Spotlight: S.E. Smith
Interview by Nick Sturm
S.E. Smith is the author of I Live in a Hut, selected by Matthea Harvey as the winner of the 2011 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize. Co-founder of Line Assembly, and co-editor, with Adam Atkinson, of OH NO Books, she is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers at UT Austin and is currently at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I Live in a Hut was included in Coldfront’s Top 40 Poetry Books of 2012.
Sarah and I met in Cleveland last year at a fancy restaurant where you dip your bread in olive oil with big chunks of salt in it. What seemed like her entire extended family showed up for her reading–a perfect Midwestern moment. Like her poems, she was kind, funny, gracious, and belligerently enthusiastic. This interview came together over email from late 2012 through early 2013, a conversation that, every time it was added to, had a way of making my day.
NS: What are you listening for when you read a poem? What implicates you, grabs hold of you, transforms you?
SS: I’m one of those readers driven by and somewhat addicted to surprise. I say this kind of shamefacedly because I think the constant search for surprise has been diagnosed as a symptom of what Tony Hoagland termed the skittery poem–you know, that scourge of contemporary poetics, the arch, insincere gesture driven to deflect from the substance, the, for massive lack of a better word, heart thing. I mean, I do certainly agree that when surprise is the goal, übercool, chilly poems often result, but I’d like to make an argument for a kind of surprise beyond that provided by shocking nouns or aggressively banal revelations or the unexpected insertion of colloquial/slangy patois.
I find, over and over again, that the poems that surprise me do so without hipper-than-thou postures or fancy materials. I love the poem that conducts the reader through a deft and grand metaphorical structure. Mary Ruefle is incredibly good at this. And Larry Levis, one of the most under-read poets in my estimation, is an absolute master. Often, they manipulate the scale of things or abuse time or leave the reader mid-trapeze-jump, reaching out for the set of hands that will pull them safely through the trick. Larry Levis’ poem “Anastasia & Sandman” contains, in some ways, very humble poetic materials, and even some—horses, angels, Stalin, “a light summer dress/when the body has gone”—that have become overused, the meaning practically flogged out of them. But this doesn’t matter at all because his rhetoric is so stable and his thought, his actual moral thought, is so brilliantly humble. His control of the materials is so superb that he manages to move the reader through a complex assertion about, pardon me, humanity. The ending of that poem surprises me though I’ve read it many times. That line “under the missing and innumerable stars” is so shocking because of how he gets us there, how it’s both tangential and utterly, utterly right. I mean, he sticks the landing. Really, go read it right now if you haven’t already. This is the sort of surprise I want: to be surprised consistently because the poem has a sovereignty. Calling poems “skittery” implies a lack of control to me, or using a formal technique to mask the fact that the poem can’t identify things directly, can only shrug in their direction. And maybe that’s the overall plague of the age, but formal skitter does not necessarily imply a lack of control. I really think there’s a measure of genius in sustained surprise, startlement, whatever. That’s the big fish we should drag out of the water. That’s the one we should try to catch.
I like how you’ve added implication to this question, because implying an audience is one great power of rhetoric. I mean, if you’re trying to convince somebody, you really have to consider them as you write and hear your words landing on their ears. I love when poets do this. Often, it’s the difference between a competent poem and an incendiary one. Rhetoric insists that words are more than the silly little nuggets we use to order a pizza. Reading a poem, I want to be addressed. I want to sense that the poet foresaw the occasion of my reading his or her work. I love the implied generosity of it, the care taken. That the formative impulse of the poem is to explain something and get somewhere rather than to merely share some vague impressions. Don’t make the poem this tricky little box that I may or may not figure out how to open. It’s always irked me in workshops when somebody defensively says “You got it right” or “You got it wrong” after hearing the class read their poem in a way they didn’t anticipate. Guess what? It ain’t a game show. That’s what happens when you put the words on the paper: They leave you. They make friends with people you don’t like. They say things you didn’t intend them to. This is true whether you’re writing narrative or formalist or exploratory work. Putting the words on paper gives you, always, a measure of loss, and you have to deal with it.
