Thursday, June 05, 2014

Interview with Andrew Sofer: A poet involved with the theater and all that dark matter

Andrew Sofer

Interview with Andrew Sofer:  A poet involved with the theater and all that dark matter

Interview with Doug Holder

Andrew Sofer grew up in Cambridge, England, and, after boarding school, studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Boston University, and the University of MichiganHis numerous poetry awards include Southwest Review's Morton Marr Prize; Atlanta Review's International Publication Award; First Prize in the Iambs & Trochees Contest; and New England Poetry Club's Gretchen Warren Award. Wave, his first book of poems, was named a finalist for the Morse Prize, the Donald Justice Award, and the New Criterion Prize. Andrew has acted and directed widely, and his writings on theater include the acclaimed book The Stage Life of Props. He teaches in the English department at Boston College. I had the pleasure to interview him on my Somerville Community Access TV show Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer

Doug Holder: You have written about “dark matter” in the theater. So does dark matter-- matter that you can’t see on stage, really matter in the theater?

Andrew Sofer: Dark matter matters such that you can’t have theater without it. Theater that does not engage with things you can’t see is not stimulating the audience’s imagination. What you don’t show can be more powerful than what you do show. For instance in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot—a character never appears-we imagine he is there but he is offstage. The theater is built up of things that we are shown and things that are not shown. And when they work in tandem you get something very powerful. Playwrights are attuned to the way the audience’s imagination can build and build. Unlike film—theater leaves a lot of things to the imagination. This is what I was trying to explain in my book. The theater event is a collaboration of the actors on the stage, the imagination of the playwright, and the audience.

DH: Your poetry collection Wave (2010) deals with among other things the memory of your father. Do you find you see your father’s face in the mirror and do you like what you see?

AS: That’s a wonderful question. It is true my father died in his early 50s when I was nine years old. Now I am a couple of years shy of my late father’s age of death. My father was an academic-- a sociologist.  The epigraph from my book is from Yehuda Amichai: “And for the sake of remembering, I wear my father’s face over mine.” My book in some ways is about the ways we wear our father’s face especially when we are older. I like to think that I carry on like him. He was a very engaged and passionate man.

DH: You have written about props in Samuel Beckett’s plays. The sets are pretty threadbare…not that many props to speak of.

AS: I have always loved Beckett’s plays. Props are talismanic for actors. They fight them; they love them. Beckett portrayed the struggle between the human and inanimate in his plays. Beckett has humans drop out of nowhere and they have to figure out what they are doing on stage. This is true of the props too. They are estranged and distorted.  There is the comical struggle between the human being and the props or objects, in which the humans are trying to get the objects to serve them, and the object is basically saying:" I can’t serve you.” If you think of the famous tree in Waiting for Godot –the two tramps try using the tree to hang themselves—then try to get the tree to symbolize something, but it refuses. Beckett’s work is comical—it is existential insult to humans who try to manipulate things.

DH: How do you write poems? Are you rooted in ideas or things?
AS: I don’t write my poems based on ideas. I don’t try to start with the concrete. My poems are rooted in place. I even research the place sometimes to get a sense of it. I would say my work is philosophical but I am delighted if I never use an abstraction. Seamus Heaney said:  “Never use an abstraction when something concrete will do.” For instance, if I know the name of a tree, I will name it. I try to be accurate in my poetry. The more concrete I am it invariably leads to conceptual dimensions. I want to first give an entry into reality—some ground to stand on—then I can branch out in many ways.

Dh: You are Jewish and you teach at the Catholic college Boston College. How is this for you?

AS: I like the fact that my students take religion seriously. They have knowledge of the bible. I t is difficult to teach English literature to kids that don’t have a sense of the biblical template. The stories behind English literature are invested in biblical narratives. In terms of Boston College—we have a Jewish Studies Program and it is a Jesuit institution dedicated to intellectual openness. It has been a good intellectual environment for me.

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