In Verse: The Making of “Women of Troy”

November 6th, 2009 | by Lu Olkowski, Ted Genoways, Brenda Ann Kenneally, and Susan B.A. Somers-Willett

Women of Troy

Women of Troy

One advantage of the modern age is that good work travels fast; you may already have heard and seen “Women of Troy.” But if not, get thee to Transom and spend a few minutes. Then pass on the link. This remarkable slide show/poem/radio piece is part of In Verse, which arose from AIR’s Maker’s Quest. Transom’s feature is about the Making Of… and it includes commentary from all the collaborators–radio producer Lu Olkowski, editor Ted Genoways, poet Susan B.A. Somers-Willett, and photographer Brenda Ann Kenneally. And, we’re posting more work from this series… three powerful duets, made from poems and recordings of the people who inspired them. All airing on Studio 360 this weekend. Highly recommended. Jay A

“Women of Troy” video (4:57)

About “In Verse” and “Women of Troy”

“In Verse” is a multimedia reporting project combining poetry, photography and sound. The documentary poems will be broadcast on Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen the weekend of November 6, 2009.

The first installment of the project, “Women of Troy,” documents the lives of working mothers in Troy, New York–once one of the richest cities in America, thanks to its role in the industrial revolution. Now roughly 19 percent of the population is living below the US poverty line.

Below are notes on the project from the collaborators–written comments from radio producer Lu Olkowski and editor Ted Genoways, combined with interview excerpts from poet Susan B.A. Somers-Willett and photographer Brenda Ann Kenneally in conversation with Transom’s Samantha Broun, and edited by Sydney Lewis.

Lu Olkowski: “In Verse” was developed through a series of conversations with Ted Genoways, the editor of Virginia Quarterly Review, about why poetry isn’t more popular and relevant in our daily lives. The central premise of “In Verse” offers a possible solution: why not engage a poet as a reporter? Send him or her out on assignment and deliver the story through poetry.

Although I had worked on a number of radio stories about poetry, I didn’t know how to go about recruiting poets or how to create an assignment that would be both focused and flexible. That’s where Ted came in. He recommended poets and photographers that we could work with and when the time came he edited the poetry.

Ted Genoways: I trust poets. Lots of people think poets are mere interpreters of their own experience and, thus, are the ultimate unreliable narrators. They sing clearly but only for themselves. In my experience, though, poets are singularly determined to tell the truth–to find the moment that distills an entire experience, the exact word to convey a feeling–and to share that truth with anyone who will listen. That’s why I’ve sent poets to places like Lebanon and Serbia.

Lu: When we first developed the idea, the economic crisis was in full swing. Amid stories about how the crisis was affecting the middle and upper-middle class, there seemed to be very few stories about how (and if) the crisis was affecting people who were struggling long before Wall Street’s collapse. That became our focus. One of the first people Ted suggested we work with was Brenda Ann Kenneally who has spent five years photographing a group of women living on the economic edge in Troy, New York.

Billie Jean at the Flag Day Parade

Billie Jean at the Flag Day Parade

Ted: I had been talking to Brenda Ann Kenneally about publishing photographs from her remarkable documentary series, Upstate Girls but we’d struggled to find a way to contain the story. Lu and I decided this might be a place to start.

Brenda Ann Kenneally: The poetry is what really drew me to the project because I was anxious to see the women represented poetically. I think of photography as poetic in some form — meaning like a boiling down. And I was happy to be involved with public radio because it’s where I get all my news and information. But it’s really hard to collaborate on something you’ve already been working on for a long time —- you’re being asked to see it with fresh eyes. Which is a wonderful challenge but also there is a certain amount of ego that has to be negated; I didn’t want anybody to reconstruct what I was already doing. At the same time, I was happy to look at it with fresh eyes once I got to the point where it didn’t feel scary. And I was happy for the girls.

Lu: I spoke with Brenda about some of the women in her photographs and went to Troy on a scouting mission to meet several of them. Once Ted and I had a better idea of who our subjects would be and what their stories might be about, Ted recommended a poet.

Lu and Brenda with DJ at The Cutting Place

Lu and Brenda with DJ at The Cutting Place

Ted: I asked Susan B. A. Somers-Willett, a poet friend for more than a decade, a kind, generous, and deeply unflappable soul, to wade into the years of work Brenda had done, to work without a net and on the record, to see if she could portray complicated lives in a few poems that could be paired with Brenda’s pictures and the sound of the women’s voices. The result, I think, is exactly what we all wanted–except far different and far better. It became less and less conceptual (less about “the working poor” or “single mothers”) and more about the particular lives that Susan, Brenda, and Lu were trying to share with readers.

Susan B.A. Somers-Willett: When Ted invited me to collaborate on this project involving photography and poetry and radio I thought wow! The range of media was something I wanted to do, but it also sounded like a three-headed beast. And I’d never done any kind of documentary work before. I wasn’t used to dealing with the level of attention that you need when you’re recording for radio. Checking the audio levels. Making sure your subjects state things in complete statements. Making sure there’s not all this background noise that’s going to drown out everything you want to hear.

Lu: Susan, Brenda and I traveled to Troy for two separate weeklong reporting trips. Together we conducted interviews and followed the women as they went about their lives — whether that meant going to the social security office and food shopping or celebrating a special occasion like a Mother’s Day barbecue or the Flag Day parade. After the first trip, Susan had a month before our next trip. She threw herself into her writing and used every available resource to get into the heads of these women: her own experience, Brenda’s photographs, recordings from our reporting trips and the scouting trip. She’d email and ask for passages of tape or transcript to remember or envision the scenes.

Dana, pregnant


Susan: The way I’d approach a project like this would be to think and tinker and meditate and work in a very solitary way. That’s part of the writing process. Being in your head for a long time. Staring at the page for a long time. I thought when I went to visit Troy I would have a sit down interview with a cup of coffee with these women and go back to my hotel after dinner and write. It wasn’t like that. This was all about being there, seeing what unfolded. It was a totally different approach for me. Plenty of interviews happened up into the wee hours of the morning. Some days we would have to shadow somebody and not record because someone else in the house frowned upon the microphone being there. It was intense, not at all anything like I expected. There’s so much hard everyday living there for these women. I think the most difficult thing in the whole process was finding time where one of these women was unencumbered.

