'It has a place for me as living'

On Susan Landers's 'Franklinstein'

Photo courtesy of Natasha Dwyer.



Susan Landers

Roof Books 2016, 143 pages, $16.95 ISBN 978-1931824644

Franklinstein began as a mash-up of two classic US texts: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans. It was an inspired move, to juxtapose the plainspoken, aphoristic words of a founding father with the modernist novel written by a Jewish, lesbian expat who sought to dismantle and redefine concepts of “the new world” and literature itself.

But as Landers herself writes, Franklinstein was a project that lacked life — until she breathed her own into it. In 2012, Landers’s childhood church closed, and she went back to her old neighborhood to see it. “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.”[1

Thus Franklinstein came to life, a multigenre documentary work that both explores and deepens the connective tissue between Landers and this community, a neighborhood of Philadelphia called Germantown. I read this book in its various iterations as it developed and witnessed Landers live the writing — pour her soul into it — for four years. She embarked on an extensive research and documentary project that involved dozens of visits to Germantown to engage with people, conduct interviews, visit historic sites, and create the photographs that appear in the book. The acknowledgements page thanks some seventy people who shared insights with Landers about Germantown. She also did extensive research outside of Germantown, visiting the National Park Service, the Pennsylvania Historic Society, and the Temple Urban Archives, to name a few.

Landers also was deliberate about sharing the process of writing the book, both on Tumblr and by doing readings from the work in progress, to test the work, learn from people’s responses, and make new connections. Landers told me, “There wasn’t a single reading I did anywhere, including outside of Philadelphia, where someone wouldn’t come up to me afterwards either to tell me about their personal connection to Germantown, or to a community like it. So, talking about the work and performing it enabled the work to get bigger, and go deeper.”

The result is a beautifully layered book, steeped in complexity, relationship, and connection. The cover image is a collage of the house where Landers grew up, made by one of Landers’s seven older siblings, Ann Beatus, an artist. The book itself operates as a sort of assemblage, bringing personal and family history together with colonial and US history. Landers layers in photographs and archival documents, and employs a range of formal strategies, including dialogue, essay, lyric poetry, interview, appropriated language, and lists. She documents her process of composition as it evolves. The result is a work that feels alive, that resists static or pat conclusions, and instead presents a record of one individual’s struggle to grasp both the intimate and the vast historical forces that shape a life.

The challenge of this book for Landers was writing about a neighborhood that both belonged to her and didn’t. She was born and raised in Germantown, but she hasn’t lived there in decades — the neighborhood has changed, and so has she. And even as Germantown shaped Landers, it was in turn shaped over centuries by colonialism, racism, and capitalism. In the years before and during Landers’s childhood, Germantown experienced white flight — white people left the increasingly diverse urban neighborhood for more homogenous suburbs. Landers’s family stayed, so her experience growing up was as a white person inside a predominantly black neighborhood. Her experience as an adult is that few people who know Philadelphia seem able, or willing, to believe she comes from Germantown. As Landers puts it, “my impossible origins” (131).

In an essay in the Chicago Review called “Poetry in light of documentary,” the poet and critic Jill Magi writes of the difficulties inherent in this kind of documentary writing: “how ethically fraught it is to represent the realities of others and to engage in content that points to the world outside an individual poet’s life.” Landers confronts these challenges head on. The opening essay includes a warning, delivered by a historian, about the dangers of idealizing a past that never actually existed. Landers quickly turns that accusation on herself: “At the beginning of this writing, I was participating in behavior long practiced in Germantown — that of white people mourning what was” (18). She notes that her connection to the place had been patronizing, and her method had been to explore it from afar, through the Internet. She realizes she needs to come closer, to make contact with the actual place of her birth and upbringing. She has to be open to the place in all its complexities and let it penetrate and change her; she has to “meander” (25).