I realize I’m saying some fairly contradictory things about the poem’s sovereignty and its awareness of the reader, but that’s the deal, you know? Poetry satisfies both of those demands. Like they say in that old song, “It’s witchcraft.”
I Live in a Hut certainly reigns by surprise, astonishment, and, yes, I think witchcraft is necessary here, a kind of dark magic, because why am I left so devastated by your poems? They’re so full of wonder and buoyancy, so relentless in their optimism and resolute in their playfulness, yet I’m often crawling out of your poems. That I’m clutching balloons and smiling is what’s amazing about it. There is a great deal of empathy in these poems, a feeling of camaraderie inside the confusion of living. Joy and despair seem to be equally inexorable here, horribly, humanly linked. I Live in a Hut avoids the issue, as Mary Ruefle says in her collected lectures, that “[t]he problem with many of the poems one sees in workshop is that they differentiate between happiness and sadness. When you do this, your poems have no face.” In “The Pony of Darkness,” the lines “Let us bed down / with the pony of darkness, let us / totally overwhelm it with apples, / a ride in the gondola,” seem to exemplify Ruefle’s statement. What is it in joy that brings us to heartbreak? What is it in heartbreak that demands we celebrate? What can the poems do to help us?
Let me start with a story: When I was a kid, my parents told me I had a twin sister named Penelope who lived in the attic. I really worried about this, obviously, because she was up there alone, being punished for who knows what. Whenever I lost a toy, they told me, “Oh, we thought you didn’t like that anymore, so we gave it to Penelope.” I wanted to find her. One day, while my parents were out baling hay, I took a chair and stood in their closet with peanut butter and saltines for her, and I discovered that our house didn’t even have an attic. Instead of seeing this as the obvious end to their fib, I jumped to a conclusion: They had killed her. (This was not, by the way, the only whopper my parents, one of whom has a graduate degree in child development, told me. My father said he used to wrestle under the name Haystacks Calhoun and maintains to this day that he invented the cheeseburger.) I persisted in this knowledge for a long time, and eventually I figured out that it had been a joke. So this past spring, I told this story to a colleague at the newspaper where I used to work, and he was horrified on my behalf. He kind of aligned the incident with child abuse and looked at me as if I had suddenly become a damaged person for having lived through it. I mean, he was really freaked out. But I think it’s hilarious. My parents are wonderful, wonderful parents, the best anybody could ask for. I don’t know why they told me that. I don’t think they do, either.
What we do in poems is to aestheticize the personal in ever more complicated ways. And by “personal,” I don’t even mean “emotional,” necessarily. I mean noticing. For example, what I notice about the story above is how my parents gave my pretend sister the same name I gave half of my toys—I just liked the sound of it, I think, but they somehow picked up on this fact. The things we notice are interesting because they aren’t simply categorized. I don’t think, “Oh, how sad” or “Oh, how happy”; it’s more like “wow” all the time. Joy and sadness coexist as extremities; the one may as well be the other, as far as I’m concerned. They’re so wrapped up in each other that I’m not even all that bothered about sorting them out. Feeling affectless is the state that really sucks—really, that is the feeling of having no face. For this reason, I am and hope always to remain a member of Team Go For It, Team Try It Out.
At the Michener Center for Writers, where I did my poetry MFA, it seemed to me that we were always arguing about whether poetry has to be the proper, responsible continuance of one’s own life troubles—in other words, whether it has to reflect the area of your greatest suffering in a direct way. The notion being, I suppose, that if you didn’t address these (often identity-based) concerns head on, your work would be lying to readers and to itself. And believe it, if I wanted to write narrative or confessional poems about being a working-class woman, I could do that all day. I am emphatically not snarking on anybody who choses to address identity directly or in one of those formats most adaptable to a certain kind of identity- or experience-driven poem; I just don’t want to be bossed about my materials or techniques.
