“A couple months ago, I was at a family gathering, this was with in-laws. And after a little dinner or whatever, they brought out this board game called ‘Therapy.’ Which is very frightening with your in-laws and extended family or whatever. But it turned out to be a pretty lame game. It didn’t probe any questions of psychological nature with anybody. It was just basically, who is the father of psychology? and stuff like that. Anyway, one of the questions inspired this next poem. It’s called Party Game Question. And the question was, according to Freud, which of the following does not represent a woman?”
— Lydia Tomkiw at Links Hall, Chicago. March 31, 1990.
Who was Lydia Tomkiw? She is the subject of my project, and every time I sit down to write about her I feel there are a few things I need to get out of the way before beginning in earnest.
She was a Ukrainian-American poet and performer, born in Chicago and best-known for her work with husband Don Hedeker in the band Algebra Suicide. I usually share some information about her life, her death, her art; she’s not a household name so I don’t want you to feel alienated from the get-go, or to assume I think she is interesting only because she has remained obscure.
I hate this preamble, because it always feels like I am trying to sell you on her story and work in the most impersonal way, when the people I talk to about Algebra Suicide feel a very personal connection. They often have trouble putting their feelings into words, or seem to have a proprietary feeling about the band, usually about Lydia herself. Others have described the mystery of their first encounter with a song or performance, the sense of never having heard a voice quite like hers. You might not respond to the music, no matter what I say. But priming you would certainly mess things up.
As a filmmaker with a background in editing, I’m always concerned with the order in which audience members are exposed to information and characters, the chronology of emotional experience. I’m very excited to work with the Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio to create a biographical project that allows for many possible points of contact with Lydia, her work, and the people in her life, and for engagement along different pathways. Hearing from the staff and other fellows about their projects has made me think more concretely about the movement from a narrative to a digital form, and one of my first goals is to assess whether working with an illustrator friend of mine will be achievable this summer.
One of my main inspirations for this project is the late Janet Malcolm’s book about Sylvia Plath and her biographers, The Silent Woman. I’m hyperaware of my own position as biographer, and the fact that I have a slight personal connection with the subject. Beginning this post with an anecdote Lydia told during a reading, rather than a poem she wrote or a quote about her, was my attempt to bring her voice, and her performance of a version of herself, into the narrative. But in the final project, I intend for my metacommentary to be an optional part of the experience.
— Rachel Lazar