New Orleans stories from The Kitchen Sisters—including the world of unexpected, down home convict cooking at The Angola Prison Rodeo, an event that draws some seventy thousand people annually to this agricultural prison in a remote corner of the state. Tootie Montana, the legendary chief of chiefs of the Mardi Gras Indians tells of the African American Indian tradition of masking and parading. And stories of Tennessee Williams, the classic soul food Two Sisters cafe, the Court of Two Sisters in the French Quarter, and an eloquent ode to the Mint Julep.
Our show today is in honor of the beloved poet C. D. Wright, who unexpectedly passed away recently. We were fortunate to spend time with her just a few months back at the Center for Documentary Studies where she read from her book “One With Others” which received a National Book Critic Circle Award. C. D., born in the Ozark mountains of Arkansas, was a professor of literary arts at Brown University. She is a recipient of a MacArthur fellowship, a past poet laureate of Rhode Island, an author of over a dozen books—among so much more.
The New York Times wrote: “Her work—characterized by linguistic experimentation, stylistic innovation and an ever shifting thematic canvas—was rooted in her southern heritage yet, at the same time utterly beyond category.” Like C. D. herself.
We interviewed C. D. in 2009 as part of a story we produced for our Hidden World of Girls series on NPR–and like with all of our stories—there are hours and hours of tape behind every minute of what you hear in the final piece.
So today we’re going to play our original story—a story of family, crime and the power of art to grapple with the unimaginable—and then we’re going to let it roll. To hear C. D. read from her work, and talk about life, poetry and her longtime collaboration with Deborah Luster.
A story of family, crime and the power of art to grapple with some of society’s hardest issues.
Produced by The Kitchen Sisters
In collaboration with Nathan Dalton
Mixed by Jim McKee
“My mom… It’s hard to talk about your mom. She was very glamorous but she never put on any airs. There was no saditty with her. She was infected with that southern ancestor worship thing, all into the arts of dress and manners and home and the table, conversation and story telling. She was a shutterbug.
“IN OUR FAMILY, THE CAMERA WAS MANNED BY A WOMAN”
Deborah Luster’s mother and father divorced when she was a baby and she went to live with her grandparents in Arkansas. She and her mom communicated through photographs. “If I got a new coat I would have to be photographed and usually I didn’t want to be photographed so it would be the back of the coat. There would be photographs of me and my cat, my grandfather and me.”
From her mother, Deborah would receive posed photographs. “She would dress up even when she was cooking. Designer clothes and high heels. I mean, she’d wear a mink coat to a tractor pull, think nothing of it. Red hair. Big glamourpuss.”
APRIL 1, 1988
On April 1, April Fools Day, 1988, Deborah’s mother was murdered in her bed by a contract killer who came in through her kitchen window, down her hall and shot her five times in the head. Deborah believed she had seen the man at one time so she reasoned that he might be after her as well. For seven years she lived in terror until they arrested the man and he was tried and convicted. They have never, however, caught the person who hired her mother’s killer.
After her mother’s death Deborah started to photograph. “My mom had photographed constantly, my grandmother had photographed and constantly documented our family. Photography became something that I could think to do to try to dig out of the place I had found myself.”
“Perhaps I was channeling my ancestors in the years following the deaths of my mother and grandmother. Perhaps it was their spirits that moved me to pick up a camera—for in our family, the camera was manned by women. It was my turn. Or perhaps I picked up the camera out of desperation. I did need a tool. I was buried under the loss of my family members. The world was a sinister one. I was awake and numb and frightened. How could I sleep under the same stars as my mother’s murderer? I used the camera to dig out. I found that I was still capable of making contact”.
“THERE SEEMED TO BE A LOT OF PRISONS”
Deborah had moved to Monroe in northern Louisiana. In 1998 she was sent out with other photographers by The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities to photograph in the region in support of an empowerment zone application for the state’s very impoverished.
“Debbie started noticing that the landscape was fairly emptied out,” remembered poet C.D. Wright, Deborah’s friend and collaborator. “Then she noticed that it was fairly emptied out but for the fact that there seemed to be a lot of prisons. And she thought, ‘well maybe that’s where everybody is.” Which, in fact, is where everybody is.”
