Poets Tell The Stories Of Their Countries

Poets can play a unique role in a country's politics, culture and social movements. They act as innovators, visionaries and truth tellers.

Three poets from different cultures — Iraq, Puerto Rico and New York — talk about the role of poets and poetry in different places. The three are part of the Split This Rock Poetry Festival in Washington, DC.

Guests:

Quincy Troupe, poet and author, most recently of The Architecture of Language

Sinan Antoon, poet and assistant professor at New York University

Naomi Ayala, poet and writer

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

This month, millions of viewers in the Middle East will tune in for the final showdown on "Million's Poet," an Arab poetry contest in the "American Idol" format. The winner becomes a household name and takes home about a million dollars.

Throughout much of the world, poets play unique roles as innovators, visionaries, truth-tellers and restorers of language. There are plenty of poetry festivals in this country, too. For example, poets will gather here in Washington for the Split This Rock Poetry Festival later this week, a few of them will join us in a moment, but it won't be nationally broadcast in primetime, and no one will take home a million bucks.

How important is poetry, how celebrated the poets where you come from? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the classroom secrets of champion teachers, but first, the award-winning writer and poet Quincy Troupe joins us. He's the author of, among many other books, "The Architecture of Language," and he joins us today from the studios at the Radio Foundation in New York City. Nice to have you on the program with us.

Mr. QUINCY TROUPE (Poet; Author, "The Architecture of Language"): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And I wonder, when you fill out that occupation form on your tax returns, do you put the word poet?

Mr. TROUPE: Yes. I put poet editor.

CONAN: Poet editor. I wonder how many other people put their occupation down as poet in this country.

Mr. TROUPE: I don't know. I don't know, but I used to put educator, but I retired from teaching. So I had to eliminate that.

CONAN: There's not a lot of people who would be able to make a living, do you think, as poets?

Mr. TROUPE: I don't think so. I think Billy Collins does, Billy Collins does. I think Alan Ginsberg did. There are a few, but I always augmented my life, my money, my salary, by being a college professor for, like, 30-something years and doing other things outside and doing readings. But I was able I managed to a lot of readings but not as many as Billy does.

CONAN: Not as many as Billy does.

Mr. TROUPE: No.

CONAN: Seamus Heaney, I suspect, makes a living as a poet, as well, but that's in Ireland, and poetry there why is it that poetry here seems to be largely contained to universities and colleges?

Mr. TROUPE: I think because first of all, I think a lot of people think that poets are troublemakers, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TROUPE: And we are.

CONAN: Well, that's true.

Mr. TROUPE: And I think we should be. I think they think we are troublemakers. You said truth-tellers, and a lot of people think that truth-tellers are troublemakers. And so I think that's part of it.

I think also, one of the problems that we have in this country is that everything is about money. Everything is about money, and so therefore, novelists and screenwriters and people like that who can commodify what they do, you know, they can turn it into money, and more people are interested in that, especially publishing houses.

Filmmakers are not used I mean, people who make films don't usually make films from poems. So therefore, you know, that's a problem. But so I think it's about money, and it's about money, and sometimes they think that poets are troublemakers, and they don't have the respect.

Although I think I would say that it's growing. I read all around the country, and I see larger audiences where I read, and it's growing, but I would say that's mainly the reason.

CONAN: Careful listeners can hear another person there in the studio with you at the Radio Foundation in New York City. That is Sinan Antoon, a poet and novelist originally from Iraq, and it's good of you to be with us today, too.

Mr. SINAN ANTOON (Poet; Novelist; Assistant Professor, New York University): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And in your tradition, we just heard about that "Poet's Millions" program broadcast in the Gulf area. Poetry is revered in the Arab world.

Mr. ANTOON: Yes, it is. I should say about this "Million's Poets" program, it's not necessarily the best phenomenon we have nowadays because it supports and promotes a certain kind of populist poetry, which is important, and it has its audience. But yes, the tradition of poetry in the Arab world is 14 centuries old, and it's been integral for the collective identity of people.

