David Anthony Sam
(Cover Art: Jack Daniel Miles)
David Anthony Sam, winner of the 2016 GFT Press Chapbook Contest with his elegant and creative manuscript, Finite to Fail - Poems After Dickinson, has been putting pen to paper for nearly fifty years and is also the president of Germanna Community College. We are honored to have previously published some of David's poetry both online and in print, and we are absolutely thrilled to be releasing this new chapbook—our first. David is what I would call a smart poet, or maybe even a poet’s poet—but not in a way that makes his work inaccessible. His poetic process is deliberate, profound, and, most importantly, passionate, honest, and effective. There is no doubt in my mind that his new chapbook will be one that many of you will cherish as a part of your collection and read and reread with great pleasure.
JACK DANIEL MILES: I was pleasantly, and genuinely, surprised after having ranked my short list from the chapbook contest—and after having finally removed the blind status from the submissions—to find your name in the mix. And, I have to say, finding you as the author of Finite to Fail was definitely unexpected. From early on in the final blind judging process, the judging panel kept referring to the author of that manuscript as “she.” Does that knee-jerk reaction to the authorship of a manuscript with the subtitle Poems After Dickinson surprise you at all?
DAVID ANTHONY SAM: No, the reaction of finding a collection about Emily Dickinson and in the style that I used—inspired by her—would lead many people to think that it was a woman who wrote it. After all, we are all subject to those prejudices and presumptions of our larger culture. Then again, I find the reaction both humbling and gratifying. A poet should be female and male. Or, as I put it in a poem that I wrote when I was twenty-one or so, “a man who is a man is a woman.” In my life and in my writing, I have aspired to a Taoist balance of yin and yang, knowing that as flawed as I am I would never find that balance.
This male and female nature, if you will, has led me to be influenced at various times by the yin and yang of Whitman and Dickinson. Whitman’s sprawling, possibly egocentric, masculine appropriation of The All in an expansive line of poetry has sometimes been a voice I found useful. Dickinson’s tight, concentrated language, her epigrammatic and in some ways koan-like verse has at other times been the way I chose, the voice I tried to follow.
In a possible distortion of Keats’ idea of negative capability, I’ve tried to imagine my way into the Other and give that Other a voice, whether the Other was an inanimate object, an animal of a different species, or another person whose life was dramatically or slightly different from mine. A number of critics, including, I think, Germaine Greer, have wondered at Shakespeare’s ability to give true voice to female characters. So, to have you and other readers hear a feminine voice in my collection is, as I said, both gratifying and humbling.
MILES: I would love for you to take us on a bit of a journey into the creation of Finite to Fail. Was this idea of creating a chapbook of poetry modeled after Emily Dickinson’s work a thought that came to mind prior to your rereading of her poetry and your study of literary critic Helen Vendler’s Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries or was the idea formulated more organically while you happened to be studying these works? This doesn’t seem like it could have been an easy venture.
SAM: At least on a conscious level, the production of this collection was organic, arising as I revisited and reexperienced Dickinson’s poetry through Vendler’s eyes. I am a little bit abashed at my own presumption in thinking that I could write poetry in any way similar to Dickinson’s. All I could do was hope that they would not fail miserably beside hers. But as I read Vendler and Dickinson, the demiurge or muse or unconscious, whatever you will, seemed to demand that it come out in these poems.
On the other hand, and in a more formalistic way, I perhaps, for the first time, thanks to Vendler, concentrated on how Dickinson used em dashes to interrupt her thoughts, to add ambiguity and paradox by the interruption, to surprise us by changing what we thought was her meaning to go in a different direction. And I thought that was pretty cool. So, I tried that technique myself.
MILES: I’ve seen my fair share of work that is modeled, in the spirit of, after, and/or directly inspired by other poets and poems. It is usually kind of hit or miss—there is very little in between. I am sure as an educator, writer, and college president that you have, as well. Too often, I am cynical of work that falls into this category, but you undoubtedly pulled it off. Was there any fear or trepidation going into this venture or in putting it out there for the world to see and judge?
SAM: As I said before, I’m often abashed at my apparent arrogance. What gives me the right to think that I have anything to say? What gives me the right to think that I can give voice to the Other? But my own definition of poetry is “trying to say in words that which cannot be said in words.” Therefore, by definition, every poem is a failure. You hope only that it is a beautiful failure. I’ve written now for nearly five decades, writing as what you might call a serious poet. And I’ve written a lot of crap, some of it redeemable through rewriting, maybe some of it worth saving a line or two, and much of it just mulch. You have to approach this kind of task of presuming to write à la Dickinson as very likely a failure. I guess at this point in my life, knowing at least two-thirds of my life is behind me, I just said, “What the hell?”
