Roads Less Traveled
- Loss has shaped Tracy K. Smith’s perspective—as a poet, and as a person.
- David Lang may be a Pulitzer Prize-winner, but he’ll always think like an outsider.
- Open Mike Eagle’s “art rap” is a new style of humor-infused, socially aware hip-hop.
David Lang is an innovative composer and a co-founder of music collective Bang on a Can. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2008 for his choral work The Little Match Girl Passion.
Born in 1959 in Los Angeles, Lang studied at Stanford University and the University of Iowa before earning a PhD in musical arts at Yale School of Music. He formed Bang on a Can in 1987 with fellow Yale students Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe. The organization is best known for its Marathon Concerts—informal daylong presentations of contemporary classical music.
Lang has composed for opera, theater, film, and choral groups. He wrote the score for feature films (Untitled) (2002) and Wildlife (2018), among others, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Youth (2015). A recording of his Pulitzer-winning work The Little Match Girl Passion, based on a story by Hans Cristian Anderson, won a Grammy Award in 2010. His opera Prisoner of the State was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic in 2019.
He teaches composition at Yale School of Music.
Tracy K. Smith is an acclaimed poet and author. Her collection Life on Mars won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. She served two terms as Poet Laureate of the United States, from 2017 to 2019.
Born in 1972 in Falmouth, MA, Smith was raised in Fairfield, CA, and studied at Harvard University and Columbia University. From 1997 to 1999, she was a Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford University.
Her work is characterized by its spare, lyrical verse and insightful political impulses. Her first collection of poetry, The Body’s Question (2003), won the Cave Canem prize for the best first book by an African-American poet. Her Pulitzer-winning third volume, Life on Mars (2011), was inspired by her father’s life and work as an engineer on the Hubble space telescope. Her memoir, Ordinary Light (2015), was a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction. She published her fourth poetry collection, Wade in the Water, in 2018.
Smith is director of the creative writing program at Princeton University.
Open Mike Eagle is a celebrated hip hop musician and comedian, known for the witty avant-garde style he calls “art rap.”
Born Michael W. Eagle II in 1980 in Chicago, he grew up in Robert Taylor Homes, the subject of his concept album Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, which was number 34 on Rolling Stone’s Best Albums of 2017. After graduating from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Eagle moved to Los Angeles, where he formed the group Thirsty Fish and the rap battle crew Swim Team. He released his debut solo album, Unapologetic Art Rap in 2010. His fifth solo record, Anime, Trauma and Divorce, came out in 2020.
Eagle hosts the popular podcast Tights and Fights about professional wrestling. His podcast Conversation Parade discussed the Cartoon Network series Adventure Time, on which he appeared in 2017. In 2019, his TV variety series The New Negroes launched on Comedy Central. It highlights African American standup comics and features original music videos by Eagle and famous guest musicians.
- Stage & Screen
Welcome to Articulate, the show that brings you insights into the human condition from some fine creative thinkers. On this episode of Articulate, Tracy K. Smith has not been the same since she lost both her parents. This loss has shaped her perspective as a poet and as a person.
Tracy K. Smith: I look at the world through the eyes of somebody who’s looking for people who are gone.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang is now a darling of avant-garde classical music but he says he’ll always think like an outsider.
David Lang: When I go into my studio, all I am trying to do is figure out how to please myself, how to examine myself.
And, Open Mike Eagle calls his music art rap, a new style of humor-infused, socially aware hip-hop.
Open Mike Eagle: A lot of the things that I make jokes about, and that’s in my music, on my social media, whatever, there are things that are absurd, and they make me angry.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
(“The Good Life,” 2011)
When some people talk about money
They speak as if it were a mysterious lover
Who went out to buy milk and never
Came back, and it makes me nostalgic
For the years I lived on coffee and bread,
Hungry all the time, walking to work on payday
Like a woman journeying for water
From a village without a well, then living
One or two nights like everyone else
On roast chicken and red wine.
For the two-time US poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy K. Smith, poetry is a way to make magic from the stuff of everyday life, to raise tough questions, and invoke wonder, and, she believes, it is for everyone.
Tracy K. Smith: Yeah, we have an instinct, maybe we have a poetry gene in there somewhere, and then there’s a lot of clutter that gets in and says, ah, maybe you should doubt that. Maybe you don’t really know what this poem is saying. And then we have to kind of unlearn that I think.
Consuming poetry may be a natural human gift, but creating it is a job of work. Indeed, Smith committed to her craft quite early in life.