Meandering as a poetics is what makes this book so profound. It enables Landers to range widely, from the great road made by the Lenni-Lenape that became Germantown Avenue, to the fog of the Revolutionary War, to a cross burning on a lawn two hundred years later. It allows her to combine scholarly research with personal history and records of casual conversations. It creates space for the multiplicity of forms Landers employs, and also opens the book to surprises, to the spontaneous life of the place. The project is not to preserve a static history or memory, but to pay tribute to the life of a neighborhood, both past and present:

What to guard against: the rendering of artifacts apart from the living, the living who give a site meaning. Meaning the skin that holds us together. Making a place for us together as living. (50)

In the Chicago Review, Magi writes that the documentary mode requires “attention to representation as a nonneutral practice … [asking] ‘what kind’ of reality, and whose reality, is being represented” (248). She suggests that documentary poetry may be particularly well suited to these questions:

At its base, poetry enacts the beautiful resistances generated by language and foregrounds interpretation; it pivots on the desire to know as well as the methodological intricacies, challenges of knowing. (275)

In Franklinstein,Landers emphasizes the subjective practice of representation in part through the wide variety of formal strategies she employs — she approaches the same subject matter using different lenses. She also taps an impressive range of intellectual disciplines: the extensive bibliography at the end encompasses history, sociology, urban studies, diverse poetries, drama, and memoir. In other words, Landers did her homework. But the work itself always points back to the gaps, the difficulties — in some cases the ultimate impossibility — of knowing.

Benjamin Franklin’s “ghost house” becomes an emblem for these gaps. Few records exist documenting what Franklin’s house in Philadelphia actually looked like, so when people wanted to memorialize the site, they built instead just the outline of a house, a skeleton “intended to remind visitors / of the limits of historical knowledge” (40). These facts are explained in a lyric poem that uses line breaks and white space to physically enact the gaps, and it evokes an inaccurate memory of the museum there as a “first” memory, even though it likely wasn’t: “Let’s call this my earliest memory” (40).

In an earlier prose poem, “Moving through a country is never done quickly” (36), the gaps in knowledge are deeply personal. Landers describes her longing to know about her own past and her family, and the impossibility of ever understanding what was “not discussed or explained.” In part, this gap comes from the fact that her parents and many people involved in that history have died. In part it is because, even when they were alive, Landers’s family remained silent about issues of race and their own poverty. Grief over that silence, that irrecoverable loss, becomes a part of the work itself — profound in its humility, in its acceptance and admission of limits and inadequacy, its gentleness with people and with knowledge — a beautifully human book.

Landers’s work has always had a sonic lusciousness, and here it is the songlike quality that helps to bring the work alive with emotion — at times a song of mourning and trauma, at times a kind of love song for the past of her family and for the neighborhood today.

So many stories I have come to be hearing. About this place where I lived so much of my living. A kind of living unlike many others. Like Nzadi’s father who set pins in the bowling alley. A job my uncle had once, too. The bowling alley next to the dining hall where Nzadi’s father wasn’t allowed to sit down. Or the department store where her mother bought shoes. The store where my father bought me the mauve dress I’d wear to his funeral. How the clerk made Nzadi’s mother put a piece of paper inside the shoes she wanted to try on.

                                                            How I came to see
how much more I needed to always be listening
                                    to you, the place of this writing,
            and you, the people of this place
                                                and all the history
we are a part of                       that is a part of us (133–34)

But the beauty of this book is not only inside it: there is beauty in what has happened and is happening around it. The writing of Franklinstein reconnected Landers to the community of her birth. She navigated both her own nostalgia and her own trauma to arrive face to face, to embrace, the Germantown of the present in all its irreducible human complexity. Landers formed friendships with people in the community; she collaborated with the Germantown photographer Tieshka Smith, whose photos appear in the book; she launched the book with a celebration in Germantown and appeared on the community’s G-Town Radio. As Landers explained to me: “It’s just that these connections go beyond research. People are connected through generosity and curiosity and art.”

The socially engaged mode that Landers pursues here offers a model for documentary poetry, one that seeks not only to record the world, but to work toward change, and healing.

1. Susan Landers, Franklinstein (New York: Roof Books, 2016), 17.