Photo: Rob Rife
Robert grew up in Calgary, Alberta but is presently the Minister of Worship and Music at Yakima Covenant Church in Yakima, Washington. He holds a B.A. in music and an M.A. in Spiritual Formation and Leadership. He is a multi-instrumentalist (including Highland Bagpipes), singer-songwriter-arranger (his CD, Be That As It May, is available on iTunes), studio musician, choral director, and liturgist.
As a writer he maintains two personal blogs, innerwoven on the spiritual life, and Robslitbits on the literary one. He also blogs for Spring Arbor University, Conversations Journal for whom he also writes the print magazine study guide, and at CenterQuest, an ecumenical school for Spiritual Direction. He has been a contributor to Abbey of the Arts, and a host of other blogs. His poetry and music are featured on the new ALTARWORKS website.
Greatest achievement to date: a 27-year marriage to wife, Rae, and their two boys, Calum (24), and Graeme (19).
He loves words.
He loves life.
Especially when they meet.
Geosi Gyasi: Why did you decide to write the poem, “This Holy Skin”?
Robert Rife: Why I decide to write anything is still a mystery to me! Like many of my poems, that particular piece explores the unique relationship enjoyed between we, as seeking humans, and the God who longs to be ever a guiding and benevolent force in that process. I suppose I continue to rethink the shame-guilt motif that for centuries has hounded Christianity in the western world and reframe it a bit. We were first blessed, not cursed.
Geosi Gyasi: Are you religious in your writings?
Robert Rife: That is a difficult question to answer succinctly. I prefer to say that I aim at blurring the line between what might be considered “sacred” and “secular.” I believe to write about a couple making love in the park, or an aging monk at prayer, or a glory days jock trying to find himself are all in some way sacred. We are far too dualistic generally and God, by definition, must be everywhere present. Therefore, God is somehow present in any circumstance in which we find ourselves. So, the short answer? Yes. The long answer? Yes, but…
Geosi Gyasi: What influenced your poem, “The Smile of God”?
Robert Rife: To this very day, there have been those forced to suffer for their beliefs and those who inflicted that suffering. This is always a travesty, especially if one thinks belief and the life lived as a result should in any way be considered unfit to such a degree that some specific group must cease to exist. I think in those circumstances, the sufferers become more than merely martyrs to a cause. Their plight is uniquely painful to God, who is always on the side of the oppressed. Moreover, their courage pictures the God who smiles, not maims or tosses anyone onto a junk heap because their doctrinal resume isn’t up to snuff.
Geosi Gyasi: How often do you feature God in your poems?
Robert Rife: A great deal, primarily because I believe God to be everywhere, actively involved our lives, whether we’re cognizant of it or not. As I’ve already stated, I do not subscribe to easily definable lines of what parts of our lives are “holy/unholy,” “righteous/unrighteous,” the false dualities to which we’re prone.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell me a little bit about your religious background?
Robert Rife: As a boy, my relationship to any formal religion was indirect at best. I participated in various programs at our local Presbyterian church in Calgary where I grew up. But, I wasn’t a regular attender. I consider myself a contemplative or a mystic. Hence, even prior to any kind of personal religious affiliation, I was one who found great delight in the world around me and experienced God everywhere. It wasn’t until I was eighteen years old that a conversion experience while touring as a musician “sealed the deal.”
As is common in cases like mine, I settled into a fairly fundamentalist theology. It was right at the time, I guess. I embrace it as part of my story and it helped provide solid lines outside of which I now draw, dance, and delight regularly! Presently, I live and work in the Evangelical Covenant denomination. But I do so as a more relaxed Jesus follower of progressive leaning, a contemplative-activist at heart. As Anne Lamott would say, not so much Christian in the establishment sense, but more “Jesusy.”
Geosi Gyasi: When did you realize yourself as a writer?