But in the modern, contemporary period, it was a very important forum for the anti-colonial struggle, for liberation and for a lot of people in expressing their resistance against dictatorships. So being a poet in the Arab world and saying what poets should say and defending the public and truth meant that, you know, poets are taken to court and are put in prison and are exiled, so...

CONAN: Troublemakers, yeah.

Mr. ANTOON: Well, as they should be. Artists should be troublemakers. Otherwise, you know...

CONAN: If you stopped just an average person on the streets of Baghdad or Cairo and asked them to recite a poem, would they be able to do that?

Mr. ANTOON: Yes, for sure. They would recite a poem or two. And I mean, it's important to remember that poems and certain excerpts become, in themselves, moments in history. So definitely, because it's inculcated in the culture and the education system, but because even until now, poets more than others are more able to crystallize and express intense emotions in very few words. So definitely they would be able to recite one poem at least for you.

CONAN: And poetry is poetry a profession? Is that something that you can make a living at, selling books and doing readings?

Mr. ANTOON: Very rarely nowadays. But of course, there are some poets who are very few, very few. They always have to supplement their it's not a profession, not anymore. I mean, there are a few court poets, in quotes, who perhaps write panegyrics for this or that ruler, but the great majority of poets have other professions.

CONAN: Is it usually in academia, as it is in this country?

Mr. ANTOON: Some of them do. But this whole notion of creative writing programs does not exist in the Arab world, as elsewhere, but a lot of them happen to be teachers in college or in high school, but a lot of them are journalists and writers. They have to have something doing with language and culture in different ways.

CONAN: We're talking about poetry and how it is valued and rewarded in different cultures, including our own, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Janet's(ph) calling us from Santa Rosa, California.

JANET (Caller): Hi, I'm a poet. And I found growing up and being in college as a poet, it was more like a curse to have all this poetry flowing out of you and having no one understand what you're talking about and to have, you know, rejection letters. I just didn't have the personality to be able, you know, being sensitive, being a poet, I didn't have the personality to come up upon that much rejection.

CONAN: And do you continue to write poetry, Janet?

JANET: I have started up again. I went through a period of not writing poetry because, honestly, I became somewhat emotionally damaged from it, but now I'm becoming prolific again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Quincy Troupe, is that knowledgeable laughter there that I hear?

Mr. TROUPE: No, that was Sinan, but I was laughing, too. I think I've never been damaged by it. I've never been damaged. I've gotten a lot of rejections, but that's the first time I heard somebody say they were damaged. You know, that's interesting.

JANET: Quincy?

Mr. TROUPE: Yes.

JANET: I think you're right on with what you've been saying. I actually married a man who was illiterate. He grew up with severe dyslexia, and I wrote him poetry and poetry. And because of our dynamic, he ended up being so flustered by being handed all this all these words that he just told me don't write me any more. And so that ended up putting a major block on my creativity.

CONAN: Oh, I can understand that. Janet, why do you think it is that poetry has, well, I don't such a marginal place?

JANET: Well, I think what Quincy was saying, it's about money, and there's just not a real market for it. You know, I'm thinking I should go into romance novels, you know, which is kind of sad, but I think there's more money in it.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call, Janet, and good luck with your poetry.

JANET: Thank you.

CONAN: And Quincy Troupe, there is an allied profession, songwriting, which seems to do awfully well in this country. Why is that poetry is minor league, and songwriting is big league?

Mr. TROUPE: Because it has music with it. It has music, and it has music and structure, and they play it on the radio. You know, Bob Dylan has never had a problem getting on the radio or being on television, and neither has Smokey Robinson or Stevie Wonder or any of the great lyricists who have music behind with the or rappers.

You know, I can just go to rap because they put beats behind what they do. Our poetry is something that you read out of books. That's not to say that we aren't performers because I do do readings with a band quite a bit, and I see, I understand, I know that people get off on that better sometimes, in some instances, than they do when you go as a solitary poet to read, and you read in front of an audience.

Sometimes, I think they're expecting music, but I think that that's one of the things because lyricists and songwriters, they and that is also something that you sell. You sell records. You sell records. Bob Dylan sells millions and millions of copies. So did Elvis Presley.

