to author an unlikely hero, Jack Reacher,

a vagrant vigilante who reaps justice

for the underdog.

Over the course of the past two decades,

Child and Reacher have sold millions of books worldwide.

- There's a passage in one of the Reacher books

where his friend says, "You could have been anything.

"You could have done whatever you wanted."

And Reacher says, "Well, you know,

"I just wanna look after the little guy."

- [Jim] And the award-winning tenor Nicholas Phan

explores the world in song, merging cultures

while uncovering immense value

in all of our differences.

- Ultimately,

I think the greatest

naivete about it

is this idea that anybody is just one thing.

- [Jim] I'm Jim Cotter.

Join us for the next Articulate.

- Hey, friends, are you an Articulate teacher

thinking about bringing something new into your classroom? now offers a wealth of resources

for teachers that we hope you'll consider using

to prompt or extend classroom conversations.

Think of each five to eight minute clip

as a guest appearance by a great creative thinker.

There's Daniel Handler of Lemony Snicket fame

talking about being real for children's sake.

- I actually find it really offensive

when people talk about children

like they're some entirely different creatures.

Which, if it were any other category,

everyone would agree it was monstrous.

- [Jim] The indie singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan

discussing the quiet that descends

after a long productive period,

and the search, again, for song.

- I figure, after 10 bad songs,

you get a good one.

Like, you know, I don't know if that's true.

- [Jim] Choreographer Elizabeth Streb on facing danger

and overcoming fear.

- I think fear is complicated.

It really is about staying in the moment,

and I think the practice of staying in the moment

erases your literal experience of fear

while you're doing this moment,

the next moment, the next moment.

- Plus, so much more.

(upbeat strings music)

- [Narrator] Articulate with Jim Cotter

is made possible with generous funding

from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

(upbeat electronic music)


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