In my day job as a college administrator, I’ve often been confronted by how other people judged me, sometimes fairly, and sometimes seeing me through the distortions of the lenses that they wear and blaming me or accusing me of being someone that I’m not. It’s not that I’m not sensitive to that, but I’ve grown enough and lived long enough that I have to do what I think is right and hope in time reasonable people will judge it fairly. There’s an echo in my writing of that same perspective. I’ve written a long time, been rejected at least five hundred times by journals and publishers over the years, and for whatever reason, I keep writing. Some of the rejections have had personal comments that were just and helped me to revise and rewrite. Some of the rejections have had personal comments that didn’t seem fair to the work. I have to write what I think is necessary to be written. I’ve tried not writing and found that there’s something in me that needs to put pen to paper or change pixels on the screen. And I just hope that reasonable readers will, over time, judge the work fairly.
MILES: While the poems may be after Dickinson, there is obviously more contained within your collection here than just a dedication. Emily often tied her own secluded explorations of the world to her words in a very lyrical, single speaker, first-person (not necessarily herself) study and expression. What are you, as the poet, exploring and working through here? What do you see as the takeaways for the reader…what do you hope for them to learn or experience?
SAM: “So what’s the poem about?” I’m sorry for the snarky reply, but I just couldn’t help myself. The joke answer is “it’s about fourteen lines.” Seriously, these poems continue my own confrontation with the big questions that most poets and writers deal with. Why are we here? Does science have an answer? Does religion when we don’t believe in gods anymore? Are we alone, whether in the human-to-human sense or in the cosmic sense? As I revealed earlier, my faith is a kind of Taoist one, that there is a way with a capital W and a smaller way for me with a lowercase w. That I’m a part of a larger river, one small current, a very temporary current in that river, and that if it doesn’t all have a meaning for me to try to find, then I have to try to invent a meaning—as Wallace Stevens suggests. And these poems, separately and together, are visible and living attempts at confronting those questions, at reaching out to the Other. And I hope that they live in the rereading by each person who is willing to sit with them for a while.
MILES: Without having to speculate too much, what are your thoughts on the reasonably popular idea that Emily Dickinson possibly suffered from a mood disorder and that by studying her poetry, when her prolific writing periods took place, and her glaring behavioral changes later in life, we can see evidence for it? Throughout your studies on Dickinson and your creation of this chapbook, was this something that came up or was highlighted in any way for you?
SAM: If you look at Dickinson’s biography objectively, then you would have to say her life solution of locking herself away was probably not the healthiest thing for her as a person. This sounds too judgmental. It’s more that I wish I could help her to come out of her room. Again probably, I’m demonstrating my arrogance by saying that. But her loss, if that’s what it was, is equivocal. I could just as easily suggest that what she did was not much different from one of the Desert Fathers, or a nun or monk, or a Tibetan Buddhist. She chose the way of denying herself most of the external world for whatever reason, and that denial is part of what gives her poetry such power.
I have tried to live both an active and a contemplative life. I try to use the one to inform the other. Again, seeking a kind of balance of yin and yang, the active and the passive principles, or, to state it better, active and accepting principles.
MILES: As a first-generation college student and grandson of Polish and Syrian immigrants, what was your poetic and writing inspiration growing up? Where did this love of writing come from?
SAM: My collection of semi-autobiographical poems, Memories in Clay, Dreams of Wolves, is my prelude of sorts. Why did I decide to devote a large part of my life to writing, and writing poetry in particular? Certainly not for the money. And my early delusion of changing the world through words faded fast in the face of reality. My father—who began as a laborer and welder in a factory and worked his way up to being a plant superintendent—he always wanted to be a painter, and later in life, he took up the brush. My mother wrote a lot of poetry, much of it humorous, but some of it serious attempts. My father taught me about nature, and my mother had a love for all creatures. My father’s mother, who was brought over from Syria at around the age of fourteen in an arranged marriage, never had a day of school and died illiterate at the age of ninety-seven. But I have many memories of her telling her other grandchildren and me the fairy tales and stories she remembered from her childhood. All of that’s woven into my being. In many of the earliest photos of me, I am reading a book. And from a pretty early age, at least the age of eleven or so, I wanted to be a writer. None of that really answers the question completely.
That’s why I can often believe in the muse. It frequently seems to me as though things want to be written and I’m the instrument through which they get written. When I’ve taught creative writing or spoken to young people aspiring to be creative writers, I’ve used a watered-down Buddhist analogy. You have to prepare all of your life through meditation for the possibility of being enlightened. And even then, enlightenment may not come. But if it does come, and you’re not prepared, it passes you by. So, you work your craft and hope that a good poem rises to speak through you once in a while. The art is both accepting and acting.