CONAN: Sinan?

Mr. ANTOON: May I jump in here?

CONAN: Yes, please.

Mr. ANTOON: I mean, to build on what you're saying, it's true. The problem is the measure of everything in a capitalist society is if it sells and if it brings income.

Mr. TROUPE: That's right.

Mr. ANTOON: Now, of course, poetry is not the most popular form, but I think we forget that there are millions of people who read poetry in solitude, and it's not on TV, it's not on the Internet, but that does not mean that it's not integral to their daily lives.

So it's marginalized because we live in a corporate culture whereby poetry, it's not going to generate that much money for a corporation, and hence, it doesn't get that much support. But we forget the individual, hundreds of thousands of individuals who celebrate poetry as we are speaking right now.

CONAN: Well, let's get...

Mr. TROUPE: Yeah, I would agree with that. There are many, many there was a poll done, and it that poll told us that a lot of people read poetry, and surprise, a lot of African-Americans read a lot of poetry and bought a lot of poetry. I mean, I was even shocked by that, but you know, so you have a lot of people that do read poetry and that love poetry, and in this culture, what Sinan said is correct.

You know, it's a corporate, the incorporate environment here pushes poetry to the margins because it doesn't make a profit for them.

Mr. ANTOON: I mean, we have this festival in Washington, D.C., which is one sign, but also there is something that we could do. I mean, years ago, there was something on the subway, which was a poem on the subway. In Europe, it's a little bit much better. It behooves citizens to love poetry and so forth, and it's important to have poetry out there in the public space for people to enjoy.

Mr. TROUPE: Yeah, I want to say one other thing, too.

CONAN: Quickly. We've got to go to a break.

Mr. TROUPE: Yeah, there is a great poetry festival in, of all places, Medellin, Colombia - Medellin, Colombia - where thousands and thousands of people come to hear poets, thousands.

CONAN: We're talking about the role of poetry and of poets around the world. Two writers are with us. Quincy Troupe you just heard, the American poet, and Iraqi-American poet Sinan Antoon. How important is poetry, how celebrated the poets where you come from? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking with poets about the perceptions and the role of poetry in different cultures. How important is poetry, how celebrated the poets where you come from? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Quincy Troupe, poet and author of many books, including "Trancircularities: New and Selected Poems." Also with us, Sinan Antoon, poet, novelist and filmmaker, originally from Iraq, now an assistant professor at New York University.

And let's bring another voice into the conversation. Naomi Ayala is a poet and writer, originally from Puerto Rico, and she joins us here in Studio 3A. Very kind of you to be with us today.

Ms. NAOMI AYALA (Poet; Writer): Thank you. Hi to everybody.

CONAN: And you're going to be attending this poetry festival here in Washington?

Ms. AYALA: Split This Rock, absolutely. Poets and poems (unintelligible) in D.C., I'm so proud to be having a festival of this nature in our city. It's great to be the host site for something like this.

CONAN: And tell us a little bit about the tradition of poetry where you come from in Puerto Rico.

Ms. AYALA: I come from Puerto Rico, and we're, of course, influenced not just by the Spanish-speaking and non-Spanish-speaking Caribbean, but also by Latin America, and together, you know, Spanish-speaking nations comprise a great portion of that world.

Poetry is a part of the fabric of culture and of daily life. So poetry can be about resistance. It's a way of championing the beauty and the richness of the resources of your country, which are not always valued by money. They're a way we're historians. We document. We witness. We are entrusted with taking a step back and regardless of how deeply we invest our heart, having that distance where we observe what's going on, we are of it and also outside of it.

CONAN: When you grew up, in school, were you required to memorize poetry?

Ms. AYALA: No. Actually, that was something I picked up from coming to the United States and the reason why I was able to learn English, I was already writing. But poetry is an oral tradition for us, and it begins there. So to me it was not divorced from songwriting and how I celebrated music.

