Through the Fire

KT Tunstall: From the Ashes
The Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall realized she was becoming a pop music cliché– on top, but unhappy.;
Pam Tanowitz: Out of the Shadows
Pam Tanowitz is among the finest choreographers in modern dance.
Natasha Trethewey’s Redemption
Natasha Trethewey coped with the tragedies of her young life by turning them into exceptional poetry.

AIRED: January 24, 2020 | 0:26:47

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I'm Jim Cotter, and on this episode, Through the Fire.

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The scholar singer-songwriter KT Tunstall

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- [Jim] Pam Tanowitz is among the finest choreographers

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keep trying to make the work.

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- [Jim] And Natasha Tretheway coped with the tragedies

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without those things.

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

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♪ Woo-Hoo, woo-hoo (clapping rhythmically)

♪ Woo-hoo, woo-hoo

♪ Woo-hoo (audience cheering)

♪ Woo-Hoo, woo-hoo, woo-hoo, woo-hoo ♪

♪ Well my heart knows me better than I know myself ♪

♪ So I'm gonna let it do all the talking ♪

- [Tori] The Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall

has outlasted what many others have not,

a couple of all pervasive international hit songs.

♪ Suddenly I see, suddenly I see, ♪

♪ This is what I wanna be

♪ Suddenly I see, suddenly I see ♪

But by pop standards, Tunstall was a late bloomer.

She signed her first record deal at 29,

and success quickly followed.

So fast, in fact, that there was little time to process

that she was now both a product and a boss.

- I hadn't thought about that stuff,

like just literally spent pretty much 15 years

with my head down, just writing songs,

and busking and playing,

and hanging out with other musicians,

so it was kind of weird to suddenly be the bride.

I was like, whoa, hang on a minute.

- [Tori] Over the course of the next 15 years

and five more albums, Tunstall has become

much more comfortable holding the reigns

using music to express her inner self,

but it's taken a long time to figure out

who exactly that is.

At less than three weeks old, she was adopted

by the Tunstalls, an upper-middle class family

who nurtured her natural gift for music,

but didn't share it.

- There's definitely no singing talent

in my adopted family.

This is the genetic product of my biological

mother and father making a larynx together,

and that's made up of what they were made up of,

and apparently my biological father

had a fantastic singing voice.

- [Tori] Her biological father died before they met,

but she connected with her biological mother in 1998,

and from moment one, it was obvious they were of a piece.

- She's super feisty,

and I think we share being really feisty and cheeky,

but also being super sensitive.

I think we're both similar in that way,

and we have the same freckles and stuff.

It's funny.

And we kind of, you can tell that we're related,

and that is nice.

It's nice to see your biology in someone else.

- [Tori] KT Tunstall's path to self-understanding

has been long, arduous, and was jump-started in 2012

by a meltdown that ended her marriage

and saw her move continents.

Things fell apart when her adoptive father, David,

died after a long illness.

All at once, Tunstall was overcome

with the profound realization that life is brief

and that she was living in the wrong one.

- There I was with all the things that I'd hoped to have.

Married, big houses everywhere, cars,

you know, money in the bank,

and I was totally miserable.

I was depressed.

I was like, wow, I've turned into a complete

rock and roll cliche of being that person

who's ended up miserable with everything.

But you know, the soul is dying.

And so my dad passing was a really amazing gift

of being woken up to my own situation

and really turning the torch on myself

to see how I was.

So I got out of my marriage, sold everything I owned

and moved to California.

- [Tori] Tunstall's 2013 album,

Invisible Empires/Crescent Moon, offers an intimate view

of the songwriter's tumultuous transition,

and has been hailed as some of her finest work.

♪ Oh, I want to burn this house ♪

♪ I know I wanna jump into the fire ♪

♪ Oh, I gotta tear them down

♪ The pinnacles of my invisible empire ♪

On settling in Venice Beach, Tunstall began

composing for film, even earning a coveted fellowship

from the Sundance Film Institute's composer's lab

at George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch in northern California.

