Interview with Austin Smith
Author of Almanac
Interviewed by the members of Mike Theune's Contemporary American Poetry class (Spring, 2014): Jessica Allhands, Madeline Cahill, Emily Considine, Rhiannon Damm, Kristina Dehlin, Lisa Elleson, Adam Glogovsky, Jeremy Gruner, Sara Helm, Evan Johnson, Margaret Kennelly, Andrea Kirby, Liza Kizhakkekuttu, Zhiyuan Meng, Brian Morefield, Candace Parrott, Carmen Puchulu, Rachel Rotramel, Emma Salvino, Brandon Straeb, and Kristen Woodside.
This interview took place during the class session on March 19. It has been edited for clarity.
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It’s a pleasure to have you here. We’d like to start with discussing the process of how you write your poems, and how you begin your first draft. Do ideas flow easily for you, or does it take a while to get that first draft going?
Good question. Before I try to answer it, it’s a real pleasure to be here, so thank you all for letting me come in and meet with you. I’ve been excited about this visit for a long time... I think my process has changed over the years, but some aspects of it have remained pretty much the same. I write a poem pretty much when I hear—and some of you might have this experience—a line that has a little bit of a musical rhythm to it, and it just catches your ear…I was just sharing a poem with Mike that I wrote earlier today, on the train down here from Chicago. It was just something that I saw: a tree from the train, a sycamore tree—
Will you read it?
Oh, okay. I could read it. Actually, since I just wrote this poem, maybe this would be a good way to talk about process. I just wrote it, so it’s very rough, but this is usually what I do. I’ll jot something down, and I like to write by hand. I really enjoy the act of handwriting. And when I read—when I type the poem and I retype—the poem, that’s when I do most of the editing. So this is what I just jotted down on the train, thanks for putting me on the spot. [laughter] This is just what I saw, and what I took down:
Sycamore stricken white in the black woods,
what spooked you?
Something the river said?
A new seriousness in the owl’s question?
You went white all at once—
far are you beyond the pale.
The boy who visits you, visits you no more.
He has new ideas of what death is.
You haunt no one, or me,
passing on a train from somewhere to elsewhere.
Even if I could say what you are,
how would I tell you?
And I don’t know if I like it yet. [CAmPers snap their fingers to show appreciation; Austin laughs.] Thanks, and I don’t know if I like it yet, because it’s so new, but I think that my advice would be to never deny yourself the opportunity for a poem. Always carry a notebook around—or an iPhone, if you need to—and jot it down because something will catch, and that poem when I finally finish it will probably look much different from what I just shared with you.
I’m writing a lot more fiction and a lot more prose these days, so I don’t tend to seek out poems like I used to. They kind of just come to me when they do, and it’s actually becoming increasingly rare when a poem comes to me.
Are there certain things that like grab your eye and inspire you to write a poem?
Yeah, that tree inspired me today. When I’m traveling, things kind of catch my eye. You have to kind of be in a position of receptivity, and so I try to keep myself open… It’s a bit of a boring train ride.
Trust me, I love Illinois, as you all know. But today, it was foggy and colorless, but I looked out the window and I saw this thing and I got a poem. But in terms of what inspires me, as you might know from reading the book of poems that I wrote, a lot of my poems come out of my childhood and from the place I grew up, near Freeport, Illinois, and if I’m not inspired by something that is happening or that I see today, I always kind of delve back into childhood and I can almost always find something that I haven’t quite meditated on before. I think Rilke said “your childhood is a treasure house.” He said, “Even if you’re locked into a dark prison cell, you have your childhood to write from.” So, I never feel bereaved of subjects. I always feel like there’s something to write from. That doesn’t mean I don’t get writer’s block, but I don’t ever feel like I’m impoverished when it comes to subject matter.
How much and what kind of revision do you do between a first draft and publication?
That’s a good question. I used to celebrate the fact that I wrote a lot of poems and I just kind of worked on the poem in the moment and then I moved on to the next one. But I had a poetry professor at the University of Virginia named Gregory Orr who was a fabulous teacher and he is an amazing poet and he told me once, we were sitting in his office and I must have been bragging about how many poems I had written and he said, “You’re not an artist, Austin. An artist works on whatever their art is and you don’t work on your poems—you throw them off and you just write the next one because you don’t want to deal with the seriousness of making a poem.” I was like, What?! I mean, I thought that I was going to impress him by telling him how many poems I had written and it did the exact opposite. So I’ve never been a big editor of my poems, I usually have a very intense period when I work on them. So I’ll write a first draft and I’m usually so excited about it that I’ll type and retype it again. And usually, after about two days or so, I’m ready for that poem to be done. And then I write another one.
But when you all of a sudden have the pressure of publishing something, it can exert a pressure on the poem that you might have written three years before. And before the poems in this book were published I changed a lot of them. I reread, and I thought, “Is this really ready to be published?” And I don’t know how I feel about changing poems that you wrote three years prior—it seems somehow a violation of that previous self, in a way. I feel like that pressure of publishing does exert itself upon you and I found that I can make the poems better with a little extra work right before they go into the world. So basically it’s like: three days, three years, a little more work, and then it goes.