And books are not you know, I have a friend in the Dominican Republic. Her first book was actually sponsored by merchants and banks and bodegas and that's how you end up publishing books. So they don't mean exactly what they do here. Pamphlets, any way that you can get something preserved to bring it onto the next person who will know it by heart.

I mean, I know taxi drivers who know poetry by heart from other countries, and I think we're also cultural ambassadors, and so knowing the national poets of your country is a way for me to get to know you and to say hello.

CONAN: Sinan Antoon, I was required this was many years ago, of course to memorize poetry when I went to school. Was that a requirement in Iraq?

Mr. ANTOON: Yes, of course. I mean, throughout the Arab world, part of the -getting the education is to memorize the poetry from the canon, from the old pre-Islamic to the Arabic to the modern, contemporary poetry. So part and parcel of being literate and educated is to memorize.

But we also come from an oral culture whereby even if you did not go to school, and there are many - and this extends to a lot of cultures and regions. You know, poetry is part of the fabric of life, as our friend just said. So even an illiterate citizen would memorize the oral poetry, the popular poetry. So it's not necessarily linked to the written word and to texts.

And I just wanted to say one other important thing. Seven years ago, when much of the country was cheering for going to war and for slaughter, it was the poets and others as well but the poets who, early on, stood against the war and warned. So another old, ancient function that continues is that the poet as the oracle who sees - perhaps is plagued by seeing into the future and early on having an insight to what will come.

Mr. TROUPE: Can I say something to what you said...

CONAN: All right, quickly, and then we want to get some callers on the line, yes.

Mr. TROUPE: Well, here at the Key West, Florida, poets, myself, John Ashbury(ph), Billy Collins, just a whole range of us, Lucille Clifton, who just died, we all sent a letter to the president of the United States, then George Bush, to protest, because we knew he was going to do that, and nobody published it in the paper. Nobody put it in the paper, nothing. So this is the kind of thing that you run into here.

CONAN: Let's get Larry on the line. Larry's calling us from Des Moines.

LARRY (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi there.

LARRY: I was poetry is something near and dear to my heart, but I am a writer of the what I like to call the Rodney Dangerfield branch of the family, which is the people that write rhyming verse.

CONAN: I see, and don't get no respect.

LARRY: Yeah, pretty much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LARRY: Although, you know, I tend to my tendency is to write light, humorous verse, which, you know, tends to get even less respect than that. But the reason I called, I wanted to share a short couplet about the economics of poetry, and that is that some write poetry for love, some write it to be funny, but rarely do you meet anyone who's written it for money. Thank you.

CONAN: Larry, thanks very much, we appreciate that. Here's an email we have from Thomas(ph) in Kailua in Hawaii. Many cities around the world have numerous statues of generals on horseback; Prague is unique in having only two, but more than a dozen statues of various poets shows that the 19th-century Czechs had great respect for poets.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to George(ph), George with us from Hopkinsville in Kentucky.

GEORGE (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, George, go ahead, please.

GEORGE: Yes, during the school year, once a month, I drive from Hopkinsville to Owensboro, which is about an hour and a half from me, to participate in what I have found to be the only poetry coffeehouse. It's sponsored by Brescia University, and it's run by David Bartholomy, who is the writing director at Brescia.

Now, when I first came there, I asked permission if I could participate, being as how I'm not a Brescia student or wasn't an Owensboro resident, but he was very generous with his, you know, allowing me to come up there and participate, and I just love it.

You know, if I hadn't broken my right leg, I would be there, you know, this month and last month, but I unfortunately can't drive. So I have to wait it out. But he has been very, very generous with me, allowing me to come up there and participate with them.

CONAN: Well, George, we hope you're able to get back there soon.

GEORGE: Oh yes, excellent, you know, but I've got to tell you, it's awesome. Now, one thing I would like to say is there were two readers there one night. One was a student from an American school, and the other was a student who had been educated in Europe. The difference between the two was that the one educated in Europe had a much more readily accessible understanding of meter and line length and composition. The one that was educated in America had a lot of emotion but was like a sparkler rather than a light bulb.

