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Susan B.A. Somers-Willett
06-29-07

Poems - Bio - Interview

Susan B.A. Somers-Willett

Self-Portrait as Interstate 10

Still, the sky is the great equalizer.
Still, I yawn into the visible: yellow sun,
shack, mountains of uncertain
range. What gives life
are two directions: to and away like a decisive
heart. The saguaros wave
in the way of surrendering bankers.

What is it to be a sign, a coffee cup,
the grave of a doll's discarded leg?
I end, I begin, I have known death
and have doubled back. I am the last
gas station on its three stilts rising
out of the sea, or the child born there.

To hear the ocotillo burst
into white laughter after rain.
To be the keeper of distances,
defined by landscape and trash.
To the foal of cows in spring
and the crossing corpses of Texas,
I say, Come unto me. Leave.

Here a cross marks the earth
where three sisters have buried
their animal. Here the dung of a beast
grows sweet to dry in the sun.
To know not night,
but the fading of a lamp. To live
the constant grey of a bayou.

And here, in L.A., here, in Florida,
here in Lake Charles,
towers of sulphur flicker and that hell
singes its lit I's against the good
white clouds. Here swamp, bay,
monument, tin can with a mouth
ragged as a Southern woman and I
am her spine pressed to the bedsheet.

There is no home, only postcards.
No relationship not marked by distance.
Of all things, I am the same

photograph taken at different
times of day: me, the lyric
of truck tires in a deluge or
me, those years of dark
water in a plant's heart or

me, that small animal
blooming in a hawk's fist
not drowning, not waving,
but falling out of the sky.

                              -from Roam 

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Poems - Bio - Interview 

Susan B. Anthony Somers-Willett was born in Ohio and raised in New Orleans. After earning a B.A. from Duke University, she worked briefly in the New York City publishing industry as a production manager, editor, and designer. Susan went on to receive an M.A. in Creative Writing and a Ph.D. in American Literature at The University of Texas at Austin. She has taught at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she was an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities. She is the author of a manuscript of criticism, The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry: Race and the Rise of Popular Verse in America.
 
Susan is also the author of a book of poetry, Roam, published as part of the Crab Orchard Award Series Open Competition in 2006 and featured in the November/December 2006 issue of Poets & Writers magazine. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of periodicals including the Virginia Quarterly Review, The Iowa Review, Indiana Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Verse Daily, and Hayden’s Ferry Review, and she is a former Co-Editor of Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review. She is also the contributing editor for RATTLE magazine's Summer 2007 issue celebrating the 21st anniversary of the poetry slam. Susan has received fellowships from the Millay Colony for the Arts and the Dow Center for Creativity, and her honors include the Ann Stanford Poetry Prize, the Robert Frost Poetry Award, VQR's Emily Clark Balch Poetry Prize, and a Pushcart nomination.
 
Both a writer and a scholar of verse, Susan teaches college courses in creative writing, contemporary poetry and poetics, African American literature and culture, and gender and performance studies. From 2001-2003, she served as the Assistant Director of the Graduate Creative Writing Program at the University of Texas at Austin. While there, Susan also developed the Poetry and Poetics graduate concentration in English. Her scholarship has appeared in a number of peer-reviewed journals including The American Voice; Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association; Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies; Teachers College Record; and Text, Practice, Performance Journal of Cultural Studies

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Poems - Bio - Interview

Susan Somers-Willett Interviewed by Jeremy Richards

Conceits can be more convincing when they rhyme. But, “page versus stage,” a phrase often used to compare academic poetry with slam poetry, is as tired as it is misleading. Are all page poems stuffy and abstruse? Are all poetry slams loud and sweaty, full of “rant and nonsense,” as Harold Bloom famously wrote in The Paris Review? Well, those stereotypes do ring true occasionally, but after 21 years of poetry slams, we need a better model than “page versus stage.” How about “headlock versus buttercup”? (I won’t say which is which.)

In the match between headlock and buttercup poems, an increasing number of poets have blurred the boundaries and rubbed sweet, sweet butter all over the angular holds of both forms. To illustrate this trend, poetryfoundation.org editors asked me to curate a series about poets who are accomplished as writers and performers, academics and slammers, lockers of head and cuppers of butter. In short, a series not about “slam poets,” per se, but about poets who slam and why.

* * *


Performance poetry audiences lend an inflated currency to persona. That prompts a commonly heard critique of slams—they rely too much on charm, brio, or intimidation. Susan Somers-Willett, though, twists classical personae into characters for slam poems. In “Ophelia’s Technicolor G-String,” Somers-Willett speaks in the voice of Hamlet’s spurned lover, yet places her in a New Orleans strip club. Here, we have the quintessential crossover, a poem that plays to the rowdy bar and the lecture hall, yet succeeds on the page even after the “pump and swagger across that stage.”

Jeremy Richards: What first attracted you to poetry slams?

Susan Somers-Willett: I’d always been attracted to giving poetry a voice off the page. Slam challenged me to embody the poem through performance for three minutes and ten seconds. Unlike academic workshops, slam made me envision the poem in the realm of sound and performance. It gave me a new set of tools—vocalization, gesture, singing, improvisation, music, dialect—tools that opened up another way of looking at my writing.

Of course, the competitive aspect of slams attracted me too. To think that I could be crowned queen of poetry for an evening, even if it just means I get a gag Kenny Loggins LP as a prize, excited me. What kept me coming back, though, were the relationships with the audience and the other poets. A real community exists at a slam, whether the audience numbers 30 people or 300.

