On representing "the city and its women": An interview with Susan B.A. Somers-Willett (Part I)
A few months ago, I happily stumbled upon and blogged about poet, scholar, and UT alum Susan B.A. Somers-Willett’s docu-poetry project “Women of Troy.” Recently, Susan kindly took a break from her busy semester of writing and teaching to have coffee with me. We talked about multimedia poetics, issues of representation, the complications of collaboration, and the role of technology in the poetry classroom. Because the transcript of our interview is rather long, you can read Part I of our conversation below. I'll post the second installment next week. After that you'll also be able to find the interview in its entirety on our "Views" page.
First, a word about the "Women of Troy" project:
In 2009, Somers-Willett teamed up with photographer Brenda Ann Kenneally and radio producer Lu Olkowski to represent the experiences of women living below the poverty line in Troy, New York. The collaboration aired on Public Radio International/WNYC program Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen and BBC Radio, and a print version appeared with Kenneally's photographs in the Virginia Quarterly Review. Among multiple honors, “Women of Troy” received a Gracie Award from the Alliance for Women in Media in 2010.
More about Susan:
Susan is the author of two critically acclaimed books of poetry and a book of criticism. Her first book of poetry, Roam, won the Crab Orchard Review Award series in 2006 and was a finalist for the Helen C. Smith Memorial Award for poetry. Her second book, Quiver, published in 2009 with the University of Georgia Press as part of the VQR Series in Poetry, received the 2010 Writers' League of Texas Book Award. Her book of criticism, The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry: Race, Identity, and the Performance of Popular Verse in America, was published by University of Michigan Press in 2009 and has been cited by The Globe and Mail and The New York Times. Her writing has been featured by The Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, Poets & Writers, and The New Yorker.
EF: Tell me a little bit about the process of putting together "Women of Troy." How did you come to the project?
SSW: I had a call from Ted Genoways, editor-in-chief of VQR. He had been talking with Lu Olkowski about doing some multimedia pieces in the vein of Kwame Dawes’s work with the Pulitzer Center. Ted was also connected with Brenda Ann Kenneally who hails from the Troy area and has been documenting women in that community for 6 -7 years now. He had known all of us in those various spheres and brought us together. Lu and Ted had been talking about putting together a series of documentary poetry projects with the multimedia elements of radio and photography. “Women of Troy” was the first of those projects.
My introduction to the project and Troy, New York was visual, through Brenda’s photographs, or some of them at least. What I saw in those photographs was stark and shocking and challenging for me as someone who identified as a white, middle class woman, and I knew that was exactly why I needed to do the project because it would and has caused me to think about class in much more conscious ways.
EF: Do you remember which photographs you saw first and which images you found to be most striking?
SSW: I saw a slideshow of Brenda’s work that someone had put together. I remember a photograph of a mother (whom I would later learn was Kayla), father, and baby. The father had a huge knife laying on his belly. I later found out it was a toy knife. I also saw an image of a woman lying on a bed holding a gun. I assumed it was real, but I don’t know. Those weapons really stuck with me the first time I saw Brenda’s work. I felt that there was a threat there.
I saw pictures of children living in only what I could describe as squalor, in these bare, crumbling backgrounds. Their environments seemed so chaotic, but later I found out they were moving all the time. That was my one trepidation when I was thinking about going into this environment, but it was never as dangerous as those photographs necessarily depict.
So, when I think about my first impressions of looking at those photographs, it’s actually kind of funny to me, knowing what I know now about Troy. In a lot of ways, these women are just like you or me, loving their families fiercely and trying to get by with what they have, and often I identified with them more than I felt an economic or social divide. At other times, the economic divide was very sharp, but the social divide still felt distant and I never felt threatened. I think my experience of that environment and the very specific vision that Brenda is promoting or trying to get across in her photographs is different. She sees herself as someone who got out of that community. She has a different perspective on how she wants those women to be represented. She wants them to get out and educate themselves and still be tough and mean and still have their street cred. but not be trapped in that cycle of poverty and gossip and all of the she said/she said that’s there. My main goal was to observe, and to do my best not to paternalize or exploit. It’s not that Brenda’s and my goals are mutually exclusive; I just think we had different processes and agendas.
Photograph, Brenda Ann Keneally, from Upstate Girls
What was your writing process like? How did it dovetail with Brenda Ann Kenneally’s process?