On a Sunday afternoon Deborah knocked on the gates of a small prison on the banks of the Tensas River. The warden came out and she asked if she might photograph some of the inmates there. He said yes.
“I photographed there once and realized it was a project I had been looking for for a long time, something in response to the murder of my mother,” said Deborah. “It was like it lifted when I went in through the gates it became something else.”
“I CAME TO PHOTOGRAPH THAT PERSON, NOT THAT PERSON IN PRISON”
Deborah got entrance to the women’s prison in St. Gabriel, the minimum security male prison in Transylvania and Angola Maximum Security prison in Louisiana. She teamed up with her long time collaborator, C.D. Wright and the two began working together on the project.
Deborah started taking very straightforward formal portraits. “I would say to the prisoners, you’re an invisible population, and this is your opportunity to show the world who you are, to present yourself to the world as you would be seen. One man went in and came back out and he had written the world “freedom” on a piece of notebook paper.”
For the most part, the inmates posed themselves. They might want to hold something like a box of valentine candy or a family photo. One woman wanted to hold her shoe.
Deborah would take in a few pieces of black velvet and some duct tape, find a place that had good light and tape up her backdrop. She didn’t want any sort of sign of prison life. “I didn’t want that to get in the way of the person I was photographing. What I came to photograph was that person, not that person in prison.”
“I was trying to photograph as many inmates as I possibly could, because I wanted to really show the numbers of people who are incarcerated, to try to communicate to some degree, just how many y of our population reside in prisons.”
At Angola, Deborah photographed prisoners in the cotton fields where they still pick cotton by hand.
While Deborah photographed, CD Wright would interview and observe. One poem she wrote was inspired by overheard conversations on the field line—an entry level job at Angola State Penitentiary where prison farm laborers make about eight cents an hour.
LISTEN: C.D.Wright-Overheard in the Field Line
“IN LOUISIANA EVERYTHING FEELS LIKE A COSTUME…”
Deborah photographed the women at their Mardi Gras celebration and at the Halloween haunted house at at San Gabriel women’s prison. “There were all of these traditional Louisiana costumes and archetypes,” said Deborah. “Alligator Girl, Rat Face. They run this haunted house in the gymnasium. There’s the snake room, the bird room, the bat room. And there’s the execution chamber where one inmate sits in an electric chair, and the other inmate is the executioner, and she throws a switch, and this strobe light goes on behind the head of the woman that’s supposedly being executed, and that woman starts jumping around. There’s a lot of black humor there.”
The women make their costumes out of sheets, table clothes and available materials. “The winning costumes were big striped uniforms,” said CD Wright. “Uniforms with big tall Dr. Seuss like striped hats. They were made from uniforms of the women in maximum security who could not participate in either Halloween or Mardi Gras. So those were made in their honor.”
“In Louisiana, everything feels like a costume,” said CD Wright. “The inmates had different uniforms for all of the different positions in the prison. The prisoners were identified by their work detail uniforms. People in culinary arts wore big baker hats and white jackets.”
“This man who is scarred so badly, we heard that his brother threw a tire over his head and set it on fire,” explained CD Wright. “He was so dignified. He was beautiful, really. He had green eyes. He always looked absolutely, directly at the camera. I found him very striking. Not just because he was so scarred, but because of the dignity he brought to his very disfigured face.”
The photographs are done on aluminum photographic plates reminiscent of tintypes. The aluminum is treated with gelatin silver as you would treat a canvas with gesso before you paint on it. Deborah makes paper copies of the aluminum plates for the prisoners. They are not allowed to have sharp metal objects. The photographs are small, only a little larger than a postcard. “I wanted to preserve the intimacy of these very formal photographs,” Deborah said.
THEY MADE THEMSELVES SO VULNERABLE TO ME
At Angola where 90 percent of the men that go there, die there, it was very sober. There was no clowning around. It was a very formal. The way they would pose themselves was very sort of nineteenth century.
