Friday, May 4, 2018

Interview with poet Ron Smith

TLY:  We couldn’t be happier about this opportunity to ask poet Ron Smith questions near and dear to our hearts here at the blog.  Ron Smith is a former Poet Laureate of Virginia and is currently writer-in-residence at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Virginia.  He has published four collections of poetry, as well as essays and reviews.  In 2005, he received the Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize.

Ron, thank you so much for speaking with us.  You grew up in Savannah, Georgia.  What was Savannah like when you were growing up?

Ron: Pre-gentrified Savannah was magic to a little kid. I have only recently begun to believe that its peculiarities had a profound effect on me: The crisp geometrical order of the squares imposed on a tropical gothic decay. Water oaks and live oaks draped spookily in Spanish moss. Just outside of town in nearly every direction: marsh smell, slow muddy rivers, alligators on the slimy banks . . .

I had a wonderful childhood in Savannah and, later, in nearby Garden City. It was probably a typical childhood for the time and place, a perfect balance of parental love and parental neglect. I was free to roam the woods all day, climbing (and falling out of) trees, up to my knees in a frog-rich ditch, tightroping the rails of a freight track for miles. I was an only child until the age of ten, and I loved being alone. It was, I guess, a very Wordworthian childhood. Open-ended. But somewhere in the back of my mind were the rational right angles at the heart of our city.

My mother, who read to me every night, bought me a new Golden Book every Friday at the Colonial Store on Bay Street. My first trip to Italy happened in my mind, in the story of Pinocchio. In elementary school I discovered the astronomy shelf in the school library and felt that dizzying awe that vast spaces and immense stretches of time can stun you with. When I turned twelve, sports kicked in and I dedicated myself to becoming a great third basemen. After failing miserably as a hitter in baseball, I began to play football—a test of manhood and self-discipline.

Downtown Savannah is a wonderful place today. But back then—before the Savannah College of Art and Design appeared (and before The Ladies gentrified the place with the help of that cartoonish novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil)—it was, as H.L. Mencken said of the entire South somewhat earlier, “The Sahara of the Bozart.” I remember being disheartened by the shabby Telfair Museum. I wonder why? I knew nothing about museums. Still, there were artists. The man across the street who worked for the Savannah power company was a weekend painter. He taught me how to color in my coloring book. His blending of colors changed my life, taught me how to see and taught me that the world was more subtle than I had realized. He also lent me a volume of Poe. That changed my life, too. I never realized writing could be that intense. 

TLY:  We speak often of “southerners” and “northerners.”  As someone who has lived in both the North and South, what do these names mean to you?

Ron: As we move further into the twenty-first century, the differences seem to me less and less. Still, southerners self-identify by region in a way that northerners do not. As one friend from New York pointed out, up there you say, I’m Jewish or Italian. But you’d never say, “I’m a Northerner.” Even though she knew the woman was joking, my friend, fresh from Brooklyn, was terrified when her hairdresser in Richmond said loudly, “Look, y’all. I’ve got a real live Yankee by the hair.”

Broadly—very broadly—speaking, I’d say those in the Deep South are warmer to strangers than are northerners. Below the surface? I once heard a North Carolinian say, “A Virginian is a block of ice.” I think he meant the temperature just behind that Virginia smile. Like several of my relatives in Georgia, he didn’t count Virginia as part of the South. The fact that Richmond was the Capital of the Confederacy means nothing to them, believe it or not.

And it’s true that in the Deep South they take their time, both speaking and walking. My father, who grew up on a farm, strolled so slowly that my mother, a city girl—a Savannah girl—made fun of him, mocking his “I’m-conserving-my-energy” explanation.

On my first trip to New York City, I was shocked at the bluntness and candor of cabbies and waitresses. But I realized right away that I found it refreshing—none of that “Ain’t she cute?” fake politeness Flannery O’Connor exposed so well.

The tropical atmosphere of Chatham County, Georgia, is driven deeply into my psyche. When I see moss and palms, when I smell the marsh, something unclenches inside me. But my training in philosophy puts me partly on the side of that Yankee of Yankees, Henry David Thoreau, who rejected the usual pleasures and rewards of life for, well, “truth.” “Say what you have to say, not what you ought,” Thoreau said. I spent two summers at Oxford, which struck me as more like the American South than, say, like tense, cerebral Harvard—an atmosphere Thoreau both embraced and rejected. At Oxford I sensed a relaxed, gentlemanly excellence. What am I saying? That I guess I want everything?

By the way, the Northern notion that there is more racism in the South than in the North is, in my experience, nonsense. There are plenty of racists north of the Mason-Dixon Line. It’s an ongoing American evil, not a particularly Southern one. 

TLY:  Moon Road: Poems 1986-2005 might be described as a book about exodus. Would you agree?

Ron: Hm. That’s interesting to think about. From a sort of bondage in an alien realm through hardship and finally to the Promised Land? It’s true that the penultimate poem finds Jerusalem the ultimate city, a place of baffling origins.

But the final poem, “When I Was Eight,” returns the book to its beginnings, back to the father and to Georgia, back to the family. I guess I see that book as less an exodus than an odyssey. It’s about adventure, about going away and coming back, about discovering the exotic and becoming a bit exotic oneself. 

TLY:   Ezra Pound is quoted as saying, “A great age of literature is perhaps always a great age of translations.”  What do you think he meant?

Ron: I think he meant that great literature insists on jumping the guardrail, that inspired writers need the push and pull, the difficulty, of a foreign language. Because translation is impossible, it slams open the doors of the possible. “Failure is the true test of greatness,” Melville said. If you did something perfectly, it was too damn easy to begin with. I don’t read Russian, but I love trying to figure out just what Pushkin was up to—with this ending, with that rhythm. I can never really know, but pondering, say, the different effects of “luna” (Italian) and “moon” (English) uses a different part of my brain, I believe. It opens new channels. 

