Interview with Katherine Smith

Motherhood as Force, Poetry of Weight and Presence: A Conversation with Katherine Smith on her New Poetry Collection, Woman Alone on the Mountain

 

by Ramola D

3365bw.crop1Katherine Smith’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of journals, among them The Cincinnati Review, Ploughshares, The Missouri Review, Mezzo Cammin, Unsplendid, Measure, Gargoyle, The Journal of the Motherhood Initiative, Shenandoah, The Southern Review, Atlanta Review, and Appalachian Heritage. Her first book, Argument by Design (Washington Writers’ Publishing House), appeared in 2003. Her second book of poetry Woman Alone on the Mountain appeared with Iris Press in Fall 2014. She teaches at Montgomery College in Maryland and is the Poetry Editor for Potomac Review.

Ramola D: This is such a lovely and accomplished book, so lyric, and wide-ranging, with such a distinct sense of place and time, although the place or setting changes as the poems move across time. One of the first things I noted is your obvious love of Nature, with the deep sense or awareness of natural history in these poems. Very rooted in the lyric. Would you say the lyric in poetry is important to you, is there a tradition of poetry rooted in Nature, the pastoral, that draws or inspires? Or is it Nature itself that is primal in its draw?

Katherine Smith: First of all, thank you for asking, and for such an interesting question. I think of lyric poetry as poetry which is rooted in the sense of self, for example the poetry of Edward Thomas. The lyric is a dramatization of the poet’s astonishment at her miniscule existence in an enormous physical world. This song of self wouldn’t be possible without the natural world. Yet somehow without the illusion of separation from Nature—a feat of human imagination and perhaps folly— there would be no human autonomy, no civilization, no self!

A lot of my poems—my argument with myself—derive from this paradox (or dance) between self and civilization and self and nature. But the poems say it better I hope than I say it here. I often feel like a tiny drop of water in an enormous world that I adore. And being alone, in the mountains especially, is a return to sanity. I am lucky that there are places in the Appalachians where I feel perfectly safe. I hope my poems express the sense of simplicity and song I find there.

Rd: I’m pulled into the deep sense of stillness and peace in place in your work, particularly the wonderful Blue Ridge poems, which seems to accrue as much from the beauty of the place as the nature of the speaker’s thinking and questioning. Do these poems spring from considerations of form or content more–do they simply arise from experience, or do they owe their beauty to craft?

KS: Craft and experience are inseparable. I think of craft as one of the most important parts of my experience. Through my twenties, and even thirties, I had a completely symbiotic (or mystical—sounds better!) relationship with my readings of other poets.

craft2I loved the deep image of Lorca, Robert Bly, W.S Merwin, the density of Yeats, Hopkins, and Dylan Thomas. For years I was preoccupied with Hart Crane. Then later on I found the Haiku poets, first through Kenneth Rexroth, still one of my favorite poets, then through the Blythe series. After, I developed an interest in the work of Gary Snyder and Robert Hass.

I have written all sorts of poems, but I’ve always liked a certain weight and heft to a poem as well as a kind of flexibility, a blending of world and song. I am concerned with form and meter, the counterpoint of line and sentence, but not to the exclusion of other elements, especially the surprise and clarity of imagery. Craft has to come first and it has to become part of the poet, so that it can be forgotten for a bit.

A poem that is pure craft is sterile, brittle, and I don’t see how a poem that is pure experience is a poem at all. It would just be breathing in the mountains, a meditation in the Blue Ridge. But where does one begin and the other end? That is harder to say. Maybe the poems are ways of extending the sense of peace and beauty I feel in the Blue Ridge. I love those mountains and hope that love comes through in the poems.

Rd: Such a beautiful title too to the book. Elegant, evocative of solitude and questing. WAOTM_cover_v2.inddThe poem Red Sea in your Prologue, just as much as the title poem hints not merely at solitude but “wordless understanding” from Nature in the face of reality, “My life a fact, without illumination.” Is solitude a recurring theme or theme of interest, is it related to a particular time, or just incidental here?