Smith: Yeah, I remember my mother saying, you can be whatever you want to be. I want to be a writer. You can be a writer. Didn’t always make her feel confident of my security to know I wanted to be a poet, not a journalist, but it was too late. She had already told me I could be whatever I wanted to be, and I believed it, and so there is probably a part of me that’s known since I was little that that’s what I was going to become, because that’s what she said I could be.
Tracy Smith grew up in Fairfield, California, the youngest child of Kathryn, a teacher, and Floyd, an engineer who worked on the Hubble Telescope. And though he didn’t fully understand his daughter’s love of poetry, Floyd Smith always encouraged her. By the time he died in 2008, Tracy had already published her first two award-winning books, but it was 2011’s Life on Mars, an exploration of her father’s life and death through the lens of science fiction, that earned Tracy K. Smith the Pulitzer Prize.
(“My God, It’s Full of Stars,” 2011)
When my father worked on the Hubble Telescope, he said
They operated like surgeons: scrubbed and sheathed
In papery green, the room a clean cold, a bright white.
He’d read Larry Niven at home, and drink scotch on the rocks,
His eyes exhausted and pink. These were the Reagan years,
When we lived with our finger on The Button and struggled
To view our enemies as children. My father spent whole seasons
Bowing before the oracle-eye, hungry for what it would find.
His face lit-up whenever anyone asked, and his arms would rise
As if he were weightless, perfectly at ease in the never-ending
Night of space. On the ground, we tied postcards to balloons
For peace. Prince Charles married Lady Di. Rock Hudson died.
We learned new words for things. The decade changed.
The first few pictures came back blurred, and I felt ashamed
For all the cheerful engineers, my father and his tribe. The second time,
The optics jibed. We saw to the edge of all there is—
So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.
Smith: I’m always thinking about these other dimensions that we live among, that scientists now are getting more and more confident of. For me, they connect to these other people who are gone. I want to believe they’re somewhere in some state, and so I look at the world through the eyes of somebody who’s looking for people who are gone.
Smith lost her mom and dad 14 years apart and she says, each day since has been shaped by their absence.
Smith: I’m still really drawing upon what it means and feels like to lose parents. You know, so many of my poems are about that, and I think that the poems that aren’t about that are using that somehow, so that’s a big part of my story.
AJC: Do we ever get over it, the lost parents?
Smith: I mean I think of my parents every day. I think, oh, I wish I could ask my mother if I was like my daughter, or I wish I could call my dad and have him come hang this door ’cause only he would be able to fix this crazy door, you know? Small things and then the huge things, too.
On her way to becoming a preeminent voice in American poetry, Smith has faced her share of criticism. One early review was so harsh that for a brief period in her 20s, she stopped writing altogether, and sought out an entirely new creative outlet.
AJC: After undergrad you went back home, your mom wasn’t well, and you had taken a bit of what we call a bit of a pasting critically. Somebody described you as a narcissist? You took up photography; I’m really curious as to how that changed, I read that it changed your perspective, but I’m not sure that I understand how.
Smith: I used to write poems that were driven mostly by statements, because I loved poems that had a certain kind of authority, that were able to say something in a way that made it sound true. And I didn’t know then that the truth comes from saying what you know and then doing a lot of other things. And for me photography got me to recognize that one of the huge things that poems do is to create images, so I couldn’t write a poem for about nine months because of this critique, and it meant I got to walk around with a camera around my neck for that amount of time, looking at the world and saying, I took a whole roll of film in this one subject and this photo is better than this photo. Why? And then I could see, oh, it’s because the light is here, or because her arm is inside rather than outside the frame, and then I thought, oh, there’s a small story, even if it’s just an emotional story that each image tells. I can do that in a poem if I just can transcribe what I see. And that became so exciting.
Smith continues to experiment and to grow. 2018’s Wade in the Water features numerous so-called erasure poems made entirely of excerpts from historical documents many consider sacrosanct, among them, the one that founded America.
Smith: Looking through the Declaration of Independence, I heard a lot of statements that felt very true to African Americans’ role in this country from its inception until now. And if I took away the specific markers of place and time and the specifics that said, we’re talking about England and these elect colonists, if I took that away I could feel something really urgent.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for
Redress in the most humble terms:
Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.
We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration
and settlement here.
on the high Seas
AJC: Has anybody called you names because of that?
Smith: Tampering with these documents?
AJC: These religious texts?
Smith: Well, no one’s said anything to my face, but that doesn’t mean people don’t have different reactions to the poem, and I don’t know. I mean, my way of sort of saying, this isn’t sacrilege, is that if we have this faith in these founding documents, it’s because we think they can speak in so many different directions and outlast their own time. And isn’t it interesting if they can speak to problems that we are still subject to or that we’re still responsible for? Isn’t it amazing that it can speak to a population that it wasn’t taking into consideration?