“For the most part they presented themselves as they wanted to be presented, looking out,” said CD Wright. It as was all voluntary. She returned a portion of the funds that she received from selling the plates which are on aluminum to the prisoners fund. With which they buy popcorn and books and undershirts and personal items.
Deborah made prints for each person she photographed. She returned 25,000 prints to inmates.
At one point Deborah was walking down the block at Angola, in the middle of the 18,000-acre prison, near one of the dormitories there. And a voice behind her said, “You’ve been to the women’s prison at St. Gabriel, haven’t you?” And she said, “Now how would you know that?” And the man said, “Because I sent my girlfriend a picture you took of me, and she sent me one back just like it.” “So there were these little images are flying between the prisons,” said Deborah, ” and, I thought that’s what it was all about.”
“They made themselves so vulnerable to me and it’s not often that you have an encounter like that. I know a lot of it was that they were actually posing for the people that they loved, their husbands, their wives, their children.”
“There was a woman who asked to be photographed,” said Deborah. “She said ‘I’ve been here 15 years. I’m down for 99 years. I have 19 children. My children haven’t spoken to me since I came to prison. Perhaps if I had some photographs I could send them it would soften their hearts to me.’ A few months later she said, ‘Four of my children came to visit me. The baby came and he’s nineteen. He was five years old when I came to prison.'”
SOMETHING MY MOTHER WOULD HAVE DONE
“For me,” said Deborah. “It became this project about the importance of the personal photograph, and what that little slip of paper, or piece of tin can mean to a person.”
“I think this project is the kind of thing my mother would have done,” said Deborah. “She had this way of looking right through the veneer, right into people. She could see the bottom in people. She liked to photograph her family, the food on your plate, you brushing your teeth. She photographed what she loved and that’s what she loved.”
How We Found this Story
We have been thinking about this girls series for a long time, even while we were in the middle of the Hidden Kitchens project. One of our central methods is to say everything out loud, tell everyone we know and don’t know about what it is we’re working on and looking for. We have a good nose for stories, but sometimes the people we know have an even better one. This story, “Deborah Luster: One Big Self” came to us because one night writer Michael Ondaatje and his wife, writer Linda Spalding were asking what new story we were working on. We described a new project we were just beginning to imagine about the secret life of girls around the world. Michael jumped in, “One Big Self. You have to see it. You have to know about Deborah Luster and her photographs and her collaboration with her C.D. Wright, the poet. They call it “One Big Self.” He told us Deborah’s story and we were mesmerized.
“AMERICA IS A THEME PARK OF VIOLENCE…” C. D. Wright
Poet CD Wright was a long-time friend and colleague of Deborah Luster who collaborated with her on One Big Self. Here are some excerpts from her interview.
Can you talk about your collaboration with Deborah Luster?
Deborah and I met at the University of Arkansas. I was a teaching assistant and she was a senior undergraduate, so we’ve known each other for some time. We have similar sensibilities, the same kind of edgy sense of humor and the same sort of political orientation. And we have complimentary aesthetics. We’ve worked on several projects together. Both photographers and poets are used to working in solitude so it’s sometimes testing to try to work out certain visions, but our visions are actually very compatible.
This project was initiated by Deborah who is working out a long term relationship to violence which began with her mother’s murder. She’s trying to include every point of view. This is a very sympathetic project for someone who is a survivor of such a violent act. The decision from the beginning was to photograph inmates in their whole selves, their better selves.
The title of the project comes from a sentence by Terrence Malik: “Maybe all men got one big soul where everybody’s a part of–all faces of the same man: one big self.”
The popular perception is that art is apart. I insist it is a part of. Something not in dispute is that people in prison are apart from. If you can accept that — whatever level of discipline and punishment you adhere to momentarily aside — the ultimate goal should be to reunite the separated with the larger human enterprise, to see prisoners among others, as they elect to be seen. In “their larger selves.”
LISTEN: Wright talks about writing text for One Big Self
What significance do you feel these photographs had for the inmates?
In the maximum security prison, the mirrors are stainless steel, so there’s a kind of warp—your reflection is not that clear. So many of these inmates don’t see themselves for years at a stretch, they don’t see the real delineation of their faces. And time passes. I think that many of them are not aware of the details of their physical changes.
