- Tori Marchiony profiles former U.K. Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion. He’s five decades in and still finding room to grow.
- Among the most highly regarded jazz pianists of his time, Vijay Iyer has made his instrument of choice an instrument of discovery.
- Susan Choi’s books reflect her skepticism of authority. As Tori Marchiony reports, the National Book Award-winning author even questions the credibility of the characters she creates.
Sir Andrew Motion is a preeminent poet, novelist, and biographer. He served as the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1999 to 2009 and received a knighthood in 2009.
Motion was born in London in 1952. He attended Oxford University, where he studied with W.H. Auden. He taught English at the University of Hull, where he met another illustrious poet, Philip Larkin. His 1993 biography of Larkin won the Whitbread Prize for Biography.
Known for his lyrical yet understated narrative verse, Motion began publishing poems while at Oxford, and released his first of nearly twenty collections in 1978. In 1999, he was named Poet Laureate of the UK, following in the footsteps of such luminaries as William Wordsworth, Lord Tennyson, and Ted Hughes. Unlike his predecessors, who served lifelong terms, Motion announced he would take the post for only a decade, during which time he played an active role in British cultural life.
While laureate, he founded the Poetry Archive, an online archive of poets reciting their own work. He has taught poetry at Johns Hopkins University since 2016.
Susan Choi is an admired fiction writer and a lecturer of English at Yale University. Her novels explore themes of identity and power structures.
Choi was born in Indiana to a Korean father and an American Jewish mother. She moved to Houston, TX, after their divorce. She earned a BA in literature at Yale and an MFA at Cornell University, then worked as a fact checker for The New Yorker. Her first novel, The Foreign Student (1998), won an Asian-American Literary Award. Her second novel, American Woman (2003), which fictionalized the story of heiress turned bank robber Patty Hearst, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Her acclaimed fifth book, Trust Exercise (2019), which deconstructed memories of a physical relationship between a teenager and an older man, captured the zeitgeist of the #MeToo movement. It won the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction. Her first book for children, Camp Tiger, was also published in 2019.
Vijay Iyer is a highly regarded jazz pianist and composer. His accolades include a MacArthur “Genius Grant” and a Grammy nomination.
Raised in upstate New York, Iyer is the son of Indian Tamil immigrants. He was trained in violin and piano from an early age, but initially pursued a career in science. He completed a BA in mathematics and physics at Yale University and was halfway through a PhD in physics at the University of California, Berkeley, when he changed his focus to the cognitive science of music, earning a PhD in that field in 1998.
Iyer has recorded over twenty critically acclaimed albums. Historicity (2009) received a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Album. In What Language? (2003) began a trio of albums with poet Mike Ladd exploring the war on terror, culminating in Holding It Down (2013), which featured several military veterans. Far From Over with the Vijay Iyer Sextet was named the best jazz album of 2017 by numerous publications. Iyer has also composed music for orchestra and ballet. He is a professor of music at Harvard University.
Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores that which makes us all human, our creativity. I’m Jim Cotter and on this episode “Life’s Work.” Tori Marchiony profiles former UK poet laureate, Sir Andrew Motion. Five decades in, he’s still finding room to grow.
Andrew Motion: I’m very happy to be dissatisfied, and I want right up to the bitter end to feel that the poem I’m going to write tomorrow is better than any poem I’ve written yet.
Among the most highly regarded jazz pianists of his time, Vijay Iyer has made his instrument of choice. An instrument of discovery.
Vijay Iyer: Most of who I am as an artist is the child who was exploring and experimenting and banging on the piano and feeling it vibrate.
And Susan Choi’s books reflect her skepticism of authority. As Tori Marchiony reports that 2019 National Book Award winner, even questions the credibility of characters she’s created.
Susan Choi: I’ve been interested in a lot of different sort of moments in history that I think are often about a crisis in the way power is being used.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
Andrew Motion is a seasoned protector of poetry. Today he lives in Baltimore Maryland, but the first six decades of his life were spent in his native England, where from 1999 to 2009 he transformed the prestigious role of UK poet laureate. From an honorary lifetime appointment to a short term mission-driven position. But just a few months after leaving the job, Queen Elizabeth the Second gave him a different life long title, a Knighthood. Making him Sir Andrew Motion. During his decade as poet laureate, Motion authored the obligatory verses commemorating royal weddings, funerals, and birthdays, including one widely mocked rap for Prince William’s 21st. But he also put his pen to broader social issues like climate change, homelessness, and labor. Another key achievement was his founding of The Poetry Archive. An online collection of poets reading their own work that’s accessed by millions of users each year. All of this to create a better understanding of poetry’s utility, its value.