Robert Rife: As soon as I could read words I wanted to reproduce and create them. I’m a lifelong lover of story and poetry. Most of my childhood was spent learning musical instruments and stuffing my nose into some book. I always sought to read a little above my pay grade. For example, in grade five I was reading “Mary, Queen of Scots” by Lady Antonia Fraser. It was enormous, but utterly intriguing in the broad, all-encompassing picture it painted. I loved tackling the dusty ones in the library. As a result, I wanted to help others experience the same as a young boy.
I’ve had a lifelong love affair with poetry as well. Many was the time I’d be reading Donne, Wordsworth, Hopkins, Burns, or Frost and tried writing my own poetry in the margins of the book, seeking to emulate their rhythms, mining for lexical treasure. I still do.
Geosi Gyasi: At what period in your life did you write, “Spring On Ash Wednesday”?
Robert Rife: It was a time for me of some confusion and emotional fatigue. Writing this poem helped me explore some of that. Let me try to explain.
I love seeing connectivity everywhere – the ways in which our lives, as vulnerable creatures cupped in the hand of a benevolent God, find meaning. So many great writers and poets over the centuries have seen such things and written about them – Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous lines, “Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God, But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries,” or G. M. Hopkins’ vision of Christ in the swooping of a morning Windhover, “I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon” among countless others. And, it is of course, a tip of the hat to the timeless poem, Ash Wednesday, by T. S. Eliot.
Liturgically, Ash Wednesday is pictured as a remembrance of our death (memento mori), it’s certainty, it’s immanence. However, it is also the seed of hope; new life out of the ashes of death. It foretells that good news can follow bad, rising can follow dying, hope can follow despair. It has long been one of my favorite times in the Christian liturgical calendar for this and many other reasons. Secondly, since Ash Wednesday is always near the Springtime and is the beginning of Lent, a forty-day penitential introspection that leads toward Easter, it lent itself (thanks, I’m here all week) to such literary treatment.
All that to say, it offered robust fodder for an experiment in such beautiful possibilities.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember your first piece of writing?
Robert Rife: To be honest, the earliest one I remember was some goofy story I composed in elementary school, something involving dark rooms and creepy monsters. You know, the stuff of young boys! I recall trying my hand at poetry time and again, often because I couldn’t concentrate on the task at hand. As a musician I was composing melodies in my head constantly. The artistic process has long been a gateway out of…of, what was the question? Focus, yeah, that’s it…focus.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you derive from writing?
Robert Rife: Writing, for me, is both stress relief and contemplative space. It is a place to explore my inner life by looking deeply into it and the lives of others. As a musician and writer I am forever looking for ways to self-express. In so doing I trust others feel themselves invited in and may perhaps find a welcome place to sit together in solidarity. More specifically, poetry allows me to seek my existential place in the big picture without the need for rational specificity or the western lust for logic and pragmatism. I can simply write from places within that I don’t even see very well except in my peripheral vision. What comes out is often surprising, even to me. It’s why my poetry can have a random, word-picture feel about it.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the most boring part of writing?
Robert Rife: Ha! Just git’n ‘er done! Ask any writer anywhere and they’ll say much the same thing: if you’re not writing anything it’s because you’re not writing anything. The biggest part of writing is in fact, writing. In other words, the joys of writing only happen insofar as we’re actually doing it.
Like anyone else, I don’t particularly like the editing process. I often do my best writing as stream of consciousness and editing can feel intrusive or counterintuitive. It’s a necessary part of the process however and helps me struggle toward cogency, and a more streamlined sense of meaning.
Oh, and I’m actually a fan of deadlines, believe it or not! For me, they are a help, not a hindrance.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you know who reads your works?
Robert Rife: You mean, other than my wife, my mom, and the sweet old ladies at the home? One attracts folks of similar ilk generally, and yet, oddly diverse. If I go by who is actually signed up for innerwoven posts I’d suggest that they are diverse, thirsty seekers like me. They also tend toward the more random, mystical-thinker types who aren’t scared off by loose ends, non-dualism, mystery, a broad front door, and corny humor. And, I suppose there is a tendency toward more educated folks. My love for language and philosophy unite, ostensibly to illustrate a pretentious lust for the preponderance of overly voluminous verbosity unfit for vernacular habitation…or something like that.