For me, transformation is the engine of poetry. Poetry offers a whole set of prisms for aestheticizing the personal stuff. I happen to most love working with the prism that distorts so fully that it almost seems to present its results as ironies but stops (I hope) just short of actually ironizing them. Drag is the best analog I can offer for this particular prism. Drag queens take away whatever reality they’re supposed to live in by replacing it with a very knowing, controlled, and campy version. And it’s fun as fuck! But irony doesn’t work in that zone, and that’s exactly why I find it so compelling. I’m not going to write the poem that says, “I remember the day my momma had to dump out her purse on the KFC counter to scrape together enough change to feed me,” although I do remember that day. I also remember that I was a total brat because I wanted a little plastic toy. I mean, that’s awful. But that’s also where I keep on finding the poems: “Gimme more toys!” So it makes sense that when I feed my personal stuff through this draggy prism, it comes out as “Big Slutty Bear” or “The Pony of Darkness.”
I live in this world most of the time, and it can be a sad place; why would I, in the poems that I get to write, where I determine the landscape and customs, want to continue dwelling in Sadsville, USA? Why would I not give myself a cape and the ability to level mountains? When you create something, you get to take it all the way. You get to claim the most beautiful singing voice. This is how poems help me, although I’m sure everybody has a different answer. Our answers determine our poetic sympathies. I’ve been reading Ben Kopel’s Victory a lot lately because I love his answer to this question, at least in its implicit poem form: That you take the shit of the world and make a song out of it. If it clangs, you make a clanging song. While I could embroider a more learned response to the book, my real and immediate response is “Fuck yes.”
Many of the poems in I Live in a Hut, if they’re not one continuous stanza, tend to go back and forth between couplets, tercets, and quatrains, but mostly couplets and tercets. The longer poems in the book, “Beauty” and “Enormous Sleeping Women,” are built entirely in tercets. Your long poem in issue 21 of jubilat, “I Am Aware of the Animals Within Me,” has this same tendency. What do you find in these stanza lengths that pulls you back to them? Do you think about long poems as living as different kinds of machines? What pushes you into the long poem?
First of all, I have to confess that regarding formal decisions like stanza length, I’m really essentially playing it by ear. This feels like an awful thing to admit—as if I should say instead that my use of the tercet reflects my thinking about Dante or some other erudite thing. But really, tercets and couplets just seemed like the best containers for the kind of disjunction I like. Stanza patterns are generative and permissive of certain things, or maybe it would be more accurate to say that some stanza patterns have an implicit rhetoric. I think of quatrains as closed-off rooms in which parts of an argument will be laid out, a notion probably left over from the sonnet. Couplets are like a joke and a punch line, and tercets tumble forward. This is very much a homemade taxonomy, of course.
Writing those long poems is an exploratory mission unlike writing the shorter ones because I really don’t know where they’ll end up. Instead of “wow,” it’s “wow, what is this?” Larry Levis writes about some pretty mundane things—winter, memory, family, labor—but he sustains his gaze into the setting until there’s nothing left but to say something dazzling about them. It’s like playing chicken with the big ineffable, you know? Come on out, show your motherfucking self, I dare you. In order to stay with it long enough to hit the unexpected underground well, I need something to push forward, and tercets do that for me.
Composing anything of length is a weird deal because I think you have to let some air into the structure. When I put together a really early version of I Live in a Hut as my MFA thesis, my professors told me that I had to lay off the punchiness every now and then, that the manuscript couldn’t even try to hit every beat at top volume. Not that I had 50 perfect poems with which to do such a thing, of course, but that’s what I wanted to do. Never mind that sustaining any pitch can be aggressive, almost punishing. (I’m secretly still kind of into that idea, even though it’s maybe only possible as a hypothetical condition or a terrifying, fascist version of “Un Chien Andalou” that’s all eye-slicing all the time.) Last semester, I took a really fantastic seminar on first books, and I’ve been surprised by how much air—and by “air,” I mean weird choices, compulsions, tics, head-scratchers, and outright failures—the most satisfying first books contain. This is a fiction class, so we’re reading novels and short story collections, but I think the same applies, both to long poems and to poetry books. There’s something chilly about erecting a structure without air.