Brenda: This morphed a little bit in the process of figuring out what it was. It was good. It was challenging. Lu and Susan saw how emotionally connected I was with everyone; how the relationships that I have with the girls became almost more important to keep intact than the reporting. So it was charged, and frustrating at times. The whole experience was bittersweet because I did feel claustrophobic about having other people in that world.

I began to see how difficult the situations I was putting myself in were; how that was more becoming my life than the life I thought I was bringing in. I said to Lu and Susan: “Are you going to write about the irony of me photographing this kind of class struggle to alleviate my own class struggle, yet ultimately being sucked back into it by the very same world that I’m trying to liberate?” I realized when I was working with them that doing photography was a way for me to free myself from the victim role. When you are an artist you free yourself from being a victim just because you are speaking out. Whether it carries you elsewhere economically or socially is up for grabs. It doesn’t necessarily. Sometimes it puts you in another ghetto and another struggle altogether.

Roseanne with baby

Roseanne with baby

Susan: When I was watching Brenda interact with and photograph her subjects in intimate moments, I came to realize that, in a way, these were self-portraits. She is a woman of Troy. She hails from the area and she grew up in a family situation and an economic sphere not very different from that of these women. Brenda is photographing these women, I think, as evidence of what her life could have become if she had stayed there.

The photographs are powerful and somber. When I went to Troy, I came to know the women and know Brenda’s process in a completely different way. I no longer see those scenes as necessarily somber. I see them as representations of women who are beautiful and who laugh. And who cried in the car with me.

Brenda: The poems are everything that has been floating around in my notes and in my head and put in Susan’s beautiful way. She caught on very quickly and appreciated some of the things that I had been thinking about; things I’d even written little stories about. She wrote a poem “In the Office of Temporary Assistance.” I’d been thinking about that office for years: how do they manage this aesthetic? Is there wallpaper that’s designed to be completely emotionally chastising? How do they get it to look so bad? Susan even wrote a poem for me and I really love that.

Lu: From the beginning it was difficult to explain to my collaborators and my editor, Emily Botein, how the radio pieces might sound. There were a few pieces that I thought of as models. One was Ann Heppermann and Kara Oehler’s “And I Walked…” and the other was “Lord God Bird” by Long Haul Productions. I also thought a lot about Joe Richman’s Radio Diaries. I hoped that like Joe’s diaries, these pieces would be narratives rooted in scenes. The difference being that these would have poetry running through them. But it all really depended on the poems.

Since Susan wrote ten poems (which have been published in this Fall’s issue of Virginia Quarterly Review, I could pick and choose which worked best for radio and which might make a better multimedia piece. “Women of Troy” seemed like a natural for the audio slideshow. It is a panoramic view of the city and all of the women we met and it gave me a lot of freedom to use images of many more women from Troy. Susan’s portraits of individual girls, “Just a Girl” and “The Cutting Place” seemed destined to be radio pieces. They are both rooted in scenes — scenes that I witnessed and recorded. By combining the poems with those documentary recordings, it feels like you’re there at the moment of Susan’s inspiration — minus, of course, the hours of Susan sitting alone in a room writing and rewriting.

Susan holding baby, Billie Jean and Lu

Susan holding baby, Billie Jean and Lu

Susan: The collaboration at times was hard because we were looking at the art from different perspectives and wanted to maintain our own perspectives within the piece. At times I did just want to retreat and go do my solitary writing. But the experience of working on this project was profound. Not just in terms of thinking about how I might approach art in the future, or about doing more multimedia work, or doing more collaboration, but in how I now think about class. And I learned so much about how a poem can succeed in different media and in different venues.

Brenda: At first I was hoping that we were going to use my audio because I’ve done all these videotapes and we talked about ripping the audio. But I quickly began to learn that gathering audio for radio is completely different. Even down to the room tone. Lu’s sound is very good. I saw what she was gathering and it felt like she was getting the juicy parts, and it was clean audio and that works well for radio.

I heard the part about Billie Jean picking up this guy on the way to the store to get the kids juice…and then forgetting to get the kids juice. That’s so her. I think the girls will love it too because it is a way in which they can see themselves and they don’t necessarily have to visually see themselves. Sometimes we want to bring these projects home and the people in them would really rather have them be on a wall in Europe. When the work is introduced into the home community people tend to look at what other people are wearing and if they’re fat. They look at the photographs like you’d look at family photos; they don’t look from a social or artistic point of view. I think radio is safe because it’s purely sound. It’s very right on.

Ted: What surprised me most was hearing the finished audio. These poems find their fullest expression in the listening, in the hearing of the poets’ voices as they mix with the voices of their subjects. So, too, in the audio slideshows, do the photographers’ images seem to burst forth. I’m a print guy by nature. I like to hold a magazine or book in my hands. I like to see words on paper. But this project is alive in its enactment. It can’t be contained by the page. And, as a result, I feel like the artists engaged in this experiment have helped restore poetry to its true essence. These are urgent reports, spoken aloud by the poet, with emotion and intelligence, shaped by careful practitioners of their craft to tell stories that need to be told. Best of all, they bring the sounds and sights of the street, the voices and faces of the people back into the arena of the poem. They remind us all of the exquisite poetry that surrounds us, if we will only pause long enough to take notice.

Note: In Verse’s second installment airs on Studio 360 over the weekend of November 13. Titled, “Congregation,” it features Pulitzer Prize winning poet Natasha Trethewey and photographer Joshua Cogan as they cover the ongoing recovery of the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Katrina.

Family Bed

Family Bed

DJ while evicted

DJ while evicted


Below are three documentary poems written by Susan B.A. Somers-Willett and produced by Lu Olkowski for In Verse’s “Women of Troy”. Photographs by Brenda Ann Kenneally.