Do you regret any of the changes you made?
Yes, I do, actually. I regret a lot of the changes I made in this book. I think even Mike [Theune] has called me out on it. Some of the poems had changed and you were like, “Why did that draft change?” You know, in some poems I have a hard time with endings and I distrust an ending and so I fiddle with the ending. But sometimes the first ending is, as you know, just the right one. You just got it on that first try and then when you overthink it—you can tend to corrupt it a little. But the biggest change that I made in the book was the last poem in the book, called Wake. I changed the word “ale” to “beer.” I don’t know why, maybe it worked with a different word in the line, and my brother called me and said, “If you don’t change that back to ‘ale,’ I’m going to kill you.” And my brother’s a doctor and he has access to various medical tools that could cause pain. I changed it back to ale. So I do regret a little bit but I also like the tension of making a change and not being sure. In the end you have to go with something. There are famous stories, like those about Elizabeth Bishop who was famously a perfectionist about her poems. I think there’s something to that, but at some point you have to let them go into the world. Tomas Transtromer has a great poem about how the poem at some point pushes you out of the nest. It’s like this metaphor of the nest and being the bird and, maybe, laying the poem, I guess? But at some point the poem is like: “I’m done with you now.” So I try to be ready for that knowledge, that “Okay, it’s time to leave it alone.”
So, regarding what you just said about your brother, do you work with any of your family or peers? After you finish writing a poem do you ever give it to them and say, “What do you think of this?” before you give it to your editor?
Well, first off, I wish I had an editor—that would be nice. Actually, Mike [Theune] has been the primary reader of my poems in my 20’s and I didn’t really write that many poems prior to that to share. Mike’s generosity towards the poems I share with him has been just phenomenal. You know I think the poems are a little too personal for me to share with my family after a first draft. I would never share a poem with my parents unless it’s not about them. I’ll send them something every now and again. But actually my Dad recently was bereaving the fact that I don’t share writing with them so much anymore and I think part of that is I’m writing a novel about the farm I grew up on and I’m just getting into some really personal things that I just don’t want to share yet. I think having a friend, who is practically family, as I would consider Mike my brother in some sense, is a good zone for me. I also share poems with my brother—I have two brothers—Ryan, who said he was going to kill me. I share poems and stories with him. And of course I’ve been in many, many workshops in my life which I’ve actually found to be the least helpful because it’s not so one on one, it’s not so personal. And I don’t think you always get the best help. And I guess when I send out a poem out to a journal to try and get it published, that feels like, “Okay, I’m sharing it. I’m trying to see if this is ready.” But maybe I’m a little bit shy, a little secretive about poems. Like today, it was very rare for me to read this poem to Mike in his office—I wouldn’t normally do that.
Kind of going off that and how you say you edit the poems before you publish them, how do you choose what poems you include? Or specifically in Almanac how did you choose which poems you included and do you write poems with the intention to create a collection or did you write them and then create a collection afterwards?
These are both really good questions. Actually, Mike and I were just talking about this. You know, I mentioned before, I do err on the side of writing a lot, or maybe I’m also obsessive-compulsive about writing. I just love writing. I’ve always written so many poems and stories that it’s a problem for me when it comes time to choose. It’s a hard thing for me and that’s when oftentimes Mike will look at a manuscript and help me with the order, which poems to include, which poems to cut. Because sometimes those things, you’re too close to see them very clearly. But, your question about do I write with a collection in mind: I think that there’s a trend today to write a book, to have a project. I’ve never had a project, and I don’t conceive of a book of poems as a book so much as a collection. I see a collection of poems as a kind of harvest, a gathering of the work you’ve done, and I don’t want to write a book of poems where I sit down and know the trajectory beforehand. I write a lot of poems and then when I have enough I kind of gather them up. The problem with that, though, is that you, you have to kind of search for the ways that those poems connect. And they do, because you’re yourself, and so you have themes and obsessions that are going to recur. So it’s impossible that a book is not going to have a cohesion—well, it could not have a cohesion, but you can work to make it cohere. So one of my favorite poets is W.S. Merwin, and he said, “I don’t write books of poems, I just gather collections.” Another poet I admire, named Jim Harrison—I know someone who works one-on-one with this poet to put his books together—when he has written enough poems to make a book, he calls my friend Joseph, and Joseph drives to Montana, and they sit at his kitchen table and they put the book together. And they drink a lot of whiskey. [laughter] And they eat a lot of animals that were recently alive that Jim Harrison shot. [laughter] I like that idea of the harvest—maybe because I’m a farmer. I’m not saying that you can’t have a book project or a book idea, but um, but I do notice that that’s the trend now, and I think it can be intimidating for a young poet, thinking, “How am I going to do this? What’s the theme of my collection?” I think that that’s not a necessary question to ask all the time.
Once you had the theme going for Almanac, what poems did you have to leave out?
