Sam Rasnake Interview, with JP Reese
Many of your poems, for example "The Next to Last Poem," and "Something More than Painting," are grounded in nature, Sam, particularly in the natural world I would call the Mideastern portion of the South in which you live. How important is this sense of place to your work?
Place is an important focus in much of my work. That may be because of my devotion to writers such as Matsuo Bashō and Yosa Buson or William Stafford, Elizabeth Bishop, and Jane Hirshfield. I’m very attuned to the South – specifically, the Appalachian region – though my personal work – and by personal I don’t mean autobiographical, but personal as in the “here” of my living – is more connected to mountains and ocean. The two poems you mentioned are focused on the real world, the “here” of my own seeing and breathing. The natural world dominates both pieces. The voice in the poem, the “I” and “we,” are subordinate to the world. Both poems, or this is how I read the poems, are about Otherness: “What the spring carries here is a story to read” and “the tree empty / under a faded sky, one branch throbbing.” The story is present even if no one reads it; the empty branch throbs even if no one sees it – or sees the owl in flight.
I should add, though, that the poems are not strictly about place; instead, they are about life moving through a given place. The woodpecker, train, wind and field, the person drinking coffee, the Canada goose are all in motion at a particular moment. All lines crossing in the “here.” Life is where the lines connect. This is a matter of philosophy for me – or maybe I should say a matter of faith. Both poems are quite spiritual.
I agree there is a spirituality underpinning much of your work, although I read it as an almost secular spirituality, if that is possible. You also have quite a few poems, such as the ekphrastic poem "For the Painter's Hand," that make use of another artist and creative medium, in this case Henri Matisse's painting Blue Nude, as their initial inspiration. What qualities in music, film, and art attract you?
Ekphrastic writing allows me to wear a mask – allows me to enter another world. It’s all theater, a play unfolding, and I move from the audience to the stage. In the case of Blue Nude, I am, as a writer, attempting to become part of the artist, the painting, the model, the motion of the brush, the moment of the work’s creation. I’m drawn to that type of connection with the arts. I don’t want to watch a film – I want to enter it, very like Chris Marker’s La Jetée or Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo. That’s what I want for my own experience with ekphrastic writing – to enter the other world.
Your poem, "Another Ars Poetica in a Gone World," besides the title being a nod to Ferlighetti, feels more personal than the others in this group. I was particularly drawn to the phrase "all quivering lip and cocoon" that implies the boy's terror and abasement as well as the final line with its empty space separating it from the previous stanza, allowing form to enrich meaning. How often do you take experiences from your own life and include them in your work and, to quote Stevens, is it important to pay particular attention when writing to the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is?
Ferlinghetti is lurking in the title, but that’s as far as his reach goes in this piece.
Taking life experiences does occupy a significant portion of my writing, but I would say, in terms of fact and history, much less than half ... probably less than a third. In terms of emotional, psychological or spiritual connection – nearly a hundred percent.
“Another Ars Poetica in a Gone World” is quite personal. That’s not to say, however, that “Something More Than Painting” is not personal. “Something More” is based on a real moment in my life, but I chose to let the moment – specifically, the landscape of that moment – occupy the foreground of the poem. My part in it moves back into shadows and disappears. “Another Ars Poetica” is not based on a real moment yet is more personal to me. The life in the poem, with its dark current, is one I’ve known. The moment never happened, but I know the boy of the poem, a close friend. In the writing, and my comment here is based on writing process, the voice of the poem – a “me” that I distinguish from me in the real world – becomes the boy. When I visualize the boy, I see myself, but the childhood that’s sketched in the piece is nothing at all like my own childhood. Opposite in most every way. The tiny world of the poem is my friend’s childhood, though it’s not a factual world. Emotionally, I would say the world of the poem is my friend’s world.
One of my themes, if I, in fact, have themes in my writing, is the unsaid, the unsayable. The physical space on the page before and after the closing line is essential to allowing the image of the bluebird to work in the poem. That’s how the image strikes me. For me, the quivering lip, the cocoon, the bluebird, not there at first, then there, then gone, have a similar function in the poem.
"Another Ars Poetica in a Gone World" is a sequel to my story “Something to Say,” which is scheduled to appear this fall in Connotation Press. My initial idea was to write a trilogy of stories, but part two came as a small poem. We can’t always control – nor should we try to control – the focus or even form of the work. Let it find its own way. The poem is small, but I hope it carries a weight well beyond its few lines. Part three is yet to be written.
It is a strong poem. Though small in length, its content is powerful. On another note, as editor of Blue Fifth Review and the Blue Five Notebook Series online, will you give us your take on the exploding market for writers that is the Internet? Is this easy availability for both writers and audiences good for writers, or is Internet publication less important to building an artist's reputation than print publication?
The market has exploded and into many amazing parts. So many venues to choose. So much access to varied styles, forms, content, and possibilities for publication. Also, interaction with a full range of writers in the virtual world has become important to us – invaluable. I think there’s so much more room to grow as a writer today, so many ways to learn. The Internet makes us only a point and click away from all the necessary tools for becoming better writers.
