Thu 7 Nov 2013
by Susan Tepper
Susan Tepper: Do you feel yourself part of the film’s story, or its essence, as you write the poem about a particular film?
Sam Rasnake: I’m not certain about this, Susan, but the best explanation I have is I feel as if I’m seeing the film from inside as if I were the film. Not a character in the film – not a place – not the story. I’m not inside the house – I am the house.
ST: Method actors work this way. They become the character, and in some cases that means an animal. So, what you are saying regarding your poetry writing technique doesn’t surprise me.
SR: To write about a film I have to connect with it in some way – the acting, directing, cinematography. I have to be moved to write. Something must click. Something in the film nudges me – lets me know I’m going to write – let’s me know I need to write. I don’t choose the film. The film chooses me. That’s my philosophy with regards to poetry as well, and it comes to me via Stanley Kunitz. The poet doesn’t choose the poem – the poem chooses the poet.
ST: Kunitz was a remarkable poet. I personally believe that all art chooses its host. Does your new book Cinéma Verité complete the film aspect of your writing? At least for the time being?
SR: Some of my favorite films – Persona, The Decalogue, 2001 – I’ve yet to write about. Maybe I will one day. Looking over the poems included in Cinéma Vérité, I can see – now – some sort of connection with themes, stories, character types, but I know it wasn’t a conscious choice. I wasn’t considering that element at the time. I don’t set out to write a particular type of poem – but I do know when I’m going to write.
ST: You know when you are going to write. Fascinating. As are these lines from your poem MacGuffin inspired by a film I also love The 39 Steps. You wrote:
“…each one a gift from an uneasy hand, from fingers / too wrenched with letting go. And by the way, / isn’t it remarkable how a little sex sells— just / the thought of what could be might be enough…”
SR: In retrospect – I do feel as if I’m part of the film story – yes – as if I am, somehow, an extension of the story. But, this is after the poem is finished. I also realize this view contradicts my earlier statement. Maybe it’s a paradox. I am and I am not. I’m not certain if the film is finding a new life in me or if I’m finding a new life in the film. I don’t know. Maybe there’s a fallen tree between the two.
ST: It’s not necessarily contradictory, but simply how you see it play out.
SR: Considering the sweep of poems in Cinéma Vérite, I do, as a writer, tend to gravitate toward certain films, genres, directors. Some of them stand out – French New Wave (their offspring and ancestors), German directors, films of the 60s/70s, documentary. Some of the filmmakers – Ingmar Bergman, David Lynch, Krzysztof Kieślowski – moved me in sizable ways, allowing me to find a layered approach to the writing. In fact, the works in this collection are as close to what I wanted – from a writer’s standpoint – as I’m capable of accomplishing.
ST: Were you drawn to film from a young age?
SR: Films have always held an elevated place in my world – from about the age of 8 or 9. I began watching movies as a child of 8 or 9 when my parents bought a television. A small Philco, B/W, with rabbit ears for signal – two local stations – in the family room. I watched from my red rocker – still have that chair – though the TV is long gone. I never really liked television shows, but always loved movies. I preferred the longer length as opposed to the fast-paced shows. We never went to the theater to watch new movies. My early experience was shaped by the older films that were shown on television and how they were presented. In some ways this was very limiting and misleading (since very few new movies were shown and because of the editing involved to fit both screen size – long before HD – as well as the schedule format) but quite positive in others (because of the total absence of distractions). For this reason, watching films became a more personal experience – more like reading a book. As a teenager, I did watch movies in theaters, but the experience wasn’t a good one because of the noisy and active crowd. I preferred the solitude of watching films alone. Still do.
ST: What early films inspired you?
SR: First loves – Universal horror films – The Bride of Frankenstein, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Old Dark House – Always loved the works of James Whale – Dracula (1931), King Kong (1933), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), Island of Lost Souls (1932) … I then gravitated toward the films of Val Lewton and, most specifically, the Hammer films (my guilty pleasure … the great Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Ingrid Pitt ) such as Quartermass and the Pit, Horror of Dracula, The Devil Rides Out. Horror films led me to Hitchcock, and that pushed me in the direction of European films – specifically German … works by Murnau and Lang – and on and on. Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) was a revelation for me, causing me to view cinematic narratives and film in general in a different way. But, I still have a passion for those early films.
ST: For you, is the writing of poems a state of prayerfulness?
SR: Very much so. The physical act of writing is, for me, an almost sacred act. Since I consider prayer to be primarily a solitary doing, the comparison with writing is a great analogy. Pray focuses all its energies on the sacred, and to write is to seek a sacred state – being in touch with the right moment.
When I write, I prefer solitude and contemplation, mainly because of my own methods. I say my poems more than write them. I don’t like being disturbed. That kills it. Normally, by the time I reach the writing stage, the draft is finished. This isn’t always the case, of course, but it’s the way it usually happens. I listen, speak, then write. I hear the lines first, speak them, then write them down. The process is rewarding but difficult – since the necessity of the day-to-day in my world gets in the way of writing. The challenge is to find the moments, to be ready.
Susan Tepper is the author of four published books. Her current titles include The Merrill Diaries and From the Umberplatzen (Wilderness House Press, 2012) – a quirky love story set in Germany and told in linked-flash. Tepper has received nine Pushcart nominations, and one for the Pulitzer Prize for her novel What May Have Been (with Gary Percesepe) published by Cervena Barva Press in 2010. Tepper created the Monday Chat Interview series at Fictionaut, and the reading series FIZZ at KGB Bar in NYC. Her work appears in hundreds of print and online venues. www.susantepper.com