KS: “Alone” means several things in my book. It means raising a child, especially a teenager (one cover of my book that wasn’t used, obviously, was a mother holding her thirteen year old daughter). Nurturing a child to adulthood is a mountain for any parent, but especially single mothers. Caring about another person more than oneself is the mountain. At some point it is essential for women to find a way to outlive their role as mothers and come out intact on the other side.

The title also refers to the love of one particular mountain in the Blue Ridge. Walking on the ridge is like a prayer. I feel very protective of that mountain and of mountains in general.

Finally, “alone” is also a place without rhetoric, where one’s own truth springs forth in a friendly way, like a companionable dog.

Rd: There’s a deep sense of story too, a very intimate, personal sense of story, as hints of family tragedies and memories surface, and always in a very gentle, unobtrusive way, yet folded powerfully into the poems. When you write do you focus in any way on any specific narrative, or is it more organic, do memories unfold on the page?

KS: It takes a long time, perhaps a lifetime, to make sense of childhood memories. Little by little, memories fit together and begin to make sense. Often events that seemed trivial or boring or not worth writing about come back to me with a haunting force only to recede into the distance. I don’t like the idea of cracking my life story—or anyone’s–open like an egg. A poem is not a fried egg!

Rd: Many of your poems move from personal memories of your child’s birth across her childhood, adolescence, and into young adulthood. I thought this was a remarkable focus not often encountered in poetry, and speaking almost to a newer more modern ethos of motherhood as significant–in a sense poetry by mothers of their children is a space being carved out by today’s contemporary women poets. Perhaps a tradition Sylvia Plath downwards, that’s growing. What do you think, and how have you yourself approached the creation of these poems? Have any writers in particular inspired you in this regard?

KS: Motherhood is more than a theme to me: the responsibilities of motherhood have been a centripetal force in my life, an important element of my growth as a human being and a force in how I see myself and others. What has changed since the sixties is that women take themselves and their lives seriously.

I have been inspired by Adrianne Rich whose book Of Woman Born has been an essential part of my thought process about motherhood. Sylvia Plath struggled to become mother and a person and poet. It is hard work and thirty is a difficult age for any woman.

personI think it is the age when a woman—at least myself— realizes that all the projections about what a woman should be that have been thrown onto her are the fantasies of others and that she can’t sustain these fantasies without damaging herself. There’s anger. And then what? It requires effort to be a person, especially for mothers. Being a single mother requires giving up what you want a lot of the time and that can be hard. No one can become a person by sitting back and letting life happen to her.

To some extent my poems are intense personal fantasies about who I want to be both as a mother and as a human being. Motherhood isn’t rhetoric; it is a reality, at least as much as a sunset or sunrise or a mountain. My motherhood is the huge fact at the center of my life that I’ve chosen to reckon with in this book. I want to add that I feel lucky to be a Western woman, because I have the resources to make these choices. So many women don’t.

Rd: Were these poems written at different times, over the years? There is such specific detail and memory in the poems set in Paris for instance, where your daughter was born–are these re-imagined?

KS: This book is a distillation of ten years. A sense of place is perhaps my strongest visual instinct. I can see every house I’ve ever lived in, placere-visit every street I’ve ever walked down, every tree on every mountain path. This ability to visualize landscape and places I have lived has been a source of comfort and interest to me. I can go back to closets in houses I lived in twenty or thirty years ago and examine the contents of shelves, the cupboards. Parisians have such beautiful porcelains, silver. A lacquered Chinese buffet inlaid with abalone shell still gleams from a shadowed living room. The smell of stew drifts from a wood fire in a snowbound cabin. These places don’t feel re-imagined. They are present in my mind, vivid and real. I remember houses and cities better than people’s faces.

