MHR‘s Contributing Writer/Social Media Associate Charlotte Hamrick interviews MHR poet, Sam Rasnake.
I first “met” Sam Rasnake in the online writing forum Fictionaut. I was new to the site and a little intimidated by sharing my poetry with a group of strangers who weren’t strangers to each other. Sam was one of the first commenters of my work. His comments were always supportive and kind and he was (is) always willing to help me out when I was stuck or unsure of a piece. His own work is a beauty to behold. Sensitive, lyrical, intensely interesting. I’m so happy to be in a position to interview him for MockingHeart Review. Heartfelt thanks to Sam for sharing his time and thoughts.
What is your earliest recollection of the desire to write down your own thoughts?
I had a fantastic high school English teacher who turned me on to the deep wells of Bob Dylan, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor. Her class discussions made me try writing in a creative way. She showed me how to want to be a writer.
Do you remember your first poem? What was it about?
I began writing poetry in high school – showing them to no one. I kept them in a Japanese puzzle box. The first one was “Time,” a sonnet-like piece about – wait for it – dying.
Is poetry your primary genre? Do you work in any others?
Poetry has always been my focus in writing – and reading. Over the years, I dabbled in fiction, but the works seemed to morph into prose poems.
When my Father died in 2012, I stopped writing. Actually, I stopped writing about six months before he died when bone cancer began to impact the quality of his life in an extreme way – and I didn’t attempt to write for about a year after he passed. I was teaching college fall of 2013, and a creative writing class in non-fiction helped jump-start my work. I made myself do the class assignments with the students. We were using Michel de Montaigne, the sixteenth-century French writer, philosopher, and creator of the personal essay, as the basis for our works. His “Of” pieces served as models for our “On” works – the subjects ranging from objects to abstractions to family to dreams… from the mundane to the universal to the personal. Writing began to feel comfortable to me again, and the words began to flow. I wrote many successful pieces that term. Nearly all have now been published in various journals. I thanked the students for their help – and gave a nod to Montaigne, one of the most important writers I’ve ever read.
Lately, I’ve been writing flash fiction as well as poetry.
I’m always interested in the writing process. Tell us a little about yours. Do you ponder a poem for a while, keeping it in a draft stage and working on it periodically or do you write it all at once, as the inspiration and words strike you? How much editing do you do on a piece?
I’ve always approached poetry from the Stanley Kunitz method. I had always written this way, but he articulated the method that closely resembled my own. The poet waits for the poem. This requires patience. In other words, I don’t choose the poem – the poem chooses me. I don’t decide my topics. I let the topics find me. I need to be overwhelmed by a subject or focus, and that does happen. Over the years, I’ve learned how to recognize the feeling of a poem coming my way. And it does begin with a feeling and not a thought.
As the years disappear from me, I find that I writer fewer drafts. I seldom write every day though I’m constantly reading the works of others – poetry, fiction, non-fiction. My poems now tend to come to me in a more complete or finished way. With some – probably the better ones – no words or phrasings are changed. The best ones arrive whole. For this reason, I have few stranded lines or incomplete poems. I should add, however, that I also have fewer finished works. I consider a finished work to be a published work – or at least what I consider publishable.
When I’m ready to begin writing a poem, I go to my journal and write what I’m hearing in my head. A poem is finished when I go to the computer. I seldom edit from a keyboard. The work is, for the most part, already finished.
Some writers advise writing every day, to actually force yourself, that it’s good practice. What do you think about that p.o.v.?
As a writer, I can’t be forced or coaxed. Subjects or topics are the same way. For this reason, I’m more comfortable in a writing group than I am in a writers’ workshop. I either do or do not write.
I do believe that a good writer – or a bad one for that matter – should be reading, and I do that.