Well there’s the sheer fact that the book was too long. I sent the book to the editor. He had not accepted it; he simply said, “I’d like to look at a collection,” which was a terrifying thing, because it was like I was cooking a meal for someone and not knowing what they eat, not knowing what they like. I erred on the side of, again, a lot of poems thinking, maybe I’ll impress him with a hundred pages of poems. He wrote back, “Cut these out,” but he took the book. He carved it, and he saw the poems that he thought would work. And then the poems that didn’t make it into that book, they did feel to me a little left on the wayside, but maybe they’ll find their way into a different collection. I’m writing a lot of fiction right now, and things that don’t make it into the novel, or that I have to cut from the novel, they do feel kind of like orphans. Because they’re passages of prose—what do you do? Maybe you can make a story out of them. But poems that don’t make it into a collection, that’s a poem. It still has an existence. So, there’s something nice, actually, about the poems that didn’t make it into the collection. I have a certain affection towards them.
Did you have any fears about or while writing this book or collection and, if so, what were they?
Well, I’m constantly terrified. [laughter] There were many things that I was afraid of. I didn’t trust that the book was good enough, and it’s my first. I’ve had a couple little chapbooks of poems published but this was the first vertebrae book, a book with a spine. So it was really scary to me because I had had the blissful anonymity in the past. With all my books, if you looked down the spine you just saw staples, you couldn’t see my name. And now, you know, my name, and the book was going to be in a bookstore. It was terrifying to me to think about that. I worried that it would be reviewed negatively. And to my great dismay it just hasn’t been reviewed at all. [laughter] Which might be a good thing.
But the main fear was that the poems would hurt someone. There’s one poem that really, really concerned me. It’s called “Sirens,” and it’s about my cousin who lives in New York. And it critiques his life, in a way. I mean, I don’t know if I’m overthinking the poem, but I thought maybe he would take it somehow the wrong way. He came to the farm in Freeport and said he couldn’t sleep because it was too quiet, he’s used to Manhattan. And I thought, that’s really sad that you can’t sleep in the quiet countryside. So I thought that poem would somehow offend him, and offend his mother who’s very close to me, my Aunt Jane. But they said, “Oh, Seth loved the poem.” And they said, “Oh it’s a great poem. It’s so neat that you wrote about Seth.” And my parents said, “Don’t overthink this, just put it in the book.” Then there are poems about my dad that really concerned me. And there’s the poem, “The Night My Mother,” that was very, very worrying to me because my parents had never seen that poem and I do talk about my mom’s breast. And that, you know, it’s just, it’s weird... But my dad is a poet, and my mom is one of the best readers I’ve ever known--she reads so much and so well. They understand. There’s a certain way in which they understand. But I was really afraid of those things. Those things scared me a lot. Also, the page where I thank people, I was really worried about leaving out a friend. [laughter]
Have you heard from anybody? Did you leave anyone out?
But why would they write to me if I left them out? [laughter]
Right, that’s where the negative reviews are going to come in. [laughter] We noticed that the cover of Almanac is a painting by Andrew Wyeth and then you also mention him again in one of your poems, “Postcards to Andrew Wyeth.” And then again you talk about Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St. Peter in “Poem for Les, Homeless.” Is your work often inspired by visual art and do you have any connections to those paintings or those artists?
Well, it’s interesting, that poem “Postcards to Andrew Wyeth” came out of Professor Theune’s—see, I slipped into the formal way of addressing him—Professor Theune’s workshop, which involved an assignment I think to write a poem or series of poems based on paintings, an ekphrastic assignment. And that poem, I think I wrote it in 2002, it just kind of stuck—there’s something about it that I felt was working then and it still works, so it might work in the book. So I was obsessed and I still am obsessed with Andrew Wyeth’s paintings. And I met recently a poet from Vermont who grew up on a farm, who was also obsessed with Wyeth, so I think that poets who grow up in the rural world see Wyeth’s paintings as really beautiful representations of the kind of weird gothic world of the rural. So, I was very excited that Princeton let me choose the painting for the cover—I couldn’t believe that they let me do that! The painting that I chose is called “Spring,” and I feel like it’s an image of resurrection. And I think the guy in the snow-bank is a farmer. It reminds me of my grandfather. It’s funny: when we were trying to get permission to use the painting, my dad said, “Well, it looks just like me, so if we can’t get permission I’ll just lie down in the snow-bank, and you can take a picture of me.” So Wyeth is important.
But then Caravaggio is important to me, too. I did see that painting of Caravaggio’s in Rome a couple summers ago. The soiled heels of that man [Saint Peter] were somehow the image for Les. Its weird: you’ll see something in the real world, and it will just stick with you, and it will come back. And I’ve found a lot of good subjects looking at paintings.
Related to that, since you said that they let you choose the front cover, why did you choose the picture you did for the back cover?
That was a selfie! [laughter] I don’t have a digital camera, I don’t have any pictures of myself, and they needed a picture. I took a picture of myself. Everyone says it’s a terrible picture of me. People say I look mean, and…
You look angry!
Yeah, I look mad. I was trying to look like a fierce young poet…didn’t work out. [laughter]
In your poem, “The Man Who Poisoned Robert Johnson,” you refer to the blues man Johnson and slain poet Lorca. What sparked your interest in writing about these two men, and in what ways did these seemingly different artists inspire you?