Rd: That is incredible, and, one could say, a fiction-writer’s gift as much as a poet’s–those images, and the wording of them could spring straight from a lyric novel, and to have such a powerful visual memory is a dream for a fiction writer. Have you ever written or considered writing fiction?

 You do too of course have here that whole section of a woman’s life from a time before ours, in rural Virginia in the 1870s, a woman who works as a nurse among soldiers, a woman also who climbs mountains, alone–is this woman a fictional character, or someone from your family, re-imagined? She seems to add to that generational feel already present in the book, that sense of ranging across time. What led to your inclusion of these wonderful poems featuring her voice in this collection?

KS: I heard the voice of this woman coming out of a fireplace. It’s strange—I don’t find the Civil War or 19th century America that interesting. But when she started to speak, I liked her feistiness and I had to listen. These poems are the result.

I love reading fiction, and have written and even published some very short fiction pieces. I would love to write a novel one day. Up to now I’ve felt driven to focus most of my energies on poetry, as well as teaching and editing. However, if I have a little more time in the future, I do plan to write more fiction, something more sustained. I am drawn to historical times, places, and characters. I love the idea of diving into a long piece, the creation of a whole world, and not coming up for breath for several months. I feel a lot of possibility and freedom in such an endeavor. We’ll see.

Rd: To return to the subject of motherhood, I loved the sense of unabashed tenderness evinced in these poems toward your child–as a premature baby first, then a young child, etc. It is very moving, and lends a depth to each glimpse and cameo from what comes across as a remembered life. Some of these poems are written in first-person, some in third, and then there are poems written in third that seem to feature other women in Paris. I seem to hear echoes of Linda Gregg, maybe just because of the use of third-person–and that sense of the vatic, elegiac voice on occasion. What lay behind some of your decisions on form and voice in these poems, were they inspired by anyone in particular?

KS: My choices about tone and form are inspired by two things. First, by my luck in having been introduced in my teens and early twenties to a spectrum of poetic tools and techniques by a series of gifted teachers who were themselves extraordinary poets. I was introduced to Rilke, Anna Akhmatova, Paul Celan, Robert Bly, and Linda Gregg as well as to the surrealist poets—Verlaine, Rimbaud, Artaud by Marilyn Kallet, my undergraduate Professor at the university of Tennessee. Later on I studied with Charles Wright and Greg Orr.

Donald Justice, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop were all important to me. My friends and classmates introduced me to other poets—Robert Hass, Jack Gilbert, Stephen Berg, Louis Simpson. I spent several years reading poetry in a dark basement of the Graduate Library at the University of Tennessee. (That moody basement no longer exists, torn down and replaced by a parking lot or a law school, can’t remember which).

I read poetry greedily and was incredibly fortunate to have wonderful guides in both teachers and friends. My interest in form has developed steadily since my years in graduate school, but, tempered by my interest in poetry’s many other possibilities, I’ve never made a fetish of prosody. For me it’s simply one more tool of language I want to have available. I have a pretty wide ranging interest—or call it what it is, an obsessive curiosity– in all kinds of poetry from language poets to formal poets.

elegyThe other thing at play in tone is of course temperament and life experience. I am very much a person who lives in the here and now. Elegy is a form of remembering. And what I remember is people and places, mostly gone. So the tone you call a “vatic elegiac tone” probably comes from the sense of loss, which is necessary for distance.

Occasionally I am able to apply the same detachment to my current life especially as I get older. But generally I am still quite lost in the trance of motherhood, teaching, and other responsibilities. I hope to achieve this poetic detachment in the present—what Robert Hass means when he writes these lines in “Meditation At Lagunitas:

there are moments when the body is numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

Charles Wright achieves this sense of presence in his poems—a distance and tenderness towards the present through the use of startling concrete imagery—that is a kind of prayer. I value such things, so to me his work is a kind of miracle of abundant presence.

For the moment I am grateful to attain a sense of distance through elegy that I don’t have in the present. My daughter’s childhood is past, but I remember it vividly. Detachment contains a great deal of sadness I think. For that reason irony doesn’t suit me, at least not in poetry; there’s a twinge of effort in irony that seems a bit more like prose than poetry.

