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Interview with poet/theater artist Sommer Browning
Stage Direction Adverbs: Earnestly. Reluctantly. Hopefully. Angrily, Exuberantly, Lovingly,* All-in-all, Incidentally —
As mentioned near the end of my last entry, The Sacred and the Secular Poetic Act, I’m (slowly) turning towards my next project, my next big commitment, as The Killing Joke awaits publication with The Mute Canary. I’ve grown commitment-phobic over the years, in mind of increasingly limited precious time and energy. So, I’m careful.
It shouldn’t come as much of a suprise to readers that a return to theater (likely to be poet’s theater and poetics theater reminiscent, but with a new twist of the spiral in practice and intent) has been tempting me. After all, I gloried in Dennis Leroy Kangalee’s masterful take on Krapp’s Last Tape last year: Re-engagement. More recently, I haven’t been able to get Sommer Browning’s one-person show, Good Actors,1 out of my head.
So I had to talk with her about it.
You can get a quick sense of the play from the following post - Browning’s performance in D.C. was an invigorating, inspiring experience. Thanks to her, I suspect an arcane connection in the shared roots of the words hilarity and exhilaration.
Plus, I think we entertain a mutual captivation with modalities or ambiguities of form, especially with how the experience of words differs and coincides in text and performance - between written and oral - whether read or heard, along with the switcheroo nature of seeing and imagining, as with the start of her book/play:
Curtain opens to reveal a
(All block quotes here and further below are from Browning’s book, Good Actors.)
Sommer Browning Interview
This conversation took place on 10/9/23.
The first thing I have to ask is - so, you have this wonderful poetry book, Good Actors, and you have turned it into theater, and that just in itself is really interesting. It’s the structure of contemporary poetry and then you have transformed it into a one-woman show. How did you undertake that transformation?
SB: Well, I always thought that many of the pieces in there were very - there were monologues, there’re plays, lectures. It has a lot of genres in there and many of them are performative genres, if that’s a thing. Plus, when I read, I usually try to perform the poems and not just read straight off the page. I wouldn’t say that I’m more like a spoken word performer, but it’s a mix between academic, that kind of repetitive bland monotone poetry voice [laughter] —
SB: and actually truly memorizing it and performing it like a theater piece. I always read that way. All of my books, every time I do a reading. So, it wasn’t that much of a stretch to be like, okay, what if I just take the book away and I turn this whole thing into a performance? I’d heard about poet’s theater, too, over the years. You know, I’ve been writing for 20 years or so. I’m even involved in a poet’s theater group called GASP,2 in Denver, where we did a Leslie Scalapino poem, and we turned The Descent of Alette, Alice Notley’s book, into a performance. And we did some Gertrude Stein short plays. I had done stand-up before too, so I was like, what if I turn this into a one-woman show. And from there, it wasn't that hard. Because I also wanted to make sure that - I wanted it to still retain a lot of the bookishness. So, I didn’t have to rewrite anything. I wanted to see, what is a book performed? What does that look like, a book of poetry?
A book itself, performed as…
SB: Yeah, yeah. So the titles are projected. I tried to keep a lot of that kind of detail - of the reading experience - alive in it. Some of the more visual poems that you have to see on the page because they might do some sort of interesting language-thing visually, those are projected. The epigraphs are projected. I tried to honor the way the book is laid out, I suppose, and mixed it with live performance.
I knew you were in this space because I’m fascinated - I like to explore the different ways we experience things. The hearing and reading something and then just having it be performed. You’re in that space so much. The original part of my question - I have one more aspect I want to get at but you’ve covered so much ground already very concisely - is that, from the beginning, when you write a poem, or when you know you’re going to perform a poem, you’re already engaged in how that performance will sound, how it relates to the reading of it. We share a background in poet’s theater. If you wouldn’t mind speaking a little more, then, to - this book as a whole turned into a tight one-person show. And that, I think, goes beyond some of what’s embedded in contemporary poetry, where a poetry book can contain multiple genres, which yours does. But this idea of unity that came out of it, too. Did you know when you were writing the book you were going to create a one-woman show out of it, or did that come after you wrote the book?
SB: That came after, that came after. This book took me a long time. I think it was six years, seven years, since my last book. Yeah. So, no, I did not think of that at all. When I decided to turn it into this one-woman show, I worked with my director Aaron Angello. He’s a poet too, and an amazing actor and a great director. He directs Shakespeare all the time up at Hood College. With him I bounced my ideas back and forth about what could be cut, and reordering. There are maybe five pieces in there that didn’t make it. When we were going through it and performing it, I realized that there were some outliers, as far as tone and voice go, that might be jumping the shark or red herrings or something like that that just seem really far out of the one-hour experience of the book. And I wonder if I might have rewritten the book totally and left those out. I don’t know. Every book I've ever done there are always three or four poems where I’m super on the fence. They look different, they feel different, there’s a different voice, and they wind up in there and I always wonder if I should have cut those.
