Interview With S.E. Smith

S.E. Smith is 1/6 of the Line Assembly Poetry Tour and Documentary (help fund their project here). [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MECCljawTlg&w=560&h=315]

Can you draw us a picture of the pony of darkness?

Oh man, I'm not so much for drawing, but I can tell you this: If the pony of darkness were a member of Fleetwood Mac, it would be Mick Fleetwood.

When did you start writing? Can you remember the first poem you ever wrote?

I was one of those do-everything-arty kids, for sure. In elementary school, my best friend and I wrote a new play every week and performed it for my parents after dinner on Friday. (These were a decidedly surreal affair; the only plot line I can remember featured a purple sea anemone terrified of a huge pink crayon.) I didn't differentiate my writing impulse until middle school or so, when I took my first proper creative writing class, but by that point, I was already reading a bunch of Emily Dickinson, and I was infatuated with this great anthology edited by Kenneth Koch called "Talking to the Sun." It pairs works from the Metropolitan Museum of Art with poems, everything from Ashbery to Basho.

Even before I knew how to read, I was kind of infatuated with words, how they worked, what shapes they made. My first experiments with writing were a lot more like drawing—I would spill out this long strings of unrelated letters, make them bigger, upside-down, reverse them, kind of doodle with them. One day, my momma noticed what I was doing because one of my random strings of letters, when I reversed it, spelled out LOVE. And she was very happy about this, although I didn't understand why. So, effectively, I guess I consider that the first poem I wrote.

How did the idea for the Line Assembly project come about? Was there one moment, or did it happen gradually?

Line Assemby is the brainchild of Ben Pelhan, our brave leader and wise college friend. At last year's AWP conference in Chicago, he gathered us in a middle eastern restaurant situated in the back room of a jewelry store (true) to propose the idea of a poetry tour and documentary. Almost everything else—the name, the methods, the particularities of what kind of poetry experiences we want to facilitate on tour—has evolved as a collaborative process.

That said, I think Line Assembly's development started way back when we were all in college together. The idea of poetry being elitist or useless is one we've been developing responses to for years. Many of us took a seminar from our mentor Terrance Hayes called "Readings in OUT Poetry" that dealt with poetry's accessibility—what that actually means, what it should mean. I credit our teachers, and Pittsburgh at large, too, for making us particularly sensitive to how literature exists in a place, how it disperses in a neighborhood, where it goes. Independently, I think we came up with a shared sense that the popular idea about poetry's death and its shrinking audience is total bull. Just last week, Huffington Post ran a piece to this effect, claiming (I suppose?) that it's near impossible to make poetry interesting to students. We've taught poetry to all kinds of folks and in all kinds of places, ranging from elementary schools to senior centers, and if anything, we've seen the opposite time and again. I'm glad that we're visiting everybody's hometown on the tour, because I think it's important to show that poets come from all kinds of places. Some of these poetry-obsolecense think-pieces make it sound like we're all rarified test tube babies raised on a diet of manna and Keats in some kind of cultured paradise—nope! It's insulting, really. I can't wait to hit the road and find poetry, and poets, in unexpected places. We know they're alive and well, and we can't wait to meet them. And we can't wait to film the whole thing to document the liveliness of the grassroots literary world.

  How did you come up with a title for your first book of poems (I Live in a Hut--winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize)?

"I Live in a Hut" began as my MFA thesis at the Michener Center for Writers, and when I wrote much it, I lived in a garage apartment in Austin. These are pretty standard in Texas; some of them look like miniature houses, but mine was very palpably a former place to park cars. My landlady refurbished it in the Seventies, so it was all faux woodgrain and sky-blue carpet, a really odd, tiny house that suited me perfectly. I didn't completely realize this at the time, but I think the title references my slightly standoffish relationship to autobiography. Well, maybe standoffish isn't exactly the word—it's more like a sense of suspicion, especially given the expectation that first books will shed some kind of biographical light. Many of the poems in the book shade into persona or rely on a circumscribed kind of set-piece, so it seemed a good counterbalance to make the title sound almost confessional. What are you currently working on?

I pingpong back and forth between poetry and fiction (I'm studying fiction presently at the Iowa Writers' Workshop). Fictionwise, I'm working on a collection of short stories with novel plans on the horizon, but I'm keeping that a little hush-hush for the moment. Poetrywise, I'm finishing my second full-length collection, mostly tinkering and shoe-horning new poems into it. That all sounds so frightfully ambitious, but in a sense, all that really means is that I'm writing every day, you know? I try to keep some kind of engagement stoked in the background, whether that means reading poems aloud at night or playing pointless power chords. I'm working on my singing voice, my muscles, my vegetable-roasting technique. Somehow, it feels to me like this all goes in the same direction.

  Where is one place you'd like to travel with the Line Assembly Poetry Tour?

If we had more resources (and more time!), I'd love to extend our tour into Appalachia and the South, maybe into Texas. I grew up in the Appalachian foothills, and the availability of literary resources—all kinds of resources, really—has always been a concern to me. If something like Line Assembly had passed through Greene County, PA, when I was growing up there, you can believe I would have been the first in line for the workshop. I prefer living in cities and I love visiting them, but for this particular project, I'm most excited to hit the small towns. Obviously, we can't permanently uproot our lives and we're funding things on a tight budget, but I think it would be amazing to take Line Assembly into Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi. Maybe someday? In my typical maximalist fashion, I've answered your question with a non-answer, but really, it's the truth!

If someone walked through your door in the next five minutes, who would you want it to be any why?

Oh, Lenny Bruce, definitely. He's been No. 1 on my historically impossible list of dream husbands for quite some time now. The flights he pulled off within the stand-up form are heartbreaking, sly, wonderful beyond belief. I would love to see whether his moment-by-moment wit measures up to his performances, or at least make him a cup of coffee and subject myself to some blonde shiksa jokes.

  Can you tell us a joke? (We LOVE jokes).

This joke is stolen from my father:

DAD: Hey, honey, have you heard about the inflation in contemporary poetry? ME: No, dad, how's that? DAD: Instead of metaphor, it's now meta-FIVE. Oh, what a groaner! But really, I love dad jokes, dad humor. Midwestern dad humor is, I think, of an especially wry vintage.

  HAHAH. We actually laughed. I think that makes us a dad-joke-loving person as well. If you weren't a poet what would you be doing?

You know, I've always rolled my eyes a little when somebody claims that if they weren't a writer they'd be dead or some similarly overblown thing, but I honestly can't imagine what else I would be. I think that reflects a failure of my imagination rather than fact, though. Or, look at it this way: I think that a lot of people who make things evolve a private conversation with their creative process. The dialogue between themselves and what they make generates the next thing, the next question, the next knot to undo, and I think this is true whether they make chairs or hairdos or hand-tooled leather or aggressively decorated sheet cakes. Writers and artists aren't the only ones who produce a body of work. I think the quality of attention is more important than what kind of work you're doing, as long as you're making something. I'm sure I would be making something. I can't shake it. It's my favorite thing to do.