The initial connection between them is that they died almost at the same time. Robert Johnson was poisoned to death in America, and Lorca was killed by fascists in Spain. They’re very different murders—Johnson was poisoned, I think, because he was sleeping with someone’s wife—that’s what they say, anyway—and Lorca was killed because he was dangerous to the state. He was so radical, and so beloved, they killed him. I really have these ideas of why certain poets and artists have been killed, and I think sometimes poetry is dangerous, and Lorca was saying things that were not in line with what the government wanted at that time.
So that was the initial link that I made between them, but I see them also as figures of “duende.” Lorca’s always writing about duende, and he writes this beautiful…—I almost said “sermon” [laughter]—beautiful speech about duende. And I think when I listen to Robert Johnson, I hear duende. So I think that was at work there. Also, I see Lorca as more of a singer, and Johnson as a singer, so there’s music. And then, who knows why, but those were the figures that I went with. I could have probably gone with a number of different pairs of artists, but that’s the way the poem came to me.
You’ve noted that some of your favorite writers are Larry Levis and James Agee. What other writers inspire you? In what ways?
Larry Levis, yeah. Definitely, Levis and Agee have been very important to me, in my pantheon of saints. I think of them as saints, my beloved writers that I carry around in my bag or my briefcase. But it changes a lot. Right now I’m obsessed with a prose writer James Salter, who I think is really a poet writing these beautiful novels. So I’m like proselytizing Salter trying to make everyone read Salter. But then there are these constants who are always there, like I always turn to Rilke. If you haven’t read Letters to a Young Poet, do so. They are very inspiring letters for young poets to meditate on. And of course my dad, who’s a poet, has been very important to me. And maybe in a more personal way than any other poet could be, obviously. And you know if you asked me tomorrow I would probably say different writers, it just kind of changes. But there are these constants that kind of never, never quite go away. And the older you get, you kind of gather this group. It’s like an inspiring kind of family almost of people that you love. When I was your age, I don’t think I had too many in my satchel, but now I have acquired quite a few heroes and heroines.
Many of your poems have a fairytale feel to them. Did fairytales have an impact on your writing at all?
I’ve actually not really read The Brother’s Grimm. I haven’t really spent a lot of time with fairytales, per se, but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about myth. And the older I get—and you may have this experience, too—when you kind of look back retrospectively on certain events from childhood, they take on a quality of myth. And there’s kind of this boy who is me but not really… And, as you know from one of the poems, I have this idea of an imaginary sister who’s very vivid to me. And then I see my parents and the farm as kind of—this is going to sound kind of corny—like living in like a castle. [laughter] Like, because the farm was this encapsulated place, and my dad and my mom are kind of the king and queen of this. I don’t know. This sounds totally absurd, but that was really the way it felt. And there were all these mysterious place on the farm, like there are the woods in there, the silo, and me and my brothers would make these journeys to these places. They were almost like Arthurian journeys, you know? There was just always some sense that we had some mission to carry out. I think a lot of our childhoods have that aspect of, you know: you have to go find something you have to do…something.
So maybe not so much fairy tales, though I understand what you mean about that quality. But, yeah, I tend to kind of create these stories. To my parents, it must seem very odd because their experience of my experiences happened when they were in their thirties. So the things that were magical to me as a boy to them must have been common place. You know, that old silo, it’s just an old abandoned silo, but to me it was like this unbelievably dark, crazy place that we were afraid to see. And the older I get the more I think I mythologize so I don’t know if I’m becoming more dishonest. I’m definitely making up things that didn’t happen, as my family always reminds me, like, “That. Did. Not. Happen.” [laughter]
Like what? Anything in the book?
Something that seems to be confessional but turned out to be a made up story?
Yeah, the whole thing about Les, the poem about Les, that he came in the night smelling of ashes. I think he did show up at night. But I don’t know why I made up this whole idea that his house had burned down. I had this whole idea of him. He was this mysterious figure, who did live on the farm. My dad let him park his car on the farm and he slept on the farm a few nights. When you’re a kid and there’s like this crazy guy who shows up to your door… I’ve made that story into something—maybe it wasn’t quite that way. That’s one example.
In your interview with Kirstin Hotelling Zona [Spoon River Poetry Review 36.1], and as you’ve stated, you have an obsession with an imaginary sister. Is your imaginary sister really your imaginary sister from your childhood or was she created out of your poetic process? Was she based off a real person or is she a compilation of ideal sisterly characteristics?
That’s really good, that’s a great question, especially the very last thing you said. I have two brothers and no sisters. But, again, I don’t know why, but I have this very vivid idea of what she would be like. It’s almost as if she was supposed to be born but wasn’t. I don’t know if that sounds weird…
I think part of it was when I started writing a lot of fiction, I just, I wanted there to be this young woman in this world of a farm. I wanted to write about her. I was just curious about her, and the more I wrote about her. I can’t possibly describe her to you, but I can see her in my mind. And that poem, “Memoir of My Imaginary Sister,” it describes her pretty well. It’s more her attitude. She has a certain kind of attitude. When you have two brothers it’s natural to think, well, what would it be like, what would our sister be like? I don’t know. She seems so vivid to me that I’m almost tempted to say that she’s more permanent than just kind of a compilation of characteristics. I wish I could meet her sometime.
