Writer cin salach's name is synonymous with the performance/slam poetry scene in Chicago and around the country. She is the author of the poetry collection Looking for a Soft Place to Land ( Tia Chucha Press, Chicago, 1996 ) , and until just a few years ago, she was married to a man. Since coming out as a lesbian, salach, 39, has experienced many new things in her life. One of those things is a theatrical collaboration with award-winning gay and lesbian theater company About Face. Undone, which opens About Face's new theater season, is a world premiere musical and performance production conceived and directed by Eric Rosen, based on salach's writing about her coming out as a lesbian.
Gregg Shapiro: Can you give a brief biographical sketch?
Cin Salach: I grew up in Schaumburg ( Illinois ) . I went to the University of Illinois in Champaign. I got my degree in advertising. I always knew that that was what I wanted ( to do ) . I loved writing, and ( advertising ) combined writing with business. My father was a big business man...so, I could make money and write. I took a couple of poetry classes, but mostly took advertising classes. I graduated and got a job. About a year into the job, I went to the Green Mill. I saw an ad for the Poetry Slam and I thought, "I like poetry. What's this about?" I walked into the Green Mill and I couldn't believe my eyes. There were people on-stage doing poetry and there was this audience. It was just amazing. I left and I called everybody I knew ( and said ) , "You're not going to believe what I just saw." I went back the next week with a poem and read in the open mike and people clapped. Everything just changed. I felt my heart literally shift. This is where I'm supposed to be. It felt like that home feeling. I quit my job and went freelance. Shortly thereafter I met Mark ( Messing ) , who was a musician, and he started putting music to my poems. Someone heard them and asked if we could do it live. There was this performance/visual artist guy, Mark Howell, who said, "Yeah, they can do it live. And I'll put some visuals to it." All of a sudden I was in the poetry world and the performance world. One thing led to the next. It just kept growing and it all led into my writing life.
GS: Is this where Loofah Method, a performance poetry group, comes in?
CS: Basically, I wrote a poem called The Loofah Method. I recorded it and Mark put music to it. It turned into this band's song. That's what someone heard and asked if we could do it live. This was the '80s. It was all samplers and Midi this and Midi that. I had no idea. We had three songs, one of which was The Loofah Method. It was the three of us ( Salach, Messing, Howell ) for several years. We started to collaborate with different artists. At first we had slide projectors and then an eight millimeter and then a super eight and then a 16 millimeter ( laughs ) . We ended up with video projectors and working with Kurt Heintz. It was exciting, because I had no idea that this was something that existed growing up in Schaumburg. Art? What's art? No one ever says the word "art"?
GS: While you were doing this, were you beginning to immerse yourself in poetry and poets?
CS: In ( the poetry of ) my peers. Certainly in the poets I was seeing around town. That changed when I did the book.
GS: It doesn't happen very often where a performance poet makes the transfer successfully to the page.
CS: First it was this press in Chicago, Tia Chucha, that approached me. They were starting to do ( poetry ) manuscripts. I turned in my manuscript. I never put my poems on the page. I really just carried them all in my head and my body to perform them. I put them all on the page, just like I thought I heard them. I gave them this manuscript and they handed it back. They said, "This is not a manuscript" ( laughs ) . We went through that process a couple of times. Finally, they hooked me up with an editor named Mary Hawley. She told me something that changed everything. She said, "When you sit down to write a poem, tell yourself that you're not going to read it out loud." For some reason, I think that gave me permission to go into this other world... which was the page. It was a whole new medium. It was like working in watercolors and somebody hands you oils.
GS: How did your affiliation with About Face Theatre come about?
CS: That came about when they did a show called Words On Fire last summer ( 2000 ) in collaboration with Steppenwolf ( Theater ) . Eric Rosen ( of About Face ) directed and produced it. They took all these poems about Chicago. One of the poems that they picked was mine. They put this whole show together with the poems and music. I gave them permission to use my poem and then kind of wrote it off. I was kind of snobby about the whole thing ( laughs ) . The whole poetry and music thing can really bad ( laughs ) and having done it for so long ... I didn't know who these people were. I was like, "Yeah, use my poem."
GS: Is it because you were moving more towards the page?
CS: I think so. I think I was becoming much more critical. By that point, the book had been out for several years and I did discover a whole new world. I started working with Maureen ( Seaton ) and everything changed. I think I was becoming a better writer and more aware of what it meant to put your words out.
GS: Were you submitting work to literary journals?
CS: I was. Not much, but here and there. I was also working with a writer's group of all page poets. I had also worked with really amazing musicians ( in the past ) . I was just being a snob ( laughs ) ! But, here's the amazing thing that happened. After the show opened, I started getting these messages on my machine from people saying, "You're not going to believe what they did with your poem." ... It wasn't that I didn't want to see it. I was busy, and I thought, if I miss it, I miss it. It wasn't a priority. I don't know why ( laughs ) . But I went. From the second the show began, I felt so relaxed and in such good hands, that by the time they got to my poem, I was sobbing. I didn't know you could do this. It was so high quality and it was so professional. It was so loving and it was so considerate of the poetry. ... They put it up again in the fall at Theater On The Lake. Then, in February ( 2001 ) , I was hosting a reading at the Three Arts Club. A woman I had been teaching with came to the reading. She also happens to be the artistic director of the youth theater at About Face. She brought Eric Rosen with her. At that point he didn't even realize I performed, which is kind of an amazing thing to me because nobody knows me as a poet on the page ( laughs ) . He saw me perform and he came to a gig I did a couple of weeks later with my band Ten Tongues, which is basically the Loofah Method, but without visuals. He was really excited and he said, "I think we should talk about doing something together." And we met. I had just gotten divorced, sold the house, was coming out. I was thinking, "OK, where am I going to go with my work? I can't just keep reading lesbian poems at the Green Mill. Where are the lesbian poets?" It was a new community ( to me ) ...it was really kind of coming into the community. Here was Eric opening up the doors to this theater saying, "We're a gay and lesbian theater. We're looking for new lesbian writers." I'm like, "I'm an old writer, but I'm a new lesbian ( laughs ) . What an amazing thing!"