The last photograph for many of these prisoners is their mug shot. In Deborah’s photos prisoners presented themselves as they wanted to be presented, looking out. Dressed in costume, holding up a sign, a photo or something they cared about.
Family portraiture, is a big tradition in the south, so these photographs were another opportunity to be included in that tradition. It was important that they were posed and dignified pictures. We tried very hard not to idealize people there; most of them were not there for spitting on the sidewalk, they had done really bad things. Most of them had brought some harm of some kind to somebody else.
LISTEN: Wright reads from One Big Self
MORE POEMS FROM ONE BIG SELF:
If I were you:
Screw up today, and it’s solitary, Sister Woman, the padded dress with the food log to gnaw on. This is where you enter the eye of the far. The air is foul. The dirt is gumbo. Avoid all physical contact. Come nightfall the bugs will carry you off. I don’t have a clue, do I?
they sit on the slab walk, smoke and talk
They pass a stuffed bunny from hand to hand
for their turn in front of the camera
The church ladies are out on soul patrol
they’ve got ditty bags for the prisoners
Poster: Black History, women’s prison
The blacker the college
The sweeter the knowledge
Navy is housekeeping
Khaki is for peer tutor
The search for Molly is forty-five days old
If you were a felon
You’d be home now
Cradle my head Sister
until the last rivet of grief is secure
One Big Self was produced by The Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva in collaboration with Nathan Dalton and mixed by Jim McKee.
We’d like to thank our dear friends and sisters in collaboration – C.D. Wright and Deborah Luster. We’d also like to thank Jack Woody of Twelve Trees press, Michael Ondaatje and Linda Spalding for leading us to this story, Randy Fertel for his generous heart and support, and the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the arts for their support of Hidden World of Girls.
C.D. Wright’s latest book is a collection of essays published in January 2016. It’s called The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, A Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All. Published by Copper Canyon Press.
Fugitive Waves is produced by The Kitchen Sisters with Nathan Dalton and Brandi Howell.
We’re part of Radiotopia from PRX – a collective of the best story-driven, creative cutting edge radio shows on earth.
From all of us at Radiotopia, many thanks for listening, sharing these programs with your friends and supporting this new experiment in supporting storytelling.
We’d like to thank the many of you who have donated to Radiotopia and The Kitchens Sisters, especially designer and illustrator Jez Burrows, whose most recent project Dictionary Stories is a collection of very short stories entirely composed from example sentences from the dictionary. Find it at dictionarystories.com.
In 1948, Bill Hawkins became Cleveland’s first black disc jockey. He had a jiving, rhyming style. People gathered on the street to watch him broadcast from a glass booth at the front of his record store. His popularity grew rapidly. Over the next decade Hawkins was heard on up to four different stations on the same day. He had plenty of imitators and influenced a whole generation of DJs. Hawkins also had something else – a son he never knew.
William Allen Taylor didn’t find out Hawkins was his father until he graduated from college. The two met once when Taylor was a teenager. At the time, Hawkins never hinted at who he was. And Taylor had no idea that he had met his father. Hawkins died before his son every got to know him.
There are no known tapes of Hawkins. Taylor became an actor and playwright. He lives in San Francisco. But he’s always wished he had a recording of his father’s radio program or even just a snippet of his voice.
Produced by The Kitchen Sisters & Roman Mars’ 99% Invisible.
Before the availability of the tape recorder and during the 1950s, when vinyl was scarce, ingenious Russians began recording banned bootlegged jazz, boogie woogie and rock ‘n’ roll on exposed X-ray film salvaged from hospital waste bins and archives.
“Usually it was the Western music they wanted to copy,” says Sergei Khrushchev, son of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. “Before the tape recorders they used the X-ray film of bones and recorded music on the bones, bone music.”
“They would cut the X-ray into a crude circle with manicure scissors and use a cigarette to burn a hole,” says author Anya von Bremzen. “You’d have Elvis on the lungs, Duke Ellington on Aunt Masha’s brain scan — forbidden Western music captured on the interiors of Soviet citizens.”
