In Verse: The Making of “Women of Troy”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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: 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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, Nextbook.org, 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.
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.