GS: Because you are so close to the material...does it feel strange to be playing yourself in this production?
CS: The thing that I like about Eric's process is that he lets things keep revealing the next thing. That was an option [ to have someone else play the character ] . I certainly was worried that it's so much my story and how autobiographical ...I think my concern is can I, as a writer, transform the material so that other people will have a way in. In that sense, it's also gone back and forth, is it a play? Is it a performance? It's kind of flipped back now, that we're approaching it more as a performance. There are other performers on stage and everybody is sort of playing me at any given moment.
GS: I saw that when he took the text about the water and gave it to Sandra ( Delgado ) . It was interesting to see that it had that liquid quality to it.
CS: We tried it originally with me doing all of it, and it was just the scariest thing. My fear was that it would be...this is the "Cin Salach Story"...and, no, this is not what this is about. This is not what's going to be interesting to anybody but my therapist and me ( laughs ) . Once we started spreading out the speaking roles, and writing some of the things in third person, it felt like a relief not to play myself. It's been an intense few years and it was time to have somebody else talk ( laughs ) .
GS: I'm glad you mentioned the Green Mill earlier. As a poet myself, every time I go to a poetry reading, I'm amazed that there is ever anyone other than other poets in the audience. How do you think a theater audience will respond to text that is largely poetic, as it is in Undone?
CS: Hopefully, positively ( laughs ) . I think the thing that I love about the Green Mill and the performance aspect of poetry is that it redefines poetry for people. Maybe at one point it was inaccessible and intimidating. It puts it in an area that is not intimidating and can be enjoyed. It certainly puts it back in the oral tradition. ... A lot of the work has been transformed into song and so it puts it into a new place.
GS: Also a more accessible place. I think people are more comfortable with a song than a poem. How does it feel to have your words set to music by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman?
CS: I instantly had faith and trust ( in them ) . Partly it was the experience of having seen Words On Fire. I was so relaxed with them. ... They always made me feel very much a part of the process. No one had ownership. ... It's a total treat. I've been doing a lot of journal poems. I walked into rehearsal one night and they were singing this song. It was so beautiful, and I had just lived this particular thing that they were singing. But it was so thoughtful and it so hit the emotion of it in a way that I was too close to ( to even attempt ) . Because they are objective, they can lift it to this place.
GS: At the rehearsal I attended, Loretta ( Rezos ) has a line about watching you in a relationship with a woman. Later, you say something about it not being a "transitional relationship" and your "cynical friends." Did you have "cynical friends" during this time?
CS: ( Laughs ) Yes.
GS: Are you still friends?
CS: If they can be cynical but loving. I think maybe cynical was too harsh. I think that's one of the stories I want to go back to and work on a little bit. There's an edge to it that's not quite ringing true to me right now. It was a big transformation and change. I had friends who were worried about me. They were like, "Are you sure? You've been straight for a long time. You're what?" ( Laughs ) To me, it was this logical progression that I knew in my body. It was, "Yes. Now I'm in this place." There were a lot of people looking at this relationship and being cynical. Am I still friends with them? Not in the same way that I was before.
GS: There is another line that goes "I married men before I became a woman," and then there is a calling names...the "ode to the ones who came before."
CS: That is from a journal poem. From a year ago August. Basically, I was taking an inventory of all the men in my life. All the people who had touched me physically. It's certainly not a list of men that I'd slept with. It's not as literal as it sounds. It's all very metaphorical. I think all of a sudden I was in this place where I was really aware that I was a woman and I was now with a woman. My choices about my body and my sexuality were coming from a place of me seeing myself as a woman, which was really new. That consciousness was new for me. I was going back to make a list of all the people that I let in that I wasn't really consciously ...
GS: On the way to becoming a woman.
GS: What has your family's reaction been to your coming out?
CS: Really supportive. I've been really lucky. I know that there are so many horror stories out there. Particularly coming out so late, in the middle of my life, when I already had so many things in place. I was with ( ex-husband ) Mark for 14 years. We had a house. We had all of these things in place. For the longest time I tried to change without changing all of that, without having to mess up everybody else's life too. That was the hardest. I can't not break everything. Everything has to break and then we can start over. Once I let myself do that, it became a little bit easier in that the destruction was evident and everybody had to change their lives to be in a relationship with me, whether or not that was something that they still wanted to do. I was fortunate in that it was with my family. They've been really open. Surprised. I think, a little intimidated, because it's a world that they know nothing about. We're kind of learning it together. I got them a subscription to The Advocate. They've always been really supportive of me. Always included in my life. This was no exception. They get a little bit nervous sometimes, just because they're not familiar with the world. ... This is sort of the same thing and they meet my girlfriend, then it's like, "Oh, I really like her."