Women of Troy

Women of Troy

This poem is about an afternoon poet Susan B.A. Somers-Willett spent with Billie Jean at the New York State Office of Temporary Assistance. All of the language except for the last sentence comes from the forms. It’s a found poem read by Susan B.A. Somers-Willett.

Just A Girl, Billie Jean's earrings

Just A Girl

Troy is a very patriotic city. They have a huge Flag Day Parade every year. Every one comes out to it. Billie Jean is no exception. This poem is written by Susan B.A. Somers-Willett and read by photographer, Brenda Ann Kenneally.

DJ's haircut


DJ is 32 and works part time in a convenience store at a gas station. She has seven kids. During the making of this piece, DJ was in between apartments and some of her children were staying with her mother – Mama Vic. This poem is about an opportunity DJ had to go have her hair cut. It’s also about Mama Vic and how she views her daughter’s life. This is written and read by Susan B.A. Somers-Willett.

Cry Baby

Brenda Ann Kenneally shooting at a market in Troy, NY

Brenda Ann Kenneally shooting at a market in Troy, NY

(*note: the final version of the poem appears below and varies slightly from the version Susan reads to Brenda in the recording)

Cry Baby

for Brenda Ann Kenneally

In the gut of West Albany, in a fading white Sears house
with pale blue trim, above the cellar where she shook
to Janice singing Cry Baby wearing a glittering belt of

lemon-colored plastic, in the rough and out
of the fold, across from the First Prize

meat packing plant and through the acid

scent of blood that came from it night and day,

out of the gutter, through the pipes, up against the ropes,

against the system and stickin’ it to the man,

before the young run to Florida and the baby doll pajamas

that were her uniform at the Bottoms Up bar, after the twenty-one
year-old boyfriend and the flesh marking her as a woman at twelve,

on top of the man, below the man, before the mirror
shifted in light to reveal her body as that of the freak
ZAMBORA THE GORILLA GIRL, before her son bloomed

like a small fist inside her womb in the trailer of the headless

woman, between the years in the group home

and the months in Albany county jail, before

the coke the coke the junk the coke the reds the blues the booze,

after her mother said she did not want her, made her
a ward of the state, in the cut the heavy black instrument made

in each of her palms, before the abortion at fourteen

and through the screams the pigs made in the night,

in that fading white Sears house, she discovered

her birth certificate not with her name but with

the generic BABY GIRL KENNEALLY pressed into paper

like a blue tattoo, the paper that rested in her

the day she stood at the top of the stairs and threw

a whole dresser at her brother, threw it and then kicked the living

shit out of it, that dresser that she had sanded and

antiqued and stained rambling rose pink by hand and then
shattered in a wild-eyed rage, the dresser on which

she would lay all her most precious things to admire them

shining in the light: and here in a broken pink drawer lies the baby

twisting in the scrap of her West Albany life as Janice’s throat

fills with splinters to sing Honey, welcome back home.

–by Susan B.A. Somers-Willett

About the Collaborators

Ted Genoways (Editor) is the author of two books of poetry, most recently Anna, washing (Georgia, 2008), and the nonfiction book Walt Whitman and the Civil War (California, forthcoming 2009). He has edited seven books, including Joseph Kalar’s Papermill: Poems 1927–1935 (Illinois, 2006) and Walt Whitman: The Correspondence (Iowa, 2004). As editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, he has received fifteen National Magazine Awards nominations and won in General Excellence, Fiction, and Best Single-Topic Issue. He is a contributing editor to Mother Jones and Men’s Journal.

Brenda Ann Kenneally (Photographer) is an independent photojournalist whose photos of Troy, New York, appeared in the 2009 World Press Photo exhibition. A chronicler of coming-of-age in post-industrial America, her project, “Upstate Girls: What Became of a Collar City” was awarded first place at the World Press Awards for Daily Life Stories in 2009, and an honorable mention at UNICEF Photo of the Year.

Lu Olkowski (Radio Producer) is a contributing producer to Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen. Her work has also been heard on All Things Considered, Day to Day, Radio Lab, This American Life and Weekend America. She has been honored by the American Women in Radio & Television; the international competition New York Festivals, the literary magazine The Missouri Review and the Third Coast International Audio Festival. Prior to a career in public radio, Lu was a creative director at Nickelodeon where she led a team of producers in exploring new ways of storytelling by using emerging technologies.

Susan B.A. Somers-Willett (Poet) is the author of two books of poetry, Quiver and Roam, and a book of criticism, The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry: Race, Identity, and the Performance of Popular Verse in America. Her honors include the Ann Stanford Poetry Prize and the Robert Frost Foundation Poetry Award. Raised in New Orleans, she teaches English and Creative Writing at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

Emily Botein (Editor) is an independent radio producer based in New York, who helped launch PRI’s The Next Big Thing in 1999 and served as its senior producer. Since 2005, she has worked with a range of shows and institutions, including American Routes, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Metropolitan Opera, NPR,, Studio 360 and Weekend America. In 2007, Emily worked with Atlantic Public Media on the series Stories from the Heart of the Land.

Special thanks to Erin Davis for her production help and to everyone at Studio 360, especially David Krasnow, Pejk Malinovski and Jenny Lawton.

Funding Credits

In Verse comes to you from Public Radio Makers Quest 2.0, an initiative of AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio, Incorporated. This project is made possible with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Additional funding provided by the Virginia Quarterly Review. Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen is the broadcast partner for In Verse.

The Transom Online Workshop, with support from the Knight Prototype Fund, helped update this article.

35 Comments on “In Verse: The Making of “Women of Troy””

  • Jesse Dukes says:

    Alright, I’m so excited that these pieces are finally available to the public. I’m jealous as hell of this project and very intrigued by the idea that poetry has an important role to play in the journalistic endeavor. I’m still digesting the pieces (The Flag Day leaves me speechless) and I have a lot I want to ask about, but if I may, a question for Susan and a question for Lu:

    Susan: What is it like to write a poem, and then hear it with sound–and have some of the lines spoken or echoed by the people who said them? What’s lost? What’s gained?

