Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Sickness I Want: An Interview with Sam Rasnake


Sheldon Lee Compton: Why do we write, Sam? Why in the world do we write?

Sam Rasnake: I used to think we write because we have something to say, but that’s not strong enough. “Having something to say” is a dream – a Burmese tiger pit – fool’s gold – rationalization ... but it’s not passion. The real reason should be belly-deep. There’s the passion. We write out of need. We write because we’re not whole – something is missing. Here are some lines from Mark Strand – “Keeping Things Whole” – the first stanza: “In a field I am the absence of field. This is always the case. Wherever I am I am what is missing.” – I write because something is missing. When I write, I hope – pray even – the words will find completion, some sort of wholeness – put me dead center. Of course, they never do, but that is what the writing strives for – if I don’t interfere. “Something is missing” and the words are bringing it back. A work with no end. Someone might say “Money”. Fine. The money is
missing. We write for money. What about “Fame”? Ok - we have no fame – we want it. Name in lights. Or, here’s my reason – as my Dad would say – “ad infinitum ad nauseam.” We work...we write until we’re sick of it. That’s a sickness I want. I don’t ever want to be rid of it.


SLC: The idea that something is missing is a fine one, Sam. Those of us who don't write to make a living can relate, I believe. I once tried to stop writing and found myself breaking over when I scribbled some captured dialogue on a napkin while eating. I love this sickness, as well. As a storyteller, poet, writer, keeper of the tale, how much obligation is at play for you? Do you feel as if there is a reason beyond your own enjoyment to continue crafting words?

SR: I've never made my living by my writing - but I've also never considered writing to be a hobby or to hold a secondary place in my life. Writing is more connected with who I am than with something I do. For this reason I feel obligated to the writer in me - obligated to the writing in me. Maybe I should say the writing left in me. I know there's an end to it - but like Townes Van Zandt who said he'd designed his life to end before the writing did - I hope I never reach the end of my own writing. The negative is I can never outlive all I need to write - and the positive, there will always be more I need to write. No end. There's my obligation. If the possibility of publication vanished, I would, in most ways, feel more free, for one, to finish my Ulysses project. I could let go of the rounds of submissions and waiting, submissions and waiting - and be able to focus more directly on the creative part of the writing process. I would be free of the publication path - It's a good path. I do believe that - but it's still a path, and the forest is out there - off the path - uncharted. I know I'd keep writing. I like and enjoy publication of individual works and collections, but that's not why I write.

SLC: So what do you have going on lately, Sam? I know you're latest work, Cinéma Vérité, is out from A-Minor Press, but I haven't had the chance to read it yet. Can you talk some about it here?



 SR: Cinéma Vérité is a collection of poems focused on or in reaction to a wide range of films. The book is part three in a six-part series – Tales of Brave Ulysses – that contains works that are ekphrastic in nature in the poetry’s connection to other art forms. I began the series years ago – Religions of the Blood (Pudding House Press) serves as an introduction, and Inside a Broken Clock (Finishing Line Press), poems connected to literature. Film is one of my passions, so writing about various works was a natural move for me. The majority of poems in Cinéma Vérité were written over the last three years. Various poetic forms and approaches are represented in the works – from sonnet variations to open forms to prose poems, from narrative to contemplation to theme. I do indicate a wider approach on the title page by stating that the book’s readers will encounter poems, parables, and sketches. This grouping – which will be even more pronounced in The Divination of Sticks, the final part of the Ulysses series – is influenced by my love for the writings of Jorge Luis Borges – specifically his book El Hacedor (Dreamtigers). Borges’ works move fluid-like between closed and open poetic forms, between poetry and the prose of parables and flash fiction. That is clearly an influence in the pieces found in Cinéma Vérité. During the next month or so I plan to work on shaping the next part of the series – World within the World – poems connected to art. Most of the pieces are written and have been published in various magazines, but I’m still working on new poems for that collection.

SLC: With the new work coming out so closely tied to cinema, my question is do you have a standoffish approach to what some academics would deem "worthless" films?

