A Traveller's Guide to Paterson by Michael Symmons Roberts

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A Traveller’s Guide to Paterson by Michael Symmons Roberts.  Dir.  Susan Roberts.  Perf.  Symmons Roberts, Trevor White, Deborah McAndrew.  BBC Radio 3, 11 Jan. 2015.

BBCiPlayer to 10 Feb. 2015


William Carlos Williams’s poem Paterson is a multi-levelled portrait of the city in New Jersey where the author worked as a doctor throughout his life.


Using a similar structural technique, A Traveller’s Guide to Paterson offered a portrait of the city and Williams’s often ambivalent relationship to it.  Susan Roberts’s production was constructed around three parallel narratives – in the first, Michael Symmons Roberts travelled to Paterson to discover something about Williams and his life therein.  Williams was an outsider (having been born in the nearby town of Rutherford), but he involved himself directly in the city’s life through his profession.  Through interviews with members of Williams’s family, as well as academics and others closely associated with the poet’s life, Symmons Roberts discovered a lot about the city’s past; its status as an industrial centre of silk production (as well as other industries), its close relationship with British cities such as Macclesfield (where Symmons Roberts lives), and its debt to some leading capitalists who helped to establish it in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Symmons Roberts also learned something about the city’s present; its unemployment, violence and general air of neglect.


In the second narrative strand, William Carlos Williams (Trevor White) was called to a house to deliver a baby produced by Marie (Pippa Bennett Warner).  The birth was not an easy one; and although Williams made the customary reassuring noises to set Marie and husband Fred’s (Louis Labovitch’s) mind at rest, it was clear that all was not well.  The family’s domestic arrangements became unbearable – leading to tragedy.


In the final strand, Symmons Roberts’s producer (Deborah McAndrew) embarked on a series of picaresque adventures with local celebrity Paterson (Lou Hirsch).  She was taken to different parts of the city, both pleasant and unpleasant, and eventually had to undergo a traumatic experience, one that she would never forget.


By integrating these different strands, A Traveller’s Guide to Paterson depicted the city as a vibrant community, far removed from the (often stereotypical) representations in the media, which depict Paterson as some kind of post-industrial wasteland.  Perhaps more significantly, the play’s structure also suggested the city was a state of mind; hence the use of the personified character Paterson.  Many of its inhabitants had a certain outlook on life, neither comic nor tragic, but rather pragmatic, that was often difficult for outsiders to understand.  This was certainly the case with the British producer.  As an outsider, Williams was faced with the same task: the poem Paterson represents his attempt to make sense of an often inscrutable environment.  The (un)finished text should be approached as both an imaginative and a documentary response.


Symmons Roberts had a double role within the drama – as the writer of A Traveller’s Guide to Paterson (his own attempt, as an outsider, to make sense of the city), and as a character within the drama, recording his various meetings with local people for the listeners’ benefit.  Through this strategy he showed how the roots of Williams’s poem lay in the imagination, in his quest to find a particular form of language to record his responses to the city.  The programme was not a documentary per se, but a poetic ­quest to understand the forces – tangible as well as aesthetic – that shaped both Williams’s and Symmons Roberts’s points of view.


The three levels of narrative in A Traveller’s Guide to Paterson combined to create a work of art that was both complex yet highly satisfying.  Congratulations to everyone involved, including Roberts, her cast, and above all, Symmons Roberts himself, who helped to lead us through this poetic odyssey.