Smith’s next project also focuses on the nation’s formative years. The opera, Castor and Patience, scheduled to premiere at Cincinnati Opera in 2020 is set in post-Civil War America. And though it could be quite depressing for Tracy K. Smith to spend so much of her time analyzing the parallels between the past and the present, she resists by looking steadfastly ahead.
AJC: Do you ever get cynical about the nature of the human condition?
Smith: I really don’t feel like I can. I mean I can’t afford to because I have kids. I want to imagine that there’s a world that they can be in and be whole, and that means there are things that I need to be willing to think about and wrestle with and invite other people to think and wrestle with, too, so that those kids can be in a world that’s whole.
Brilliant though he may be, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang is not, nor has he ever been, on the vanguard of cool.
David Lang: My entire life I have been the weirdo. I am the biggest nerd in the world.
Ever the individual Lang’s ability to write music stems from a desire to access the forbidden and explore the uncharted.
Lang: As soon as you tell me that I can’t have pleasure all the time, it’s all I want. And I think in a piece of music, those are the kinds of things that can spur you on. If someone tells me that something is not possible then all of a sudden, I start thinking, well, how can I make that possible?
Over the past 40 years, David Lang has been not only challenging but downright ignoring boundaries in his own compositions and as part of the contemporary classical music group, Bang on a Can. Formed in New York City in 1987 with fellow avant-garde composers Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon, Bang on a Can was created to transcend the confines of classical music, to be a refuge from genre distinctions, and, lovingly, a home for weirdos.
Lang: The weirdo thing is like this. Again, when you’re a student you see what kinds of boxes there are in the music world and the institutions are built around you to reward the people who fit squarely in a box and to ignore or punish or discard the people who don’t fit squarely in that box. So for us one of the great thrills was thinking, we can actually build this platform where people who are not easy fits can fit.
Bang on a Can is attempting to create an inclusive, innovative world that they want to live in by giving mold breakers opportunities to be themselves. These efforts include an elite ensemble called The Bang on a Can All-Stars, a prestigious annual music marathon and their summer festival at MASS MoCA in Western Massachusetts. But Lang has also thrived beyond Bang on a Can, yet even when working alone, he strives for connection. Take, for instance, his 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning composition, “Little Match Girl Passion.” The piece is based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale of a poor girl whose family sends her into the cold to sell matches on New Year’s Eve. She’s neglected by everyone who passes by and spends the night in an alley trying to warm her body and her spirit with the matches, until she dies of hypothermia and is welcomed into Heaven by the image of her grandmother. Writing it, says Lang, was an exercise in empathy.
Lang: In order to make a story like that work I have to be the girl, and I have to be the most cold-hearted person who ignores the girl. It seems to me that one of the things about Christianity which is so powerful is that it says to you, if you notice this one man’s suffering, it can change our world. That’s a very beautiful idea, and yet I walk around in New York, as do all New Yorkers, ignoring suffering right and left, so I wondered, can I use a piece of music to feel how I actually feel about this? How do I feel as a citizen of my world having to ignore these people?
Never one to shy away from the morose, Lang wrote Death Speaks for composer and vocalist Shara Worden, a piece that personifies death as a living character. But Lang says he’s drawn to dark subjects not as a way to indulge sadness, but as an opportunity to examine things he doesn’t understand.
Lang: A piece of music is a great place to explore the things that you’re curious about or the things that you’re afraid of, or the things that you can’t put your finger on. It’s not a good place to do a mathematical proof or to say something completely secure and provable. It’s a good place to deal with questions you can’t answer. When I go into my studio, all I am trying to do is figure out how to please myself, how to examine myself.
For David Lang, music is one of life’s great gateways to truth, especially when it’s weird.
Lang: When you are a composer you spend a lot of time by yourself, and that can be one of the most psychically damaging things. But it’s also one of the great gifts, is that if you use these pieces to figure out who you are and what you believe, you can dedicate a huge amount of energy to really trying to figure out what’s true.
Over the past decade, Open Mike Eagle has traced one of the more unorthodox career paths in hip-hop.
Open Mike Eagle: My thing has always been to live and die by the authenticity of my own experience wherever that takes me, and sometimes it takes me to really weird places in terms of what’s expected from rap music.
His travels have taken his to Uganda to teach a rap workshop, an MRI machine for a National Institutes of Health study on free styling, and even to Comedy Central. And Eagle has a somewhat tongue-in-cheek name for what he does: art rap.