In any case I’m not sure one decides about issues of tone. Tone and voice seem to me like a matter of temperament and mood. I prefer to control the things that are under my control like word stress, rhythm, and sometimes meter.

Rd: This book also features poems of your own childhood, such rich cameos of growing up in Tennessee, so evocative. Was there something in particular that invoked the creation of these poems, a resolve about a specific period of time, or a kind of “project” approach?

KS: The poems set in childhood were written over a period of years. I’ve always written about my childhood. Most of those childhood poems never make it out of my notebook. I hate to say it, but childhood doesn’t interest me that much. The personhood of an individual child interests me. Still, as I get older, I gain distance and perspective and feel that some of the childhood poems might be of interest to others. I’ve included those poems in my book.

Rd: I noticed with interest the poem “Southern Jew” where you write that “In Virginia or Tennessee, my Jewishness flowed like the rivers.” Although you note a certain ambiguity about Jerusalem, wondering “what this beautiful, violent land has to do with me.” What was it about growing up in the South, you think, the Bible-belt!–that made you feel that way, sort of comfortable in your Jewishness? And do these questions about Jerusalem and Jewishness resonate still, will there be more Jewish poems?

KS: With all its foolishness, I feel comfortable in the south. Tennessee feels familiar and it feels like home. When I was a child I didn’t feel this way. My grandparents were Eastern European Jews. My parents had both grown up in fairly religious families. As a result they didn’t want to indoctrinate their children. A blessing in many ways, their secularism also left me vulnerable to the evangelism of the south. I was teased at school and it seemed like my friends and their parents were obsessed with dragging me to church to convert me.

The result is that I have a visceral dislike of fundamentalism. Yet I am paradoxically quite comfortable with fundamentalist Christians. I understand them and find them warm and friendly. I just don’t want anything to do with their ideas or beliefs. I feel this way about a lot of people. Questions of group identity don’t sit easily with me. I was inoculated at a young age.

Rd: The poems across the book inhabit many forms, ranging from sestina to sonnet to the use of couplets or tercets or free verse. How do you approach the whole question of form in poetry–is it a way to experiment, or a way to engage with particular subject?

KS: I tend to move back and forth between form and content. At times form takes precedence, especially when my language feels too loose, and ceases to present a challenge to me. There needs to be a sense of a material to work with. Form provides that plasticity at times. Other times the material world provides the sense of “weight” I seek in a poem.

Rd: I’m blown away throughout by the exquisite imagery, and the lovely, stark lyricism of your writing. And yet, I’m pulled into each poem by the emotion contained at its heart, such a delicate balance between beauty in language and the conveyance of feeling, as in “Terror” where the “enormity of the mountains” and “my tiny solitude” don’t answer the deeper, more personal question in “Why do I tremble?’” I’m reminded of Louise Gluck’s work, or Larry Levis’ too–where image, narrative, and heart intersect so well. How does image lead you to heart in writing poems, do you think? Or is it the other way around?

KS: Image is the wild card in poetry, its unpredictability, the quality of gift. These are the “circus animals.” Without the circus animals, poetry imagewould just plod along. Some of my imagery comes from the natural world, some comes from memory, and some just appears from nowhere like a dream.

My mind is always full of thoughts and images, and I always feel something. Image and feeling are raw materials. Craft, prosody, tradition, and story shape and restrain. I always have a sense of the art as a way to refine and build on materials which have an existence prior to words. Art and its techniques gives them their proper proportion.

Rd: Many of these poems have a painterly feel about them, they are pictographic, evocative. Really, such gorgeous descriptions of place. You also include an awareness of painters–Mondrian for instance. How important is visual art to your work?

KS: The “thingness” of a poem is delightful to me. And I love the materials of art, the canvas, the paint, the charcoal, the inks, the paints, the brushes.