And now in the process of unifying the book into a show, you have a sense of what didn’t fit, at least for that performed incarnation of the book.
SB: Yeah. For me, I don’t know if it's true or not, but it felt like a performance needs to cling together a little more tightly - conceptually and thematically - than maybe a book does, a book of poems. Maybe the reader, to me I thought, could forgive: “Okay, this is a far-out poem, she’s obviously experimenting with this or that.” But in a performance, I didn’t want to jar anyone out of the experience - to be like, “Wait, what’s this now? She’s talking about a friend that died? This book is not about that,” you know?
In that process, you’re keeping, making sure - it doesn’t get too far afield. It’s that sense of creating a unity that was already there but a really tight unity when you’re with the audience, it sounds like.
SB: Yes, right? Because they’re right in front of you, reacting to you, and you need to be pretty secure in what you’re going to say. That part of me waxes and wanes quite a bit. But at least if you have some space in all the text - some space, I won’t say a lot [laughter] - it’s easier for me as a performer to speak those words and say those lines.
One of the things that stays with me, since I saw this quite a while back now, eight months or seven months ago or so - that sense of text. As you’re reminding me, the performance keeps us with the book, with the projections and everything. But you’ve achieved a naturalness and a presence. You’re really funny, and you also seem aware the whole time. That's a question I have for you, about how you honed your own performance, your sense of presence on the stage. Because here we are with your language, and we’re still experiencing reading and text itself, but you’re very present and aware and very funny in it. It just seems like an amazing way of being with the audience. Can you talk a little bit about how you underwent achieving that or what it feels like when you’re doing that?
SB: Yeah. Thanks for your kind words. I guess I try really hard to be the audience when I’m rehearsing. Receiving the way that I am delivering it. And so when I hear it, I’m like - “Ah, that falls flat.” And Aaron was very helpful with this too. He’s like: “You’re doing it again! You’re doing that weird lilting upwards at the end of the line like you’re reading a poem!” -and that would help remind me. And he would also give me some clues about timing, comedic timing too. I watched a lot of stand-up. I was raised on comedies. When I was little we quoted The Jerk and Mel Brooks movies constantly in my house. And even, you know, my short foray into stand-up comedy.
I wanted to ask about that.
SB: Yeah, yeah. I knew timing was so important, and I write the poems that way too. I guess I try to hear it from the audience’s perspective and say, “Oh, it’d be funnier with a pause here. Or with this here.”
That’s really interesting. You’re super empathetic, putting yourself into the place of the audience, as one part of it - which is enlightening to me, because my experience of you doing it is that you’re super present in yourself. And then you’ve also mentioned how much direction helped, from your director, so again it sounds like there was just so much work that was put into this. So much rehearsal, so much planning. And then it comes off naturally.
SB: The more you do it, you know.
Do you think you’ve come up with a theory of acting specific to this piece?
SB: Yeah, I love - that question was intimidating when you emailed it. There’s so much written about acting, and so many approaches, and people who have been doing it for so long. I couldn’t possibly have a theory. What works for me in a pinch is basically all I could have come up with. And that’s helpful too - Aaron helped me, too, with this. He’s like: “The performance, whatever happens is what’s supposed to happen. That's the way it goes tonight.” And that lifted such weight off my shoulders. Knowing, too, that there will be another performance, I can forgive myself for screwing up or if something didn’t land right. And then I can be, that's the way it went tonight, and next time it doesn’t have to go that way. I mean that’s more of a spiritual theory about it.
Oh, yeah. That’s - it’s a practice and it is something you are conscious of, but it’s not intellectual, sounds like. Or it is intellectual in the sense that you give deep thought to it, but - I hear what you’re saying, I think. It comes off as spiritual to me in the sense of - there’s so much awareness happening, multiple experiences of text and the presence of audience and interaction. I hear that.
It’s daunting to do an interview about a work which contains an interview unmatchable in cleverness and economy, utilizing a single sentence to compile proliferative, character-revealing questions for answers —
The Briefest Interview in the World
If you could ask 30 people to answer one question, what would it be?
You mentioned you’re ready for the next one. Since you’re having performances upcoming, do you continue to rehearse or work with your director? Or, now, what is the process?
SB: Yeah. Now we both live on the same coast, so that’s exciting. I’ll go up there a couple times before the New York shows and spend the night and really hone some things that I didn’t have a chance to before. So, that’s really good. Honing some spots that have always been a little tricky for me. And I’ve kind of relied on notecards for a few of the longer pieces, and I'd like to get off of that. So, we will. We’ll continue to work a bit. The theater in New York also is a really legit theater, so we can have more lighting cues and things like that, so that’s exciting.
Oh, that’s fantastic.
SB: You saw it very DIY.
At Rhizome.3 In that - that’s a room. I don’t think they had very much equipment or anything. That’s really exciting. Yeah. So, let me lead into - you have done stand-up before, you’ve tried your hand at stand-up. Tell me about that.