OME: This is very self-indulgent is what it is. It’s the freedom to be self-indulgent, really. A lot of all this self-indulgence that I engage in I feel licensed to do that because my career is very low-maintenance, very low-stakes, so I can do whatever I want and I don’t have to answer to anybody.
Hold up it’s my turn again
I’m playing thirteen games of Words With Friends
Lift your hands
Lift your head if your clothes are clean and your kids are fed
Mine’s potty trained, so when he pisses the bed
Then he can tell I’m heated like infrared, yeah
We’re the best, mostly
Sometimes the freshest rhymers
We the tightest kinda
Respect my qualifiers
Today the fiercely independent Eagle is widely acclaimed for his clever wordplay and bold sense of humor. The Chicago native got his start as a teenager in freestyle rap circles called cyphers where aspiring MCs compete in bouts of verbal one-upmanship, but the transition from free styling into writing and recording full songs took Open Mike Eagle some time.
OME: When I learned to rap, the default position is, I’m going to rap about how good I rap, and rap about how other people aren’t as good at rapping as me. I found myself maybe 10 years ago looking at a verse I just wrote and was like, I don’t understand why it is I’m doing this. And I went about trying to find a new default. Now the problem with that is that my original attempts at that were all very self-deprecating, ’cause it was reactionary.
AJC: Which is the same thing, it the same sides of the same coin.
AJC: If you’re writing you’re self-deprecating.
AJC: They’re both making judgments about how you are in the world that may or may not be true. There’s certainly a mask, right?
OME: And I think they’re both pretty shallow in a way. And I’m still trying to find a different default. What happens when you just start writing? And that’s gotten me to a lot of free association that I tend to organize thoughts kind of just based on what amuses me, and then that’s kind of how comedy kind of became part of my work, too, was in trying to get away from the braggadocio, I found a comfort in just trying to link thoughts together based on what would make me laugh. A lot of the things that I make jokes about, and that’s in my music, on my social media, whatever, there are things that are absurd, and they make me angry. What the joke is to me is to point at the absurdity of something and play it up. So, oh, that’s ridiculous. And then, haha, we can all laugh at it. But also, hopefully, we all have a lasting image of the ridiculousness of whatever the thing is.
AJC: What was the intention for that? And more broadly, can you change anything? Can you change anyone’s mind who has the power to do anything about a situation like that by making a record about it?
OME: Second answer first–– I think that I might not be able to directly change that but what I’ve learned not only through my own career but the careers of artists that I respect a lot, I’ve learned that you might be speaking to a listener for the first time when that listener’s like, 13 or 14. But then when that listener is like, 24, they’re working for a corporation, they’re working in media, they’re working for the government even. And they might have held on to some of those notions and then that person’s in a position to do something.
(“Dark Comedy Late Show,” 2015)
And I can see the Super Bowls of the future
The Ferguson blacks versus Missouri State Troopers
The privacy rights versus the personal computers
Concussion researchers versus university boosters
I graduated college
I purchased all the extra books
I’m supposed to be living in a house
With a breakfast nook
But while Eagle is revered for his irreverent approach, some topics require a more delicate touch. 2017’s Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is a concept album about the demolition of the Robert Taylor Homes, a housing project in his hometown of Chicago.
OME: Part of the aim of the record was to try to retroactively humanize the people who lived in these buildings, especially because if you go there now there’s nothing, the land wasn’t developed. It was just like it was an eyesore that the city and people just decided to get rid of.
(“Brick Body Complex”, 2017)
A giant and my body is a building,
a building, a building, a building
My under name is 3925
Make sure that my story’s told
16 is so stories high
Constructed 55 years ago
Winter weather yeah here we go
Shy Town and my building cold
Stood here for 10 million snows
Wind chilled is all in my bones
Open Mike Eagle’s next project, a variety show for Comedy Central, also takes cues from the past. The program borrows its title, The New Negroes, from a 1925 anthology of some of the most important writings of the Harlem Renaissance.
AJC: And what’s the different between The New Negroes and the Harlem Renaissance and what you’re portraying?
OME: Time and space; that’s it. That anthology was created as a way to redefine the image and we’re doing the same thing. We’re going to do it with musicians, we’re doing it with comedians. Everybody has a different point of view. We can have six comics on a show and they all can be saying completely different things. We just feel it’s really important to update that for people, people who think black comedy is one way, people who think black music is one way, people who think black people are one way.
(“95 Radios,” 2017)
Tryna find a radio
And we wrapped both hands in tinfoil
And with his latest endeavor Open Mike Eagle continues his quest for the authentic and the unexpected, claiming truth to power with humor and passing the mic to his peers so they might do the same.
And the homies say they heard a rap song
Sounded like some folks they know
But we couldn’t find a radio