by Emily Rojas
During her early college years, Barbara Ras first discovered her passion and love for the art of words. In 1998, Ras published her first collection of poetry, Bite Every Sorrow, which also won her the Walt Whitman award. Renowned poet C.K. Williams praised Ras’s work, “Her verbal expertise and lucidity are as bright and surprising as her knowledge of the world is profound. This is a splendid book, morally serious, poetically authentic, spiritually discerning.”* Ras has continued to write, publishing two other collections of poetry, One Hidden Stuff and The Last Skin. Ever since, Ras has been in the publishing business for over 30 years. Ras has worked on several editing staffs and has served as full time editor and Associate Director of the Trinity University Press since 2002.
Emily Rojas: What made you want to become a poet?
Barbara Ras: I fell in love with poetry when I was an undergraduate reading and doing an independent study on Rilke’s Duino Elegies. Though I was totally daunted by Rilke’s masterpiece, being lost in that work affected me deeply. From there, I started to imagine writing my own work. It was very slow going at the beginning, but desire and practice sustained me and my writing.
ER: How did you feel when you won your first award?
BR: Surprised and ecstatic!
ER: What is your writing routine like? I’ve heard it helps to write either right when you wake up or just before you fall asleep.
BR: I don’t have a set routine. I write erratically and sporadically, fitting in writing around what’s a challenging full-time job as an editor.
ER: What brought on the inspiration for your first collection Bite Every Sorrow? Does the title have any meaningful significance to something in particular?
BR: There was no inspiration for writing Bite Every Sorrow. I started compiling a group of poems into a manuscript many, many years earlier. Then as time passed, I deleted weaker poems and added new poems. During a decade or so, I kept sending out the manuscript, and it kept getting rejected. So I continued to add and subtract, making the manuscript stronger and more cohesive. During this process my writing style changed, and I found better strategies for creating poems.
By the time Bite Every Sorrow was chosen for the Walt Whitman Award by C. K. William, it was a fairly mature work by a distinctly mature woman (at least in years). I was 49 years old. When I tell younger writers about my path to being published, I always stress that it’s the process of writing that’s important. You have to love the work for its own sake, not for any ultimate goal of getting published. Of course, everyone loves attention and the validation that comes with being published. But writing poetry is a vocation, a calling. It’s making the poems that counts.
The title comes from the poem “You Can’t Have It All,” and the lines: “You can have the purr of the cat and the soulful look/ of the black dog, the look that says, If I could I would bite/ every sorrow until it fled”
ER: Who was your biggest influence in poetry? What is your favorite poem by them?
BR: Everyone I’ve read has influenced me in one way or another. I can’t give you an inclusive list, but some of the biggest, most enduring influences have been Gerald Stern, Robert Hass, W. S. Merwin, Larry Levis, Philip Levine, Adélia Prado, C. K. Williams, and Ellen Doré Watson.
ER: Your poetry is very moving, and my favorite line in You Can’t Have It All was “The leaping of distances, and Indian food with yellow sauce like sunrise.” Do you ever just sit and stare at the pages and think of the next line, or is there a process you go through while writing poetry?
BR: Yes, I stare at the page a lot. I also keep writing a poem in my head for a long time before it’s finished. Sometimes I’ll jot down lines, images, words, colors, sounds, overheard conversation, as I go through the day and night. Sometimes these random things, if I don’t lose them, belong to the poem in process, sometimes they don’t. But so much of writing is going on intuition, and what Frank O’Hara said, “going on nerve.” I revise endlessly. I think revision is an essential process in creating poems (or any writing, for that matter).
ER: What did your editing process look like before you published your first collection of poems? How does it differ to your last collection The Last Skin in 2010?
BR: As I just said, I revise ruthlessly. In the earlier work, I think I kept adding material as the poem took shape. In my more recent process, I think I take material away, paring the poem down to what I hope is a meaningful essence.
ER: Have you ever wanted or do you ever plan to write a full length novel? Or do you just prefer poetry in general?
BR: I’m not drawn to the idea of writing fiction, but I do have a couple of ideas for prose books. Those will have to wait until I have bigger chunks of uninterrupted time. For now, I’m dedicated to writing poems.
ER: What advice do you have for fellow aspiring poets, or writers?
BR: Read, read, read. Read poetry. Read books about poetry—craft books like The Art of Recklessness, by Dean Young; How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry, by Edward Hirsch; Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft, by Tony Hoagland; and A Defense of Ardor: Essays, by Adam Zagajewski. Read books in wild abundance. Science, natural history, philosophy, history. Bring in the world and read poetry in translation. I especially recommend voracious reading of poetry in translation. I mentioned earlier Adélia Prado, a Brazilian poet. There is so much terrific work in translation to recommend, it makes me a little giddy. Some essentials: Pablo Neruda, Adam Zagajewski, Rosario Castellanos, Wislawa Szymborska, Yehuda Amichai, Tomas Tranströmer, Mahmoud Darwish, Taha Muhammad Ali, Bei Dao, Bashō, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva. That’s a start.
Barbara Ras is the author of three poetry collections: Bite Every Sorrow, which won the Walt Whitman Award and was also awarded the Kate Tufts Discovery Award; One Hidden Stuff; and The Last Skin, winner of the Award for Poetry from the Texas Institute of Letters. Ras has received fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others. Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Tin House, Granta, Five Points, American Scholar, Massachusetts Review, and Orion, as well as in many other magazines and anthologies. She is the editor of a collection of short fiction in translation, Costa Rica: A Traveler’s Literary Companion. Ras came to San Antonio in 2002 as the founding director of Trinity University Press.
*Williams, C. K. “C.K. Williams on Barbara Ras’s Bite Every Sorrow.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, 17 Feb. 2005. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.