Power Through Purpose
- John Darnielle has excelled as a front-man, songwriter, and author by overcoming an innately self-destructive personality.
- As a grownup, Elizabeth Acevedo realized that the books she needed as a child still didn’t exist. So she wrote them herself.
- Meg Saligman’s large-scale murals are difficult to grasp close-up. But the stories they tell are in the details.
Elizabeth Acevedo is a celebrated spoken word poet and bestselling author. Her young adult novels explore the interior loves of young Afro-Latinas. They have received numerous accolades, including the 2018 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
Born in New York to Dominican parents, Acevedo began performing as a slam poet in high school. She was a National Slam Champion and performed at Lincoln Center, Madison Square Garden, the Kennedy Center, and South Africa’s State Theatre, among other venues.
She completed a BA in performing arts at George Washington University and an MFA in creative writing at the University of Maryland. While teaching eighth grade English in Prince George’s County, Maryland, she noticed a paucity of books reflecting her students’ background and experiences and set out to write such stories. Her second young adult novel, The Poet X, was a New York Times bestseller and a multiple award winner. Her fourth book, Clap When You Land, was released in May 2020.
John Darnielle is a singer, songwriter, and author, known for his career as frontman and core member of indie rock band the Mountain Goats.
Darnielle began recording as the Mountain Goats in 1991, while studying English at Pitzer College in Claremont, CA, where he was raised. His early albums were marked by a lo-fi sound, with many recorded on Darnielle’s cassette deck boombox. Zopilote Machine (1994) included the song “Going to Georgia,” part of a song cycle of travel and escape. Darnielle’s linked storytelling and lo-fi sound culminated in the landmark albums All Hail West Texas (2002) and Tallahassee (2003). The acclaimed The Sunset Tree (2005) continued the move to a more polished sound and autobiographical songwriting. Subsequent recordings have explored professional wrestling, Goth music, and dungeons & dragons, retaining the band’s simple instrumentation and dark, candid lyrics.
Darnielle is also a successful fiction writer. His first novel, Wolf in White Van (2014), was nominated for a National Book Award.
Meg Saligman is an internationally admired mural artist. Known for her community-centric creation process, she has produced over fifty large-scale public works, in numerous U.S. cities and around the world.
Saligman grew up in Olean, NY, and started painting murals as a teenager. She earned a BA in painting from Washington University in St. Louis in 1987, and began work as a professional muralist in the early 1990s.
Much of Saligman’s work has been completed under the auspices of Philadelphia’s prolific Mural Arts Program, including her best-known work, Common Threads (1998), a monumental painting depicting antique dolls amid local high school students. Her 2001 project Once in a Millennium Moon in Shreveport, LA, was the largest publicly funded mural in the United States at completion. At 42,000 square feet, We Will Not Be Satisfied Until, (2016) a Martin Luther King, Jr., mural in Chattanooga, TN, is among the largest public paintings in the world.
- Art & Design
Welcome to “Articulate”, the show that explores the big ideas behind great creative expression. I’m Jim Cotter and on this episode, power through purpose.
John Darnielle has excelled as a front man, songwriter, and author by overcoming an innately self-destructive personality.
John Darnielle: I view most of my addictive behaviors of my teens and early, early 20s as responses to where I was at then. That’s no longer in my nature.
As a grownup, Elizabeth Acevedo realized that the books she had needed as a child still didn’t exist, so, as Tori Marchione reports, she wrote them herself.
Elizabeth Acevedo: There’s a way that we can say this is the best form that I can depict this emotion and it might not be true, but it is honest.
And the scale of Meg Saligman’s murals is difficult to grasp close up, but the stories they tell are all there in the details.
Meg Saligman: We come into the community and it’s not like we’re placing the art there, we’re finding what is in the community.
That’s all ahead on “Articulate”.
John Darnielle is an indie rock star and a novelist. His band, The Mountain Goats, have been going strong for nearly three decades.