Andrew Motion: Usefulness in poetry can be that it crystallizes the present and the way it helps us to understand it once it becomes the past. It can also be useful in inviting you by its nature to stand in somebody else’s shoes. So to see the world from a different point of view in that respect its usefully and innately liberalizing thing I think. So I feel pretty relaxed about the value and usefulness of what I do, but not at all relaxed about the readiness of other people to understand those things unless we’re able to explain this and justify it.
Motion got used to justifying poetry, almost as soon as he discovered it as a preteen. His father was a brewer and a World War Two veteran, an avid outdoorsman with an implicit mistrust of words. Poetry was the young Andrew’s rebellion.
Motion: I think it mattered to me enormously that poems were in those days and in that culture, quite definitely perceived as an effeminate thing to be interested in. In fact that was absolutely for me part of their attraction. And equally and oppositely one of the things I really didn’t like about my father’s world, though I loved the country bits of it, were to do with noise and shitey men and macho behavior and all this. My father was on the spectrum of those things, not of the extreme end, but he certainly knew a lot of people who were quite near the extreme end it seems to me. They’d all fought in the war, they’d all been freaked out by the war, and some more of its ways than others. And possibly some of their sort of wilder extremes of being masculine were to do with that. But you know I was growing up in the 1960s and wanted to grow my hair down to my waist, and did. And then when I had it to grow down to my waist. So there was something about the softening of the boundaries between gender roles, in the air that I had liked very much about the circumstances of… About sort of my generational moment if I could put it like that. And I guess that I’ve always tried to persevere in those ways of thinking about things.
Today, Andrew Motion is perhaps best known for his elegies, his poems of mourning. And though later tragedies would cement his impulse to memorialize, he traces his instinct for this back to his early childhood. At age seven he was sent to Maidwell Hall, a rather Dickensian boarding school a hundred miles from home.
Motion: It was absolutely awful, and it sounds very spoiled to complain about it in the way that I’m now going to because extensively is a mark of sort of a privileged upbringing to go to one of these places. But actually it did a huge amount of damage to me I think. I learned almost nothing because I was frightened for the next four or five years. You can’t learn anything when you are frightened. You can’t take in anything at all. I mean the routine of sort of beatings and punishments and so on, but it’s just… And if it hadn’t been so ghastly it would have been comical. And it was like a sort of an Evelyn Waugh novel gone berserk. So lots of physical violence, quite a lot of mucking about by the masters of us boys. I mean in a way that would get everybody put in prison now. Not learning anything a very long way away from home, not many visits from parents allowed so that two or three absolutely tear-jerking weekends a term where they’d come and take you out for a day and then put you back at night until your out the next day. One of those occasions in which the dread of leaving is always treading on the heels of the pleasure of the thing arriving, you know what I mean?
Motion: And the damage that it did to me, and I suspect in varying degrees to everybody there. Though I have since met one or two people who rather chided me for being so harsh about it to my astonishment. Which I only read as proof of how screwed up it’s made them actually. But what it did for me was to make me feel that life is inherently allegorical. That it’s always and only a matter of saying goodbye. Because that is what it made life like. Well that may be preparation for the grave of a kind, because it’s true that… That is the overall shape of life. But I think it squeezed quite a lot of the joy out of what ought to been the joyous bits of my life. I think it set a pattern of leaving in me, that was, that has been quite destructive for me. Because I think it made me feel that the only way to stay safe was to get out before the other person goes.
When Motion was seventeen, life confirmed this world view when his mother, Catherine was thrown from her horse during an otherwise unremarkable weekend hunt. She was left paralyzed with a head injury that brought her in and out of comas for the next nine years until her death in 1978. Motion has written about her frequently.