I love making things out of what I see, taking the vivid physicality and color of the world and making something of it. I like my poems to have heft, weight, three dimensions because the visible world delights me. It makes me feel alive. Mondrian is an important artist for me and in some ways emblematic of the disappearance of the maker into the thinker. His work became progressively more abstracted, more minimalistic over time. His trees for example, go from being gorgeous representations of trees, to extraordinary abstractions, to almost nothing, just a line or two on the canvas. I’m interested in the way poetry follows this progression from the physical to the purely mental, particularly my own poetry.

heftAt a certain point, the pleasure fades. I am in love with the representational. I love the smell and weight of mountains, people, and things. I love materials. I think this affection for the physical world and for visual art balances out my tendency to live in a world of my own making. Art offers interiority. But is also a seduction, an invitation to step into the world. I am very fond of people who make things, especially visual artists.

Rd: I also found the circling back to philosophy, to thinking, inclusions of Wittgenstein, Rilke within the poems intriguing. It’s always very seamlessly woven into the poems, and doesn’t come across as cerebral so much as a much more pragmatic grappling with thought in the world. How do you approach this?

KS: You put it really well—“a pragmatic grappling with thought in the world.” I’ve always been influenced by my reading. Too often others’ ideas—even the ideas of great writers or philosophers– don’t hold up in the context of my own life. As an idealist I find this disappointing. Oh well, there are no eternal truths. But nevertheless, thought is a force in the world.

Thinking is a bit like playing on monkey bars; one has to keep letting go of one thought and grabbing onto the next thoughtone to keep going. The poems are ways of playing around with experience and ideas. I don’t suppose they add up to a coherent philosophy.

Rd: How do you approach the writing of poetry in general? Do you have a specific routine, or is it more spread out? Are there lovely, special kinds of things you do to enter that poetry-writing space? What is your revision process like?

KS: I like to write by hand in notebooks. I revise in another notebook. I didn’t have a computer at home until 2008. I wrote my final drafts on a typewriter. Now I do eventually put my poems up on a word processor.

Truthfully, though, my computer feels haunted by a ghost. My daughter says I am the biggest dork on the planet. I probably am. I have a Japanese fountain pen that I love. No one touches it but me.

Rd: You teach English and writing at Montgomery College and you edit poetry for the Potomac Review. How do these related activities affect your writing, if they do?

KS: I’m a pretty eclectic reader and not at all fundamentalist in my approach to poetry (or much else for that matter). So I think I am pretty open to poetry from a wide variety of sources. In my editing I look for craft and a strong voice and intention. I look for a subtle unpredictability. Being a good editor is very intuitive and so is teaching. Both require freshness and spontaneity. When I teach I try as well to introduce students to a variety of poets and techniques.

That said, we all have our limits and I have mine. After reading or teaching intensely, I get tired. I need to return to my own writing to find my own perspective. My openness as a reader and teacher is the very thing that makes solitude necessary. Writing is my way of making sense of the world and everything I do depends on it.

Rd: Would you share with us what you are working on currently? And would you have any advice for any of the many emerging and beginning poets grappling with similar questions of memory, heart, lyricism, pragmatism, while writing poetry?

KS: I am working on a group of poems that have art at their core. They aren’t what I would call ekphrastic poems, more poems that question the value of the material world and the notion of beloved objects. Basically they are poems about money.

I am not very good at giving advice. Who knows what another poet needs to hear? I would advise other poets to read lovelike their lives depended on it, never to be afraid to love another poet’s work passionately and then if necessary to let it go, and to develop a regular writing practice.

For More Information

See Potomac Review’s blog: Potomac Review Congratulates Katherine Smith

Read poems from Katherine’s first book Argument by Design at the Washington Writers’ Publishing House website.

Read a sampling of poems, including historical poems, from Woman Alone on the Mountain at literary sites online:  Sixfold and Mezzo Cammin.

Order a copy of Woman Alone on the Mountain from Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

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