Sunday, April 10, 2016

Susan Landers, Franklinstein

In the beginning of this writing I thought: I must make alive the feeling of importance these little lost gentle things hold, existence being not very strong in them.

            Some connections to place are patronizing.

At the Small Press Distribution website, Brooklyn poet Susan Landers’ remarkable Franklinstein (New York NY: Roof Books, 2016), subtitled “Or, the making of a modern neighborhood,” is described as a “hybrid genre collection of poetry and prose [that] tells the story of one Philadelphia neighborhood, Germantown—an historic, beloved place, wrestling with legacies of colonialism, racism, and capitalism. Drawing from interviews, historical research, and two divergent but quintessential American texts (The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans), Landers’ Franklinstein is a monster readers have not encountered before.” Franklinstein certainly riffs off Franklin and Stein, as well as the idea of the collage-creation (creating new life out of dead parts), but, as she responds in an interview conducted by Christopher Schaeffer, posted in issue 7 of the online TINGE Magazine (spring 2014): “To call this project ‘collage’ is probably a misnomer. While the project had started out as a mash-up, at this stage in my writing, Franklin and Stein operate more as muses. Searching for language in their texts enables me to get fresh perspective and enter the poems from new angles. And because writing is difficult and I can get stymied by the enormity of Germantown’s history or the challenge of writing autobiographically, turning to these texts is a kind of release valve when writing, like letting the steam out of the radiator.”

At the beginning of this writing I was reading. Reading two books I had never read before: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and The Making of Americans. And as I was reading, I thought: I should make a new book. A new book from pieces. A new book using only Ben’s words and Gertrude’s. And so I did that. For months. Cutting and pasting little pieces. To make a monster. And it was so boring.

                        It was so boring, my dead thing of parts.

Then the church I grew up in closed. The church where my mother and father were married. The church where they baptized their babies. A church in Philadelphia in the neighborhood where I grew up. A kind of rundown place. A place of row homes and vacant and schist.

And when I went there to see that place – the place that was with me from my very beginning – I thought, this will breathe life into my pieces. This will be the soul of my parts. I thought: if I could write the story of this place and its beginnings, this writing would be the right thing, a kind of living.

                                                This is where my writing began.

At the beginning of this writing, historian David Young told me there is Germantown the place – a place of demographics, statistics, boundaries – and Germantown the constructed historical place – what people have chosen to save and memorialize, ignore or forget – and how some of those who talk about its history are plagued by nostalgia, by notions of an idealized past that never existed. He warned me that strong personal connections to this place can intensify a sense of decline, and that this melancholy does little to interpret the past in ways that do justice to the neighborhood as it exists today.

This is where my writing began: in a church I felt compelled to visit before it closed, before it became another vacant, beautiful building in a neighborhood of vacant, beautiful buildings. At the beginning of this writing, I was participating in behavior long practiced in Germantown – that of white people mourning what was. (“IT WAS MY DESIGN TO EXPLAIN (PART 1)”)

As Wikipedia informs: “Germantown is an area in Northwest Philadelphia. Founded by German Quaker and Mennonite families in 1683 as an independent borough, it was absorbed into Philadelphia in 1854. The area, which is about six miles northwest from the city center, now consists of two neighborhoods: ‘Germantown’ and ‘East Germantown’. Germantown has played a significant role in American history; it was the birthplace of the American antislavery movement, the site of a Revolutionary War battle, the temporary residence of George Washington, the location of the first bank of the United States, and the residence of many notable politicians, scholars, artists, and social activists.” The collage-elements in Landers’ Franklinstein are an intriguing and incredibly powerful blend of what American poets Susan Howe and Juliana Spahr have also long done in their own work, as Landers utilizes both personal history and prior knowledge against research to attempt a portrait of a neighbourhood that has gone through numerous shifts and iterations both before and since her time there. Structured in sections that fragment and fractal, she blends prose with the lyric with the archive, setting research beside memory, and contemporary photos alongside scanned archival documents and testimonials by residents past and present. This is the sort of book that others, including myself, attempting to capture and comprehend geography through writing might wish they’d written. Much of the strength of the book, apart from the obvious clear force of her writing, is in how personal she allows it to be, without being entangled or hindered through a sentimental lens. Combined with her awareness of larger communities, Franklinstein is not simply about her and hers, but a larger context of geographic and cultural spaces, shifting perspectives, each utilized to reach an impossibly complex portrait, as she writes: “To come closer // to come to see // this writing must meander.”

This is a poem about pulping bibles to make bullets for a revolution – a bladder full of pokeberry juice – a portrait drawn in blood – about how impossible it was to get the right kind of mortgage – and how savage the lenders were in foreclosing – a postcard of a cemetery with the words still living scrawled across the front.

This is a poem about Sydney telling me we can get there wherever there is to have a decent life where the poetry happens – a poem about John and his bowl full of prayers – and Vashti who gets asked why she doesn’t live in Mt. Airy – and Rachael who says places like this are hard to navigate, all tied up with romance and symbolism and baggage – a poem about a poem about Kevon who gave me a hug – and Bernard who gave me a ride – and that guy who wanted to give me one of his minutes since I didn’t have one – and Tiptoe who called me a vampire.

These are the makings of an autobiography of America. (“THIS WAS THEN THE WAY I WAS FILLED FULL OF IT AFTER LOOKING”)

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