Updated September 2023
Hi, poets and writers! We have a special treat for you today. Susanna Rich is here with us to talk about how she turned her written poems into a staged, theatrical performance. Susanna has been a featured reader in many venues, and she’s happy to share her expertise with you!
Photos by Morton D. Rich.
SUSANNA SPEAKS: IT’S ALL ABOUT THE WORDS
Writer’s Relief: You’ve got a fantastic reputation for your one-woman, live poetry performances, which combine poetry and theater. Can you tell us, briefly, what is a performance of poetry—as opposed to a poetry reading?
Susanna Rich: First, my poems must live on the page. As William Butler Yeats told us, “Art is the fountain jetting from all the hopes, memories, and sensations of the body.” I craft my poetry so that someone picking it up a hundred years from now will find all that I put into my performances scripted by the words themselves. My director, Ernest Wiggins, always prompts me with this: “It’s about the words, Susanna. It’s about the words.”
Second, I recite my poems by heart—with all that that expression implies. As I memorize my poems, I discover whether “my words live” (in Dickinson’s words). If I can’t find a vocal or physical way to reflect a passage, I know that I need to revise.
In a performance, I am not separated from my listeners by a page. I fly without a net—the thrill of it for both me and the listeners. I look at the audience members, am fed by their responses. I celebrate that readers and audiences cocreate the poem—without them, poems are just ink on pulp. I allow the poems to infuse my body. I surrender to them.
WR: The performance pieces Television Daddy and The Drive Home are based on your books with Finishing Line Press. Which idea came first: writing the poems or performing them?
SR: With the exception of a new project targeted to open in three years, most of the poems in my performances are already published in literary journals by the time I conceive of a new performance. It’s true of Television Daddy, The Drive Home, and the new show opening in April 2011, ashes, ashes: A Poet Responds to the Holocaust. However, the poems, themselves, transform and improve as we produce the shows. And I do write new poems during the process. Again, I work them to live on the page.
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WR: For our readers who may want to start their own interactive performances, what do you recommend? Where should a writer begin?
SR: Be true to yourself. If you are shy, this might not be for you. It takes an enormous amount of time, energy, and rehearsal to produce a show. I do, however, recommend that everyone memorizes [his/her] work. Practicing’s a great way to have company on a walk or while you drive. Find theater people with whom to collaborate. Performance is its own art form. In general, I recommend that all writers interface with some other art form—music, sculpture, dance, photography.
WR: Many poets are comfortable with paper and text, but your work is 3D and interactive. How can a poet tell which poems are “meant for” traditional text and which can break out into a performance piece? Can ANY poem be a performance piece?
SR: Any poem that comes, as Yeats says, from the body, is a candidate. If it doesn’t, then rethink whether your poem is too abstract—and from the head only.
WR: Do you find that most libraries and schools are open to your performances? How do you get gigs? And—inquiring poets want to know—do your gigs help you sell copies of your books?
SR: The most challenging part of this work is the business end. Again, find good people with whom to work. I get gigs by buttonholing and following up. Network. Take a course in marketing!
WR: Any other advice for aspiring poets?
SR: Revise, Revise, Revise. Don’t send a poem out until you’ve been brewing it for at least six months. “Follow,” as Joseph Campbell says, “your bliss.”
About Susanna: Susanna Rich is a 2009 Emmy Award nominee for her poetry in Cobb Field: A Day at the Ballpark. She won both the 20th Century America Poetry and 21st America Poetry contests at Sensations Magazine—now archived in the United States Library of Congress. Author of two Finishing Line Press chapbooks, Susanna tours both titles as staged, audience-interactive, poetry readings directed by Ernest Wiggins. ashes, ashes: A Poet Responds to the
Holocaust is scheduled to open in April 2011, after having toured schools through The New Jersey School for the Arts and many galleries.
Susanna’s work has appeared in numerous publications, including Nimrod, Feminist Studies, Frontiers, Fugue, Earth’s Daughters, Pilvax (Budapest), Urthona (UK), and Phoebe (both Fairfax and Oneonta). She is a Fulbright Fellow in Creative Writing, a Collegium Budapest Fellow, and a Pushcart Prize nominee. Recipient of the Kean University Presidential Excellence Award for Distinguished Teaching, Susanna is founder and host of Poets on Air—an online radio program featuring interviews with well-known poets. Please visit her at www.susannarich.com.
STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE TO TAKING THE SHOW ON THE ROAD
by your friends at Writer’s Relief
1. Write well.
2. Publish widely (with help from Writer’s Relief).
3. Put together a dynamic reading/performance.
4. Consider making a recording of your performance to use as a demo or to post online.
5. Network with local librarians and professors. Share your enthusiasm about your readings.
6. Use social networks to spread the word about your show.
7. Book a gig!
8. Promote. Prepare. Breathe.
9. Opening night! Break a leg!
10. Repeat (when word begins to spread about your awesome performance!).