I wish we spent more time talking about the actual generative and formal qualities of failure, how it can counterbalance some great, scary tricks. Form talk in poetry, whether regarding classical prosody or hybridity, usually defaults to mimesis: “The poem is about the ocean, so the lines wash over each other like waves, and the trochaic substitution mimics the sand sucking from under one’s feet”; “The fractured, spatially displaced lines limn the impossibility of shared knowledge in the destabilized vector of etc. etc. etc.” ad forever and ever. I get why mimesis is an appealing way of teaching new readers to see decisions and strategies in texts, but it’s a pretty conservative way to talk about poems, and I’m not convinced that it accurately reflects how we read them. I think it would be useful to talk about where the poem lets in some air and what it can accomplish after getting a big gulp of it. Is it an iron lung that lets this poem breathe? Is the poem relying on one of those awful Hammacher Schlemmer “ionizing” fans when it should really consult an orchid instead? Or does it need the air-filtration system of an airport smoking lounge?
I find long poems fascinating because they make these questions more visible, but they are so damn hard to write. Compression can be a method for faking intelligence—if you’re hanging out with your best friend’s older sister and say next to nothing, there’s a chance she’ll mistake you for worldly and wise, even if you’re racing to keep up and straining to keep your face aloof. This is why long poems absolutely are a different kind of machine: Compression doesn’t function as it does in shorter poems. You have to pick up the megaphone and say something. Every gesture is scaled up big time. It’s a lot harder to keep your ass from showing.
What kind of megaphone are you using now? How is your ass in Iowa? What took you to the Writers’ Workshop?
Honestly, I don’t know which megaphone I’m using at the moment, but I see that as a good thing. Ossifying strengths and weaknesses (by which I mean “style,” to a certain extent) seems to be a dangerous practice, one that shuts down the potential for development. I usually suck at contextualizing anything I write within a critical framework; just as I’m getting the hang of it, my interests migrate elsewhere. This makes applying for fellowships and residencies and such a total nightmare, but I’m very much OK with it as a day-to-day aspect of getting the work done. I like not knowing exactly how the sausage gets made. I have a second book manuscript, Negative Cape, that’s obviously kin to I Live in a Hut, but it’s more of a distant, spooky relative than a sibling. A lot of the poems are about faith, which kind of shocks me as one of those kids raised in a non-religious household. I think this applies to the kind of surprise I mentioned above: I want my poems to surprise me, too, and I’m not going to boss them around. I’m not going to say to them, “Hey, what are you doing at the planetarium? You’re supposed to be home making biscuits.” I’ll go wherever they want to go and try to figure it out later. If there’s a megaphone for that sentiment, circuitous though it may be, that’s my megaphone.
My ass in Iowa is cold, no kidding. Six years of Texas “winters” have weakened my chill tolerance, although I’m trying to fix that. I have some pretty serious winter gear now. I look like an overprepared girl scout when I go outside. That’s small potatoes, though; it’s worth it to get to study with these great writers—professors and peers alike. I missed school. I love the particular kind of overstimulation that comes from placing literature at the center of your world and watching the related conversations radiate into each other. I’m studying fiction here, so it’s extra fascinating to spend more time looking through that prism.
Ultimately, though, I’m convinced that it’s all the same prism. I’m accustomed to reading and studying both poetry and fiction. At Carnegie Mellon University, where I did undergrad, we were very much encouraged to develop our writing without limiting ourselves to one genre. And at the Michener Center, everybody chooses a secondary genre to study, which includes taking workshops and participating to the fullest extent. So it’s become standard practice for me to switch between modes. It’s a great productivity trick, really: When I’m frustrated with the mechanics and blocking of short stories, I can pull the rip cord and work in poetryland. And when poetryland begins to stifle and nag (which happens, it does, even though my enthusiasm is damn difficult to exhaust), I can instead devote my time to narrative, the magical force that “what happens next?” exerts on readers. It’s witchcraft, too, but with different parameters. It’s a great piece of luck to land in a place where literature holds such a central position. That, and I walk by the hospital where Denis Johnson worked, and which inspired “Emergency.” “Grateful” doesn’t even begin it.