SB: In New York, when I lived there, I was like, let me see if I can do this. It’s terrifying. I always do things that are really scary. I’m just drawn to that. My therapist last week, she asked me to figure out “why do I do scary things.” I’m not sure. Anyway, that’s my homework.
“To figure out why” - okay, is that question scary?
SB: What, her question?
Yes, is that question scary - to figure out why you’re drawn to scary things?
SB: Yeah. Yeah. That is scary. Yes. [laughter]
So it’s perfect for you.
SB: Yeah. Perfect.
Thank you, Moms Mabley and Phyllis Diller, who started doing stand-up at 37, and Joan Rivers and Carol Burnett.
So, what did I do? I asked around. “Do you know a comedian? Do you know a comedian?” I got five minutes opening for a real comedian’s CD release party in Manhattan. So I sort of strung together forty jokes that I had, and grouped them thematically, and made some connective tissue between them, narrative web, and I did it. And it was terrifying. It was the best time I ever did, my first time. Every time after that I got worse and worse and worse. And then I moved to Denver and I just did open mics a few times, but my life became very different in Denver, and I couldn’t hustle. Comedians have to hustle like crazy. They have to go on at 1am on Tuesday, and that was not for me at that juncture.
Thank you, Moms Mabley, who came out at 27 in 1921, and Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, who kept a note from Lenny Bruce that said, They’re wrong, you’re right, in her bra for years, and Carol Burnett.
As much as you like to do scary things, that seems relentlessly edgy and raw, if you’re always putting yourself out there.
SB: A lot of work, a lot of work.
It comes through your piece. The piece comes through totally as unified theater and, with interactive aspects of the structure, as what you can get in some poetry readings, interaction with the audience. Plus, it definitely felt like you had a sense of stand-up. So that’s, again, this place I like to explore, which are these slippages, overlaps, that sense of where text is being heard and where it’s being performed. What is your experience and even conclusions about this interface or the intersection between the way poetry works and the way comedy works, as with one-liners and stand-up? That intersection. I’ve been pursuing - because of your work too, I’m intrigued and feeling that there’s something intrinsic to the way a piece of poetry works, the way language works in poetry, as well as something about comedy and jokes and stand-up. Because also now I know you have comic books, too. You have poetry in comics4 from the past as well. So, that whole place of comedy and poetry.
S: Well, the obvious things. Concision, brevity. Those things they have in common. And it makes each one of them brilliant and strong and beautiful, poetry and comedy. They have rhythm. I guess in comedy you call it timing, in poetry you might call it rhythm. All of those things working to convey a perspective or a meaning. Often, usually, a weird perspective. You know, describing a feeling you’ve never had. Comedians are always like “did you ever notice?” That is the base of every single thing they talk about. And it’s their weird perspective that we can say, “oh yeah, I have thought that briefly.” Poets, I feel, do that same thing. When they’re looking out their window and stringing together metaphors out of the way the world works or doesn’t work. Thematically both comedians and poets do that, just to different effect on the audience. You might make them laugh only in the comedy world, although that’s changing so much. Richard Pryor would make you laugh and cry for sure. But now we have this whole other generation where they’re talking about such heavy, wild things and going way far out, way beyond crying territory. It's really, really exciting and cool. Then poetry, too, is not often trying to evoke feelings of funniness of humor and pleasure, but other aspects of the emotional spectrum. They feel really aligned to me.
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Good Actors is coming to New York in December
Good Actors Fri, December 15 at 7:30 P.M. Sat, December 16 at 7:30 P.M. Sun, December 17 at 3:00 P.M. CPR - Center for Performance Research 361 Manhattan Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 11211 CPRNYC EVENT: Sommer Browning|Good Actors TICKETS
SOMMER BROWNING is a poet, writer, curator, and artist. Her latest book is Good Actors (Birds, LLC; 2022). She’s the author of two other collections of poetry, Backup Singers and Either Way I’m Celebrating, as well as the artist book, The Circle Book (Cuneiform Press), the joke book, You’re On My Period (Counterpath), and others. She founded and curated GEORGIA (2017-2023), an art space in her garage in Denver. She has performed all over the country, including in standup comedy clubs and in theaters with GASP (Girls Assembling Something Perpetual), a poetry theater group. Her poetry, art writing, and visual art have appeared in Hyperallergic, Lit Hub, Bomb, Artforum, Chicago Review, The American Poetry Review, and elsewhere.
Girls Assembling Something Perpetual
Rhizome DC is perfect for diy and being there, bare bones, bare stage (basic poet’s theater purity for a shared imagining), I’m grateful to that space and its curators for in person and virtual gatherings, including early seminars for The Killing Joke at the beginning of the pandemic, and then the Forget Why Poetry series with its readings, and Browning’s play, and also Jaap Blonk and his renderings of Artaud in performance, all demanding I stay on task.