CONAN: Interesting, George. Here's an email I think that follows up on that point, this from Mark in Menlo Park: I'm a big fan of classic poetry, but frankly, modern poetry I think is simply too full of itself. It tries to be so complex and so specific to the poet's personal thoughts that it often ends up being inaccessible to those that don't know that person. It's a shame, but I think most poets today would feel embarrassed writing a simple and beautiful classical sonnet.

And well, obviously, that's a broad characterization. Every poet is different, Quincy Troupe, but that's a criticism you hear a lot, that it's simply inaccessible.

Mr. TROUPE: I don't get that from I don't get that myself. I don't get that, and I go all around the world reading poetry and all around the United States. I mean, I can write sonnets and villanelles and sestinas and patankas(ph) and ballads and odes, but the point is, is that I think that poetry can communicate even in free verse or in any other mode of writing craft, I mean form.

I think a lot of people do. Alan Ginsberg didn't write classical poetry, and neither does Billy Collins, and Billy Collins is very popular, and so is Sharon Olds. I can just go down the list of writers - Lucille Clifton.

So I think that you don't have to write classical forms to be a popular poet in the United States.

CONAN: Well, no, I understand that, but there is a is there a byproduct of having poetry as a classical discipline or an academic discipline where it becomes abstruse?

Mr. TROUPE: I think that, you know, I mean, I think, I don't see, I don't see anything wrong with knowing how to write classical poetry. I don't think that's the be-all and the end-all of it. You know, I think that we have to evolve.

Artists evolve. We evolve. We evolve naturally in our way of talking and and the way the language evolves, and sometimes a classical form cannot hold, cannot hold what the poet is trying to say. So you have to do it some other way.

You just, you can't write it in a sonnet. You have to do something else. You know, free verse is there for you. That is a form, you know.

CONAN: Sure (unintelligible) Naomi Ayala, I wanted to bring you into this part of the conversation.

Ms. AYALA: Yeah, I mean, I think it depends. For some of us, for me coming of age in the United States, (unintelligible) it was like, oh my God, academe, the death of us poets. Like, I want to stay with the real world, and I remember this being a real separation in my mind.

I would tell a reader like the person who emailed that there is such wealth of poetry in the United States of America. It's incredible. It reflects the melting pot it is. So it's a question of going out there and searching for it because it's all around you. I think, for me, you know, if we bring culture into the conversation, if we bring race into the conversation, if we bring into it how we study poetry, what is the purpose of poetry, where do we find poetry, where is it supposed to be?

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Karen. I'm the editor in chief of Mid-American Review, a major American literary journal, and I have a perspective on the current discussion. I think people shy away from poetry in our culture because, in a sense, poetry has shied away from them, from their love, grief, pain, frustration.

In workshops today, poets are counseled to avoid sentimentality. Love poems are looked at with a raised eyebrow. Death is hackneyed, despair is obvious. The problem, of course, is that sentiment is a poet's turf. If we can't write about love, who can? And I've seen enough irony to last me a lifetime. I'm in the mood for a little sincerity, a little sentiment, you might say.

I wonder what you'll say to that, Sinan Antoon.

Prof. ANTOON: Well, as our friend just said, I mean, it's very difficult to reduce all of modern poetry to this. There is so much poetry being written just as with every age and epoch and form. There are those who are into themselves and narcissistic and write specifically in a difficult way. But there is so much poetry that celebrates all of these themes and does it so very well. This is the history of our species.

Modern poetry, whether American or world poetry, of course, has its inaccessible, impossible poets, but it has tens of poets that are beautiful and that respond to people's desires and their psyches, and that's why they're read. Look at anything you want. Billy Collins, Charles Simic, poet laureate, Pulitzer Prize winner, his poetry is very simple and it deals with the visceral issues of today. And this is modern poetry. And so I don't think poetry is workshops and creative writing programs. Poetry cannot be contained and reduced, especially in a country of 300 million people.

CONAN: We're talking with Quincy Troupe, the poet and author, and with Sinan Antoon - you just heard - poet, novelist, filmmaker and assistant professor at New York University, and with Naomi Ayala, a poet and writer originally from Puerto Rico.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

Let's go next to Raven(ph), Raven with us from Fairfield in Iowa.