Did you have an idea of an imaginary sister when you were younger? Like, when, say, a teenager, or a young boy, or did this came about when you were an older adult and did it come about when thinking about writing a poem specifically, or was it just this idea you had? If so, when did you have it, when did it arise?
So I had the idea not too long ago—she didn’t really appear to me until I started working on fiction. But, I don’t know, I’m maybe going to tell a weird story right now. I had a very, very vivid dream a couple years ago—I’ve never had a dream like this. It was of this cornfield at night, a very dark cornfield, and this little girl dressed all in white rose up out of the corn, and I woke up crying, and I don’t cry from dreams often, but it was so vivid and moving to me this, this character, this girl. Something’s happening with this character, I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but it wasn’t something that I knew about in childhood. She wasn’t present to me back then. It’s just been the last few years.
In many of your poems you bring up details about the sexuality of one of the characters; for example, the virginity of the babysitter in “Fort-Da.” Is there a reason for this?
I don’t think that there’s any express reason. But, you know, it’s funny: now I’m thinking also this occurs in the poem “Stevenson County Fair in Wartime.” I guess I can try to get at this in a weird way. This is going to be really strange. Well, I feel like the Midwest that I love has been kind of destroyed and ruined by meth and industrial agriculture and a lot of things that I kind of bring up obliquely in my poems, and maybe the sexuality of the characters might mirror in some way what I see as a way of talking about the people of the Midwest. I mean, virginity is often times seen as an innocence. So, that might be one of the reasons that that arises when I’m writing, but I’m not conscious of using it, and I don’t know if I can give a good answer. I don’t remember writing that particular line, so there must have been something much more subconscious. I certainly had no clear intention, but retrospectively I think it might have something to do with my ideas of the Midwest as it was and as it is, if that’s not too big of a leap.
In a number of your poems, such as “The Silo,” “The Trencher,” “The Pit,” they all describe sacred places and in your poems you sound out their power and their significance and their importance. What compels you to write about these types of places? Are you explaining their power to outsiders like us, or are you in a way trying to own the place itself?
Well, it kind of relates to the last question, right? There were these places, you know, that we would visit as kids that were not explained to us. So, you know, adults don’t see the need to explain a pit in the woods, or a silo full of rotten grain, well because we weren’t supposed to climb it. My dad didn’t know that we had seen it. But even if he had known, which he does now—he tried to ground me but I’m like, “Dad I live in California.” [laughter] But, you know, again, the gravity of those places was so massive for me, but objectively these are places that should have—in an objective sense—really they should have no more power than any other place. I guess. But when you run it through the sieve of the imagination then they become very endowed with this power. And the pit and the silo were dark places, I guess.
And so in retrospect when I write about them I can’t help but see them— You know, it’s weird when you write a poem from the perspective of your childhood because you’re writing it from the child’s perspective but also from your own, so it’s kind of like two degrees from the experience. How much of the poem is through the boy’s eyes, and how much is through my eyes as a thirty-one-year-old poet? So if someone found that pit today I would know that it would be just like “whatever, it’s just a pit,” but I want to give that boy a chance to be scared again. And I want to give the boy, who climbed the silo, the experience that he had then, so , really as a poet I am kind of getting out of the way and saying, “show me again what you saw.” When I wrote “The Silo,” I really vividly remembered climbing the silo—it was almost like I was being given a tour by the boy that I used to be. That’s, you know, again a weird answer, but I think you probably had that experience, right? Writing about childhood, you feel like you are sort of in the body of the child again, and but sort of not. But your question was more pointed towards the power of those places and, no, it is not really trying to show it to an outsider—it’s trying to maybe show that the Earth, that there are these places on Earth that do have a tangible power over us. Those are places that I tend to obsess over and visit again, in the imagination or in the physical world.
There is a lot of war and violence woven into many of the poems in Almanac. Why?
That is a very good question. I was just telling Mike that I got an email the other day from a man who is putting together an anthology of anti-war poetry and peace poetry, and he thought maybe I would have some poems that I could share with him for that. And I realized I don’t have any blatantly, but I think you might be able to surmise what my attitudes towards war are. I’m actually quite a pacifist. But I don’t enjoy sitting down and saying, “I’m going to write an anti-war poem” That doesn’t-that’s not how poems really come to me.
So I didn’t know what to send to this man but I did send him some poems because, you’re right, there are a lot of poems that touch on this subject. And when I was writing him back, I said, you know, my tenth day at college at Illinois Wesleyan was September 11. I spent my first two weeks of college watching September 11th in my dorm room, which is right there [pointing], somewhere. And then I had to spend the bulk of my twenties under the Bush regime, which made me incredibly angry, and I protested a lot. But all of that crept into the poems in an oblique way because I don’t want to write a poem about George Bush, he doesn’t deserve my time. But I will write, try to get at the violence and the war that he and his administration caused in more oblique ways. So I think that’s why those things enter in. But they always enter in through the side door. And then violence: I guess I feel that there’s been a lot of violence done to the Midwest, to the land itself, to our farm, which was sold, and so maybe that’s how violence comes into some of the poems.
There’s also a great number of humorous moments in your poems.
Oh good, I’m glad to hear that! [laughter]
Where do you get your humor from and what role do you see it playing in your poetry?
