Getting to Know Steve rapp and his book An Ancient face
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover you wanted to write poems?
I had my first real encounter with poetry in my sophomore year in high school. I had an English teacher at Randolph High, Donald Nelson, who was passionate about Emily Dickinson and his enthusiasm was contagious. He also required us to write a journal and create a collection of poems which was the spark for me and my poetry writing.
My mother died of cancer when I was a freshman in high school and I discovered that writing poetry helped me process some of the emotions and thoughts I was having as a young adult. Later, in my travels and life abroad, I discovered that writing poetry helped me to observe and record the cultures and places around me in a form that feels best suited to grappling with the mysteries of life.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I try to read, write, or revise poetry every morning.
Generally, I sit at my desk at home. But I also find that I write a lot when on train rides. Perhaps its the feeling of motion in space that makes me pensive about the passing of time and the places and people I’ve encountered along the way.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
Most often, my poems come from an image. Many of my poems are an attempt to sketch an image or place with words.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
The poets that have influenced me the most are my former teachers at Tufts, Philip Levine and Jane Shore. Other poets that have exerted a strong influence on my writing are William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth, W.B. Yeats, and Kahlil Gibran.
What's the significance of the title?
As I relate in the last poem in the book, “Un Visage Ancien,” on numerous occasions in my life, in several different countries, people have told me that I look familiar and they have a feeling that we have met before. My wife and children have seen this happen on family trips, including last spring in England. The most recent was a couple of weeks ago in a Greek restaurant in Dedham, Massachusetts! It always leaves me with a sense of wonder about archetypes and origins and the collective unconsciousness that is expressed through poetry.
Are there over-arching themes?
Similarities and differences in human cultures. Archetypes and origins. Travel and human movement.
What was the process of assembling it?
In 2015 and 2016, I spent a lot of time with my handwritten notebooks and journals I have amassed over the past 36 years. Then I spent a lot of time typing and editing, reworking poems sometimes into half a dozen different forms. In An Ancient Face, I grouped many of the poems by country or region, e.g., Africa, Israel, Palestine, Germany, England, Ireland, Massachusetts, etc.
Was is a project book?
In a sense, yes. In September 2015, my 26 year old daughter set off on an adventure overseas. In one of her letters home, she asked if I would share some of my experiences from when I was her age. Her request prompted me to sift through my hand-written notebooks and start typing. In An Ancient Face I pick up where my last collection, Double Chai Quilt (Harvard Bookstore, 2016), left off with a new collection of 54 additional poems written over the past 36 years. Weaving experiences from my life and travels in western Africa, the Middle-East, Europe, and back to the U.S., these poems offer reflections on life and love, family and friendship, as well as the mystery encountered on the journey. I also decided to donate all proceeds from the sale of this book to the charity, Reading Partners, which works to eliminate illiteracy.
Read an excerpt from his book here:
Old man shuffles down the road
With half a dozen wooden dolls
Attached to a cord around his neck.
His robe is simple white, like
A torn bed sheet, reaching from
Bare feet to faraway stare.
The dolls, some say, are children
He’s lost, stained red brown with
Animal dung and blood.
He dines facing them
So their spirits will not roam.
He eats by cold fire light.
No one chooses sorrow, but it can
Hang like a dozen wooden dolls.