In this episode we also visit Third Man Records in Nashville and talk with Ben Blackwell about how they made x-ray recordings for the record label.
“Somewhere in the world there’s a Tupperware Party starting every 10 seconds.” And we’re going to one with The Kitchen Sisters.
Parties. Rallies. Sales sessions. More than a way of storing leftovers in covered plastic bowls, for many it’s a way of life. Earl Tupper took the plastics he developed for WWII into post-war American kitchens. The Tupperware Party is one of the ways women have come together to swap recipes and kitchen wisdom, get out of the house and support each other’s entrepreneurial efforts.
This story, which is used by instructors teaching audio classes around the country, was produced by The Kitchen Sisters in 1980, one of the first stories they created together. In this podcast the Sisters deconstruct the making of the piece and talk about the experiments and accidents that led to the development of their production style.
We also hear from Tupperware historian Dr. Allison Clarke, Professor of Design Theory & History, University of Applied Arts, Vienna, and Tupperware consultant Lynn Burkhardt, and we hear vintage Tupperware ads from the Prelinger Archive—in a piece produced by Brandi Howell.
Nick Drake was a British singer songwriter from the early 1970s. His music has attracted a passionate, loyal following and influenced countless musicians. He’s often called a musician’s musician. But during his brief musical career he had little commercial success. Shy and private, Nick was never great on stage – but his guitar playing was brilliant and his songs were beautiful, melancholy, compelling. For years, he suffered from serious depression, and on November 25, 1974 he overdosed on anti-depressants. Thirty years after his death, Drake’s producer, Joe Boyd, gathered a group of musicians to pay tribute to Drake in a series of concerts and an accompanying record.
In this episode of Fugitive Waves we go behind the scenes with Joe Boyd and a cast of artists including Robyn Hitchcock, Lisa Hannigan, Green Gartside, Krystle Warren, Vashti Bunyan, and Nick’s sister, Gabrielle Drake, for The Making of Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake.
Michael Baronowski was a 19-year-old Marine when he landed in Vietnam in 1966. He brought with him a reel-to-reel tape recorder and used it to record audio letters for his family back in Norristown, Pennsylvania. He was killed in action in 1967. Produced by Jay Allison and Christina Egloff as part of Lost & Found Sound.
In this week’s episode of Fugitive Waves we hear the story The Vietnam Tapes of Michael A. Baronowski from Lost & Found Sound produced by Jay Allison and Christina Egloff.
Here’s another story from Lost & Found Sound, Twentieth Century Wars on Tape, also produced by Jay Allison along with Art Silverman.
Jay was the curator of the Lost & Found Sound “Quest for Sound” phone line. He and his team went through more than 1,500 calls. People called in with snippets of sound or stories – often in recordings that had been kept for decades. Many of the voices on the recordings came from American servicemen. Some recorded messages when far from home. Others told stories long after they returned.
Twentieth Century Wars on Tape features highlights of some of those recordings. One is the only known recording of the five Sullivan brothers of Waterloo, Iowa. All of them were posted to the same navy ship – the USS Juneau – and died when the ship was sunk by a torpedo in 1942. (The tragedy led the armed forces to change policies about posting family members to the same ship.) There is a helicopter pilot in Vietnam corresponding with his family by cassette; testimony from a former prisoner during the Korean War; a Gulf War conversation between two brothers that was interrupted by a missile attack; and a veteran of World War I telling how he survived five days spent trapped in “no man’s land” between the German and Allied lines.
Our current intern, Emma Nobel, from Melbourne, Australia, produced a story earlier this year called “Where Are the Women?” about the lack of women’s voices on the air in Australia.
Emma, an emerging (and very talented) radio producer, “started to wonder if there would be room for her on the airwaves.”
Take a listen:
Where Are the Women?
Image Credit: Andréanne Germain
An all-girl radio station in Memphis—set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, Vietnam, and the death of Martin Luther King—the story of WHER continues following the women who pioneered in broadcasting as they head into one of the most dramatic and volatile times in the nation’s history.
Listen to Part 1 here.