That’s really good to hear. I feel like the poems are quite dower and death-haunted, but, I mean, Mike and I have laughed so much in our time as friends, haven’t we Mike? We’ve laughed a lot, we make each other laugh a lot. I love humor and my favorite aspect of being alive is laughter and making people laugh and laughing with people. But for some reason I feel like when I write, I have to be serious. So when humor comes in it usually comes in, again like the war thing, obliquely, almost against my will. Like the poem “The Mummy in the Freeport Art Museum,” I think it’s funny, but I don’t intend it to be funny, and when I read it people just crack up, they think it’s so funny, so then I’m like, “Oh, there is humor there but I myself was not aware of it.” And then “On a Greyhound Bus in America,” that happened, that woman said those things, and all that stuff happened, and I thought it was hilarious at the time. But when I wrote the poem I don’t think I thought “this is now a funny poem,” but it’s funny, and it’s funny when you share it and people laugh—you realize, “Oh, that’s what it’s doing,” but when you’re really working on it, sometimes it’s hard to see it on your own because you’re so deeply involved in it.
When you’re writing, is it more for yourself or is it for your audience, if there even is an audience? For example, what do you imagine your intended audience’s age to be? Does your sense of that change from poem to poem?
It’s a really good question. Well, I will take a step back and say that the fact you all even read my book moves me almost to tears. You work in such solitude, as you all know, if you are poets, active poets—you don’t know whether anything you write is going to touch anyone. And, I don’t know, I don’t think I oftentimes imagine an audience. I mean I know I want my family to read my poems because it’s really for them, a lot of it. I feel like I’m trying to celebrate something, a life that they gave me on the farm. But I don’t have an imagined audience, and I certainly don’t expect it to be widely read, and I’d kind of like giving up on that if I even had that ambition. I mean, maybe it might happen, but it’s not for me to worry about. So if one single person has read something and been moved by it; to me, that’s just amazing, and that’s my audience. But when I’m writing, I’m not thinking that person. I’m writing in kind of a vacuum.
This poem that I wrote on the train, you know, which I’ve now shared with roughly twenty people? When I was writing it, it was between me and that tree, you know, I didn’t really think I was going to share with the conductor—he looked flustered and busy. I just don’t have a sense that, you know, if it’s something, a gift to the world. So when it does make it to the world, it just seems incredibly humbling.
You mentioned some of the reactions you’ve gotten about the book from your family. We are wondering if anyone from your hometown, Freeport, has read the book. And if so, did you anticipate them reading it, and what some of the reactions were? And also did you have to remove any material or change names because of this?
That’s a really good question. You know, it’s really interesting, in the fall, I gave a reading at the art museum of the mummy poem, which also is the art museum in Freeport where my dad used to read poems. So I got to do a reading at the first place I encountered poetry when I was seven. I went to see the mummy, and he’s still there. I said “What’s up dude? What’ve you been up to, man? What’s popping in your life?” And he said nothing. But during that reading, it was so intense because people from my past came. They had heard about the reading, of course, and I saw, like, this old art teacher of mine whom I’d loved but haven’t seen in so long, who just showed up. And then my aunt and uncle were there, and all these other people came whom I hadn’t expected to really see again.
I read these poems, and it goes back to the mythologizing question: I’ve made up so much about this place that’s not true. When you go to Freeport, Illinois, it’s easy for me to romanticize it when I live in San Francisco, but I was, like, gosh, Freeport is rough, it’s a rough place, and there’s nothing going on and even the landscape around it that I've made, you know, in retrospect, so beautiful—it is beautiful, I still love it, but I think I'm romanticizing this place where people actually live. After the reading, someone raised their hand and said—it was actually Debbie, Kent [Johnson]’s wife—, “It’s all well and good you say these things about the Midwest but what're we supposed to do about it, we who live here? You get to go back to California and write about it in this distant way, but you know there are still people who are trying to farm and are actually here—so it’s kind of made me deal with that. Then this man who had been the dean of the high school—as a student and I was pretty well behaved, so we never encountered each other—I went on a little rant about Monsanto and afterwards he said the Midwest is the breadbasket of the world and we have to feed the world and you have the privilege to be nostalgic but here we are, we have to, you know how are we going to feed these people? You get to be a little nostalgic; you never had to do this work. I said I understand what you're saying but my job as a poet is to be nostalgic. I know I haven't ever needed to use a scythe, but I think it’s something I need to celebrate as a poet [in the poem “The Scythe”] that there was a time when we had to do it. And I’m not going to apologize for my thoughts about Monsanto... But it was interesting going back to Freeport because I was challenged. I was bringing the book back to the town. I expected it, but it was a little intense.
Do you think you could write a poem about Freeport that didn't romanticize it?
Oh, definitely! And I think that some of the poems don't romanticize it. I guess I wanted it to be like my memory of it was—it was my childhood, it’s always going to have this heavenly glow, which is not the truth of the matter.
Does the success, the fact that they are published by a prestigious university press, does that in any way affect the aura, at all, your own sense of yourself, or your past?