Slams let poets directly engage the audience and get feedback in the form of scores and applause, and in the audience’s faces as the poem unfolds. It’s a thrill to witness that, even when the poem fails … in fact, especially when a poem fails. Performance is a real litmus test for the strengths and weaknesses of a poem, and so slam has made me a better editor of my writing.

Finally, there’s the fun stuff. For anyone who’s wondering, the slam is a great way to meet members of the opposite sex, and let’s not forget the beer. My husband of four years asked me out for the first time after I knocked him out of contention for a slot on a national poetry slam team. The beer helped his ego, and his case.

Does your writing change when you cast it for performance rather than publication?

Absolutely. When I’m writing a poem, I usually know early on whether the poem will be part of my performance repertoire or my page-oriented work. Other poets, such as Patricia Smith and Jeffrey McDaniel, do a much better job of combining the two.

I have a handful of poems that work equally well in print and performance. And, you know what? It’s okay to have two bodies of work. We process information differently when listening to rather than reading it. Why should we expect a poem to work the same way in text and performance? Part of being a seasoned poet is recognizing the medium in which a poem best succeeds, and then letting it live there. After all, it’s not as if you can use all the same criteria to evaluate T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as you do Regie Gibson’s “The Eulogy of Jimi Christ.” How do you conduct a new critical reading of a human wah-wah pedal?

Rhymes or images that might seem facile on the page can dazzle in the music of performance. Repetition and narrative tend to work well in slams because the audience is listening rather than reading. When I write for the page, my phrasing and allusions can become more complex, more surreal, long, difficult, or formal. It’s not a matter of dumbing down the poem for a slam audience; it’s knowing the audience has only one pass, so if there’s a difficult line on which the poem hinges, you do your damnedest to make sure the audience is paying attention at that moment.

How is slam influencing academia?

For a long time, academic critics and the mainstream media have treated slam as a literary oddity or novelty—a dog and pony show of verse. It’s only in recent years that some critics are more open to serious critical inquiry of slam—Dana Gioia in Disappearing Ink, Christopher Beach in Poetic Culture, Joseph Harrington in Poetry and the Public. Their treatment is somewhat descriptive and cursory, but at least the academic world is starting to pay attention. As a Ph.D.-wielding critic myself, I’m interested in pushing the academic conversation to consider the cultural and political dynamics of poetry slams and media venues for spoken-word poetry.

There is a new generation of writers, such as Tyehimba Jess, Regie Gibson, and Tara Betts, who move between worlds and apply the best techniques of both. Over time, I believe critics will regard poetry slams as influential as the Beat and Black Arts movements were in their eras (and perhaps as failed too).

What are the biggest misconceptions about performance poetry and slams?

That slam poetry is improvised. Although some slams do have improv rounds (often for tie-breaking), most poets spend a good deal of time composing, memorizing, and rehearsing their poems. Some even read from the page.

Another misconception is that slam began at the Nuyorican Poets Café and/or has its roots in hip-hop culture. These institutions are incredibly important now to slam and its poets, and plenty of hip-hop traditions have influenced slam poetry’s current iteration (toasting, call and response, cyphers), but its origins are far from either. The first poetry slams, orchestrated by Marc Smith in the mid eighties, were held in white, working-class bars in Chicago during vaudeville, performance art, and cabaret-style events. That those origins have been have been obscured speaks, I think, to the ways in which hip-hop culture and slam poetry have been allied through commercial media projects like Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry.

Yet another misconception is that slam is all the same. Sure, standards of writing and performance have emerged over the years so that we can speak about a body of work called “slam poetry” But not all slam poetry fits into a particular politically-angry-in-your-face-listen-to-my-pain narrative that led Harold Bloom to declare slam poetry “rant and nonsense” in The Paris Review.  Part of what helps keep the slam fresh is its open-door policy—anyone can slam, anyone can attend, anyone can judge. That policy means that, in terms of quality, there’s always plenty of chaff with the wheat, but it also keeps waitresses and professors and rappers and cops and cabaret singers and sonneteers on the roster of poets.

What can slam poets learn from the academy, and vice versa?

This is such an important question. Some poets and critics are so wrapped up in the apparent (and false) tensions between these camps that they can’t acknowledge how each can inform the other. I first started competing in poetry slams as a student in a graduate creative writing program, and developed my work in tandem in both arenas, so I really do see my writing as a product of both influences.

The academy can learn something crucial from slam: how to put butts in the seats. It’s ironic that, at the same time critics were debating “Can Poetry Matter?” and lamenting the death of poetry for the general reader, slams were starting to emerge across the nation. Slam found poetry’s so-called lost audience, and instead of instructing it to sit quietly, hushed and reverent in the presence of the author, it said to react to the poet—boo, hiss, applaud, give the poem a score of a 10 or a 2.7. Having an actively engaged audience helped the slam grow into what it is today—a series of national competitions that sell out large venues in major U.S. cities.

The academy can also learn about the life of the poem beyond its publication. For too long, we’ve equated expanding poetry’s audience with expanding its readership. I love reading poetry and want to encourage more of it, but thinking of poetry’s audience only as readers reinforces a solitary not a communal relationship. If we define poetry as oral performance as well as textual—then we can study how poetry creates communities of authors, audiences, and critics.

Slam can learn from the academy a measure of variety, history, and perspective. Some slam poets are, I believe, trapped in the styles, influences, and subjects of the moment. If you can write a winning slam poem, I believe you should also be able to write a good sonnet or villanelle. So, from the academy, slammers can learn to read and listen broadly as well as learn the critical perspectives necessary to appreciate poetry of different styles and periods.

Headlock or Buttercup: Where do you stand?

What, pile driver isn't an option?
 



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Susan B.A. Somers-Willett