- Billy Collins is one of the best-selling poets alive. Perhaps because his works effortlessly magnify the small details that make life worth living.
- The conductor Gemma New has followed opportunity around the world. As Tori Marchiony reports, a decade in, she’s finally arrived.
- The award-winning writer Ming Peiffer forges works for stage and screen that deconstruct her own observations and experiences of life today. Sometimes that means embracing an unhappy ending.
Billy Collins is a widely read poet, admired for his accessible and witty writing about everyday life. He served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003 and New York State Poet from 2004 to 2006.
Born in 1941 in New York City, he earned a BA from the College of the Holy Cross, and a PhD in Romantic poetry from the University of California, Riverside. Collins began publishing his poems in the 1970s in Rolling Stone and for small presses. His fourth collection, Questions about Angels (1991), propelled him into the literary spotlight when it was selected for the 1990 National Poetry Series. By 2000 he was attracting mainstream attention unusual for a modern poet: his six-figure advance for switching publishers was front page news, and his 2001 anthology Sailing Alone Around the Room generated fervent media attention and brisk sales. In 2002, his poem commemorating the September 11 attacks was read in front of a joint session of Congress.
From 1971 to 2016, Collins was a professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York.
Gemma New is an internationally renowned conductor. She is the first female music director of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra in Ontario, Canada.
Born in Wellington, New Zealand, New began playing violin at age 5. As a teenager, she conducted the Christchurch Youth Orchestra. She studied physics and music performance at the University of Canterbury then moved to the United States for a masters of music at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. After working as assistant conductor at the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra from 2011 to 2016, she was hired to lead the Hamilton Philharmonic in 2016, at the age of just 28. She is also the resident conductor of the St. Louis Symphony and music director of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra.
New has guest conducted the Cleveland Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Detroit Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Auckland Philharmonia, and other major orchestras around the world.
Ming Peiffer is an award-winning writer for stage and screen. She is the first Asian American playwright to be nominated for a Drama Desk Award.
Peiffer grew up in Columbus, OH, the daughter of a Taiwanese immigrant. After studying poetry at the New School, she earned a BA in Mandarin and theater at Colgate University, with additional training at Shanghai Theatre Academy and Stella Adler School of Acting. Her early plays explored relationships in the internet age. She wrote Pornography for the People (2012) while living in Shanghai and i wrote on ur wall and now i regret it (2014) while pursuing an MFA in playwriting at Columbia University.
Her breakthrough work, USUAL GIRLS (2018), about a young woman’s fraught sexual evolution, enjoyed a sold-out Off-Broadway run and received three Drama Desk nominations and a New York Times Critics’ Pick, among other accolades. Her virtual work Finish the Fight, about women’s right to vote, was streamed on nytimes.com in 2020.
She is an adjunct professor of film at Columbia and a supervising producer for Amazon studios.
- Stage & Screen
Welcome to Articulate, where some of the world’s greatest creative minds help us explore the human condition. 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.
Billy Colins: Look around, you get this! Dig it!
The conductor Gemma New has followed opportunity around the world, as Tori Marchiony reports. A decade in, she’s finally arrived.
Gemma New: 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.
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.
Ming Peiffer: I’m angry, this piece is angry, and I don’t feel like I should apologize for that.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
(Excerpt from Dear Reader):
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.
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.
Billy Collins: 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.
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.
Collins: Persona is like a filtered-down version of myself, and 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.
AJC: Okay, but then conversely…
AJC: I really think that writing is an act of love for strangers. You’re—you are giving of yourself to somebody you’ve never met.
Collins: 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. It’s an act of seduction. And, reader manipulation.
AJC: You cynical, cynical man.
Collins: I know. Can we have both?
AJC: If you’ll take it, I’ll give you both.
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.
(Excerpt from 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.
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.
Collins: 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 show-off-y click to it. That’s my father, ’cause he was full of one-liners and jokes 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 much more capacious in her talking to me. I think, in a way, I’m kind of a combination of my parents.
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.
Collins: So, this is, uh, this actually happened. At least the first part. No Time.
(Excerpt from 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.
Collins: And that is the two of them in a nutshell. He would be disapproving, and she would say, “It’s okay.”
AJC: Let it go. Let it go.
Collins: Let it go.
AJC: Live a little.
Collins: Leave the boy alone.
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.
Collins: I don’t believe in an afterlife.
Collins: 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!”
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. 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.
Gemma New: 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.
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.
New: 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.
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. It’s all-consuming work, but for New, that’s a good thing.
New: When I was younger especially, but I always get this even now, they say, “Don’t work too hard, you’ll get burned out.”
New: 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.
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.
New: 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.
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.
New: 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.
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 Peiffer: 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.
Peiffer: So amongst white people, I’m Asian, amongst Asian people, I’m white.
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.
Peiffer: 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.
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.
The curtain closes on a solitary weeping figure, processing her traumas. No happy endings here, then.
Peiffer: 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 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.
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.
Peiffer: 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—
AJC: No, I absolutely think you’re right. You seek out uncertainty, and in the process, you make phenomenal discoveries.
Peiffer: 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.
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.