But she wasn't just evolving artistically,

she also changed profoundly as a person,

and today, Tunstall has come to realize that fame

is a poor substitute for love.

- I was looking for something

in appreciation from strangers,

and now I really understand that actually

the healthy aspect of that relationship is connection,

of just connecting with people, and sharing with people.

And that's really rewarding.

I don't look for love, personal fulfillment and love,

in that space now, it's really about giving

rather than receiving.

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Thank you so much! Cheers!

- [Tori] Now 44, KT Tunstall is, for the first time,

planning ahead.

Next up, she'll turn her hand to directing,

acting, film scores, and musical theater projects.

- I always was really paranoid that I hate the idea

of knowing what was coming next.

And there's always an aspect of that,

with this, which I love, is the unknown,

and the unexpected.

But there's a really great path ahead

that, if that's what happens, then that's great.

♪ Suddenly I see, suddenly I see ♪

♪ This is what I wanna be

♪ Suddenly I see, suddenly I see ♪

♪ Why the hell it means so much to see ♪

♪ This is what I wanna be

♪ Suddenly I see

♪ Why the hell it means so much to me ♪

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- [Jim] Pam Tanowitz found success as a choreographer

in her 40s, but though late bloomers embody the power

of obsessive dedication and hard work,

she isn't ready to rest on her laurels just yet.

For many creators, an opening night is a joyous occasion.

Months of hard work finally become tangible.

Fans and friends gather to celebrate,

and the visionary at last gets to sit back, relax,

and enjoy what they've made,

but not for Tanowitz.

- I won't watch my dances in an audience.

That does not happen.

I'm in the back, in the wings, throwing up emotionally

in the corner.

I can't bear to watch it.

It takes me a long time--

- [Jim] Performance is actually her least favorite part

of the entire process.

- It's like I spend all this time working,

and all I care about is the dance

and making the best dance that I can make

at that time, at that moment in time,

but it's hard for me to receive it.

All I see are failures.

All I see is what went wrong.

- [Jim] But plenty of people who know about these things

are finding very little wrong with Tanowitz's work.

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Despite the deluge of praise of these last few years,

most of Pam Tanowitz's development took place

in quiet obscurity.

She earned a BFA in dance from Ohio State University,

then an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College

where she was mentored by the famously determined

and genre-defining choreographer, Viola Farber-Slayton.

After graduation, Tanowitz moved to New York

where her journey to self-realization

and then prominence, was gradual, yet deliberate.

- I was working everyday, ten to six,

rehearsing six to nine on the weekends,

and then trying to take care of a baby,

and all kinds of stuff.

- Were you doing it because you had to do it,

or were you doing it because there was

you know, a plan?

- I had no plan.

All I wanted to do was make dances.

And I also knew that I needed money,

and I needed health insurance.

And I also wanted to make what I wanted to make.

So I didn't want to not have a job

and then have to go run around teaching and scrambling

for things that I didn't want to do.

I felt like this was actually a better plan,

to have a day job, and then just make the dance

I wanted to make, and I just kept doing it, you know?

And I did it for a really long time, so.

- And then when it happened, when it started

to look like people were getting you?

- Well, I started using up all my vacation days

for going to make dances and all this stuff

and I would leave early, and do all different,

it was hard to keep the job,

and that's when my boss and my dear friend

said we gotta talk.

You don't need to be here anymore.

You're hiding.

You need to do this thing.

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- [Jim] Much of Pam Tanowitz's choreography

is informed by ballet, but because her dancers

don't wear point shoes, the work remains firmly modern.

- I like to take the air out of certain ballet steps

and get them more grounded.

Actually, one of the most important things

about my work is those traditional steps

but done with the tension of the bare foot.

Doing a pas de chat in bare feet, and landing

and the accent is on the down, not the up,

and you can feel it,

so it looks familiar, but it's a little off.