TLY:  Imagination and inspiration.  How would you define the two?

Ron: Inspiration is “divine guidance,” isn’t it?

And imagination? I rather like Coleridge’s notion that the imagination is a perceptive power, a kind of spiritual laser beam that penetrates the surface of things.

There’s an element of play in inspiration and imagination.

If divinity exists, it exists in extraordinary minds at the play we call work. And it’s in ordinary minds, too, when they are working (playing) extraordinarily.

I’ve been asked many times, “Can you really teach someone to write poetry?” If the question means, “Can I (or anyone) teach someone to be a great poet?” the answer is no. Nobody can teach you how to be Shakespeare or Dickinson. If the questions means, “Can you teach someone a craft?” the answer is, “Of course.” Inspiration and imagination? You have to find them yourself, I think.

TLY:   What is the role of ethics in writing poetry? 

Ron:  What is the role of ethics in parenting? In golf? In serving on a jury? In creating laws? In driving your car safely?

Ethics, like play, should be at the heart of everything we do, I think. Some poets see ethics as an artistic hindrance; some poems express or yearn for the amoral. But I see ethical thinking as a source of energy and clarity. Sure, some poets commit Poe’s “heresy of the didactic.” Preachy poetry is not the goal, though. Fully human poetry is the goal—and healthy humans are moral agents. 

TLY:  You served as vice president and trustee of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia. You have also taught entire semester-long courses in the life and work of Poe (graduate and undergraduate courses at University of Richmond and high school courses at St. Christopher's School). Why Poe?  Do you find in his work a kindred spirit?

Ron: I see Poe as a tormented rationalist, as one who felt compelled to interrogate the spiritual and to parody gothic writing. To satirize romantic thinking in general.

I don’t think I’m particularly tormented, but I am essentially a rationalist-materialist who nevertheless yearns to encounter the Absolute, the Platonic, the Ultimate. Who believes he has glimpsed from time to time something Beyond, something of transcendent significance. Who is trying to make sense of peak experiences.

TLY:  Your collection Humility of the Brutes contains the poem “Dostoyevsky’s Last Flat.”  The poem conveys an impression of terrible decay, as do other poems about the former Soviet Union.  Would you say therein lies the humility and humanity—in the sense that there is a last flat out there for all of us?

Ron:   You know, I don’t see “terrible decay” in those poems. What I see mainly is incomprehension. The speaker moves through a truly alien place, yearning for insight and never getting it—at least not the kind of insight that would satisfy him. The humility in those poems is, I guess, primarily the speaker’s (which is to say, more or less mine). Because I couldn’t “figure out” Russia, for a long time I didn’t think I could write about it. Then, I decided that a failed epiphany doesn’t necessarily mean a failed poem.

TLY:  Ron, it has been an absolute honor and pleasure.  Before we let you go, would you like to share any current projects you may be working on? 

Ron: I’ve been writing sonnets lately, some about my father, some about Italy, some about the Upper and the Lower South.

And, a few years ago I drew what I thought were final conclusions about Hemingway. I’ve always loved the early stuff (up to 1929); but I decided that the man was an ungrateful braggart and a remarkably malicious liar. Recently, I’ve been trying to reassess him, to find a way to admire Hemingway the man and his later writing. I’ve been reading the later fiction and nonfiction and the biographies. Wish me luck.


Ron grew up in Savannah, Georgia, and attended college on a football scholarship, playing for the University of Richmond Spiders for four years, including its Tangerine Bowl Champion team. He holds BA, MA, MH, and MFA degrees, with concentrations in British and American literature, philosophy, American drama, Renaissance and modern literature and art, and poetry writing. In addition to the University of Richmond, he has studied writing at Virginia Commonwealth University and Bennington College in Vermont; British drama at Worcester College, Oxford; and modern poetry at the Ezra Pound Center for Literature, in Merano, Italy. In 2005 he was named an Inaugural Winner of the $10,000 Carole Weinstein Prize in Poetry; in 2006 he became one of the Curators for that prize. In 2010 he was named Poetry Editor for Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature. Many of his poems deal with the joys and the ethics of sports. In 2016 he was awarded the Ellen Anderson Prize.

He is the author of Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery, runner-up for the National Poetry Series Open Competition (judged by Margaret Atwood) and subsequently published by University Presses of Florida. Smith’s three later books are published by LSU Press; his The Humility of the Brutes appeared in August of 2017. His poems have appeared in The Nation, Kenyon Review, Southern Review, Georgia Review, New England Review, Anglican Theological Review, and many other periodicals, as well as in anthologies published in the U.S., Canada, England, Scotland, and Italy. His essays, reviews, and poetry columns have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Georgia Review, Blackbird, Shenandoah, Edgar Allan Poe Review, H-Arete, Richmond Times-Dispatch, and some multivolume library reference works.

Ron Smith has read his poems on the floors of the Virginia Senate & the Virginia House of Delegates, at George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, at the American ambassador’s official residence in Rome and at the Keats-Shelly House beside Rome’s Spanish Steps—and many other places including Dublin, London, & the wilds of Western Canada.

He has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in poetry and general humanities at Mary Washington University, Virginia Commonwealth University, and University of Richmond. He is currently Writer-in-Residence at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Virginia, where he also holds the George Squires Chair of Distinguished Teaching.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts recently commissioned him to write ekphrastic poems for its 2018 exhibition “The Horse in Ancient Greek Art.”

Ron Smith was the Poet Laureate of Virginia from 2014 to 2016. He has lived in Virginia for several decades with his wife, Delores.

[2 May 2018]

 From University Presses of Florida

From Louisiana State University Press

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