    Lu: When I first heard about this idea–using poets as reporters in teams with radio producer and photographers–I thought it sounded awesome. And I thought it was insane and it would never work. I think these pieces create a new genre of radio (and maybe poetry) and I want to do it too. My question: You write about having a few ideas of what the pieces might sound like. Did you ever think "this may not work"–that could simply not combine with radio to make a meaningful documentary? When did you realize it was working?

    Congratulations all!

  • Glynn says:
    Amazing . . .

    Just so you know – this touched me to the quick (I had to shout it from the rooftops and send it to all my people).

    My question is, is there anyway to make this an ongoing project? Can we see and hear and feel these people again at different points in their lives over time?


  • Susan B.A. Somers-Willett says:
    What’s gained

    It’s great to see you here! I have to say that I’m used to the oral/performance aspect of poetry since I’ve been very active in the past in the reading and slam circuit. But radio is a totally different story! Since Brenda, Lu and I were all working concurrently, I sometimes was listening to audio and looking at photos in order to cite voices and images in the poems, so having the subject(s) say those words were incredibly appropriate. On the other hand, having ambient and other dialogue spliced into the poem was totally foreign to me. At first I felt like the sound was kind of an interruption of the poem–at least of the music I had in my head. But as I sat with the audio versions Lu put together, I realized that these recordings are much more honest than that. They are about voice, and all our voices intermingling as a chorus.

    What’s lost is my own version of what I thought the poem was. What’s gained is what the poem is in the world beyond my own voice. That gain is a good thing, and I’m glad to have experienced it now, earlier rather than later in my career as a writer.

  • Sarah Elzas says:

    Hi Lu, Susan and Brenda

    I was listening to the first pieces on Studio 360, and was intrigued.

    This is an interesting way to convey a sense of place and person, as it certainly drives the point of view: this is by putting it into a poet’s voice, you really know that this is Susan’s perspective on things, which I think adds another layer to a traditional documentary.

    I was wondering if you considered having the women themselves read the poems aloud? Also, what were their reactions to the poems?

    Thanks! I’m looking forward to more of these


  • Lu says:

    Hi Glynn,

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing the work with your people!

    This project is borne from a long-term documentary project by Brenda Ann Kenneally. It’s called Upstate Girls and you can learn more about it here, There are several teasers for Brenda’s film there. When Susan and I began working with Brenda, she’d already been shooting photos and video for over five years. One huge reason this project turned out as well as it did is because Brenda has such deep roots with the women. When we came along, they were already very accustomed to being shadowed and were incredibly open with us.

  • Lu says:

    Thanks, Jesse!

    Did I ever think that it might now work? Uhm… of course! All the time. I knew Brenda and Susan would both deliver great work, but I wasn’t convinced that it would come together. At the beginning I told my friends that it could be great or a really spectacular train wreck! I have to admit a lot of people were lukewarm on the idea, including I learned later, some of the MQ2 judges and my colleagues at Studio 360. But the spirit of the MQ2 grant was all about trying something new, so there was nothing to loose, really. There was always the fall back position of having Susan read the poems and not using any documentary recordings. In fact, that’s what we did with the “Women of Troy” slideshow, except Brenda reads that poem. When Susan’s first poems came in, I stopped thinking about a possible train wreck. The poems were funny and captured the spirit of each of the women. Plus, they were rooted in scenes, just like any good radio… and I had audio of those scenes. At that point my worry became more about doing justice to Susan’s poems and to each of the girls. Just a Girl was the first piece I cut — I’m glad you like it! — and that’s when I got excited that it could work.

  • Lu says:

    Hi Sarah!

    I think this is more a question for Susan, but I’ll give a quick response.

    When we first started we did speak about the possibility that poems be written in the voice of our subjects, but as it turned out the poems were written in the third person. For that reason, it would have felt strange to have Billie Jean read “Just a Girl” or DJ read “The Cutting Place.”

    Brenda read “Women of Troy.” That decision came from a conversation with Jeremiah Zagar, a friend of mine who worked with me to cut the slideshow. Originally we cut the piece using Susan’s voice and something about it just didn’t feel quite right. The photos are so potent that it felt like it needed the voice of a woman of the place. A woman who’d lived hard. And of course, we had a woman like that in Brenda. She grew up in the neighboring town of West Albany in a situation not unlike Billie Jean and DJ. Brenda writes about it in her essay for the VQR. Susan also wrote a poem about Brenda. It’s called “Cry Baby” and you can see it here on Transom.

  • Christina Antolini says:
    what can reporters learn from poets?

    Hi everyone:

    First of all, I want to echo the accolades that have come already for this series… This is truly inspiring work, and pushes the genre boundaries of public radio in exciting ways…

    My question/comment: … Having a poet serve as the "reporter" brings an emotional honesty and a necessary subjectivity to the telling of these stories… Susan is offering up her version of the lives of these women– which, of course, is what is always happening, when a reporter tells a radio story… But, in these pieces, the old inclination towards "objective journalism" falls away to create an interesting hybrid: the poet’s perspective evoking the subject’s perspective, backed up by the documentary sound… which, in some ways, solidifies what the poet is saying, makes it "the reality."

    What do you think non-poet reporters can glean from this? Do you think there are elements from your experience with this documentary-radio-poetry that those of us that produce more straight-up radio stories (without the asset of a poet!) can take from this and use in our own work?