You know, it's just a different accent.

- [Jim] Tanowitz is not using choreography

to process her deepest emotions,

yet each piece does inevitably still end up

feeling intensely personal.

- My work is much more objective,

so there is a separation.

But I also think just making work is personal,

so even if it's not an obvious,

everything's exposing, really.

I mean, to make stuff and put it on stage is humiliating.

I mean, it really can be,

and I have humiliated myself,

and the thing that's horrible about it

is that you don't even know till it's the show,

or the dress rehearsal.

You could think you're doing this whole thing,

and it's like working, and it's happening,

and then you put it on the stage,

and you're like, wow, okay.

- [Jim] In 2012, Tanowitz's Blue Ballet garnered

a great deal of attention, but for all the wrong reasons.

- That's the piece I realized it's not enough

to have a good idea to make a dance

in your head, it's not enough.

You need both.

You need your heart and your head,

and it has to come together.

- [Jim] Happily, the experience didn't teach Tanowitz

to fear risk, and she's made some of her finest pieces

since that 2012 flop.

Among her most celebrated, a collaboration

with Simone Dinnerstein,

on the pianist's breakthrough piece,

Bach's Goldberg Variations.

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Tanowitz followed up the Goldberg Variations

with two more rousing successes,

Blueprint, featuring music by Pulitzer Prize

winning composer Caroline Shaw,

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and Four Quartets, an interpretation of TS Eliot's poem

of the same name, with music by the world-renowned

Finnish composer, Kaija Saariaho.

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But despite the acclaim, today Pam Tanowitz is doing

as the poet Rudyard Kipling described in If,

"meeting with triumph and disaster,

"and treating those two imposters just the same."

- That's exactly what I try to do,

is I try to keep them even so you stay grounded

and you just keep trying to make the work.

- [Jim] But for Tanowitz, the work isn't like

the old day job.

It is vocational, all-consuming, a way to create

meaning through motion.

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Natasha Tretheway is a Pulitzer Prize winner

and a two-time US Poet Laureate.

She believes that poetry is the most powerful literary form,

calling it an elegant envelope for language.

- It is a smaller space,

a smaller space to move around in,

which presents a kind of vice grip,

a kind of pressure that I think

when you put that kind of pressure on the language

to do more, and to say more with less space,

the result can be quite memorable.

- [Jim] And she's been making memorable poetry

for better than three decades.

Tretheway was born in 1966 in Gulfport, Mississippi.

Her newlywed parents, Gwendolyn and Eric,

lived illegally as husband and wife until 1967

when the Supreme Court struck down all laws

banning interracial marriage,

but not long after this ruling, they separated.

Early on, the young Natasha had to figure out

how to navigate the world as a child of divorce

at a time when it wasn't yet so common,

and growing up biracial in a very racially divided place,

yet Tretheway doesn't hold her childhood against the South.

- I am of that place, that soil,

that climate, that history.

To not love the native land is to not have

a part of self-love, I think,

because it is the place that made me.

I'm not sure who I would be

without my mother's death

and without having been born in the deep South.

There's no me now as I know me

without those things.

- [Jim] In 1985 at age 40, Tretheway's mother,

Gwendolyn Turnbough, was murdered

by her second ex-husband, Joel Grimmette.

This was not his first act of violence against her.

He'd just been released from prison where he'd spent

12 months for a previous attempt on her life.

The tragedy left Tretheway with what she calls

a wound that with never heal.

- Imperatives For Carrying On in the Aftermath.

"Do not hang your head or clench your fist

"when even your friend, after hearing the story,

"says 'my mother would never put up with that.

"Fight the urge to rattle off statistics

"that more often, a woman who chooses to leave

"is then murdered.

"The hundredth time your father says,

"'But she hated violence, why would she marry

"a guy like that?'

"Don't waste your breath explaining again

"how abusers wait, are patient, that they don't beat you

"on the first date, sometimes not even the first few years

"of a marriage.