(The Mountain Goats performing “No Children”)
I hope that our few remaining friends
Give up on trying to save us
I hope we come up with a fail-safe plot
To piss off the dumb few that forgave us
I hope the fences we mended
Fall down beneath their own weight
And I hope we hang on past the last exit
I hope it’s already too late
Fans flocked to his candor, his darkness, his depth. A Christian throughout his adult life, biblical references pepper Darnielle’s lyrics. But he isn’t trying to convert anyone to his way of thinking, he’s just turning his imagination to the philosophical possibilities of the universe and doing his best to call it like he sees it.
Darnielle: On most days, because I’m a child of the 20th century, it seems obvious to me that the universe is mechanistic and that any meaning we give to it, we put there to keep ourselves from going mad and from doing monstrous things. We invent a whole framework within which to be our better selves, which is awesome, but I call that God and on the days that I like best, I think it’s just the sky God who pre-exists, who exists before the universe exists, and again, in terms of Jesus’ life, I wanna put scare quotes around it, “sends his son”, okay, but who makes a great sacrifice, who takes on human, I’m gonna get excited about it—
Darnielle: Frailty, who puts on flesh to dwell with us. Sorry. That to me is a beautiful idea ’cause it enables us to imagine ourselves as better than what we know we are on our worst days.
And the 52-year-old Darnielle has seen his own share of bad days. Growing up with his mom and an abusive stepdad in San Luis Obispo, California, the young Darnielle was eager to escape his reality in any way he could. Looking back, he says, his high school years were far from the best of his life.
Darnielle: So, a weird thing about Americans is that they wanna say that being a teenager was the greatest thing in the world, but it is great to say, well, I’m gonna rise or fall on my own merits and nobody really gets to make my decisions for me. Adulthood, that’s huge and people, they tend to miss that.
At age 16, Darnielle landed in the hospital for a nearly fatal dose of prescription meds. Soon after, his birth father helped him move to Portland, Oregon to recover. Instead, the teenager started doing heroin and meth. At 19 he overdosed again. A few months into his recovery, Darnielle’s therapist asked him what exactly he planned to do with his life.
Darnielle: I hadn’t thought about this question and so I said, “I wanna do what you do.” And he said, “Well, when will you do that, ‘cause you can go into a psychiatric nursing program.” And so I did. It was something to do. A lot of my decisions have been accidental.
Darnielle worked as a psychiatric nurse technician for several years, picking up a cocaine habit along the way. During day-long binges, he entertained himself by writing songs and poems, and gradually making art took over from taking drugs.
Darnielle: It’s primal for me almost, something I very much enjoy doing that gives me pleasure all by itself, that I feel like I was made to do, that when I am doing it, I feel useful and I want to feel useful.
(The Mountain Goats performing “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton”)
Jeff and Cyrus believed in their hearts
That they were headed for stage lights and lear jets and fortune and fame
So in script that made prominent use of a pentagram
They stenciled their drumheads and their guitars with their names
And this was how Cyrus got sent off to the school
Where they told him he would never be famous
And this was why Jeff, in the letters he would write to his friend
Helped develop a plan to get even
When you punish a person for dreaming his dream
Don’t expect him to thank or forgive you
The best ever death metal band out of Denton
Will in time both outpace and outlive you
Hail Satan, tonight
Hail sweet prince of all flesh
Hail, hail, hail
In real life, John Darnielle isn’t rooting for the antichrist, though he admits that part of him does live in everything he writes. But he’s also really good at making stuff up.
Darnielle: You should question who the speaker is in all my songs. I’m always hoping people will come in with the assumption that it’s not a person just sharing their experience, but a fictive narrator who probably has their own baggage attached. There are very few, probably no songs that’s just unmediated me saying here’s how I live because one, I don’t know how to live. I’m not an authority on that at all. And two, what’s interesting to me is characters who give advice, or spin out their philosophies, or describe the world. What’s interesting to me is the difference between the things that they think and some more imaginarily objective reality that exists somewhere on the other side of their own motivations for telling these stories. A part of me comes out no matter what, but it’s not me giving advice.