  • Lulu says:
    switching roles

    i am in awe. what’s going on here feels not only a like a mixing of forms (reporting and poetry, sound and words), but a mixing… of… i can’t quite explain it. Time. The audio gathered is so immediate: we are WITH Billie Jean on flag day, as she marches about, gets picked up, forgets the juice. It has the exhilarating and overwhelming feeling of present-tense, where you don’t how to make sense of so many stimuli… and at the same time, you are hearing poetry. thoughtful, beautiful verses that have clearly taken the time, weeks… months after the event to make sense of it. reflect on it. reframe and refocus it.

    sorry. im moved and excited. let me get to the question!
    LU: did you feel like, in editing, you became a poet? Like you were choosing tape differently than you normally would? (and did you ever feel scared to make editorial choices, did it ever feel like you were sort of… "messing with" Susan’s poem?)

    SUSAN: what was it like for you to be a reporter? Did you feel the pressure of this going out to a different type of audience? Did it affect your writing? Your observing even?

    thank you to all.

  • Kiera says:

    Congrats all around. I’m just bowled over. I second the above questions and comments.

    I have a question for you three: have you heard any feedback from the women of Troy themselves? How concerned are you with your subjects’ feelings regarding their representation? It seems to me that there is always a certain negotiation that happens among the documentarians and the documented–but ultimately one person is taking the photos or writing the words or cutting the tape.


  • Lu says:
    thank you!

    I just wanted to thank all of the folks who volunteered to help me transcribe tape this summer. I will never be able to repay you.

    A round of applause for Shira Bannerman, Alix Blair, Julia Botero, Autumn Caviness, Brooke Darrah, Matt Frassica, Josie Holtzman, Sarah Jessee, Laura Mayer, David Maxon, Rachel McCarthy, Katie Mingle, Annie Minoff, Heather Radke, Lara Ratzlaff, Shreya Shah, Megan Stacy, Courtney Jean Stein, Allison Swaim and Ari Zeiger. And of course enormous thanks to Erin Davis who helped me throughout the project. I could not have survived without you Erin!

    If I have missed anyone, please shout out and be recognized.

  • Davia says:
    Knocked out

    Lu, Susan, Brenda, Ted, Women of Troy…

    What an extraordinary creation and collaboration this is. I am haunted by it. Inspired by it. The many layers, the immediacy, the sting of it and the spirit.

    I feel the ground shifting in our documentary world when I come into this work. I imagine the ground shifted for all of you involved. It is one of the most honest, artistic, hard-hitting, soul-shaking projects I’ve seen in a long time, and must have been hard as hell to get as right as you all did. I’m working up to asking questions. But first, hat’s off to all of you for pioneering, for bearing witness, for making it through all the levels of collaboration and compromise that surely were hard to navigate.

    My questions — Brenda and Susan, what are you thinking when you listen and watch this now? Were you afraid to enter in, that your work in your medium would some how get lost, changed, compromised?
    Lu, my question for you (and Emily and Erin)… This feels like music to me. The twinned voices of the women of Troy and Susan, the rhythm, the sparse and intermittent voice peering through the poem. The transparent quality of it, mixed with its steely power. I stumbling toward a question. I guess my question is about the interviews and conversations and documentation of the women in their lives. I just want to know more, and how you found the texture and approach.

    Ted, I hear you triggered this whole thing. What light bulb went off in your head that made you say yes, and what other possibilities does the collaboration suggest to you? What are you thinking as you watch/listen?

    Again, deep regard to all for stretching the boundaries out in such a powerful, lyrical and riveting way and for making sure that the women of Troy are chronicled and heard.

  • shea shackelford says:

    Congratulations! This is such good documentary work.

    I’ve had to listen and re-listen to these pieces a few times, take in the photos and the slideshows … and it’s amazing. To me, each of the audio pieces/poems carries the depth and open-endedness of the photos. The poems took me some place essential without summing things up too much of any scene or person, which i think is nearly impossible to do with narration or tape alone. The audio made it such an intimate place for me to hear these poems. And the photos are amazing. It’s great to hear the poems in compliment to the images.

    I guess I have a question for each of you. In the creating or hearing or seeing of these final mixed-medium works, where did the overlaps & repetitions in what you were seeing or hearing or saying really work for you, giving new depth or impact to an idea? And I guess along those lines, were there any places where that overlap was challenging–making anything feel too simplistic or overly revealed?


  • Ted Genoways says:
    Light Bulb

    Thanks for the question, Davia. The light bulb for me was seeing poet C.D. Wright’s amazing collaboration with photographer Deborah Luster to create the book One Big Self. That book reminded me of what I loved most of about some Depression-era writing, like Muriel Rukeyser’s criminally under-appreciated book of poems U.S. 1 (1938) and the collaboration between writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans to create Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). These writers were working in an era when documentary photography was just starting to come into its own (Walker Evans complained that Agee got all the best material because he could work at night when people are more reflective and candid), and they were exploring the documentary possibilities of poetry and poetic prose. Then New Criticism came along and stomped all of that out. Seeing C.D. Wright’s book made me think that it might be an art form worth reviving. I was especially interested in this idea if it could be combined with radio documentary–which seems to me the best and most widely available form of documentary these days. Lu, much to my surprise, loved the idea and really ran with it. She’s the one who envisioned not just recording the process of making the poem but actually bringing the audio of the experience into the recitation of the poem. What you end up with is something more distilled than raw audio but much more visceral than a simple reading. I think we’re all thrilled with the results and deeply hopeful that we can find supporters to make this an ongoing series. These pieces are complicated and expensive to produce, but the results repay the hard work and long hours that everyone had to put in.

    –Ted Genoways

  • Susan B.A. Somers-Willett says:

    I want to respond to several questions, but first I want to second Lu’s comment that Brenda really was our key to capturing such vivid, intimate moments with the girls. Brenda has been following these women for the last six years through film, stills, and a graphic novel project, and because she had already developed deep relationships with them, we were accepted pretty quickly into their circles.

    What do you think non-poet reporters can glean from this? Do you think there are elements from your experience with this documentary-radio-poetry that those of us that produce more straight-up radio stories (without the asset of a poet!) can take from this and use in our own work?