Online publications are becoming greater in number and in strength. Existing online journals have improved dramatically over the last several years, and this, as if by domino theory in reverse, has caused newer venues to start at a higher pitch. More effort and desire for quality seems to be the guidepost from the beginning. For that reason, we should only submit our best work. I’m afraid that too often this easy access we now have to online publications allows us, prods us maybe, to sacrifice quality of work for quantity. Whether the publication writers pursue is print or online, they should only send their best work.
The more I’ve been reading – primarily, though not exclusively, online – flash fiction, the more I’m drawn to the genre. The Internet has deepened that experience for me. When Blue Fifth Review first began January of 2001, the focus was poetry and art and that format remained until late last year. 2011 saw the expansion of BFR to the Blue Five Notebook series, which added flash fiction to the content. Michelle Elvy, the founding editor of the wonderful 52|250: A Year of Flash online series, became an editor for the new series. Her addition has strengthened the design of the venue, the content, and scope. We’re a stronger publication because of her efforts and contributions, and it’s the Internet writing community that has made this a possibility. Half a planet separates Michelle and myself, but the issues go live online when they’re supposed to.
Your newest collection of poems, Lost Connections, Hidden Intentions, will be grounded by some of your favorite films and film directors. As a final response, can you give us a preview of this new project?
The poetry is my excuse to watch great films. My cinematic tastes, both as writer and as viewer, are eclectic with an international bent. Works by Krzysztof Kieslowski, Ingmar Bergman, Wong Kar-Wai, Jane Campion, Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni, Kenji Mizoguchi, Luis Buñuel – to name a few – figure into the poems of Lost Connections, Hidden Intentions. The ms is part three of a planned six-part series, Tales of Brave Ulysses. The series connects, though the connections are rarely implicit, the archetypal figure Odysseus (and his journey) to the arts – specifically, literature, cinema, art, and music. Each section is chapbook in length. I find that this length, as well as how each part fits with the whole, keeps the writing manageable for me. For a long time, years really, I was overwhelmed by the project. I couldn’t find the way to make it work. Then I restructured the series from three to six, and the writing began to fall into place.
Sounds extremely ambitious, Sam. I can understand your reticence in tackling this project in one large chunk, especially with your other responsibilities as teacher and editor as well as your other writing. Thank you for spending time with Connotation Press and best of luck with Lost Connections, Hidden Intentions. I look forward to reading the finished product.
For the Painter’s Hand
– Henri Matisse, Blue Nude, 1907
Forget the poet’s view
of woman’s hips as more
than moon, her mouth as more
than sun – For your hand,
her hips are the earth and have
the perfect shape to still your eyes.
Forget the moon. It’s the soil
you crave in your fingers,
it’s the ache for rain – her mouth
that’s all tease. You’d be willing
to die there, her tongue flicking
vowels in a snag of e’s and o’s.
Her thighs, her belly and arm –
a contrapposto of smoke and shade.
You feel her – throbbing in both temples,
a bleed of color and light over canvas.
The scrape of brush, your only voice.
Another Ars Poetica in a Gone World
The little boy, all quivering lip and cocoon,
picks up the leather strap, and knows its truth,
its bedpost, its closet under the stair – then
buries its dream somewhere in the middle
of a field that should have been his life.
A bluebird flies over but never lands to sing.
Three Stanzas after Reading
Red Pine’s Poems of the Masters
Wind carries its own seclusion
And the river, another leaf
In my hand, the book I’ll never finish
waits for the morning rains
A scoop of moon sits on the wall,
reminds the darkness of its gifts:
the dog, the owl, the car on the highway,
a sadness in the bowl of my chest
October skies need the wild geese,
as the river craves silence, craves rock,
as my words must have wind
or tree or fence line
The Next to Last Poem
One red-bellied woodpecker
adjusts his head from the birch limb.
The low rumble of steel over fences,
highway, and hill. The heart is the last
to let go. So I pen these words
for a stranger who cannot believe
the motions of my world,
this April’s gray, or wind in my fields—
How I sit for days with stacks of books,
steam rising over the cup’s mouth.
If I could empty my head, I would do it,
then my green would be yours.
One Canada goose barks into the West.
There will be no sun today.
What the spring carries here is a story to read,
chapter by chapter, until the final sentence
breaks free of all tongues
into its own silence.
Something More Than Painting
Waiting for the mouse or rabbit or skunk
to move the rustled dry grass of the ditch –
never enough rain – the great owl, his back
to the highway – undisturbed, unmoved by
whatever absence would present itself
on this field turned myth, such an easy patience –
holds the leafless tree to the stiff ground.
To touch his wings would be to understand
all fear in shadows. We pull over.
The swish swish of traffic. Then silence.
His head turns, a hard stare from perfect eyes,
then both wings open the cold air to arc
into darkness, leaving the tree empty
under a faded sky, one branch throbbing.