In 2014, the seasoned front man turned his hand to fiction, debuting with Wolf in White Van. It’s the story of a reclusive, manipulative game designer named Sean who as a teenager survived an incident that left his face mangled.
(Excerpt from Wolf in White Van)
I understand a little the social dictate to not stare at misshapen people. You wanna spare their feelings. You don’t want them to feel ugly. At the same time though, even before I became what I am, I used to wonder, isn’t it okay to stare if something seems to stand out? Why not stare? My own perspective is probably tainted by having spent long hours before mirrors after the accident. It would be pretty hard to make me feel ugly. Words like pretty and ugly exist in a different vocabulary from the one you might invent to describe a face that had to be put back together by a team of surgeons. My face is strange and terrible. It merits a little staring.
Wolf in White Van was nominated for a National Book Award just days after it was published. Three years later came the horror story Universal Harvester about an Iowa video store clerk who discovers mysterious clips recorded over the store’s VHS tapes. And though he still leans towards dark subject matter, today the 52-year-old Darnielle is healthy in body and mind, but his recovery hasn’t meant total sobriety. For five years he was part of Alcoholics Anonymous, the abstinence-only support group that sustains millions of members worldwide with its 12 steps and commitment to a higher power. Darnielle says the program did help him, but, ultimately, he couldn’t accept the doctrine that addiction is for life.
Darnielle: I view most of my addictive behaviors of my teens and early, early 20s as responses to where I was at then.
AJC: So can you, I mean, tell me to mind my own business, can you safely drink now?
Darnielle: Yeah, I mean, but not all the time. Every once in a while, I will overdo it, and I imagine it’s true of a lot of people. I mean the five years I did in the program were incredibly valuable to me, I’d probably be dead without them, but I gave it a shot while I was out on tour after five years away with my original bassist, we had literally a shot after a show, and to my great surprise I didn’t then drink five more and then go find out where the cocaine was at.
AJC: Mazel tov.
Darnielle: Well, this was my old pattern, as I would get real drunk and as soon as I got drunk enough, I’d go, “You know, there’s way better stuff like five miles from here.” That’s no longer in my nature. Whatever happened to it, it went away. I don’t ever want anybody to say, “Well, if John can do it, I can do it.” I’m not a good example.
AJC: No, no, no, no. But also, did you have a higher power all the way through? Were you always a believer, were you always a Christian?
Darnielle: Yeah, yeah.
AJC: And was God always present in your life? ‘Cause normally a lot of the time people go into AA and they’re like, get yourself a higher power, I don’t believe in God, I can’t do that.
Darnielle: Yeah, yeah, no, that wasn’t my problem.
AJC: Do you feel that God is watching over you now as you navigate this—
Darnielle: Well, what do you mean by watching over?
AJC: Like making sure that you don’t go looking for the cocaine.
Darnielle: No, that’s not God’s job. That’s my job. God is there to love you whether you’re making good decisions or bad decisions, but it’s not God’s job to make your decisions for you. Let’s take God as a father and you have children, right? You truly love your children when you let them make their own decisions, no matter what they are.
AJC: But as it turns out it could be that Jack or Johnny Walker could be making your decisions for you, right?
Darnielle: But in the case of God I don’t think of God as staying my hand or turning the wheel, I think of God as the person to whom I can cry in need and who’ll be present in whichever way will be useful to me then, but I don’t have the semi-invisible Jesus who stands between me and the car wreck. God doesn’t mind the car wreck; God’s investment is not in this body.
(The Mountain Goats performing “Jaipur”)
My brothers picked me up out of the rushes
Traded me into the company of evil men
Well I have inched my way down the eastern seaboard
I am coming to Atlanta again
Yes I came to the gates of the fabled pink city
Hungry and tired, mad as all hell
Swing low sweet jewel-encrusted chariot
Make me young again
Make me well
John Darnielle is a seeker, a survivor, a storyteller, who uses his platform to encourage earnest, honest reflection on himself and in others.