    I really wrestled with the idea of journalistic integrity with this project. There was a tearful moment early on when I confessed to Brenda and Lu that I wasn’t being a very good journalist because of my emotional attachments to some of these girls. In many ways I think poetry is the right medium for something like this because verse is about empathy and specific human connection. I also didn’t have to worry about excluding myself and my views from the process—I’m not the invisible observer that I think journalists sometimes have to be. What the poetry afforded me was a kind of release—not from the truth but from objectivity. In this case, subjectivity got us closer to the truth. Brenda and I throwing our own POVs into the mix is what I think takes this reporting to a new level: there is the audio event itself, and then one of us commenting on the event with an image or observation.

    I’m not sure yet how this model can be helpful for straight-up radio reporting—I will have to consider that some more. But perhaps one way to address it might be collaboration—having that extra layer of perspective.

  • Lu says:
    Response to Davia

    For me, one of the more challenging aspects of the project for me was letting go… I usually report and write pieces of my own, so co-reporting and working with a poet was a new experience for me. Ted and I did encourage Susan to consider certain ideas since we both spent time speaking with Brenda and in my case, traveled to Troy to meet some of the women. But ultimately we wanted Susan to lead the process and follow her own interests. Luckily, David Krasnow at Studio 360 understood the importance of that and encouraged the same. I think everyone involved had to do a lot of letting go.

    Susan and I conducted almost all of the interviews together. We also spent a tremendous amount of time in the field (in public radio terms). We spent two weeks in Troy. Susan had a month of writing time in between those two weeks. On the first trip, we had very little set in stone. We interviewed each of the women and spent much of our time following the women as they went about their normal lives. We went to several Mother’s Day celebrations, many visits to social services offices, a karaoke night, food shopping. On the second trip we could be more directed. Still, we didn’t plan as much I normally would. We didn’t ask them to go to the Office of Temporary Assistance or to the Flag Day parade. We tried to gauge what was important to them and then follow them, there.

    When it came time to cutting, Emily asked the usual question, what’s your best tape? The answer was the pick-up scene from the Flag Day parade in “Just a Girl.” It was an outrageous moment to witness. I could not believe there wasn’t a lick of self consciousness on Billie Jean’s part. From there, I used the poem as a guide. In a way these pieces were easier to cut that a more traditional piece because the writing was already there, the structure was dictated. It really was about finding the right tape to use and to balance the tape with the poem. Emily encouraged me to integrate the tape and the poetry as much as possible. After the first cut, there were many very small changes in pacing and tape selection. A lot of noodling.

    I hope Emily will chime in here because she was an enormous part of this whole enterprise, these radio pieces are as much hers as they are Susan’s or mine.

  • Lu says:
    Response to Lulu

    Lulu! I am glad you like the pieces!

    i Did you feel like, in editing, you became a poet?

    Uh, no. I am no poet. In fact, I don’t know very much about poetry and I think that my relative inexperience in this area was a good thing. I could react to the poems as an average listener, not as a poetry insider.

    i Did you ever feel scared to make editorial choices?

    Indeed. Susan and Brenda’s work is so beautiful. I felt… how do I say this? Very responsible. The radio pieces had to do justice not only to the women in the poems, but to Susan and Brenda’s work.

    The entire time I was cutting, I worried about Susan because really I was “messing with” her poems. We dropped lines of dialogue from poems and instead added the audio… We had Brenda read one of them… It was a great relief when Susan liked the pieces.

  • Lu says:
    a question

    more answers to questions coming, but a question…

    what kinds of stories would best be told using this approach?

  • Viki Merrick says:
    poet as camera and vice versa

    This shift of "reportage" is nothing short of refreshing! It gives promise to a new kind of communication…IMAGINE what television news could truly become !

    I’m also wondering about the symbiosis between word and image. There is and always will be enough room for interpretation in a photograph and a poem that requires the listener/viewer to participate and ponder the reality being presented, maybe to the point of putting a period at the end of the interpretation for themselves, rather than leaving the ellipsis.

    But this is not the stuff of "interpretation" – it is. which I suppose means it’s documentary.

    Here we see that a poet can be "journalist" – seeing and reporting or telling (with more heart perhaps than we’re used to in the mainstream) but it’s not a hugely dramatic shift, it’s still writing and expressing something, however specific – I think that’s a lot different from publishing a photograph. To me a photograph poses a question, or at least demands that I consider the content, without necessarily specifying what or how I need to interpret. When voice is added to to a photo, to emphasize or elaborate, the room gets a lot smaller. Similarly, voice adds more focused interpretation to a poem that is not there when it sits on a page. The human voice is what makes this work resonate – both the poetry and the image – but does it restrict the two mediums? did the collaboration ever choke either of your creative deliberations?

  • Viki Merrick says:

    Serendipitously, I left the tv on in the other room during the news and started playing a version of "Mr. Potato Head" in my mind (remember that game? you can change his hat etc..put it on his belly button, moustache on his head…), where the moveable parts are the salient bits of story and imagined frozen image. Try it Lu, pick a story, gruesome or petty and honestly, a re-interpretation with the IN VERSE sensibility has the potential to render just about any story a little (or a LOT) more meaningful.
    We’re all so numb with the over-realities of the news -imagine suddenly being presented with something like The Women of Troy appearing on the nightly news…HA – I feel a little giddy at the thought! Wouldn’t it be great to have to lean forward and say: WHA???

  • flavio pompetti says:

    I don’t think this is a documentary: it’s a document. Just like I don’t think this is a piece of journalism, it’s a piece of art. It is amazing to see the extent you Lu, Susan and Brenda have stretched the boundaries of the medium you started with, and is so refreshing to hear the final product. I as a journalist would have approached the subject with a very different attitude toward the story’s details, background and connections. My editing would have rejected every temptation of creating poetry, to rather concentrate on piling facts, and with the hope that they were engaging enough for the reader to draw her/his own conclusions.
    Your editing instead has created the state of suspension from the perception of the real that is the jumping board for experiencing art. I love what you have done, and I’d love even more to see your "story" displayed in an art contest. It adds a new dimension to the medium we all know and love.