Geosi Gyasi: What is it about your poem, “Loving Judas”?
Robert Rife: If one is familiar with the complicated relationship between Judas and Jesus, it conjures a single word, betrayal. It is an archetypal picture in many ways since everyone experiences it at some point in their lives. And, there are few challenges a person faces that are more shocking and painful. This poem was written from the perspective of a person’s tortured musings on the betrayal of a friend, trying to reach to the other side and find peace. It requires a walk over the hot coals of rage and discouragement. But, if the biblical narratives about Judas tell us anything, it’s that there can be grace and acceptance, even for him. It gives me hope that, under the worst relational circumstances, to understand Judas can lead us to love him. In that way, his failure is everyone’s failure. His forgiveness is everyone’s forgiveness. When we love anyway, we are moving from the kiln of hatred into the harbor of forgiveness. Therein lies our peace.
Geosi Gyasi: Is there any major difference between a songwriter and poet?
Robert Rife: Yes. The process is similar, but the aim is very different. A lyric points the listener toward a particular, or universal, experience in clever, poetic ways with the purpose of singability, a stricter meter in concert with underlying rhythm, and usually in rhyme. Generally speaking, they are easier to memorize and sing together with others. Sometimes, to read a lyric, divorced from the melody underlying it, can feel odd, wooden even. They live together as an indivisible unit, each supporting and completing the other.
By contrast, poetry is its own music. It is an end in itself. The words become a melody, inviting the reader-listener into a syntactical motion in which words are the notes and the poem in its entirety is the song. Throughout music history, we have examples of the most beautiful pairing of poetry and music the world has ever known. Perhaps the quintessential uniting of poetry with music (its character unknown to us) was the Psalms. Many of them were written as prayers, poetry, and songs together in one place.
Geosi Gyasi: Where do you get the inspiration to sing?
Robert Rife: Few activities mine the deep vein of my experience like singing. It has a way of bypassing everything else and slicing to the very core of who I am, whether I like it or not! As a young boy I discovered I had a deep love for music. I had a knack for it. I sang in the children’s choir at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Calgary, near where I grew up and have never looked back. Now, I make my living as a musician and choral director.
I would sit in my room for hours trying to replicate the voices of Burton Cummings, Robert Plant, John Denver, Dan Fogelberg, and Art Garfunkel. They were my earliest mentors in song. Always a lover of melody, I began composing songs around the age of ten. I’ve written dozens, perhaps hundreds, since then.
Many church folks out there are waiting to hear me say that God was my inspiration. That’s too easy. Some of the greatest singers in history were atheists or agnostics. I prefer to say my experience of life and my place in it have provided the impetus to sing about it. Life, whether good or bad, has been its own musical playground ever since I can remember.
Geosi Gyasi: Are you satisfied as a singer-songwriter and a poet?
Robert Rife: That’s a deceptively simple question! At the risk of dodging with a cryptic answer, I would suggest that all singer-songwriter-poets are both satisfied and unsatisfied. The need to create is its own reward. But it is also the law of diminishing returns. The more one writes, the more one needs to write.
The joy for me in writing a new poem or song is found in the doing, but also in the perfecting of that which can never be perfected. It’s a bit of a cat and mouse game. Once I start chasing after whatever creation is churning inside I am at once delighted and tortured. There is delight in the process but torture in the perfection.
To wax even more convoluted, like any artist, I long to share what I do with the broadest audience possible. I want for others to participate with me in the experiences I strive to articulate and elucidate in word and song. C. S. Lewis suggests that our love for a person, thing, or experience grows exponentially in the sharing thereof.
It’s why I write. It’s why I compose. To share my own thoughts and experiences with others brings great satisfaction.
Geosi Gyasi: Why did you decide to go to Spring Arbor University to study Spiritual Formation and Leadership?
