We spoke earlier this week with Susan B.A. Somers-Willett, who wrote a series of poems for the multimedia project “Women of Troy,” our latest Notable Narrative. A professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey, Somers-Willett offers her thoughts on poetry as journalism, reporting from inside others’ lives, and collaborating with radio producer Lu Olkowski and photographer Brenda Kenneally. Here are excerpts from our talk:
How did you first get involved with “Women of Troy”?
The first person to contact me was Ted Genoways, who is editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review. He and Lu had been talking for a little while about doing the poetry series, and I have a book with the VQR poetry series from the University of Georgia Press.
He’d known me for a number of years, and knew I had a feminist background and wrote feminist poetry. One thing he said was that he knew a woman would have to do this project because of the subjects, and because of the—I don’t want to say matriarchal—culture, exactly, but it’s very female-centered.
Brenda said that in Troy, the men are dodo birds, that they’re going out of existence, because a lot of them just aren’t around, or are baby daddies to a lot of different families, or they’re in prison. Besides boys who are kids in the family, men weren’t a big feature—you didn’t see a whole lot of them.
Those were some of the reasons Ted wanted me to get involved. He also knew it would take some steely nerves to go into this environment. When he approached me, I thought, “Wow, this is going to be a real challenge for me.” I’m a white middle-class woman. I don’t consider myself particularly privileged, or anything like that, but relative to these women’s situation, I would certainly be considered privileged.
I was concerned about crossing that line and how I would create a relationship or a sense of intimacy with the women. Also, one of my fears was about being a poet and coming into this environment—about them being skeptical about this person who writes some kind of “high-falutin’ verse” coming to describe their lives.
But with the kinds of relationships that Brenda has forged and cultivated across six years, I was able to hit the ground running. Lu helped, too. She enters these cultures and communities that are foreign to her as a regular part of her job, but doing documentary work was something new to me.
The project posed a lot of challenges. It aimed to be documentary but brought a poet’s perspective to the table, too—and the photographer’s perspective, and the radio producer’s perspective.
Had you ever done commissioned work before?
No, I had never done poetry on assignment. I did some assigned journalism stories in high school and college; I did prose writing and news stories then. Most people think of the genre of poetry as something that’s very interior and personal to the poet him- or herself. Being given an assignment is pretty unique.
How do you navigate between the personal expectations you have for your poems and the journalistic expectation to document a community?
When I got to Troy, I had a crisis of consciousness. I just felt like I quickly got very involved in these women’s lives, and their families’ lives. There’s a lot of drama that goes on there. I realized that what I was doing couldn’t take the shape of what we might expect for a news article, a piece we would read in the newspaper or see on television. I felt like I had to free myself of the journalistic imperative of being very objective and not putting my perspective in it at all. Ultimately, that’s not what the project is about. It’s about bringing my own perspective to bear.
When you’re working in poetry, it’s automatically something that’s pretty subjective. Once I got over that hump and said, “Maybe I don’t have to be completely objective,” everything opened up. It is journalistic, but it’s also entirely subjective, too.
I hope that it brings with it a kind of honesty and empathy. That’s one thing that echoed in my mind in Troy and at home working on the poetry. I was trying to do a series of portraits that took women on their own terms and provided a deeper degree of empathy than some hard-core journalism might do.
How long were you in Troy, and then how long did you have to write the poems afterward?
I spent a period of about 2 and a half weeks. I spent a week, or a week and a few days, there at the beginning of May and went home and wrote for a month. And then I went back in June for a week and a few days. That second trip allowed me to gather information and interviews.
In all, including the trips, it was about three months’ worth of work. What I did was probably a little different than the way that writers or journalists would approach it—either writing within the venue that they’re studying or visiting and then coming back and writing more. I actually really enjoyed the format, because it allowed me to observe and respond and write and come back and ask questions.
I’ve read a little of your work in the Virginia Quarterly Review and at your own site. You have several poems that look to the past and imagine historic people or moments in intimate ways, from Joan of Arc to Gregor Mendel and Darwin. How are those poems similar or dissimilar to the “Women of Troy” series?
Before, I have really thought about it as separate, because this involved field work. I wasn’t researching historical subjects, I was meeting women and talking about their lives. I thought about it more in the vein of Judy Grahn’s poems, The Common Woman Poems, published in the ’70s, where she chronicles the life of a waitress or a working woman, or a working mom.
Now that you bring that up, I realize that there is a similar element of research. I think with the historical portraits, I feel like I have a little bit more freedom, not necessarily to invent, but to be more creative with what I’m writing. With this project, I was interviewing these women and writing about them, and I knew they would hear the product. I really needed to try to include everything and be accurate about what happened and in what order. I was working under the narrative constraints—or really, narrative boundaries—of the radio format, too.
I was trying to convey, say, in a poem about DJ Guerrin, that she’s a certain age and has seven kids, but only four of them live with her, while one is with her mom, and the other two live with their respective fathers. It’s very difficult to say all that in a compressed format such as poetry. You can say it in prose, where you have the space. In poetry you have to be really subtle about finding new and inventive ways to relay information.
But again, if I’m writing about Mendel, I don’t have to convey all of that, I just have to convey that part of his life that I’m most interested in. I think writing about these women gave me a certain sense of accountability to them. Which I think is a good thing.
