Poetry: slammed and published

On February 12, visiting faculty fellow and poet Susan B. A. Somers-Willett gave a reading of her original work at the Margaret Morrison Café. Somers-Willet, who has won numerous awards and literary accolades, teaches at the Center for the Arts in Society at Carnegie Mellon. She has taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and served as assistant director of the Graduate Creative Writing Program at the University of Texas at Austin.

English professor Jim Daniels provided a warm introduction for Somers-Willett at the reading. “Every time I talk to Susan, it seems like her career and her poetry are going somewhere new and exciting,” he said. Daniels is right; Somers-Willett’s work has been garnering praise and recognition from many quarters. Poets and Writers magazine featured Somers-Willett in its November/December issue, recognizing her as one of the finest debut poets of 2006. Somers-Willett also received the 2006 Emily Clark Balch Prize for Poetry, an annual award bestowed on one poet by the Virginia Quarterly Review. In 2005, Somers-Willett was awarded the Robert Frost Foundation Award in Poetry.

“I’ve realized that when I wrote these poems, they served as voices, to say things I couldn’t — but which I needed to have said,” Somers-Willet explained. Specifically, she was speaking of Roam, a collection of her poetry that was recently published as part of the Crab Orchard Award Series Open Competition, a contest sponsored by the Crab Orchard Review. Last Monday, Somers-Willett read selected works from Roam, in addition to sharing some of her new, unpublished work.

Describing herself as “a poet of the stage and the page,” Somers-Willett is a slam poet as well one who works in traditional print media. At the reading, Somers-Willett gave an entertaining and thought-provoking reading of her performance piece, “Ophelia and the Technicolor G-String: An Urban Mythology.” Using her body and tone of voice to subtly convey emotions and nuances of the language, Somers-Willett moved the audience to laughter with lines such as:

Oh Hamlet, if you could see me now
as I pump and swagger across that stage, cape dripping to the floor,
me in three-inch heels and a technicolor G-string
you would not wish me in a convent.

Somers-Willett has researched slam culture and poetics extensively. While at the University of Illinois, she completed a manuscript of criticism titled The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry: Race and the Rise of Popular Verse in America. Somers-Willett is also a contributing editor for RATTLE magazine’s tribute issue, which will celebrate the 21st anniversary of the poetry slam, in 2007. While at Carnegie Mellon, Somers-Willett has been exploring related themes in slam poetry by researching the impact of public poetry projects on American culture.

Somers-Willett has also competed in three National Poetry Slams. The lush musicality of Somers-Willett’s language reflects her interest and admiration of the genre, and her lively and engaging delivery pay rich tribute to slam poetry’s vibrant performance tradition. “It is the music of language — the odd and perfect turn of phrase, the rhythm of it ringing in my head for days — that compels my writing,” stated Somers-Willett, as quoted on her website. Writing performance poetry is a dialogue between mediums, she explained. “I rarely find that my writing wants to stay on the page alone. It’s lonely there.”

Many of the themes in Roam are on experiences that Somers-Willett had as a young person growing up in New Orleans. Somers-Willett said at the reading that the theme of displacement figures largely in her work: the death of a parent when she was a young woman and her subsequent move away from the family home, both of which gave her a deep sense of displacement.

Somers-Willett’s newest poems, which will appear in her upcoming book, Quiver, have moved to different topics. As stated in a press release from last October, Quiver’s poems explore “the science, mathematics, and evolution of love and beauty.” At Hunt Library, Somers-Willett read some of these new poems, which examined the love between Marie and Pierre Curie and their work with radioactivity. The poems looked at the connections Marie desperately sought to make between radioactivity and the spirit world after Pierre’s death. Drawing on historic detail as well as her own gift with language, these poems give life to a past often consigned to dry history texts, and vivify scientific subjects that Carnegie Mellon students may find interesting, but are not often the focus of poetry.

Susan B. A. Somers-Willett is an artist whose versatility truly represents Carnegie Mellon’s cross-disciplinary aspirations. Her ability to blend genres and incorporate unconventional subject matter into her work is admirable; Somers-Willett is an example of someone who has taken her diverse personal and research interests and made them a successful profession. Look for Quiver, coming soon, to see this exciting poet’s new work.