Friday, October 16, 2009
Barbara Trachtenburg: A Polymath, A Prison Poet.
Barbara Trachtenburg is one of those people you can comfortably call a force of nature. She is a poet, educator, and currently involved in PEN’s Prison Writing Program. She is also a visual artist, and plays with chamber music, and other forms of creative expression in her spare time. She is a member of the Writer’s Room in Boston, and she is working on a memoir of her mother. Her writing has appeared in such journals as Arts/Editor, Latin American Anthropology Review, and others. She was also a resident at the prestigious artist/writers retreat the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. I talked with her on my show “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer” airing on Somerville Community Access TV”
Doug Holder: You have worked as a school psychiatrist and teacher for over 30 years. Was this a rich lode for material?
Barbara Trachtenburg: It really has feed my short stories. Not so much my poetry. I have eight connected short stories with an ongoing character. They come from my first years working at a rehab center in Vermont. It was a residential center for multi-handicapped kids. I knew nothing. I was not a teacher. I was not trained. I was just thrown into this fascinating place. I learned a lot.
DH: As a psychologist you must have gained a lot of insight into the human condition. Did this help your work?
BT: I was a school psychologist. I worked with kids. Unfortunately those were my later years of working in the public schools. The unfortunate part was that working as a school psychologist meant at that time testing kids for their so called intelligence. The Wexler Intelligence Scale for children was a real drag. I couldn't develop relationships with kids because my role was detached in order to evaluate the tests. But of course I studied psychology and my favorite topic was family psychology. I used that to look at myself in the context of my family.
DH: You were a resident of the famous MacDowell Colony. Tell us about your experience. Who was there when you were there?
BT: Leonard Bernstein had just left. Jean Valentine was there. I lived in the area: Peterborough, New Hampshire. My kids were born there. I have to answer your question in the context of me living in the area. I was exposed to visual artists, painters, sculptors, also contemporary composers of music. I am a musician myself so I loved the newness of what was produced around there. I loved being exposed to it. The residency was great. I started to write the biography of a man I had worked with at the residential treatment center for handicapped people.
It was wonderful getting that knock on my cottage door at lunch time. Knowing the basket of food was waiting for me was pleasing.
DH: You are a member of the PEN NEW ENGLAND PRISION WRITING PROGRAM. Can you talk about your involvement in the program and the program itself?
BT: The genesis of my involvement with PEN was when I was riding my bike behind Framingham Women's Prison. I thought it would be great to get out of my world, my limitations and enter this place.
DH: Did other people ever tell you, you were slumming?
BT: No. This project makes you deal with the other side of yourself. I have been trying to get to the other side of myself and I don't think that is unusual. Most of us are faced with having to do that.
So what happened was that I went home, called the education director at Framingham. She told me to call Boston University; there was someone running the program there. I left a few messages but no one got back to me. Ultimately I went to a book celebration and I ran into the poet Fred Marchant. I told him I was looking to do a prison writing workshop. He recommended Springfield, Mass. The problem was that it was a two hour drive to North Hampton County Jail, and driving was very bad in the winter. Still it was a good experience and eventually we started a workshop at the Bay State Penitentiary, which was closer. That was about 4 years ago. This year I helped the Director of Treatment at Framingham State Prison. It is a pre-release. A number of volunteers work with me.
DH: What are the backgrounds of the volunteers?
BT: Everybody is writing. Most of the writers do teach or have taught. The volunteers we are looking for don't have to be published, writing or teaching.
DH: What do you get out of it?
BT: You get a look at yourself. Through the words and the struggles of other people. The women write memoirs and autobiographical pieces, and we don't try to change that. There are so many aspects of their own memoir writing-- food, growing up, that reach us...it is part of the human condition.
DH: What are the women serving time for?
BT: This information is not shared with us. We can only guess. The suspicion is drugs and alcohol.
DH: What was it like for you-- a white-upper middleclass woman to walk in a prison for the first time?
BT: First off, I am not an upper middle class woman. I really don't fear for my safety. The women are all eager to learn.
DH: Is it therapeutic for them?
BT: One or two have told me that. We don't intend the workshops to be therapeutic. But if they are, they are.