Well, it’s made me really grow up a lot because I had this stupid idea that I was going to be like Emily Dickinson, and I was going to have all these poems that no one was ever going to see, and I had this idea that I wasn’t going to live very long. [laughter] I did! I have boxes and boxes and boxes of poems in my parents’ barn in Wisconsin, and now in the cabin in California. So many papers, and I had this weird fantasy that they’re all going to find this stuff after I die and that’s when I’ll be famous. It’s such a narcissistic thing, you know? And I could have never met all you and could’ve never been in a classroom with you. It’s a defense mechanism; I had a defense mechanism. I really romanticized being unpublished because it took me so long to get this book published. I had submitted to these contests and was always getting rejected. I submitted poems to journals and was always getting rejected. I haven’t always had success like this. My reaction to rejection was, like, I would get so mad when I got a rejection letter, like I would tear the rejection letter up, I would swear—I’m afraid my mom was present for a lot of it. I thought, I would get so mad, I thought, “Why weren’t they seeing this?” But, it was leading to a kind of childish attitude towards my own art. Like I wasn’t taking care of myself, and I wasn’t taking myself seriously. I wasn’t taking the poems and organizing them. I would write them then throw them in the box. I was kind of living in the dissolute state.
Having the book now, it’s like all neat and tidy and they fit in there and they’re not in the box anymore in the barn. Also, I got a flight to come visit you, and it’s now helping me to have to talk about the poems. It’s all been for the good because I can’t hide behind anonymity anymore, and I do want to be like my dad, who has one book of poems published. He’s not very famous, but he used to do these readings at the art museum and most of the people in the crowd were farmers from the community, and my dad read these beautiful poems about farming to these farmers, and they would get so moved by these that they would cry over them. So, I want to be able to do something like that. And I don’t want the poems to not get into the world somehow. Publishing is good for all the reasons people don’t tell you. It’s not just that you have something published—publication is so celebrated, and there is so much pressure to be publish—but the real value—if you’re patient, and you keep working—is you will publish, and simply you will get your work into the world.
In “Lightning,” you note that you never told your father that you loved him, but you also dedicated Almanac to him and your mother. Has he read the book, and has he read “Lightning,” and, if so, what was his reaction?
He’s definitely read the book. He definitely read “Lightning.” My parents have read almost everything—wait, this isn’t true at all. They’ve read almost nothing I’ve written. I’ve got boxes and boxes they haven’t seen, but they’ve read everything that’s published. I am so lucky to have my parents; they’re coming tomorrow night for the reading—maybe you’ll meet them. They’re great people. They’ve sat through so many of my readings. I’ll talk about “Lightning” in a second, but “Wake,” it’s the last poem in the book, the one about my grandfather, it’s about my dad’s father who I really, again, mythologized in that poem to almost an absurd degree. He becomes this pharaoh who I’m, like, filling this coffin with all these things. I think that’s a hard poem for my dad to hear. He always cries, because it’s about his dad. And when I think about it, if my son wrote, I don’t have a son, but if my son wrote a poem about my dad, I would feel a little skipped over. Like what are you doing?—don’t write about my dad. Like we can write about our grandparents, but it’s like his memories of his father are so vivid, and I worry that I’ve hijacked my grandfather from my father. Is that too Freudian or something? But, I do worry about those kinds of things because I know that my parents, they appreciate what I’ve done, but I also feel like they sometimes must be, like, when I’m not around, “Jeez, will he ever stop writing about us?” I feel a little bit like a spy, like I’m sucking up all these things about the family that maybe is hurtful at times. It’s not so much hurtful in that it hurts their feelings as it is—it just must be hard. It must be emotionally difficult for them to have to be confronted with these things all the time that I’m always bringing into the light.
“Lightning” is a very intimate poem, actually. And I had a really hard time telling my dad I loved him. Now I think we say it to each other, I can’t remember. I’m sure I do, like, when I hug him goodbye I think I say it. But for the longest time I was conscious: “I haven’t told my dad I love him. I haven’t told him that.” I was really conscious of that in high school. And there were a couple, knock on wood, but a couple of minor health scares in my family, like “The Night My Mother” [which discusses a cancer scare for Smith’s mother] is one of them. It brings to light: “Oh my God, I haven’t told this person I love them.” You know, those moments in our lives really make us aware of that. But of course that poem in a way says I love you by just existing.
What kind of effect or effects do you hope that your poems will have on you or your readers?
Well, one thing is that I don’t want my poems to ever be boring. I hope they’re not boring. Honestly, I read a lot of contemporary poetry, and I’m completely bored by it. And also, I feel like I don’t want to impress anyone with my intellect. I don’t think a poet has to be smart at all. My least favorite compliment to hear about a book of poems is that it’s really “smart.” I hate that; it really makes my skin crawl. Because I think that poetry comes from a place that is not quite in the cerebrum, not quite in that realm. I don’t want to say it comes from the heart, that sounds corny, but it comes from some different place.
