Wednesday, November 19, 2008

An Interview With Super-Poet J.D. Smith

J.D. Smith's books include the collection Settling for Beauty (Cherry Grove Collections,, his first collection, The Hypothetical Landscape (Quarterly Review of Literature Poetry Series), and the edited anthology Northern Music: Poems About and Inspired by Glenn Gould (John Gordon Burke, Publisher). His children’s book The Best Mariachi in the World came out from Raven Tree Press ( in September 2008. His poems have been anthologized in the collections In a Fine Frenzy: Poets Respond to Shakespeare (University of Iowa Press), Poetic Voices without Borders (Gival Press), and Illuminations: Expressions of the Personal Spiritual Experience (Ten Speed Press).

1. Who is your arch-enemy? Why is this person your arch-enemy?
JDS: John Ashbery. I'd better explain that.
I don't bear any ill-will toward John Ashbery the man, who is probably perfectly decent (I've never met him). And I'm not necessarily going to wage war against John Ashbery the poet, though I suspect his work is ultimately a less intellectually profound extension of Wallace Stevens' project of cryptic free association.
But I will dig in my aging heels against Ashbery the pernicious influence, a role he hasn't necessarily chosen. In recent years literary journals have been awash with Ashbery imitations where one line meanders into the next in a way that is not entirely uninteresting but that is ultimately both overly cerebral and quickly forgettable. The reader may get some pleasure from following along, but he is not going to be stirred to the depths of his being. If it hasn't been done already, someone could come up with a random imitation-Ashbery poem generator.
2. Do you fight crime or commit crimes? Why?
JDS: It depends on whether anybody's looking.

Most of the time, though, I like to fight the poetic crimes of undue obscurity and intellectual onanism, on the one hand, and on the other hand the crimes of self-absorption, posturing and sentimentality. Once I'm out of hands I use roundhouse kicks, ninjitsu techniques and assorted weaponry to fight off careless versification and propaganda that tries to pass itself off as poetry.

3. What are your super-powers? How did you get them?

JDS: Invisibility comes to mind right away, though that may just come with the territory of being a writer in this time and place, where writers don't get much attention in comparison to entertainers of one sort or another. This is the business I have chosen, though, and I knew these things going in, so I'll try not to whine too much.

Invisibility aside, my foremost superpower is shape-shifting. I write free and formal verse, and poetry that ranges in tone from the dire to the absolutely silly. When I'm not doing that, I'm writing essays and fiction, including work for children. And that is just within my superhero identity as Writer Guy. As a writer with a day job, I also have to maintain my cover as Salaryman, a mild-mannered editor—except for when I'm an irritable editor—and sustain both halves of my double life.

4. What do you love about poetry?

JDS: I love poetry above all for offering an ongoing sense of discovery and wonder. The world is too much with us, late and soon, as Wordsworth wrote, and anything that prevents our days from turning into a mind-numbing slog must be welcomed. At its best, writing or reading a poem means finding a combination of thoughts or sounds that never existed before, or finding a new way to look at the world. Poetry can transfigure experience and provide a sense of wholeness, as well as give us a sense of the interiority of others as well as afford great pleasure—all in a very short time, with minimal expense and no side effects. Considering how fragmented our schedules are, I am surprised that more people don't read poetry as a kind of mini-vacation.

5. What makes you happy in your writing and what makes you unhappy?

JDS: I'd like to take on unhappiness first, if that's okay. I am continually disappointed that I don't write more and better, and I have problems with procrastination and distractibility. That I haven't taken on a large and ambitious project troubles me as well.
What makes me happy involves both process and product. I love the moments when a phrase or an idea for a poem comes to mind, or when I make a revision, usually by shortening, that brings the poem closer to its ideal form. I also love the times of reaching mental exhaustion when I have finally written a poem that has been in the back of my mind for years. Then I feel like I am doing something with my life.

6. Who are your favorite super-poets and what is so super about them?

JDS: Questions like this are my kryptonite. I'm always afraid I'll expose the gaps in my reading and come off as a total dilettante. That said, here goes.

In the English canon I am going to reach way back and give a shout-out to John Skelton. His strings of rhyming short lines explore the possibilities of English in a way that foreshadows hip-hop. I also love the eighteenth-century guys, particularly Alexander Pope, who made sound and thought mutually reinforcing. Of more recent English poets, there's no ignoring Philip Larkin for his clarity and even tenderness as well as his wit.

On this side of the Atlantic, I will reach into the first half of the twentieth century and name Edwin Arlington Robinson. He help to rescue American poetry from the excesses of Victorian-era sentimentality, and he did so in spite of leading an amazingly hard life. Whatever the critical backlash may be these days, I still love the work of Sylvia Plath for the brilliance of its imagery.
As for contemporary American poets, there sure are a lot of them out there. On the formal side, among established poets I would include Timothy Steele, who is continually widening his range of techniques and who seems to widen his range of subjects with every book. Among younger formal poets, I think of Joshua Mehigan, whose first book The Optimist just crackles with music and intelligence. (It is virtually criminal that two other younger formal poets, Kevin Durkin and Melissa Balmain, have not yet found a taker for their book collections.)

There are quite a few very fine contemporary free verse poets out there, though there a great many more who range from simply boring to flat-out awful. I'll let you come up with your own names on that one. Charles Simic's combination of Eastern European and American sensibilities does a lot for me. I haven't yet read all of Bob Hicok's work, but he has an undoubted ability to make wide-ranging associations that add up to something. His poem "Book Report," which starts with a classroom assignment and moves on to environmental degradation, nearly brought me to tears. Two other super-poets that come to mind are Kevin Prufer, whose work tends toward the expansive and surreal, and Wayne Miller, whose work is more spare and sometimes more direct.
Finally, to get out of the English-language ghetto for a moment, it's important to pay homage to the Central and Eastern European poets of the twentieth century. You could start with Rilke and Trakl and go on to Milosz and the postwar poets who worked to maintain their individual consciousness in the midst of totalitarianism. The ability of some of those poets to express strange truths in plain language boggles the mind.

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