NEA Literature Fellowships

Susan B.A. Somers-Willett

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(2015 - Poetry)


for Emmett Till

In the mirror this river made of you
waxes a mother's wish: I want the whole world to see what they did to my boy. In the casket,
you whistle, stuttering. You reek under glass. So
this is what a river will do, carve and swell
just like a woman, singing a glossy blues.
Lord knows, your face—it sorrows across my page.

Lord knows your face. It sorrows across my page
just like a woman singing a glossy blues.
This is what a river will do, carve and swell.
You whistle, stuttering. You reek under glass, so
to see what they did to my boy.  In the casket
waxes a mother's wish. I want the whole world
in the mirror this river made of you.

Susan B.A. Somers-Willett is the author of two books of poetry, Quiver (University of Georgia Press, 2009) and Roam (Crab Orchard Award Series, 2006), as well as a book of criticism, The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Her writing and criticism have been featured by several journals including The Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, Poets & Writers, The New York Times, and The New Yorker. Her collaborative multi-media documentary poetry series "Women of Troy" aired on PRI and BBC radio affiliates and received a Gracie Award from the Alliance for Women in Media. Her other honors include the Writers' League of Texas Book Award, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities, and a Pushcart Prize. She lives with her daughter Libby in Austin, Texas.

Photo by Michael E. Brown

Artist Statement

My life and writing have undergone a radical shift in the last few years. Over the course of two years, I was diagnosed with cancer, left my tenure-track job as a writing professor, moved halfway across the country, and squeezed every bit of my heart out to end a relationship of 16 years. These events in succession rendered me and my writing pretty useless. When I tried to write, I worried that what I had to say was depressing and wrong. At times I was too down deep to get out of bed; at others, I felt I was driving a burning car down a road named extinction with my poems riding shotgun.

But I did my work. I went through treatment, survived cancer, and signed the divorce papers. I unbuckled my seat belt and exited the burning car of my life before it blew up Die-Hard style. And by releasing nearly everything that felt safe and comfortable, I found I was exactly where I needed to be to have a voice.

As a writer, I am dedicated to engaging difficult content. I write about gender, poverty, and across different media and in ways that I hope are reflexive, rendering more questions than answers. I am finishing a book of poems about viewing photographs of lynching and torture because they are images I cannot unsee and will not ignore. Sometimes I work in loose form as a means to access this work, but at the same time I won't let form dictate how my poems should speak; I am more interested in letting them say it. Which is exactly what this fellowship enables me to do—say it—and for that I am downright grateful.