SR: I don’t really consider the views of academics or critics when determining what I like and don’t like in the creative arts, including film. I like what I like. I’m as passionate and singular-minded about film as I am literature. I do, though, have to qualify my views of film critics. I’m drawn to the philosophy of the French Wave – the critics from Cahiers du Cinéma who became filmmakers – in their break with tradition. I’ve always connected with their views. The title of my collection Cinéma Vérité pays homage to them. The majority of film critics might agree with many of the works I rank among my favorites – Vertigo, Rashomon, L’Avventura – though I’m not certain how many viewers would respond to some of my choices – Chimes at Midnight, The Decalogue, L'année dernière à Marienbad, Ordet. I actually prefer a slow-paced film. Oddly enough – I do love westerns, but my favorite is Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. An epic of sorts – nearly three hours in length – but it only has around twenty pages of dialogue, single-spaced. That’s my kind of movie. The visuals are stunning and as necessary as any narrative. Some may find this strange – I have a weakness for the classic horror films – Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Old Dark House, King Kong, Nosferatu – and especially the Hammer films – Quatermass and the Pit, The Curse of Frankenstein, The Gorgon, Horror of Dracula, The Devil Rides Out ... the work of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Veronica Carlson. Hammer was a rite of passage, and led me directly to the works of European cinema. Whatever their faults, horror films caused me to view cinematic narratives and film in general in a more eclectic way.

SLC: With your writing, there's always been this sense of peace about it. I don't really know another way to describe it, honestly. Maybe to say there's always this level of comfort, the idea that you're comfortable in your skin in general. I take this feeling away from most of your writing, in any case.  Do you have an inner peace that informs your writing?  Further, are you actively seeking that sort of balance in your daily life?



SR: I don't know if it's an inner peace – more like an inner calm - that does inform my writing. I say calm because I connect peace with satisfaction. Calm is the after of a storm. That's what I want. A calm center is one of the reasons I've been able to write about my Father's illness and death. What I find to be true is the darker the material, the more impacting that calm center. During the late stages of his illness, I stopped writing - and that lasted for eight or nine months. I didn't make a conscious decision not to write - I just stopped writing. I wasn't blocked. I had no desire to write, and didn't attempt. When I did pick up the pen, I wrote in a different direction - non-fiction. That was a good experience. I wrote one piece a week. That lasted for maybe three months - but during that time, I began once more to feel that calm center. During the non-fiction writing, I only finished maybe three or four poems. I was focused on the non-fiction, and it was good to do that. It was a successful experience for me. I was connecting - or maybe reconnecting is more accurate - with some inner truth. Then the poetry returned. I do try to find and keep a balance in my interior life - and never drift far from it. There are days, of course, when that's a struggle, but the calm, center place is always the goal. The writing finds me then. The calmness also informs my daily life. It's a short stretch from my work as a writer to my day job - teaching literature and creative writing. I'm not certain I ever separate the two.

SLC: Who are five writers you're reading today? Which of their books have left an impression or, even more, been incorporated into your internal reading standards?

SR: My recent reads? I'm re-reading Kafka, The Metamorphosis. I can never get enough of that book. I’m constantly reading William Stafford – especially his chapbooks. They were collected into three books - Smoke's Way, My Name Is William Tell, and Even in Quiet Places. Quiet Places is one of the most important books I've ever read. It connects with everything I write. Mary Oliver's cd At Blackwater Pond has been in my player for more than a week now.   The writers I'm reading - as in reading everything they write?  Cormac McCarthy...I can't shake loose from - nor do I really want to - No Country for Old Men. That book comes to me as a manual for how to live my life.  Yusef Komunyakaa...Dien Cai Dau – What a hammer to my head. Love that book.  Jane Hirshfield...Given Sugar, Given Salt is a profound philosophical statement disguised as a poetry collection.  Lydia Davis...Varieties of Disturbance is as fine a collection of short fiction as can be written. That is how I wish I could write.  Charles Wright...Chickamauga is a perfect book. I read it each fall – recharging batteries.

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