In addition to two books of poetry, you’ve written a book on the cultural politics of slam poetry. While you say that slam poetry doesn’t mean improvised verse, do you think slam poetry or improvised work could be used to report for multimedia projects similar to “In Verse”?
Oh, sure. I kind of feel like the possibilities for “In Verse” are pretty endless. When I went into the studio to record some of the poems with Lu, which she then put into radio format, she also recorded Brenda reading some of my poems. One of the things she said is “We’re really not looking for poetry voice.” So I did what I thought would work. And it didn’t. And I tried my slam poetry voice, and that didn’t quite go. It really depends on in what medium and in what venue. Certainly performance poets could have a role something like this.
Was it odd to go to Troy after Brenda Ann Kenneally, the photographer, had been visiting these women for years?
It bears repeating: Brenda established these relationships and was the reason we were able to get so much done so quickly. If it were just me and Lu, it would have been a much longer project to establish those relationships ourselves. I actually had the least obtrusive equipment—I just had a notebook. But Lu had all her recording equipment, and Brenda always had her camera, and often more.
What was it like going into a community as an artist where someone had already created something lasting about it?
I think that each of us wanted to make sure that we could establish the integrity of our own creative turf. That’s not a bad thing at all. The way that I went into it, I wanted to do honor to Brenda’s work and the amount of time that she had put into the project, so I did feel a sense of responsibility to her and her work—to be true to it. At the same time, I wanted to bring my own perspective to the table. I think what we created did justice to all of that.
With Lu’s work, too, that’s a whole ’nother world. There was so much about radio that I had no idea about—how you have to prep a subject for an interview, how to get room tone.
I think with any collaboration, there is going to be a little tension and little friction. We have our own needs for getting material. But the benefits of collaboration outweigh all those challenges.
What kind of responses have you gotten to “Women of Troy”?
They have been overwhelmingly positive, mostly like, “Wow! Why haven’t other people done this?” I think people find it brings new empathy to documentary processes—particularly to documenting the working poor—that it’s good and ambitious to try to tell that story.
But there’s one response in that I really remember, that stands out to me. This woman e-mailed me, and she’d heard the piece about DJ, the woman with seven kids. And her response was “I’ve never been compelled to write anyone about anything I’ve ever heard on the radio, but your poem will not leave me.” She expressed a lot of anger and frustration because this woman is on social services and can’t keep all of her kids. She didn’t think that you have seven kids accidentally. She admitted that part of it probably had to do with her own perspective. She said, “I’m in my ’40s and desperately want a child, and it’s hard to see someone who has what I want in abundance and doesn’t seem to be taking care of it.” Her response was really honest, though not necessarily politically correct. At the end of the e-mail, she said, “Don’t you think it’s irresponsible for this woman to have this many children?” Clearly she was looking for some validation.
So I responded to her and said, “I went into this project not to pass judgment but to represent and empathize. I wanted to show these women in moments of empowerment and joy as well as their tough times.”
It’s really easy when we’re talking about poverty to focus solely on the negative, but it’s actually kind of a patronizing view to say, “Oh, look at these terrible conditions. These people only have this.” One of my goals was to show that abject poverty, but also to show that these are real, everyday people. But I went on a girls’ night out on the town to a nightclub with them. I danced with them and the little baby in front of the huge speakers in somebody’s squalid apartment. These women deserve that kind of portrayal, that they have moments of connection just like the rest of us.
Would you do something like this again?
Absolutely. That’s not a pat response, it’s something I’ve thought a lot about. This kind of project, there’s so much labor that goes into it. I did plenty of writing, and put in my three months, but the six years of labor that Brenda put into it, the six to nine months that Lu put into it, from the first day that she started recording to sending the finished pieces off to radio. It was a massive undertaking and hard to coordinate schedules.
This was a difficult project to pull off, but I think the product, what came out of the collaboration, was really worth it and tells a new story. It’s not a new story, it’s an old story in a new way, a different way.
So, yeah, I would be interested in doing something somewhere else with other collaborators. I grew really attached to my subjects, Brenda’s subjects. Lu’s subjects. Our subjects. I learned a lot about myself as part of it.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about the project?
There is that female-centric aspect of the community. There really is something that ties them all together. These women have come to rely on each other because they have learned throughout their lives that most men aren’t very reliable, so the kind of bonds that exist between women in this community are fierce. There’s a lot of drama, and there’s a lot of “She slept with him,” and “I’m going to go beat up on so-and-so,” but at the end of the day, they know that they can rely on each other. That intimacy is really unique.
As far as the project that represents them, there are the poems and the photographs published together. Then you have the poems read aloud. And then you have that radio piece that intersperses the poems with real-time audio. The multimedia piece on Vimeo and Youtube—it’s got the poem, it’s got Brenda’s voice and images, but the radio pieces take that even further. You’ve got interviews with the subject, the host’s voice, the poem, my voice, with all the audio cut into it. It’s a collage, but it’s an organized collage. It’s a multifaceted way of storytelling.
[Check out our commentary on “Women of Troy,” or read interviews with radio producer Lu Olkowski about this unusual collaboration and Ted Genoways of the Virginia Quarterly Review on recapturing a documentary role for poetry.]