SSW: Brenda was shooting the entire time that we were there. I was there for a week in May and then I left for a month and wrote 24/7. Then went back in early June for another ten days and then wrote for another month. My time in Troy wasn’t like sitting down have and having coffee over an interview. It was real fieldwork. We were staying up until 3:00 in the morning at times. I was staying up with Billie Jean partying with her friends and then getting up to ride with D.J. to drop her kids off at school at 7:00 a.m. The schedule was grueling and I got really sick at the end.
When I was in Troy, I was with Brenda who was already accepted as a member of that community. She hails from that area. She talks like the gals in Troy and has their swagger. So who knows what I would have experienced if we hadn’t worked as a team, but I feel that Brenda gave us the credentials to be in that community and for those subjects to accept us. I feel that we would not have been as able to get as deep and entangled in their lives if it had not been for her inviting us in, and I am very grateful for that.
EF: For how many of the photographs were you present? How did that change your writing process?
SSW: I don’t know if I can give you a number because there were so many different productions. I think the majority of photographs were taken before.
One of the things that I learned in my time there watching Brenda photograph is that she directs her subjects not to smile. I remember being very vividly being in a house documenting a teenage girl and Brenda kept saying, “No smiles! No smiles!” It was like seeing the man behind the curtain, or the woman behind the curtain in this case, in the production of that image because it underscored the constructed-ness of documentary images, but I think she does it in a very powerful way that has no equal. She says what she wants to say with those images.
EF: Were you involved in the editing process? Did you know what photographs would be paired with your poems? In what order?
SSW: I was not involved in the editing at all, and it’s probably a good thing. That was Lu’s doing, and she hired filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar to edit it together. The input that I did have—I had written “Women of Troy,” and I had seen a show Brenda had done at the Sanctuary for Independent Media, a non-profit, in an old converted church in Troy. They fund and sponsor community projects, and their building is right across the street from the main house where all of the gossip and stuff goes on, where Kayla lives with her family, where everybody goes and talks, gathers. That stoop is always crowded. Roseanne, Billie Jean’s mother, lived in the unfinished basement of that house at the time. But, the Sanctuary supports Brenda’s work quite a bit. They had a show called Upstate Girls, which is Brenda’s continuing project, a show of all of her photographs, D.J.’s photographs, Dana’s photographs. They were able to open it up to the community, and the women could write on the wall around the photographs and have a conversation with those images.
I had seen that show and there were a few key specific photographs that I reference in the poems. The last image of “Women of Troy” is of this young girl holding a sparkler. I knew that would go well with the last stanza of the poem, “You are the city and its women/ wailing darkly and bright to bless/ your city as it burns, this city/made of your light.” So, although I gave one or two suggestions about what images might correspond to the poem, most of the images spring from their own contexts rather than being literal referents.
In another poem, “A Call to Arms,” the very last image in that poem stems from a photograph of Billie Jean. The last few lines are about a women going down the block to take the beating someone says she deserves and the photograph is Billie Jean receiving a pocketknife from a friend of hers as she is preparing to go down the block and take the beating. That was one of the few literal referents I included.
Screen shot, Brenda Ann Kenneally's website for “Upstate Girls”
EF: How were issues of representation involved for you as a poet and as a collaborator?
SSW: I don’t really know how these women would choose to represent themselves [visually]. The dialogic aspect of this project really attracted me because I knew that through the radio and the audio aspect that we would be able to hear their voices.
I discovered that there’s a thin line on appropriating voices, and the line always seems to be moving. I kept asking myself, “What’s the right way to represent the women? Should I be representing them at all?” At AWP, Erika Meitner was talking about trying to avoid “ruin porn” in writing about photographs of Detroit. The bottom line is you don’t want to fetishize the aspect of of a subject’s experience simply because it’s edgy or shocking for a particular readership, even though that response is probably inevitable for some folks.
Lu and I got to know these women as women and as friends, and we got to know their families. Nothing’s ever easy in the field of documentary studies, but that was an aspect that attracted me to the project. I knew that through the audio tracks that we would hear their voices, too. I knew that it wouldn’t just be me speaking or representing their voices, and I hoped that it would turn into a conversation.
Something that I found was really interesting was that some audiences had heard only the radio pieces, which had some interviews with the women introducing the poems that I had read and an interview the Brenda. The poems were intercut with interview and audio, so it was an interesting use of multimedia. Of the women that we had profiled, all identified as white, but there were a number of people who assumed that they were black because of their idioms and accents. One of my colleagues asked, “How does it feel as a white person documenting black women?”—a question that’s very valid, but that also revealed that my colleage had made some assumptions linking class, race, and language in very specific ways. We had a great discussion about it, actually.