  • Carl says:
    The Artist’s Eye

    I once heard someone say, "The artist never averts her/his gaze."

    I know of no better example of this quote than what you all have created with this piece. I found it excruciating, but it allowed me to focus on the painful details from which I usually avert my gaze. It’s also a piece that plumbs some very deep cultural gulfs but does it in a way that isn’t patronizing or trivializing.

    I guess that’s the problem with most media these days: they are unable to convey a story like this without sensationalizing it or sanitizing it. Perhaps poetry is the answer because, as someone said up above, it is completely subjective; that’s its point.

    I’m not sure I have a question, other than to ask what other stories will you try to tell using this brilliant approach?

  • AnnHeppermann says:
    Sound vs. Narrative

    First …hats off the the amazing work of everyone involved. The Women of Troy is inspiring on so many levels and as one who is a big fan of collaboration (!) glad to have such a work to highlight the beauty that comes about when you bring artists together.

    However, I want to direct my questions to Susan specifically. I was curious to know that since this work was primarily meant to be heard rather than read as a text on a page, how did this affect your writing? Also, because the poem was meant to "document" and "report" did you feel that it was more important to create a scene which provided a relatively solid narrative rather than say writing something more abstract?

    In other words, what kinds of freedoms and constraints did this project pose for you as a poet?

    Thanks again for the beautiful work.

  • Susan B.A. Somers-Willett says:
    response to Ann

    That is a really sharp question. I saw the whole suite of ten poems serving different functions: portraits of each of our three subjects, a few "slice of life" poems, an opening piece and a closing piece. I felt like I had more freedom and could be more abstract with the non-portraits; "In the Office of Temporary Assistance" is one, as is "Women of Troy," the title poem that is represented in the multimedia video. In these poems, I felt like I could be more abstract an imaginative, floating around from scene to scene or form to form.

    I definitely felt more of a narrative imperative in the portraits (you heard those of Billie Jean and DJ), and they were the most challenging to me because I felt there was so much information I had to include of them. Add to that the fact that I knew documentary audio was going to be spliced in, so it had to include that narrative element…it was overwhelming. To be honest, I don’t think of those portraits as my best poems of the group. But I think they lended tthemselves best to work with the live audio, and so maybe their most successfull existence is not as poems by themselves, but as these collaborative audio pieces.

    I’m a scholar of poetry in performance, so it’s not foreign to me to think of the poem off the page. Still, I had to think of these poems in all aspects of media: in print and performed orally, and performed by myself or others. At first I was a little disappointed that some of the poems didn’t work in my voice ("I perform; why can’t I get this right?") but when I heard Brenda reading some of these poems, they made total sense on a level I hadn’t really considered because I was thinking of the poem in my own interior way. We had to test our own artistic boundaries and really trust each other in order for this to work as well as I think it does.

  • Susan B.A. Somers-Willett says:
    more reponses

    Flavio, I really like your characterization of this as "document" rather than "documentary," because we’re not only trying to represent our subjects, but we’re also trying to create something new out of our own experiences of it–not in an approriative way, but in a way that tries to do justice to both our subejcts and each other.

    Kiera had asked a question several posts back that I wanted to respond to: have you heard any feedback from the women of Troy themselves? How concerned are you with your subjects’ feelings regarding their representation?

    Brenda would probably be the best person to respond to that question. I’ll say that I went into this project with the intention of giving the work back to the women of Troy. When I finished writing the poems, I sent them to the girls. Then I moved across the country and started a new job in a new state. Part of me wishes that I could be more present and constant in their lives and have more regular contact with them. Brenda is really the person who has the regular contact as her project Upstate Girls continues. But I still plan to visit the girls, perhaps as part of a reading or workshop, or perhaps just on a trip with Lu, to let them listen to the pieces and invite response. In person feels like the right way to do it.


  • Doug Chilcott says:
    Empowered Verse?

    This is a message for Susan.

    Your poetry empowers these women whose plight reflected in the photographs doesn’t appear all that powerful. Yet you obviously sensed a strength in the people you met. Was this your first instinct in capturing these lives, or did you consider verse that evoked more anger, or more sadness?


  • Matthew Sharpe says:
    Obama, Geithner, Roosevelt, Poetry

    Congratulations to all. As I mentioned to Lu in an email, I’d never seen/heard poetry used so journalistically, and it seems to me this project extends the so-called New Journalism of people like Joseph Mitchell and Joan Didion into the art of poetry. And, as you say, also builds on what James Agee and Walker Evans did in the 30s.

    And speaking of the 30s, I wish Obama and Geithner would listen to this series and be moved by it to realize how very much more they need to do about the 17.5% of the population that’s unemployed, and how they could take a page from Roosevelt’s New Deal programs that represented the same level of creativity and innovation in government as people like Agee and Evans were bringing to bear in art/documentary history.

    Here’s a question about form/technique. Also new — to me, anyway — was the intercutting of the poem with the actual voice of the person the poem is about. My question is how did you arrive at that way of editing the piece? (I haven’t read through the entire discussion above so I hope I’m not repeating a question that has already been asked and answered.)

  • Matthew Sharpe says:

    Congratulations to all. As I mentioned to Lu in an email, I’d never seen/heard poetry used so journalistically, and it seems to me this project extends the so-called New Journalism of people like Joseph Mitchell and Joan Didion into the art of poetry. And, as you say, also builds on what James Agee and Walker Evans did in the 30s.

    And speaking of the 30s, I wish Obama and Geithner would listen to this series and be moved by it to realize how very much more they need to do about the 17.5% of the population that’s unemployed, and how they could take a page from Roosevelt’s New Deal programs that represented the same level of creativity and innovation in government as people like Agee and Evans were bringing to bear in art/documentary history.

    Here’s a question about form/technique. Also new — to me, anyway — was the intercutting of the poem with the actual voice of the person the poem is about. My question is how did you arrive at that way of editing the piece? (I haven’t read through the entire discussion above so I hope I’m not repeating a question that has already been asked and answered.)