(The Mountain Goats performing “Jaipur”)
I am the killer dressed in pilgrim’s clothing
I am the hard to get stations on the AM band
I am the white sky high over Tripoli
I am the land mine hidden in the sand
And I came to the gates of the fabled pink city
Hungry and tired, alone
Swing low, swing low sweet chariot
Coming forth to carry me home
It can be difficult to pinpoint when a journey begins, but for the National Book Award-winning young adult author, Elizabeth Acevedo, a daughter of Dominican immigrants who spoke little English, this story starts with a three-year-old and her mother.
Elizabeth Acevedo: My youngest memory that I have is sitting in this auditorium with my mom after work, trying to learn English, that I learned English because my mom sat me down and was like, we’re gonna read this book together in a language she barely spoke, even though it was hard for her, even though she had done all of this work all day and then still sat down, and is like, “This is an important thing for you to learn.” So, English is my educational tongue, English is my expressive tongue, English is my storytelling tongue, and I think it’s because of that moment.
The English language gave her power, but it also brought responsibility. At some point, we all find out that our parents are just people, fallible human beings, but as the designated household spokesperson, she discovered this earlier than most.
Acevedo: So, I knew young that my parents weren’t always gonna be the teacher, that sometimes I was the one who had to convey information, and explain things, and read the letters, and then say this is what it’s saying, and what it means to want to turn to someone and say, “You should know, you should know. You’re the adult,” but then also knowing that that would be hurtful, and when you’re a kid moving through all of these feelings and wanting to lash out, but this person is relying on you, then it’s this also sense of guilt and like, “I owe you, I owe you at least this.”
It was in high school that Acevedo fully embraced her own voice, and for the following decade she made a name for herself as a poet, winning prestigious spoken word competitions and building a fan base.
But poetry alone wasn’t enough. While teaching English at a DC middle school and a juvenile detention center, she realized that the books her students were assigned didn’t reflect their lived experiences. So, for six years, she worked towards a private dream that she could become part of the solution.
Acevedo: Fiction was what I wrote on the Metro. It was this secret thing that I was working on to see if I could do it, but I didn’t know what it would become. So, it was still for me, and I think that that’s a different pressure.
This time and pressure culminated in Acevedo’s 2018 debut, The Poet X. It tells the story of a young poet named Xiomara, who in many ways resembles a young Liz. In the story, a Dominican-American, New York City-raised teenager butts heads with her traditional Catholic parents and other kids in her neighborhood.
(Excerpt from The Poet X)
I am unhide-able. Taller than even my father, with what Mami has always said was “a little to much body for such a young girl.” I am the baby fat that settled into D-cups and swinging hips so that the boys who called me a whale in middle school now ask me to send them pictures of myself in a thong. The other girls call me conceited, ho, thot, fast. When your body takes up more room than your voice, you are always the target of well-aimed rumors, which is why I let my knuckles talk for me. Which is why I learned to shrug when my name was replaced by insults. I forced my skin just as thick as I am.
Elizabeth Acevedo’s novels are informed by her own life, but they’re not based on it. Her second novel for young adults was the bestseller, With the Fire on High, which tells the story of a teen mom from Philadelphia who doggedly pursues her dream of becoming a chef. Just three months after the book hit shelves, the film rights were purchased by the same company that made the Oscar-sweeping film, La La Land. Her next novel, out May 5th 2020 from Harper Collins, is called Clap When You Land. It explores the lives of two girls who discover they’re half-sisters following the death of their father. And even though she hasn’t lived everything she writes, Acevedo believes fiction can still communicate something real, something candid and sincere.