The appropriation of voice is something that I am very conscious of in writing these pieces. I felt like I had to be very conscious of staying true to what Dana, Billie Jean, and D.J. would say and be sensitive about how they might want to be represented. The feedback that we’ve gotten from them is pretty much “Yeah, that’s about right.” I’m hoping that we did a good, sensitive job, but it’s something that we all worry about. When you’re doing something with people who are in a relatively less empowered position than you are, you have to think about those questions or you’re not doing your job.
I think that we were women profiling with women in a community where there is a profound absence of men (because the men were in prison or had just skidaddled) was important to the project. Now, that’s not to say that I think a male could not engage with this work but that it would be somewhat different.
EF: So does the poet have an obligation to the subject? How is this similar or different from the photographer’s?
SSW: Of course, but the kind of obligationdepends on the poet and the photographer. One of the things that we discovered through this project—this project was really hard to do because so many different moving parts—we discovered we had different creative projects and ways to get work done. Personally, I learned a lot about audio production. I learned a lot about Brenda’s visual and technical processes and different approaches that have to do with the kinds of artists that we are. I needed more reflection and time to observe in a silent manner. I knew that I needed more time than I had to hole up and write. Lu’s process is about seducing you to say the right thing to get the radio piece to work in a coherent way. It’s about being around people, and talking, talking, talking, pulling it out of the interviewee. Brenda--her process is different. She crosses more lines than most documenters would cross by giving somebody five dollars for gas or a ride here and there because she’s a member of that community, because she’s an insider and that determines how anyone would approach it. And I think that’s OK too. The question of insider/outsider may be the more important question about how to approach the documentary work than whether you are a poet or photographer.
EF: So how is it different for the insider versus the outsider?
SSW: I’m thinking of Brenda getting embroiled in all the drama, their fistfights and all of their mama drama. There’s a lot of baby mama drama, or, as Billie Jean would say, “baby mother and baby father drama.” She’s very proper about that, which ended up being part of my poem. Billie Jean called it that, so that’s why it’s in there.
I’m thinking about [the insider/outsider question] in contrast to Brenda’s photographs, which are very stark and tell a specific message. I wanted to complement that vision, but I wanted to represent moments where these women did feel empowered. My goal is not to contradict but to enrich and complicate the singular vision of the photograph. I think the piece of Billy Jean at the Flag Day parade, the “Just a Girl” poem, is a step in that direction. There was one night we piled into D.J.’s minivan and went to Schenectady, NY and they got all dressed up in their tight pants and g-strings. We had a good time. We had a girl’s night out. Brenda photographed that, and it made it into the poem, photos of that evening when we went out to the club. There’s a picture of D.J. dancing, and my back’s to the camera.
Screen shot, Brenda Ann Kenneally's website for “Upstate Girls”
EF: Do you consider these pieces to be ekphrastic? You’ve made ekphrasis part of your work elsewhere. How does this process compare with other ekphrastics you’ve done, ex. for the Landmarks program and the Blanton Museum's Poetry Project?
SSW: I’ve automatically assumed that they are but not in the traditional way, as in, “Here’s a piece of visual art. I’m going to represent it in my poem.” It’s a different kind of take because we were working collaboratively and we were creating our respective works of art at the same time. So, some of it is ekphrastic. Some of it, yes, in the more traditional sense. For instance, there were three or four images, that I had already seen. Some of them ended up in the poem or references to them. Lu tends to represent this approach as a new way of storytelling, but it’s a new take on ekphrasis, too. The visual art pre-exists the poems, but some of them are being created at the same time. Some of the photos are taken afterwards. I think the possibility to call it ekphrasis is definitely there but not wholly in the traditional sense. I am interested in pushing the envelope in what the process of ekphrasis means.
Plato talks about ekphrasis as involving one representation in art and then a second ideal representation of that representation in literature, and then a third ideal representation, ad infinitum--basically an infinite regress of mirrors. But here we’re asking, “What happens when those representations are parallel, when they are being created in parallel forms in parallel time? What prism of ekphrastic perspective can emerge through collaboration? And can it be more than merely mimetic?”
