10 Questions for Barbara Ras

Amal Zaman

“From the drummer, take the cymbals, the crash, and hi-hat
and walk like you’re shining.  From the composer take “water
under snow is wear,” sung by young voices in the timbre
of wind blowing through the antlers of reindeer..."

--from “What to Take” which appears in the Winter 2016 issue (Volume 57, Issue 4).

Tell us about one of the first pieces you’ve written

About the first poems I wrote, the less said the better.  I can tell you about an early, early poem that found its way from 1976 into my first book published in 1998.   To think that a twenty-year-old poem would hold up startles me more now than it did then.  What’s memorable to me has to do with where I wrote it—in the basement of the apartment I shared with two other women from the U.S. teaching English in Cali, Colombia.  When we drew straws for who got which room, I got the maid’s room—no windows, bare bulb for lighting—and I would type up drafts on a manual Smith Corona typewriter.  The early poem I’m thinking of comes from experiences in that beautiful city alive with birds and butterflies and surrounded by the Andes.  “In the cafe on the sidewalk two kids / had a sloth, poked it with a piece / of bread.”  “A bird landed on my foot.”  Who could make up stuff like that?  It amuses me that one of my roommates with whom I’m still in touch confessed that no one took it seriously that I was in fact doing anything serious, which was, in fact, writing my way toward poetry that would be my life’s blood.

What inspired you to write this piece?

I met Bobby Previte, a drummer, a celebrated and articulate musician, who introduced me to a new way of thinking about percussion and drumming.  From there, I thought about all the ways music has inhabited my life.  My husband lives through music the way I live through words.  He used to build and maintain pipe organs and has taught me a vast amount about music.  A lot of what comes into the poem is to his credit, though some of it is from reading and whatnot. The violence, I fear, speaks for itself—it seeps into our lives, whether we invite it in or not.  And then the memory of hearing the night cry of a bushbaby in Zanzibar.  (I never dreamed by any stretch of the imagination that I would utter that sentence!)

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?

The ocean and its images--from bedrock childhood experience on the Atlantic, to long adult years spent on the Pacific, to sought-out destinations in the Caribbean Sea and the Indian Ocean--feed me and my poems in consistent, though varied, ways. 

Beyond the ocean, I love the experience of traveling to a foreign culture and being thrust into life that dazzles all the senses.  What? What? what? are the common questions.  The answers, always elusive, add abundantly to a storehouse of mystery and strange beauty.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?

I don’t know how else to answer than to say that I’m influenced by everyone I’ve ever read.  A few of the poets who’ve been essential to me: Robert Hass, Larry Levis, Gerald Stern, Adrienne Rich, C. K. Williams, Adam Zagajewski, Naomi Shihab Nye, Philip Levine, Pablo Neruda, and Adélia Prado.  At different times, I feel compelled by different writers.  I find reading poetry, reading everything —from essays to journalism to nonfiction and fiction—all of it supplies some pinch of spice, some mouse turd, some fine-bezeled image to rescue a poem from my own self-absorption.

What other professions have you worked in?

Forgive me, but poetry isn’t a profession.  It’s a vocation.  To name some of the jobs I’ve held, here’s a list: nanny, waitress, key-punch operator, campus police office assistant, advertising media buyer, service provider to farm workers, teacher of English as a Foreign Language and creative writing, and then for the past thirty-five years, various jobs on the editorial side of book publishing, including founding and building a book publishing house from scratch.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?

Not rituals, but practices that take me out of the world of ruminating and fretting.  I usually start with reading poets that connect with the feelings I have on a given day.  I re-read my own poems in progress, perhaps tidbits jotted down in notebooks (many of which make no sense, but occasionally connect with a small cloud moving through the vicinity), and I stare out into space and think random thoughts. I put words on the page and rub them together to create a spark.  Sometimes I just get splinters.  But then those tiny shards may magically make the shape of a word that I wasn’t expecting.  Surprise—the ultimate goal.

What are you working on currently?

I'm trying to navigate the last stretches of my next book of poems.  Some days it feels like the Horse Latitudes, sometimes the Gulf Stream, or some strong ocean current.  I used to hear the weather report in my hometown, New Bedford Mass., and it would commonly say "long ocean swells off Block Island and the coast."  For me, writing, when it is going well (hope against hope), is like riding those swells.  Alas, swells inevitably create sloughs, but I’d like to think that I’m closer than not on finishing.  It seems alive in my mind.  We’ll sel.

I’m also writing an essay about what I would call my “heart place” on the earth, as well as some other prose pieces that are too shaky to talk about.  Despite the shakiness, I have a craving to steady some ideas into form.

What did you want to be when you were young?

Grown up.

What are you reading right now?

New poetry books by W.S. Merwin, Garden Time, and Nicholas Christopher, On Jupiter Place.  On the prose side, I'm alternating between End of Days, by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky, and  Pulphead, essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan.

Barbara Ras’s first collection of poems, Bite Every Sorrow, was chosen by C. K. Williams to receive the 1997 Walt Whitman Award. In 1999, Ras was named Georgia Poet of the Year. Her books include One Hidden Stuff and The Last Skin. She is the editor of a collection of short fiction in translation, Costa Rica: A Traveler’s Literary Companion. She has been on the faculty of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Ras currently lives in San Antonio, where she directs Trinity University Press.