At Christmas I ran threw fire in blighty, carrying my old father across my shoulders. My mother too, she followed. You alive alas I could not bring. Flight attendants wear Santa hats or Rudolph ears and keep straight faces during the emergency drills. In the easy weeping that arrives with high altitude, grief is not too powerful a word. I grieve for you and the life left behind. The existence diminishing. I hear the series I fly through crackle like dry clay, and planets squealing on their pivots in deep space. I set my watch five hours behind, eventually, I sleep.
Today the sixty-seven-year-old Andrew Motion has known his mother on the page for longer than he knew her in life. And as he continues to write into the spaces death leaves, he instructs others on how to do the same. Since 2015, he’s taught at Johns Hopkins University, far removed from his once unsettlingly public profile in the UK, where for a decade the tabloids insured his private life was anything but. The country read along as a student accused Motion of sexual harassment, as he was cleared, and his second marriage fell apart. When he formed a new relationship, it was even fodder for the broadsheets. These days Motion and his wife, the linguist Kyeong-Soo Kim, are enjoying life away from the spotlight. It’s much easier to look after all when one isn’t constantly being looked at. In going forward, Motion says he’s content to keep reaching for the unreachable.
Motion: I’m very happy to be dissatisfied, and I want right up to the bitter end to feel that the poem I’m going to write tomorrow is better than any poem I’ve written yet.
The National Book Award winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist Susan Choi refuses to shy away from life’s gray areas. She writes about all things incriminating, questionable, and uncomfortable. Each of her narratives are an interrogation.
Vijay Iyer is one of the most prolific, most celebrated jazz pianists of his generation. The 48-year-old MacArthur genius and Harvard professor has released more than twenty well-received albums. A virtuoso player to be sure, but Iyer is far more interested in the impact of music than its technicalities.
Vijay Iyer: What’s this music feel like, what does it sound like? What does it need to do? How can I shade it as a player, how can I affect the entire musical effect with one note.
If Iyer hadn’t found music irresistible he’d have been a scientist like his sister and his father, who came to the US from India in the 1960s to study pharmacology. Today Iyer believes that music and science are both distinct unique forms of creative problem-solving. But discovering this took time, he was partway through a PhD in physics at UC Berkeley before realizing that his true calling was music.
Iyer: It’s more like the sizes were a detour. For me, that sort of took me down a certain path of inquiry and seeking of certain kinds of knowledge, but in the meantime, I mean music was in my life since I was three years old, and I’m still that kid. You know like most of who I am as an artist is that—It is the child who was exploring and experimenting and banging on the piano and feeling it vibrate.
Growing up in Rochester, New York, Iyer didn’t hear jazz at home. But in his high school library record collection, he discovered Thelonious Monk and other jazz greats. Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Sun Ra, all of whose music rose above the prejudices of their time.
Iyer: What was it that people in that predicament, what black people in the face of oppression and segregation and dispossession sought to do. To share and celebrate and make something beautiful. One up each other and just kind of create something for the future.
Brave yet vulnerable, these musicians were, in Iyer’s view, not just entertainers, but community organizers. Shortly before 9/11, Iyer and Mike Ladd, a poet and hip-hop artist, organized their own creative community, for what would become a trilogy of works responding to the war on terror.
Iyer: So then that project became, speaking of vulnerability, I mean it was really like this emotionally raw meditation on what it is to be American and proud. And not even American, basically to be brown in this phase of American and global history.
“In What Language” finds fear in surveillance in an international airport. “Still Life With Commentator” dives into the swirl of wartime media. “Holding it Down” explores the aftermath of war through the dreams of veterans.
Iyer: We felt like we had to not just make something about the war but make something with veterans. In particularly veterans of color, cause those were the stories that interested us and those that particularly fraught presence in the military, in the context of racialized wars. What’s it mean to find yourself relating more to the enemy than to your superiors.
On his latest record, The Transitory Poems, with fellow pianist Craig Taborn, Iyer pays tribute to some of his more recent influences, including the late pianists and poets Cecil Taylor. Vijay Iyer is constantly stretching, forever pushing himself beyond his limits. But lately, he’s been striving for balance between work and life at home in Harlem with his wife and daughter.