One of the ways that I want to complicate and trouble ekphrasis is to add reflection on process—on creation as well as representation. Thinking about that parallelism between poetry and photograph rather than having a linear distance between them helps to do that. “Women of Troy” is as much about photography and representation as it is about these particular women. The last few lines, “You are the city and its women/wailing darkly and bright to bless/your city as it burns, this city/made of your light” is of course Troy burning--but it is also the city being populated by Brenda’s photographs, the light and dark of her film and its reproduction.
The way that poem is organized—it’s a litany. It’s image after image. Not all of the lines correspond one to one to a photograph, but it’s like being in a gallery of photographs. I wanted the effect of walking through a gallery and to emphasize the way the city speaks to a viewer through this collection of images.
And that’s what I think poetry and photography share, the language of image, and that’s why there’s such a venerable tradition of the two working together. At the same time, there are a lot of unexplored avenues in working in those two artistic genres. With ekphrasis, I feel like I’ve stumbled upon the great metaphor that will inform most of my writing. I could write a lifetime of work about image and representation.
Screen shot, "Women of Troy" via vimeo
EF: Aside from ekphrasis, these pieces seem to touch the borders of other forms. I’m thinking elegy, ode. They also form a sort of archive.
SSW: We definitely took it as a documentary project and certainly what Brenda is doing is archiving these women’s lives. A big goal of her Upstate Girls project is to basically follow these women and their daughters through growing up as children and then becoming mothers themselves. She wants to see one generational turn, and she’s not that far away from it, actually.
EF: You’ve probably noticed that many of my questions deal with characterizing the form of this piece. I find that the complicated form pays tribute to the lives of these women, in a way. Did you find that, in order to pay full tribute to these women’s experiences, it was necessary to use multiple forms?
SSW: I don’t think it’s necessary. I think you can pay tribute in whatever genre, whatever artistic mode. However, I think the fact that we did undertake a multifaceted, complex mode that reached many artistic modes and genres, we made it a better documentary project because you could have a conversation of women on the radio that you couldn’t have anywhere else. You could have my poem and Billie Jean talking right back to each other. I could add a counter-anchor to Brenda’s photos to show empowerment as well as moments of strife and struggle.
I don’t think my poems would be as strong as they are if they were not running alongside the work of my collaborators, Lu and Brenda. Can you pay tribute in single genres? Of course, and they do. But, they speak so much more powerfully in concert.
EF: I know you’re also interested in orality, aurality, and the role of the performance. Do you view these videos or photograph/ video combos as a kind of performance?
SSW: Oh lordy! Well, let me tell you a story. I was living in Austin the summer I was writing these poems, and so Lu arranged for me to go to the KUT studio on the UT campus to record my poems. We spent a four-hour, marathon session recording four or five poems that she would then edit down. I have a background in doing performance poetry on slam stages, so I got ready for it. I rehearsed and practiced reading the poems aloud and got it so that they would sound good on the radio. Then I got into the studio, and Lu had hired an audio editor, Emily Botein, to help her with the project. She and Emily were on the phone, and I would say three lines, and then they would say, “Make this sound less like poetry. You’re reading this too much like a poet.” It was so frustrating! But, in a good way. We had this marathon session, trying to get me to sound less like a poet. It was pretty hilarious, and it was frustrating at the time, but looking back on it, it was really funny. It was because they were approaching it from a very expert position of being producers creating a radio narrative that worked from start to finish. I didn’t know at the time that Lu was thinking of inter-splicing women’s interviews with my own voice. It had to be a very specific delivery. I think they were trying to erase my voice of any affect, which is hard for a poet, even someone as down-to-earth as me. When you have a certain line break or slant rhyme, you have an unconscious desire as a poet to highlight it, I guess.
When Lu put together the multimedia piece, I had already recorded “Women of Troy.” She tried and tried to make my audio work, but something wasn’t clicking. So Lu asked Brenda--who hails from that area and sounds like those women--to read and record the poem. When you hear the piece, it’s Brenda’s voice you hear, and I think it works. I didn’t quite know how to feel about it at first. I felt a little bit of ownership of the piece, but once I played it and sat with it, I realized it was the right choice. I think poets and really all of us have an attachment—maybe it’s the cult of the author era that we are in—to the idea that the author has some ultimate authority over the work. You think you know what it’s supposed to sound like or mean, and this was an instance where that boundary was crossed and challenged for the better.
I learned that—surprise!--someone else can do a better job than me with my own work. The collaboration opened me up to more possibilities for how the poem can sound--the way I think about it may not be the best way. It was a very, very good lesson to learn.