We all remember that doctor who could talk to animals, that spooky family with cheesy surnames, that boy, Beaver, who lived down the street, and how could we forget our first looks into that divorced and dysfunctionally hilarious family other than our own, the Bradys. And for the younger crowd, how about those mutant turtles who learned karate from a rat, or that neighborhood chihuahua and cat, and we can’t forget the summer camp led by Ug Lee.
It might sound strange when you think about it, but television has done something bizarre over the decades: it has given millions of people around the world the same childhood memories. Now, this may have the positive effect of bringing us all together on some common, comfortable ground or it could have the destabilizing effect of crumbling individuality. Either way, one poet has begun to delve into this new phenomenon by relating how her childhood memories have affected her life...I mean, how our childhood memories have affected our lives.
Susanna Rich, a poet and professor at New Jersey’s Kean University, has created a poetry collection/production called Television Daddy where she, assisted by director Ernest Wiggins and crew, performs a one-woman show. Although, I must stress that this is no poetry performance. Poetry readings have evolved over the decades from simple oral poetry to dub poetry to performance and slam and sound poetry. Now, there is a new form, a nameless form in the evolution that goes beyond performance with it’s audience interaction and subtle, therapeutic nature.
But what is so new about television becoming a part of popular culture? It has been in poetry before.
“Television becomes a surrogate...for father, for God, for exploration of self, for love, for relationships,” Rich said, “It pulls your attention away from who you really are. It pulls the attention from feeling what you’re feeling. Ann Landers said that television has shown us, proved to us that people are willing to look at anything other than each other, and I would add ‘ourselves.’”
And not only is television the fulcrum of the production, nor simply the catalyst for a new wave of emotions and poetic inspiration, television is the previous link in the evolutionary chain of expression. When before there was Shakespeare reading his poetry through drama on the stage, now there is television which captures the drama but excludes the poetry. Using the same methods television producers use to gain larger, more general audiences, Rich has used to enrich her poetry reading’s effect. Rich has taken the inspiration for her poetry, and almost in a satirical manner, brought drama and poetry back but without the television. Call it poetic justice.
But television has had a profound impact on Rich’s life and perception of reality, as it has on ours. “My family is so dysfunctional that you can’t even call it dysfunctional because it isn’t functional at all. And I’m watching “Lassie” and I’m watching “Father Knows Best” and “My Three Sons” and I’m thinking, ‘I’m a horrible person because I have a terrible family,’ when the truth is most people have a dysfunctional family.”
Since it’s debut, her production has gained much attention in New Jersey and is spreading as she takes her one-woman show on the road. Much of her personality and heart-felt words can be seen and experienced in Television Daddy and oftentimes ends in roaring applause from the audience. She has even begun to attract groupies who follow her performances.
When I saw her perform Television Daddy on the Ocean County College campus in Toms River, I couldn’t help but be pulled into the performance. Perhaps I wasn’t a necessary part of the production but I certainly felt like it. Rich acted beautifully, oftentimes commanding a powerful silence over the audience with her words and expressions. And then, at the snap of a finger or unexpected turn of phrase, she’d have us laughing.
Now, there is a motive for all the hoopla and praise. There is a healing effect on the audience, almost therapeutic. People come not knowing what to expect and leave finding a piece of themselves in the process. My fiancee who watched with me, a self-proclaimed not a poetry person, found it fascinating and entertaining. And the audience aren’t the only ones finding solace in the Television Daddy experience. “The biggest moment of therapy is when I say, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to write a poem about that,’” Rich said of the process.
But it really is the universality of her poetry, experiences, and delivery that brings a sense of comfort in the niche that at one point television filled. It makes clear the allure of the box and knots off certain loose threads that might have unravelled in our past, her past. Rich has, in essence, taken the universality effect television has had on us and molded it into expressing herself to us in a way we can all appreciate. This incredibly unique and ingenious concept within poetry has led to her rising success and a new genre within the ever-evolving track of poetry and it’s readings.
“Some people say that you have so much courage to reveal those things you’re revealing in the poems,” Rich said, “and I say, ‘wait a minute. I don’t think it’s about me. It’s about humanity. It’s about us.’”