  • Susan B.A. Somers-Willett says:
    Empowered Verse

    Your poetry empowers these women whose plight reflected in the photographs doesn’t appear all that powerful. Yet you obviously sensed a strength in the people you met. Was this your first instinct in capturing these lives, or did you consider verse that evoked more anger, or more sadness?

    This is a great question, and you’re right to pick up on this schism between the emotion of Brenda’s photographs, which leans towards being somber, and the poetry, which ties to capture both the seriousness and the joy of these women’s lives.

    I had seen Brenda’s photographs before travelling to Troy, and so I had the somber portraits already in mind. Writing about what I see in these photographs is going to be tough, I thought. But when I arrived, I had the opportunity to shadow these women in their everyday lives: church, grocery shopping, going to the pool hall, a girl’s night out to the night club, a daughter preparing to attend prom, the day one woman’s daughter got an award a school. Brenda’s photographs tell an important story, one that I wanted to respect and honor. At the same time. I realized that the poems had the potential to add dimension to that story, to show moments of laughter and beauty and pleasure that I felt were important to these women’s lives as I encountered them in the field.

    I think there are poems in the series that evoke anger or sadness–In the Office of Temporary Assistance always makes me mad (that waiting room is truly is the ninth circle of hell), and I think both DJ and Dana’s portraits are respectively about dealing with anger and depression. But I also wanted to write beyond the trope that is the tiny violin playing when we hear about the persistence of poverty in America.

    As I was writing, I kept coming back to Nikki Giovanni’s poem "Nikki-Rosa" in which she writes about growing up in a poor African American neighborhood in Chicago. In that poem, she lists the many ways that someone outside of that community–in particular a white writer–might read her experience as wholly negative, downtrodden and disadvantaged. She ends the poem with:

    probably talk about my hard childhood
    and never understand that
    all the while I was quite happy

    This was what I was trying to capture in many of these poems–that even as these women are disavantaged from the perspective of the middle-class viewer/listener/reader, they still experience moments of power, love, and joy. Amen to that.

  • Viki Merrick says:
    Resilience and Voice

    Susan – the quote from Giovanni’s poem speaks well to your work – even without the photographic voice – like "the cutting place" – the verse simply woven with live voices is like the prickly pear busting through hardened volcanic lava ( the first and maybe only thing that grows through volcanic rock)- it may hurt to touch but it’s miraculously bursting with fruit and green life (hope).

    I can imagine that at first it may have been daunting to hear some of your lines replaced – but once past the first wince, how do you think this might affect your poetic interpretations now?

    Another question about your delivery – When Lu was asking around for caveats or ideas on her idea, the only thing I suggested was make sure the read wouldn’t be lofty – which so often poets lean to. Your read is so strong and very earthbound. Is that natural for you or was it inspired by the content and/OR the realness of the live voices?

    This organic combination of the audio pieces reminds me of an artist I know who makes his paints with the ashes of the subject he’s depicting. Like a book, a flag or a crow that is painted with the animal’s ashes ( already dead) :

    It’s compelling work you’ve all accomplished – I keep going back and listening, and each time, another prickly shoot reveals itself.

  • Megan Hall says:

    Great work Lu! The line between written poetry and your recorded sound was seamless. I’m amazed that the poetry came first and you added the sound after. It sounds as if they were born together. Did you mess with the flag day tape to isolate the voices you used in the poem, or did you just use a really great shotgun mic? Parades are often so noisy it’s difficult to capture the subtle scene you present in the piece.

  • GregoryArthurWarner says:

    Susan, enjambment and line breaks are so important to poets; how did it feel to have your words broken up and used in someone else’s rhythms? I’d be curious about your experience and the experience of any other poets who have experimented with this kind of thing.

  • EricaHeilman says:
    great great.

    I admit I felt some kind of resistance to listening initially…and it’s only because the word ‘poetry’ was in the project description. I feel like a real ass saying that, but there it is. And I loved ALL of these stories. poems, sound and photographs. It’s pretty remarkable how beautifully balanced they are and how artfully the sound answers the poems and vice versa. I also wondered as I was listening if I’d begin to feel like it was trite somehow to hear the poetry and sound kind of speak to each other but it never was. It was always surprising and really satisfying. Always more than the sum of its parts.

    I kept wondering how the edit worked. Did you do a paper edit first or was it critical to hear right off how the sound bounced against the poem? And was it difficult to figure out how much or how little audio to use? I wonder if there were early versions with much longer interview segments and then slowly you cut back and back or did you just know that this tape was kind of going to be counterpoint to the poetry? Did you interview in the same way you interview for other stories or were your interviews concentrated or focused differently?

    Thanks for this great feature and all the explanation you already provided. I loved it. All of it.


  • Emile Klein says:

    Wow Lu, Brenda, Susan, Ted! You’re now on my “Game Changers” list, (yes, admittedly I arrived a bit late). It’s now 2013, and interdisciplinary storytelling is finally starting to bloom, a seed which you’ve unquestionably cultivated. And, as fire-starters, I’d love to hear some of your perspectives.

    A question to the pioneering team-

    After having had time to reflect, how you look back on the effect created from packing, consolidating, and separating each of WoT’s mediums. Are there ways which you now see as improved outlets for this type of multifaceted presentation (Zeega, Cowbird, Storyplanet). By melding your two language-heavy formats (audial and literal) you made it possible to focus on a singular visual point, Brenda’s photos, which, IMHO, is an UBER smart move. But seperation brings up another question, is WoT meant to be experienced as whole or did you envision it as stronger in its ability to separate, to leave more for the audience to discover? There are spaces where Brenda’s photo can’t go (radio, podcasts), and spaces where sound struggles to go (print w/o smartphone). So, even though the mediums are tied, did you hope to find and/or have you since realized, a more inseparable form of multimedia storytelling? Should it be inseparable? Was that even an issue at the time?

    So amazed by the work Team Inspired, so wowed.

Links to “In Verse: The Making of “Women of Troy””

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