You’re also involved in a new project/adventure called Line Assembly, which is described as “Six poets, one van, a tour across America, and a whole lot of enthusiasm. And a documentary. And probably a lot of silly made-up songs,” and more specifically as “a tour of libraries and community spaces in hopes of helping locals create and sustain poetry programming and workshops, and to promote and support existing literary arts.” It sounds like an amazing DIY way of acknowledging the need for access to contemporary poetry. How did the idea for Line Assembly come about? Who are the poets involved and when does the van get moving?
Line Assembly comes from a shared conviction that poetry is in and of the world, and not only for those of us who have specialized in it professionally. The big-picture idea is that we want to not only go on a reading tour but also visit the places where poetry’s living outside the academic microclimate. So many folks mistakenly assume that poetry’s dying off because it’s impossibly elitist or so mannered that nobody cares anymore, but the six of us have seen that to be untrue, both through our efforts in teaching/arts outreach and through our regular old lives of, you know, talking to people.
For example: Back in our Carnegie Mellon days, my dear friend and fellow Line Assembler Adam Atkinson and I took an amazing class called “Readings in OUT Poetry” taught by Terrance Hayes. In the class, we were investigating this exact problem of poetry’s insularity, what exactly it means for poetry to be “accessible,” that kind of thing. So, for our project, we, along with classmate Dylan Goings, put on our best Business Casual Realness drag and took to the streets as an organization called People Against Poetry. We tried to get passers-by to sign a petition aimed at striking poetry from the Pittsburgh Public Schools curriculum by feeding back those same critiques always lobbed in poetry’s direction: “Well, it does nothing for the economy. What good is it? It won’t help you get a job! It introduces dangerous ideas to children! You can’t trust it! It’s just for snooty-snoot liberals with their snoots pointed to the sky!” And sure, some people heartily agreed and signed our petition. But many, many more people assembled eloquent arguments in poetry’s favor. And these weren’t lit students or artsy types. It was wonderful. One person shouted us down, walked away, and then came back up the block because they thought of another argument in poetry’s favor.
People Against Poetry isn’t necessarily the creation story of Line Assembly, but that’s kind of where I’m coming from; each of us have a different generative impulse that feeds into it. We all went to college together, and I think Carnegie Mellon’s creative writing program encourages its students to encounter the larger community in which we write. Pittsburgh, too, has a way of demanding you look at the bigger context, and to that end, I think a lot of our formative poetry experiences included this reverence for where we are when we’re writing, how it exists socially. Ben Pelhan, poet and filmmaker, is the one who proposed the idea a year ago, and since then, we’ve been collaborating, figuring out how to do this in a way that’s actually useful. (“We,” by the way, is Adam Atkinson, Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, Zach Harris, Ben Pelhan, Anne Marie Rooney, and myself. Do yourself a favor and check out their work. These poets are killers, killers all. You’ll soon be able to check out their work and bios at http://lineassembly.com.)
We’re going to reprise People Against Poetry on the tour, but we’re also going to give readings and workshops. We’re going to give out an easily reproducible zine that addresses the ways people can build and sustain poetry communities by giving readings, holding workshops of their own, and learning from each other. Ultimately, we’ve all pursued professional poetry channels, and we’ve learned a lot, so we want to make some of that knowledge (how to give and receive good criticism, how to collaborate with others). And, of course, we’re going to document the whole thing on film, including the weird, interstitial wordplay and games that always, always transpire when you get the six of us together.
The van gets moving this July, but not without some big-time Kickstarter support. We’re covering what we can with grants, but crowdsourcing is going to be a tremendously important part of the tour. We’re launching our Kickstarter campaign soon after AWP, so look for us in the book fair telling fortunes and elevator-pitching like crazy. People who should consider contributing to our fundraising efforts include anybody whose bill we’ve ever picked up at a diner, anybody who does a full-body cringe while reading clueless think pieces about the death of poetry, anybody who loves us, anybody who wants us to roll through their area code, anybody who grew up in a literary backwater who wants to bring some poetry love to their hometown, anybody who wants to see People Against Poetry in action, anybody who agrees that poetry written outside of academia deserves respect and attention. Hopefully, that covers it.