MILES: I would love to hear about your experience as the president of Germanna Community College. What has that experience been like? And, with your retirement quickly approaching, what’s next, how do you see the next phase of your life playing out?
SAM: The presidency of this community college has been quite a challenge. Within six months of my starting, I faced major budget crises, the great recession of 2007, and enrollment increasing by half in four years at the same time as we had state funding cuts of around thirty percent. In 2011, we had an earthquake in Virginia that took out our largest college building for fourteen months. I work with some really amazing people. My job is that of a servant leader, a servant to something bigger than myself, and in some ways a servant to the people who work for me, the students that we teach together, and our communities. We’ve gone through all of these challenges and yet steadily improved success rates for students. I get to take one share of that credit. But there were hundreds of other people and thousands of students who chose every day to make Germanna successful. I will have been president for a little over ten years when I retire, and it’s healthy now for the college to have new leadership. There is a show business expression, leave them wanting more. I hope to leave when most people still don’t want me to leave, not when most people wish I’d left a while ago.
For me personally, it’s the point in my biography to spend more time in the contemplative life as I near the end of that life. I’m hoping for three more decades. But you never know. And I think it was Elliot who said he has two great fears: one that he’s never written anything worthwhile; and second, that if he has, he never will again. I get that. And who knows how much time I have left as a reasonably effective poet? You just don’t know. And until the last three years, I have not spent enough time on the business of poetry—marketing my poetry—sending things out and in the quantities to have a chance for more of them to get printed. There are also other things that I’m committed to, other causes, other forms of the active life on a volunteer basis or in some other role where I may be able to serve the world. I won’t be a monk. But I do hope to spend four or five days a week at least half a day each day writing, rewriting, and sending stuff out.
MILES: Society needs art, in all of its forms, its importance to humankind cannot be overstated. Throughout your forty-plus years of writing and your time in education, I am sure that you have witnessed firsthand as art has shifted further away from popular culture. Should educators and those within the artistic community be doing more to bring us back from the brink, from seeing our artistic world and the works we love continually marginalized, or, as a society, have we traveled too far beyond the threshold? Is it possible this is simply a natural evolution and/or perhaps a paradigm shift in our understanding of what art is and what role it now plays?
SAM: Somewhere around the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century, artists separated more clearly into so-called popular arts and so-called serious arts. Shakespeare, after all, was a businessman, very middle-class in the non-pejorative sense, trying to earn a living if not get closer to being rich by writing and acting. He threw things into his plays for the groundlings as well as the nobility. Gary Snyder talks of writing two kinds of poems: those that are more easily approachable even for those who don’t normally read poetry. And other poems that are more experimental or difficult, if you will. I’ve found myself doing the same. But if I had my druthers, I would write poems where someone who seldom, if ever, reads poetry could find a door or a window in and feel some deep connections made. At the same time, those who perhaps studied poetry, who were willing to spend more time living with the poem, they would find increasing depths; find that the poem explodes like a nova.
There is a fundamental need for whatever poetry is when all is said and done. Especially the poetry that speaks and sings. There’s a reason rap and hip-hop have been around for thirty years, maybe longer if you go back to the Last Poets. So, if those of us who write the “serious” poetry don’t reach people, then those people will still find another way to poetry. In my hopes and dreams, as much as I would love for critical acclaim, I’d like to experience more often something that happened to me recently during a reading near the college. A young man came, a student at Germanna who was encouraged to attend by his professor. I read a poem from a hitchhiking/backpacking trip I had made when I was roughly his age back in 1972. In some ways, he could play me in the movie from that time. He had horn rim glasses, long and dark hair in a ponytail, and was about my height and weight. He came up after the reading and said how much one poem had meant to him, with tears in his eyes. It was a poem describing when I’d found myself alone in the foothills of the Rockies about a mile high, with the air thin and the sky so black that the stars were incredibly vivid and near. And he told me he had spent a night a few days before in the Shenandoah National Park, and that he’d experienced something that he found reflected in the poem. His professor later told me that he had been going through a rough emotional and psychological time and that his listening to and then reading selections from one of my books had helped him. I guess the only semi-articulate response I can make to that is wow.
MILES: I want to personally thank you for having supported GFT Press with your creative work from relatively early on. And thank you for having submitted this manuscript to our contest. We are very proud to have the opportunity to publish it.
SAM: I’m honored that this collection was selected by GFT. I must admit that I was surprised, in a very positive way, of course. I clearly have an ego. I’d love to have a poetical name. But most of all, I just hope that my poems get read by people whom I may never meet. And that they matter to them, at least a bit. GFT is giving some of those poems a chance to be read. Thank you.