interview: Nicholas Samaras
tell us a little bit about yourself, your writing, and your life…
First, I express my gratitude and happiness for talking with you and your audience. For me, this is exactly what my writing and what all writing is about: to engage in a dialogue. It is the entire reason I write: to have a dialogue with the world, to “commune” with the world. This is what I bring to my experience of the page: the interaction between my heart and soul and anyone who reads my text, in return.
I have stated in numerous poems of mine that “I write for the world.” This is because my upbringing took place literally all over the world. My background is from the Island of Patmos, Greece (the Island of the Apocalypse). I was born and raised in the village of Foxton, eight miles south of Cambridge, England, and I was then taken back to Patmos. I have lived in Greece, England, Wales, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Germany, Yugoslavia, Jerusalem, thirteen states in America, and I write from a place of permanent exile. Eventually, my Greek-American father brought me back to Woburn, Massachusetts, his birth/home town. He is a Greek Orthodox Priest and I got to grow up with him throughout the different parishes he served. It is from this foundation that I consider myself to be a “citizen of the world,” as I have written about in my first book, “Hands of the Saddlemaker,” which earned The Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. That book was my introduction to the world, in which I wrote about the world. This is why issues of faith and imagination are so vital to my writing, because they comprise my genesis, from my father to the myriad cultures and geographies I lived through. I currently live in West Nyack, New York, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. [a note to readers: Antler encourages correspondence and dialogue, so feel free to shoot Nick an email!]
when you picture someone reading your poetry, how do you see them? what do they think about, wear, and do? or, maybe a better way to say it: who do you write for? and how do you see your writing nourishing others?
I see my readers as genuine people like myself, souls struggling to express ourselves and share. I consider all of us together as pilgrims experiencing feelings and thoughts, sharing together. Because my life cast me all over the world, I have always thought of myself as a pilgrim, striving to find that balance in life, find that emotional stability within geography, in the concept of place and home and faith. My writing creates a world and a home for myself and anyone who engages with my text. Thus, I write and speak for all of us together. I have always considered myself a “world writer,” because I have grown in the breadth of this world. I am multicultural and multilingual. My sense of language is a sense of music, lyricism, accents of countries, regions, and dialects. Even when I culminated my education at Columbia University, my professors there ranged from Joseph Brodsky to Derek Walcott and they all were comprised of world geographies and the voices of their cultures. As I was nourished, I also strive to nourish others through readership and the exoticness of my kaleidoscopic background and perspective.
how do you use poetry as a practice for spiritual exploration, discipline, or growth? can you offer any practical advice or sure-fire practices for folks interested in allowing writing to inform their spiritual discipline?
There can be no faith without language.
And vice-versa. Language is the vehicle and expression of the Sacred. I use poetry to explore my sense of creation as I feel and express it, and the worlds of the poem I create in the poem. I chart my growth, emotional and spiritual, by what I write, by the illuminations I realise. My practical advice is in the verb of writing. Everything is made known through resistance—the tension of words on paper; therefore, I encourage others to keep to a writing during regular, disciplined hours. Free-write. Ask questions on the page. Focus on personal growth-lessons. Verbalise them. Clarify them. When you write things down, when you name things, they then become real. Thus, I also write to make things real.
when you approach your desk, journal, computer—where ever it is you tend to create—what are some of the processes you use? what’s going through your mind? tell us about your habits of writing, no matter how quirky, mundane, strange, or small.
I start with images and lines of music. I work those fragments into context and relationship, seeing how one image connects with another line or image. I explore relationships and concepts between them. From this process, the poem declares itself. The poem tells me what it wishes to express, say, and declare. I write very active poems. They become experiences on the page, happening now. I was influenced by conceptual and avant-garde artists, such as Yoko Ono and Fluxus. I write late at night when my children are asleep. My enemy is television. My friend is the blank page that calls me to give it voice. I often wonder what my writing would become if I were able to write during daylight. Sadly, I have to work three jobs to make one salary, which leaves me only the late hours in which to compose. Practical advice: Television is nothing but watching other people make money. Don’t turn it on. Sit down and write on the page.
when you go to revise work, how do you typically go about it? are there best practices you follow? give some wise instruction for those of us ready to get cracking on revision!
My friend and schoolmate, Alan Michael Parker, expressed it beautifully when he said, “I rewrite poetry by subtraction, and I rewrite prose by addition.” I agree completely. Write your poem any way you feel it. Then, go back and ask yourself, “What can I cut? What word is not necessary?” From this sculpting, the angel rises from the stone it is carved from. For me, writing is merely the clay or stone. Revising is the real writing. I’m working on a poetry textbook right now, which is half-complete. I love teaching, and just need a venue to teach within.
what’s the best advice you can give to a person just beginning to write, struggling to write, or feeling stuck? what’s something you wish someone had told you starting out?
I always teach my students, “Half of writing is reading.” Thus, read your brains out. Read poetry spanning all eras. Read translations. Explore the music of all text, your own and others. Because I always wish someone had taught me organizational skills when I was beginning, I make sure now to always first teach my students very strict organizational skills of presenting the writing before even writing, how to arrange words on the page before the actual writing of the words.
please tell us about what you’re working on now…
My next book is AMERICAN PSALM, WORLD PSALM, forthcoming from Ashland Poetry Press in the Spring of 2014. Please, write to them and pre-order the book! I conceived of my contemporary psalms as musical forms: psalms as a blues song, psalms as Byzantine Chant or American Folk Music or hip-hop prayers. I was experimenting with the concept of a psalm as a song. I had to write a full 150 psalms to mirror the Biblical Psalms. One of the psalm-poems I wrote, quickly published in the gorgeous IMAGE magazine, has since taken on a complete life of its own, being reprinted and blogged extensively, beyond my control (nice surprise to meet the world and be embraced by the world). I wrote the poem as a musical refrain, an exploration of concept, using language to express silence, to express relationship, to explore the depth of stillness in which we meet our essence, our concept of a spiritual facing. I enjoyed taking a common word—“then”—and turning it into music. Here is a poem from the collection:
The Psalm of Then
Then, the Lord heard me in the wilderness of my soul.
Then, the lost place of me became clear.
Then, I recognised distraction for what it is.
Then, I was freed from the desert of diversion.
Then, I was moved to the green oasis within me.
Then, the still voice of the Lord was as the depth of water.
Then, I could cease the constant music in my head.
Then, I could move beyond myself and the noise of myself.
Then, I could hear the smallness of my own voice.
Then, the still voice of the Lord was as the depth of water.
Then, the lost place of me became clear as a cascade.
Then, I could hear the bass of my name.
Then, I heard the Lord in the wilderness of my soul.
Then, stillness and stillness and stillness sang.