Thursday, July 24, 2008

A conversation with Susan Hahn

The Poet.
A conversation with Susan Hahn
by Gina Tarullo

“I felt like the bird had come into my life and kept informing me as to what to do next.”
- Susan Hahn, on writing The Scarlet Ibis

You are an experienced poet and this is not your first play. How would you describe The Scarlet Ibis in relation to your body of work?

Susan Hahn: Of all the books I’ve written, The Scarlet Ibis was a complete surprise. I never intended to write it.

It probably – as oddly as it sounds – is my most personal book. And if someone had said to me, “Someday, Susan, you’re going to write a book about a bird and a lady and a magician and it’s going to be your most personal book of poetry,” I would have just looked at them and said, “That’s nuts.”

How did the idea for the book come about?

SH: It happened exactly like it is in the play: I saw a picture of a scarlet ibis in a book and I became enamored by its beauty… I am not a person who goes and looks at birds. I’m not a birdwatcher. I had bought this book Earth From Above – it’s a gorgeous book, and because I loved it so much, I bought the version for children. It was in the children’s version that I saw the scarlet ibis. I remember opening it up and thinking there was something about the bird that just insisted on its appearance.

I decided that I would find out more about the scarlet ibis and consequently, I started doing some research. It became unbelievable to me what I was learning in terms of this bird – the wealth of information and the possibilities to write poems. I always felt like the bird was leading me somewhere.

I never, never imagined writing The Scarlet Ibis until I saw that picture in the book. It was almost like something was happening to me that I wish for every poet – that the muse comes to visit them in such a way that it almost carries them. I really have not had an experience like that – where the intention for the book appeared out of nowhere. It was a very odd, very magical experience. That’s why I added the [bird and lady] tricks.

Had you always intended for this book to be produced for the theater? How did you come to know it could work as a performance?

SH: I had asked one rather accomplished poet to do cover copy for the book and he said no –that he didn’t do that anymore – but he gave me a greater gift because he asked, “Do you realize what a theatrical piece this is?”

… I immediately e-mailed Ann [Filmer] and asked if she would read it as a theatre piece. Suddenly I saw the possibilities. She read it saying she couldn’t get it out of her mind. I knew that was a good sign that she would probably take it to the next level.

16th Street Theater’s production of The Scarlet Ibis incorporates a number of artistic elements, including original music and video. How would you compare this performance to the experience of reading these poems on the page?

This performance of it is like a fully fleshed-out version of the book – it’s so unified, it’s got so many facets to it – it informs the audience so much better.

With the added layer of videography, at first I didn’t quite know where to look. And then I just allowed it in with the music and with the language – and once I embraced it as a whole, then I decided I could look at the entire stage and it’s such a rich experience. As a poet, it’s almost overwhelming to have all that happening; to see the different layers of intention in the language highlighted in such a way.

Would you call this piece autobiographical?

SH: Emotionally, it is. With the publication of The Scarlet Ibis, I think what I did is I took my book Mother in Summer and reinvented it. [Mother in Summer] is a very personal book about losing my mother but I think The Scarlet Ibis takes that subject matter to a much higher level. When I see The Scarlet Ibis, it seems the most accurate way of putting what I wanted to say about the loss. And I am struck by that. I knew that was happening while I was writing the book but I had pushed it out of me and gone on to other things since. And it was only when I saw it staged that it really hit hard.

I think it can be enlarged for anyone about any kind of loss and about how you replace it.
In my case, I had this bird visit me.

The Scarlet Ibis performs July 24 – August 2, 2008 at 16th Street Theater in Berwyn.

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