Acevedo: There’s a difference between the pursuit and display of truth as a curious fact versus here is honesty, here is an honest emotion, here is an honest conflict, here is a character who is not sure, and you are not going to be sure about her, because sometimes we are not sure about people, that that feels a little bit different. There’s a way that we can say this is the best form that I can depict this emotion and it might not be true, but it is honest.
Elizabeth Acevedo sets a powerful example, writing what she knows the world needs, and in the process reframing reality.
(Excerpt from The Poet X)
We are not here to save lives. We are all just working on our own mosaic of aches. So when the girl at the detention center asks you again, “Why we gotta write these damn poems anyways?” Tell her we write to remind ourselves we are still here and that we can still heal.
Meg Saligman paints big at home and abroad, but her creations are never about her, they’re about the communities where her work will live. She calls herself a vessel with a vision.
Meg Saligman: I do not start with the idea, I start with what I hear. The first part of the process is culling and collecting content, and that’s what inspires me.
Saligman calls this first part of the process, seeking. It leads to absorbing and creating and finally sharing. Underlying all this is an understanding that she must approach each new project as an outsider. This was especially true in 2015 when she and her collaborator, Lizzie Kripke, were commissioned to help create what would become one of the largest public murals in the United States: the MLK Mural, We Will Not Be Satisfied Until in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It wasn’t until they arrived to start work that they became aware of the theme the community had chosen: gentrification.
Saligman: So now we have a situation where we’re two white women painting about gentrification in a black community. So, it’s like but then you have to look inside and see do we think this is something we should be doing, and to me the answer was yes. One of the reasons was our process is we come into the community and it’s not like we’re placing the art there, we’re finding what is in the community. We had a team of nine working with us from Chattanooga, so we believed in getting a team of us working together to create the work, and also, I felt that it wasn’t as though there was someone in Chattanooga who could do this. If there was, I might have deferred.
In 2013, Meg Saligman was invited to apply her skills even father from home when she helped decorate a new water tower at a girls school in Central Tanzania. This part of Africa has a long history of problems with water, periods of intense flooding followed by severe droughts, sanitation and infrastructure are limited, and the burden of collecting safe water rests on the shoulders of women and girls, an arduous task that can put them in danger of sexual assault, as Saligman discovered in early correspondences with the girls from the school.
Saligman: We actually got back one sheet of paper that said water makes girls get raped because they have to walk by themselves for five hours every day to get it. So, they equated water with rape and just that subject to me seemed to be one that we could learn a lot from exploring together.
AJC: This changes this entire society for the women in it because there’s now water on tap, literally, whereas before it was a labor of gathering water.
Saligman: Well, this is a water tower that collects enough water for three months of the year, and it’s an ongoing issue at this school to get water for the full season. They had a salinated plan and they’re still doing it, they’re still trying to solve—
AJC: So this doesn’t solve the problem, well it’s more than a bandaid, maybe it’s a bandage on the problem, it fixed the problem for—
Saligman: They’re surviving with it.
Though it’s only a partial solution to a perennial problem, it’s likely that this water tower and the art that adorns it will remain for many years to come. This is not the case for all of Saligman’s projects, which have in some cases been painted over or demolished. But she says permanence is not her priority.
Saligman: Think of the work that goes into a stage set at the Metropolitan Opera House and then how often does that get seen? Then it could get thrown away, or reclaimed, or stored if it was really successful, so I think that the notion of exterior public murals have really bright lives even if the longevity is not guaranteed, for me, is a really great trade-off. Let’s say even if I’m a blue-chip artist and the gallery is selling my work, how many people see it when it goes into someone’s private home, or in a museum, that’s a self-selecting crowd? So, I love the public being able to see it, which way balances. I also strongly believe I make a work, put it within the community. If they don’t want it there in two weeks, it shouldn’t be there. It’s not up to me what happens to it and let it takes its life, and it’s far more interesting and potent that way.
Meg Saligman thinks deeply about the world and her own place in it, but her work has never been led by the desire to tell her own story, but to help others to tell theirs.