That is going to be an amazing, necessary adventure. Poets, prepare your couches and air mattresses for these folks! Coldfront will be sure to include a full Line Assembly tour schedule when it’s ready. To wrap things up, we’ve included below a new poem of yours, “I Ate A Genius.” Can you talk about how this poem exists, or what it’s around? There’s a kind of abject joy in its enthusiastic tonal swings, suggesting something about desire and responsibility that I love exactly because it’s not quite right.
For me, poems most often begin when I find a first line that can feel both defamiliarized and emotionally honest at the same time. In I Live in a Hut, these are often declarative sentences and contain a cue that alerts the reader to the poem’s attitude toward the material world—how it has been modified, what kind of gravity to expect. I wanted them to offer a very particular angle of entry to the reader, and often, they ended up working like little set-pieces. This has changed big time in the more recent work, though. I gave a copy of Negative Cape to a close friend and trusted advisor, and his first response was, “Oh, dear. These are terrifying.” I didn’t realize it until he said so, but that’s precisely the effect I hope they have. I’ve always wanted to reach through the page that way. Fear is so great because it actually makes the blood move around.
I’ve been struggling to articulate what’s going on behind the scenes in this poem (in part because, as I said, I’m usually horrible at locating the animus of whatever I’m presently interested in), but I think a part of it is this: At the time, I had this wonderful boyfriend. He was a polymath dreamboat of a guy who wrote amazing songs and amazing poems and could talk plausibly about radical math and did everything all the time amazingly well. Even cooking. Especially cooking. He was always making these improvised yet perfect meals out of bok choy and beets and fennel and I was just amazed. And on paper, you’d have to admit that we were total soul mates, but as it progressed, I felt this heaviness in everything. It just wasn’t working out, although it really should have. I felt like something was terribly wrong with me. And maybe something terrible really is wrong with me! I don’t know. But I was trying to parse that feeling, and this poem is the result.
Of course, I always find it reductive to make poems comply to feelings, and that’s not the sum of what’s going on here, but as I’ve said above, I love poetry’s transformative qualities, and so I also love having a sense of what’s being transformed. I guess I’m really freaked out by the idea that somebody would totally accept me, and so rebel against it. Dear lord, what a horrible thing to know about yourself! Fuck off, anybody who maintains that poetry is like keeping a diary. It gets so much worse than that. At least in a diary you can pretend to be a fairly OK person. In poetry, you have to strip it back, and you win when you’re showing how fallible and shitty you are.
So this is a poem about my fallible shittiness, certainly, but also I always find that some kind of song takes over when I’m writing. I can tell it’s a poem that will find its ending when some part of it emerges as a refrain, something to build a little melody upon. I think that’s what we’re here for. Lonesome and drear though the materials may be, you have to find the part of it that becomes a song. And there are plenty of songs. I like a good slam song every now and then because I like the way America slams sometimes. I like a fuck song. I like an “oh fuck” song. I like a “lover done left me and I can’t feel my face” song. Seed the clouds so it rains on the street fair, I don’t care, happy birthday. As Barry Hannah says, “Mr. Brain, he sick of sickness. He want a song, Jack.” I’m solemnly and forever devoted to that idea. So it makes sense that this is where the poem ends: Even in profound disassociation, even though I’m scalded by something, singing comes out of my mouth. Dear lord, sweet life, I hope that never changes.
I ATE A GENIUS
Hee hee hee. And my blue bra
showing through my clothes.
Hello, all over the place. You
want some of this shitty candy?
I could feel his hairs breaking
in the dark of my bowels, I
could never eat another one.
Bow down to eat him, he.
My horse is near; I can nearly
touch it. We will ride on the
salt flat beaches and rip fish
with our raw teeth. He wants
to eat another one of me,
one for each blade of straw.
I hung your damn stars.
Singing comes out of my mouth.