RAVEN (Caller): Hello. Thank you for taking my call.

So for me, I'm a person that - I just live and breathe poetry. It's my life, and I'm actually trying to make a living. I'm just about to launch a business. It will launch in April. It's called Off the Page Poetry, and I perform other people's poems. And my business will be videos by - some will be free on my Web site and some will be by subscription.

And I just really feel like poetry needs to be heard, and I feel that people are so tuned in to visual stimuli that if they can hear and see a poem performed, it comes alive for them. And my hope is that if they see that enough, then when they're reading a poem, it comes off the page for them just even while they're reading it.

CONAN: Interesting. Quincy Troupe, how has the ability of any poet to put out a reading of their poem on the Internet or published a poem on the Internet, how does that change things?

Mr. TROUPE: I think it's changed somewhat - I don't publish on the Internet that much. I publish in books and I do CDs - and I do CDS and I communicate that way. And I do very oral kinds of presentations. But I don't publish much on the Internet, although I'm going to publish - they're going to publish an interview with me on the 15th of March and a poem on the Internet, the Coachella review that comes out of the University of California Riverside.

CONAN: All right. Well, Raven, good luck to you.

RAVEN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Let's see if we can go next to - this is Antonio(ph), Antonio calling us from Auburn in California.

ANTONIO (Caller): Hi. Hi there. How are you? Thanks for taking the call.

CONAN: Go ahead, Antonio.

ANTONIO: Well, I come from Sardinia, you know, the island of Italy, between Italy and Spain. And we have our own language there, it's not Italian. And there is plenty of people there that actually do make a living by improvising extemporaneous poetry. They get paid and they go on the stage and, you know, people will watch and, you know, sit down and listen to them. They are given a theme. It can be two or three of them. And then, you know, they will improvise of a particular metric. Its octaves - chanted on (unintelligible) syllables, totally improvised.

CONAN: And that's the form of it. Are they also, as Quincy was talking about -talking with us earlier - are they troublemakers? Are they truth tellers?

ANTONIO: Well, they actually, you know, they tell stories. They will put through, you know, anything that they know about people that might be around at times. Or they will talk about politics, you know, whatever social issues are, you know, are handy at the moment and they just improvise. And that is just one form. There are many other forms of improvisation.

CONAN: And is that one of the ways that the language you were talking about, Sardinian, is that one of the ways the language is preserved?

ANTONIO: Right. That is one of the ways, correct. But there is another beautiful way of singing or chanting improvised poetry, which is called (unintelligible), which means repeating it, which is 32(ph) lines on seven syllables per line (unintelligible) what do they start from. And, you know, at the end of it, you have to close with a same rhymes and possibly the same words but in different orders. And then these people get paid for, you know, for it and then they make a pretty good living.

CONAN: Oh, well. Antonio, thanks very much. Glad to know that.

ANTONIO: My pleasure. Well, you know, poetry is still very, you know, revered, very well revered and gives people a very good living.

CONAN: Well, thank you very much for that phone call, Antonio. Appreciate it.

ANTONIO: Yes, you're welcome. Thank you for taking the call. Bye-bye.

CONAN: And, Quincy Troupe, are both you and Sinan Antoon headed down to Washington this weekend?

Mr. TROUPE: Yes. I'm leaving tomorrow. I read on Friday, March 12 at 8:00 p.m., there along with three other poets. And I'll be there at that time and then I'll come back up to New York.

CONAN: Okay. Well, thanks very much for being with us today. Thanks for your time.

Mr. TROUPE: You're welcome.

CONAN: And Sinan Antoon, we appreciate speaking with you as well and look forward to your visit here in Washington, D.C.

Prof. ANTOON: Thank you. I just want to mention that I also have a book called "The Baghdad Blues."

CONAN: "The Baghdad Blues."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. ANTOON: Check it out.

CONAN: Naomi Ayala, thank you for being with us here in Studio 3A.

Ms. AYALA: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Naomi Ayala's a poet and writer and originally from Puerto Rico.

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