The summer issue of Image includes four poems by Nicholas Samaras, one of which was influenced by Michael Sitaras’ conceptual art project, Sacred Air. All poems are part of his work on a book of poems in response to the biblical Psalms. We asked Nicholas how these poems began.
Image: You’ve been working on a contemporary book of poems based on the Psalms—in fact, you’ve written 150 poems, the same number of Psalms in the Bible. How did this project come about?
Nicholas Samaras: My father is a Greek Orthodox priest, and I grew up immersed in the cadences of his life, the music of his sermons, our church services, our life of two languages. Every wall of our home was filled bookshelves, the life of my father’s library, my childhood books joining his. Always, I have floated between the music of languages and the music of the American folk scene. As a teenager, I was equally influenced by King David and by Joni Mitchell—to me, both divine sources of creative, soulful expression. Lyric-intensive, I equate music with poetry and poetry with music.
I approach writing as the translation of one soul to another, the translation of what originates as innate feeling into expression—to render something heartfelt and attain a sublime level of artistry, received by others in an artful, communicative way.
I’ve always wanted to respond to the biblical Psalms on multiple levels, to make more of an embracing bridge between the Old and New Testaments. I wanted to have the biblical Psalms evolve further, to have psalms enter the American twenty-first century and be overtly Christian, to name Jesus Christ, to add dimensions of spirituality, new psalms to express a larger world of people with longer history. Having always privately prayed, I applied my writing to that subject. These “new” psalms greatly surprised me: how my own writing deepened, how I discovered depths of the biblical Psalms that my mind (and heart) hadn’t encountered before. It took me two years to write the 150 psalms I needed, to mirror the source of my project. Once I began, it became a fever of writing. I kept a chronological chart—sometimes writing thirty poems in a month. Then came the meticulous revision and sculpting. That attention was a prayer in itself. As one of my psalms says, “It is attention that makes worship.”
Image: Are your psalms adaptations of the originals, or new works in their own right? Have you seen this project as being similar to the Talmudic tradition of “midrash”—in which the biblical texts generate a response in the form of new creative works?
NS: In order to write my “contemporary psalms,” I had to study the biblical Psalms intensely, dissect and categorize them. Way beyond anything I ever did for my M.Div., or teaching my course on the Bible as literature, I learned the structures of the Psalms on almost a nuclear level. I learned the nuances of maskil, miktam, shiggaion, and sheminith. Beyond “channeling” King David and other psalmists, the experience was akin to unraveling the DNA of the biblical Psalms. From the richness of that immersion, I then wrote new psalms evoking and referring to the originals, yet becoming new works in their own right. I strove to honor the spiritual depth of the biblical Psalms and to come close to the depth of a twenty-first-century spiritual/social concern. I strove to make these Christian psalms universal and personal, ancient and modern simultaneously. For example, several are based on the lyrical structures of blues music, echoing Robert Johnson. I wanted something American in my application, the soul of the blues meeting the soul of the biblical. The genesis of my writing is my father and Joni Mitchell, Byzantine music and American blues and folk. But in this study I never strayed from the fact that the biblical Psalms are songs—both individual and choric.
I believe all post-biblical literature is midrashic, if you follow the literary DNA all the way. Along with classical midrashic texts (too many to mention), for years I have loved the contemporary midrashic writings of Alicia Ostriker (a fantastic mind), Jacqueline Osherow, Scott Cairns, etc. I have a high regard for the soulfulness of W.S. Merwin, Mark Strand, and Gerald Stern. I live by the texts and critical studies of Helen Vendler. I value cultural collections such as Daniel Halpern’s editorial work in his anthology Holy Fire: Nine Visionary Poets and the Quest for Enlightenment. His work is permanently on my list, and I’d love to see him produce another book like that. I have always said that poetry taught me how to feel, and poetry criticism taught me how to think. I interacted with the biblical Psalms to both feel and think—to deliberately cultivate and resonate with this work.
Image: How have the ancient biblical Psalms influenced you as a poet?
NS: We are deep inheritors. We can’t live in any vacuum. We can’t escape influence of the Bible as literature and the Bible as spirit. That source infuses not only our literature, but our culture and music. It’s pervasive.
The quest is eternal, personal and cultural, going from the biblical Psalms outward. We are exodus. What we attain in our own writings is built upon the visionary treasures of the past. Thus, any personal reading must become equally visionary, for us. We inherit and build upon only what we absorb.
Image: You have a poem in the new issue of Image called “Sacred Air.” Tell us a little about how that poem came to be written.
NS: I regard the biblical Psalms as conceptual. I have always been influenced by conceptual art, from classical examples to modernist works of Yoko Ono (I don’t care what anybody says; I love the seriousness of her work), and so I was especially interested when the artist Michael Sitaras recently told me about his new conceptual art project, Sacred Air. I’ve known him for decades. He’s an amazing mind, great in his field: painting, mosaics, portraiture, impressionism. His idea was to write to people in all the sacred places of this earth, asking them to send him an empty bottle filled with the “sacred” air of their geography.
Immediately, I was taken by his concept. Half way through my psalms project, I got off the telephone with Michael one evening and wrote the poem “Sacred Air,” to complement his exhibit. This specific poem served to capture a lot of what I do in my approach to writing: the striving to capture what is often inexpressible in language, how to use artistic language to express silence, to give form to a spirit of feeling, to show presence by absence, show what is often invisibly there between us all. Michael’s conceptual art-exhibit resonated well with my own sensibilities as a word-artist employing the imagery of words.
Image: Many of us want to read more poetry but have trouble approaching a poem. What can we do to become better readers of poetry?
NS: My suggestions are easy but difficult—because they involve commitment and changing one’s cultural conditioning. I say: unplug from the modern syndrome of American “instant gratification.” Slow down. Nothing valued is easily won. Our human nature tends to not value or even appreciate what is given to us too easily. Reading is similar. There is surface, and there is depth. Read poetry to find depth and resonance. When we discover revelation in a text, we have a greater value for the experiences that remains longer and deeper within us. That’s the kind of reading you need to bring to poetry. Make the commitment; what you put in is what you get out. You choose to be superficial or you choose to gain depth.
Image: Has teaching influenced the way you write? The way you think about poetry?
NS: Absolutely. Reflection and meditation on anything changes us, deepens us, enriches us. Beyond the event is the ramification and consequence of the event. This is education. What I learn from and absorb, I evolve in myself. I interact and mature. I can only teach what I have learned, and I continue to grow and mature as a writer, a teacher, and a soul. If you write, you are teaching—yourself, and others.
I can’t live without teaching, whether in the classroom or when I serve as a private consultant for people’s manuscripts or individual poems. I hope the world gets to see the rest of these new psalms, because I can’t live without the dialogue—even my isolated writing is a conversation with the world—the way the biblical Psalms are a dialogue from author to reader, from soul to soul, from divine to human, human to divine—the text made divine in the exchange.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.