Robert Rife: I could (and might) write a book in answer to this question. For our purposes, I will say this – to culminate a lifetime of spiritual seeking and welcome others into that journey. At its most crude, it was to position myself for other career options. At its most elevated, it was a quest toward self-understanding in the context of God’s universe.
Although I am a deeply read individual with a profound love for learning all manner of stuff, I am at heart, a philosopher-poet, an artist. Perhaps that is why I didn’t pursue, at least so far, a Master of Divinity degree that best trains me for licensed ministry in a local church. It can tend toward over-erudition, sometimes obfuscating the soul’s hunger for love and truth with the cold rationalism of systematic theology – the over- simplified answers to questions we don’t even know how to ask. I want to help myself and others ‘become-who-we-are’ rather than merely ‘believe-this-stuff-and-all-shall-be-well.’ Studying the life of the soul was a better route to that end.
Geosi Gyasi: What happens in your poem, “What Happens After”?
Robert Rife: There is so much fun metaphor all around us that makes for a poetic exploration of our lives. The coming of night can mean many things even as the morning that follows says something different. And they say different things to different people and may not harbor the same meaning to us twice in a row. Here I am playing with such images – light, or its “illumination” can seem lazy, unwilling to budge from the encroaching dark of night. So too can be the coming to us of what we most need to overcome, our own darkness. Moreover, since we “see through a glass darkly” – not all at once – the windows of our lives parse out what comes to us in bite-sized pieces, or sometimes in a bombastic “Marco Polo” swagger.
The secrets we hold love to hide from light. At such times light can seem like our enemy and life makes little sense. But, the closer we come to being broken open like alabaster jars of perfume, we can revel in the discovery that good can come from our humiliations and challenges. It is then that light is our friend and we no longer live elsewhere. We live right now.
Geosi Gyasi: Who is your favorite writer?
Robert Rife: Oh no, that’s not fair, and you know it! As a boy I would have said Richard Adams. Watership Down remains for me one of the most perfect novels ever written. In later years, writers such as C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Anne Lamott, Kathleen Norris, Flannery O’Connor, Henri Nouwen, and Thomas Merton. Oh, and I’m unabashedly a fan of J. K. Rowling!
Geosi Gyasi: Which kinds of books do you often read?
Robert Rife: As a boy, it was novels, specifically books in natural settings such as White Fang by Jack London or something by Farley Mowat. In my twenties I read everything Stephen Lawhead ever wrote, along with all things Celtic. These days, I read a great deal of Christian mysticism, both ancient and contemporary. I’ll usually have something like “Interior Castle” by Teresa of Avila, “Dark Night of the Soul” by John of the Cross, or something by Nouwen or Merton.
And poetry. Lots and lots of poetry.
Geosi Gyasi: What are you currently writing?
Robert Rife: I write for a number of blogs and organizations. That always keeps me sharp and focused, perfecting the craft so to speak. I would love to publish as a poet one day. And I’m dabbling in a memoir uniting my Celtic DNA, with my life as an adoptee, an exiled Canadian living in the U.S., a recovering alcoholic, and an artist-mystic. I’m sure there are four or five others who’d totally love that!
Geosi Gyasi: How do you find time to write?
Robert Rife: Ironic isn’t it that I’m writing about finding time to write? And therein, as Uncle Bill said, lies the rub. I don’t write because I have to, I write because I need to. For me, music and writing are a necessary part of my deepening awareness. They link my outside world to whatever’s going on inside. When I haven’t written something in awhile, a song, a poem, a limerick, anything – I get a bit lost. And, truth be told, I probably write when I should be doing other things, things for which I’m paid, or that require my immediate attention!
Geosi Gyasi: Do you want to say something to end the interview?
Robert Rife: Thank you. Thank you for your interest in one man’s personal and literary life. It is always humbling to reveal one’s deepest self to others. Life with our pants down, I like to say. But it’s what art, and life, are all about.