Iyer: There’s always someone who is like, doing more than you. And then you start thinking like, well I should do more you know? And then it’s sorta like almost a virus, like a sort of affliction or something that I’m not doing enough, and that starts to, that’s unhealthy after a while. If it’s just this kind of like fixation on doing more than being you know? So I guess I am just trying to take care of the…
AJC: And was that difficult to contentiously and deliberately say “I am now being me, a person traveling through this life,” versus “me, a person who makes art?”
Iyer: I guess I’d just start asking myself more human questions like what do I want and what do I need? And what is, what is, what are the next like ten years gonna look like for me. Let alone thirty or forty you know? That’s also.. I get to work with people who are thirty years older than me. And that’s humbling and also inspiring and…
AJC: A great example for how it might be to be that age.
Iyer: Yes, so being able to take the long view on things, and to aspire to be as alive, as active, as engaged, as inspired in thirty years, as I was thirty years ago you know? Like that is the real question, and so in order to do that to carry myself there as a being, I have to take care of the being you know?
AJC: Well, we’ll hope we’ll be back here in thirty years talking about just how well you did though. Thank you so much.
Iyer: See you then.
AJC: My pleasure.
Iyer: Thank you.
Susan Choi: I’ve been interested in a lot of different sort of moments in history that I think often are about a crisis in the way power is being used.
Choi’s celebrated 2008 novel, A Person of Interest, explores the subjectivity of truth through a tenured near retirement mathematics professor named Lee, who finds himself caught up I the FBI investigation into a deadly bombing at his university.
(Excerpt from A Person of Interest):
“I’m telling you the truth”, if that’s the case then would you like to take a polygraph Morrison said. The howl in Lee’s ears ebbed away like the tide rushing out. He wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly. “A lie detector test?”, he asked tentatively afraid Morrison might burst out laughing. But the other man’s face showed no tending toward humor. “At this point, your disclosing everything the polygraph can only serve you well.” “A lie detector test implies the person being tested is a suspect,” Lee said after a moment. Despite being on the defensive, he spoke to Morrison admonishingly. He felt offended to his core, at the same time he was still a prisoner of panic. The panic interfered with his indignation, it would soon deplete it.
Choi employs caution and objectivity in her stories. Never laying blame, but presenting multiple points of view to ask questions like, “who should be trusted?” and “who should be held responsible?” But despite the sharp focus in her work today, Susan Choi didn’t always have such a disciplined approach.
Choi: I was really into the texture and experience of writing, mainly because it was so much more fun before, before computers my mom had an old electric typewriter that was really loud, and I would bang away and it made this like deafening racket that was like very, it felt very consequential to be doing that.
Choi held fast to her dream of becoming a writer, even though at first she didn’t know how. But since making her award-winning debut with The Foreign Student in 1988, Choi has found her voice. Consistently writing stories of the salacious, the controversial. A fictionalized re-imagining of Patty Hearst, the publishing heiress turned fugitive, who was kidnapped by a left-wing extremist group in the 1970s. A romantic relationship born in the classroom between a married teacher and a promising student. And in her most recent novel, 2019’s National Book Award-winning Trust Exercise, a woman named Karen revisits memories of a physical relationship with a much older man. She was once flattered by the attention, but as an adult, she sees the violation.
(Excerpt from Trust Exercise):
By contrast with the first time they’d met, when she had felt herself so old but in fact had been so young, Karen now actually was old enough to understand that for Martin, there might have been no story at all. There might have been for this person who’d not merely touched but deformed her, no sensation of contact at all. He might not recognize her, if he did he might not recall a single detail of their past relationship.
Choi: The character of Karen struggles with the fact that she does feel that as a sixteen-year-old, she chose that older man. She wanted that older man’s attention, and at the same time, she wasn’t able to see the whole architecture of power and wasn’t able to see her deep disadvantage in trying to be the partner of this person who was so much older, so much more experienced, so much less sincere than she was. Something about that May-December romance, as it used to be so cutely referred to, spoke to me I think because a large part of my young womanhood was steeped in this idea that an older and more powerful man noticing you was a positive. And I don’t think I ever thought that consciously, but I know that that was an idea that like went straight to the bone for me, and probably lots of other women. I think it’s still true today.
Susan Choi doesn’t simply write to entertain. She forces readers to question power dynamics and authority figures. And though the line between right and wrong can be deceptively clear, she doesn’t claim to have all the answers. But that never stops her from asking some interesting questions.