There was one review of this book that was lukewarm. They said that the poems about my family were kind of—they didn’t use this word, but basically saying—nauseatingly nostalgic. Well, I can’t swear in class, but I have a certain idea about that review, because I think there is nothing wrong with being nostalgic. I don’t see what the problem is with that, and I refuse to apologize for that. One thing people say about my poems is that they’re easy to understand. I don’t care, that sounds fine to me. I want them to be understood. It’s used sometimes as a critique, I think, like if a poem is difficult it must be good, and I just don’t feel that’s true. So I want people to, first of all, know what is happening in the poem. I want the poem to be clear. So they don’t have to spend their time trying to figure it out. John Keats says, in one of his amazing letters, he says, “a poem should require no working out.” He said, “You don’t jump into a lake to work the lake out, you jump into it for the sensation of the water.” And that’s so true, you know, you read a poem, and I don’t want it to be a struggle. I want it to just be clear and open, and I want the poem to do something to the person emotionally. I want them to be moved by it. Those are pretty big ambitions for a poem. But I think that people who write a certain kind of poem might be obscuring any chance for that happening, and I just don’t want to do that. I don’t want the poems to require a footnote or handbook, or a knowledge of French philosophy. To me, that’s not the kind of poetry I’m interested in.
In your interview with Kirstin Zona, you mention you feel a great need to write about life on the farm. As Almanac is becoming more successful, what does that do to your opinion of the way you perceive your childhood and the farm, and do you think that there is just as great a need for people to read your poems as there is for you to write them?
I am still incredibly sad that we lost the farm. I thought that I was going to live there the rest of my life. I just assumed that. So, it really, really sucks that we lost the farm. I say we lost it, but my parents sold it. To me, we lost it, but my parents made the decision to sell it. My poems in my novel and in my stories have become the way I live there still. I never thought this would be true; I thought that there was no good that could come from that. But there is consolation, and I feel like in writing about the farm I get to kind of still live there, in a sense. I still dream about the farm almost every night, and I’m there again. Something about that place; we are really very closely tied, the land and I. The poems offered an opportunity for me to continue to dwell there. I don’t know what this means for the future in my writing. I really hope that I am still not writing about the farm; I hope that it is not my only subject. I would like to find something else. Right now this is it: this is what I write about.
Is there a need for people to read your poems?
No. It’s depressing. I think that the writing of the poem is joyous for me. Again, when I hear that someone has been touched by a poem, it’s very unique to me. But, it’s not me anymore. They’re not complimenting me, it’s the poem. It doesn’t really give me gratification to hear that. I just want to write the next thing. So I guess I just love writing so much that I’m never really happy unless I’m writing. But when I’m writing I’m kind of miserable. I don’t know how to describe it. I just get such joy from writing itself. But then the poems kind of fossilize and then they appear in a book and then they kind of go away from you. It’s almost like a locked house that I can’t try get back in. Sometimes I try to get back into a poem that’s been published, but it doesn’t need me anymore.
In what ways, if any, is your fiction like your poetry?
It’s a little strange for me coming here to talk about poetry because, other than this poem today, actually, I haven’t really written any poems in a long time. I’m just writing fiction right now. It takes so much energy for me to try to write fiction. But the thing is, the fiction and the poetry are all of one continuous world, because I’m writing about the same things. It got to a point for me where I got burned out on poetry. I’m just going to be honest. I had taken so many workshops. I got to a point where I didn’t even know what a poem was anymore. I just couldn’t figure out how to write one. I couldn’t figure out how to put it on a page anymore. I was overthinking it. Do you write in form? Do you not?
I started writing fiction as a relief, to just say, you know you’re going to go to the end of the page and then the computer’s going to slingshot you back to the other side. So, I just wanted to write. I didn’t want to think about poetry, the poetic art. I just wanted to write, so that’s how I started writing fiction, and yet when I started doing that, I was writing about the same things I would have written a poem about, but I will say about the fiction and poetry thing: I think the very first answer that I gave today was about hearing a line like music. Very rarely now do I hear that kind of line. I hear, I see, or think about a story, or a situation that certain characters are in. So the world comes to me, the older I get, in stories. Which is good for fiction. But it’s good for poems too; I love poems to tell a story. So, and to answer your question: it’s, I think, all one continuum. Sort of. Just different forms.
So even though you’re writing fiction right now, do you think you’ll write poetry again?
Yeah, I love the fiction writers who turned to poetry late in life, like Melville. After Moby Dick and all that, he became a poet in the very end of his life. Hardy, great novelist, turned to poetry. I really can see myself as an 82-year-old man, living on a farm hopefully, and writing poems. That’s really what I want to do. I love poetry more than anything. I love the lives of poets. I almost exclusively read biographies of poets. I’m obsessed with John Keats. I’m not enamored with fiction. I don’t read new novels. I’m not, you know, a typical Stegner fiction fellow—all these people are really fiction writers, and I feel like I’m a poet…kind of like, I don’t know how they let me in. Smith is a common name. Maybe they made some mistake.
But I think I will go back to poetry. I think I will. I think I will. I think right now it’s just I feel like I have to write this novel, and it’s taking so much of my energy that poems can’t even really get in. I see it as an undulant. Like maybe I’ll write fiction for five or so years and then go to poems because it’s refreshing. I encourage you all to work in multiple genres because it’s refreshing. And when you turn back to the other genre you’re, somehow, you feel refreshed. I’m excited to write a poem now.