Even though I may not be writing, I’m constantly flipping through my journal – I’m on #28 now. A Moleskine notebook, lined pages, with a soft cover is perfect. I’m halfway through 28. The first entry begins with a “finished poem” – “Some Kind of Compass” – printed from my computer, then taped onto the journal’s pages. I’ve included images as well. The poem is an ekphrastic piece based on the film Degalog, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s ten-hour masterpiece. The date of my entry is 11 January 2017. The draft of the poem is found in the closing pages of journal #27. I’d been asked by Didi Menendez, editor of Poets Artists magazine, to submit a piece for a themed issue – the male muse. The poem’s subject came to me instantly and was finished quickly – with few changes. Apparently, I wanted to tinker with one stanza before submission, and I did that on 1/13. The poem is submitted on 1/14. My next entry in journal #28 – after a couple of pages of random thoughts or comments about “Some Kind of Compass,” my favorite music recordings, and the poetry of Paul Celan (I must have been reading his works at the time) – is on 22 February. My point is that I don’t write daily in my journal – or maybe I should say I don’t plan on writing daily. Sometimes it happens to be daily, but that is the exception. Normally, days will go by without an entry. On occasion, weeks or even months will pass. I write when I write.
Do you have a favorite place to write that’s particularly conducive to your creativity?
My green chair beside the fireplace is my spot. I love to write there. The window to my left faces the mountains that begin the Cherokee National Forest and the glass doors to my right lead to the trees on the hill behind my house.
Where was the strangest place that inspiration hit you for a poem and how did it turn out?
My cousin worked at a funeral home, and years ago I had to see him at work for some reason – I don’t remember why. He was called away briefly, leaving me alone in the embalming room. A poem began nudging me at once – filling my head with images of Hammer horror films. I didn’t have a pen or paper, but I began writing the poem – “The Dead”. It turned out well. The piece was published and nominated for a Pushcart.
Are there any recurrent themes in your poems? If so, why do you think that is?
My response is more mode than theme, but it does connect with theme. For many years, I’ve been working in an ekphrastic mode, writing pieces that connect to literature, art (in its many forms), music, and cinema. The creative arts have always been important to me. This, no doubt may be due to one of my earliest memories: my Father’s college textbook – Art History of the Western World.
As for a recurring theme, I’m not certain, but my best guess would be loss. For example, my favorite filmmakers – Krzysztof Kieślowski, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Bresson, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Orson Welles – are focused on the theme of loss, and I respond to their works because of it.
Do you have any favorite words?
Highway, window, door, path, road, stream, river, line…
Do you have any tips to share regarding motivation and/or discipline in completing a piece?
Read more – as often as possible. Reading can help a writer find the way into a work. Also, listen to music. View works of art. Watch films. Travel. Soak up the world. Let the world – the individual’s world – find a way to your own work, and let that work reflect the self. The “self” has a unique voice, and for the poem to be exceptional, that voice must be present in the lines. Voice – one that is true – takes an enormous amount of patience to find, but it is what sets the work apart from the numbing, uninspired dullness that language can have. Poetry should inspire, should change us, should serve as a map that leads to a personal truth. My poetry doesn’t have to be for everyone, but it does have to connect with me. For this reason, I do not write for an audience. That’s not to say I don’t want an audience; I do. But, that’s not the reason I write.
There is a burgeoning poetry community online and new lit journals popping up all the time. Some people think it’s just so much “look at me” noise and unworthy of notice while others celebrate more open and diverse opportunities for poets to share their work. What do you think?
Today, there are more poetic opportunities than ever. We have more access to venues, more access to a myriad of voices. I do celebrate writers, and enjoy, learn from, grow with their works. I read many journals these days – mostly online, and my circle of writer friends continues to grow.
I find it impossible to name one poet who is my favorite – I have several. Who are some of your favorite poets and/or poems?
My favorite poets – the poets I’ve read the most – are Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Jorge Luis Borges, William Stafford, Yosa Buson, Natasha Trethewey, William Blake, Jalal al-Din Rumi, Wisława Szymborska, Jack Gilbert, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jane Hirshfield, Lucille Clifton, Han-Shan, Paul Celan, James Wright, Anne Carson, Jack Gilbert, Joy Harjo, Frank O’Hara, Gary Snyder, Adrienne Rich, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Lynda Hull, Larry Levis, Yusef Komunyakaa…
If I had to pick one poet: Elizabeth Bishop – one book: Geography III – and one poem: “Crusoe in England”. A remarkable writer.
Sam Rasnake‘s works have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. He has served as a judge for the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, University of California, Berkeley, and as a musician recorded has recorded with Radio On, the Show Yourself sessions (Aftermath Records). His most recent book is Cinéma Vérité (A-Minor Press, 2013).