"Keep an impassive face whenever you hear stand by your man,

"and let go your rage when you recall those words

"were advice given your mother.

"Try to forget the first trial, before she was dead,

"when the charge was only attempted murder.

"Don't belabor the thinking or the sentence

"that allowed her ex-husband's release a year later

"or the juror who said, 'It's a domestic issue,

"'they should work it out themselves.'

"Just breathe when, after you read your poems about grief

"a woman asks, 'Do you think your mother was weak for men?

"Learn to ignore subtext.

"Imagine a thought cloud above your head,

"dark and heavy, with the words you cannot say.

"Let silence rain down.

"Remember you were told by your famous professor

"that You should write about something else.

"Unburden yourself of the death of your mother

"and just pour your heart out in the poems.

"Ask yourself what's in your heart,

"that reliquary blood locket and seed bed,

"and contend with what it means.

"The folks saying you learned from a Korean poet in Seoul,

"that one does not bury the mother's body in the ground,

"but in the chest, or, like you, you carry her corpse

"on your back."

- How good are you at silence?

How good are you at allowing silence to communicate?

- I hope I'm really good at it,

because poems are made of silence

as much as they're made of words.

- But this idea that you articulate in this poem

that you're just not gonna comment when spoken to

by the ignorant,

that's really hard.

- Mm-hmm, it is really hard.

And I suppose I have stayed silent

for a very long time, and this poem

is breaking that silence.

I mean, the poem very much came for me

as a way to respond to all of those people

all of those years.

So I guess I've kept it so when I finally break my silence

even to the world, it has to be in the tight

and dense, compressed, elegant language of a poem,

with all of its built-in silences.

- [Jim] Natasha Tretheway is now older than her mother was

when she died, and her former stepfather will soon

be released from prison, yet somehow she still hasn't

given up on the idea of justice being

about more than revenge.

- I believe in restorative justice.

And what that means is, as much as the man who's being

released from prison very soon

did something unthinkable

I remind myself

that there was a time

that he was an innocent,

that he was a child,

that he came into this world

and something so terrible happened to him

something so disfiguring

of his own soul

that it made him capable of doing a monstrous thing.

There's no justice for him either, I suppose.

"Just My Imagination"

Letter to Inmate #271847, Convicted of Murder, 1985.

"When I heard you might get out,

"I was driving through the Delta,

"rain pounding my windshield, the sun angled and bright

"beneath dark clouds, familiar weather,

"what I'd learned long ago to call

"the devil beating his wife.

"I was listening to two things at once,

"an old song on the radio, and on the phone

"a woman from Victim's Services, her voice solicitous,

"slow, as if she were speaking to a child.

"I was back in the state I still call home,

"headed south on Highway 49, trying to resurrect my mother

"in the landscape of childhood,

"as The Temptations were singing her song,

"the one she'd played over, and over,

"our last year in Mississippi, 1971,

"that summer before we moved to the city

"that would lead us soon to you.

"It wast 'Just My Imagination' and I could see her again,

"her back to me, swaying over the ironing board,

"the iron's steel plate catching the sun

"and holding it there.

"For a moment, I was who I'd been before,

"the joyful daughter of my young mother

"until the woman on the phone said your name,

"telling me I must write the parole board a letter.

"I was again stepdaughter, daughter of sorrow,

"daughter of the murdered woman.

"This is how the past interrupts our lives,

"all of it entering the same doorway

"like the hole in the trunk of my neighbor's tree,

"at once a natural shelter, haven for small creatures,

"but also evidence of injury and entrance for decay.

"When I saw it, I thought of how, as a child,

"I'd have chosen it for play.

"A place to crawl inside and hide,

"and when I thought of hiding I could not help

"but think of you.

"What does it mean to be safe in the world?

"Everywhere I go she is with me, my long dead mother.

"Is there nowhere I might go

"and not find you there too?"

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On the next Articulate,

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