The Cortland Review


Mark Doty
Mark Wunderlich interviews Mark Doty

Bruce Canwell
Writers on Writing 5: It Takes All Kinds

R.T. Smith
A Day in the Life of poet and editor R.T. Smith.

R.T. Smith

R.T. SmithR.T. Smith, the editor of Shenandoah, has poems in recent issues of Poetry, The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, Atlantic Monthly, and Poetry Northwest. His Trespasser (LSU, 1996) and Hunter-Gatherer (Livingston, 1996) were both nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. His latest, Split the Lark: Selected Poems, will be issued next year by Salmon Press in Ireland.

In this column, R.T. Smith recounts the events of an average day of his life as a poet and editor.

A Day in the Life of R.T. Smith


November 4, 1998

Today, Wednesday, has been the kind of day I hope for two or three times a week when I’m home and not feeling pressed by a reading or proofing deadline for Shenandoah or some prose "assignment."

By nine I was in the armchair at the upstairs west-facing window. In case Yeats is right to say "the body is not bruised to pleasure soul," I was warm, fed and clinging to a mug of coffee. Quiet flute music on the hi-fi. Telephone bell turned off. And signs were auspicious -- rain after autumn drought, the deer corn gnawed, shapely clouds charading steadily across the sky.

Hemingway, whom I occasionally heed, suggested that a writer not quit until he knew where to start the next day. Last night I turned in knowing that I wanted to revise a poem a friend had commented on, since early feedback is a rare treat for me. Also, I’d been thinking the night before, as I painted the bathroom, about the days in Opelika, AL, and before that in Boone, NC, when I took my manuscripts to a desk made from a luan door and typed them on a small Mercury manual I bought in a K-Mart toy department in 1970. Mercury/ Hermes, healing/stealing, the keyboard’s code as some spell to enter the underworld/unconscious (an Underwood might have worked as well): you get the gist.

But first I wanted to read some of Thoreau’s Maine Woods, a chapter on drought in Virginia Bell Dabney’s Once There Was a Farm... and some poems by Michael Longley in the new issue of Metre. None of these relate directly to my own writing projects at hand, but as I retire late and rise late to listen to news on the radio, I like to clear my head with someone whose writing is unlike my own.

For two hours I read, scratched notes, fed the fire, replenished the coffee, watched chickadees at the feeder, stared into space, put off opening my workbook to a new page until the dam was about to burst, and then I drafted the new poem, and again, and again. I set it aside, went downstairs to chop vegetables for soup, read the old poem aloud, touched up the bathroom while the soup simmered, read the old poem, took my soup upstairs to my chair and revised the new poem as I peeled and ate a Morris Orchard stamen.

Then it was time to shower, shave, rush into the town where I caught up on some Shenandoah correspondence, called Betty Adcock to accept some poems, interviewed two intern candidates, talked with my current intern about three short stories, e-mail, phone messages, te-dum-te-dum-te-dum, grocery shopped at Food Lion, took the back way home in hope of seeing a fox.

I read a futuristic story by Bill Harrison, grilled shrimp and tomatoes and potatoes and bread, drank a glass of Tuscarora Red with supper, split a little wood by floodlight. Then back to the old poem and the new poem and added to some notes about a medieval trebuchet used to sling stones and diseased carcasses into besieged cities.

I watched the news and "Nightline," then the full moon that Orion seemed to be chasing like a soccer ball. All this knowing that Sunday will provide the next opportunity for such extended autonomy. Then I came back to this horizontal door, where my computer now rests, to type this report from the home front and ruminate with the other glass of red, on the studied rusticity of my present life, which owes a lot to boyhood in Spalding County, Georgia and not a little to a decade in rural Lee County, Alabama. And just a little to Plough and Hearth..

Yeats wondered whether to pursue perfection in the work or in the life. Perfection is wholly beside the point for me, but I notice that the harder I pursue the work and the more I engage with and address the undeniable facts and forces of nature that do not swerve for humanity, the less work play is and the better my life. I will at least get to wrestle with the new poem on Friday morning, so Thursday seems less menacing. I may even be able to face the manuscripts to be read with a glee born of feeling things in proper proportion. And so to bed.

R. T. Smith
Rockbridge County, VA


A Day in the Life of R.T. Smith
TCR December 1998 Feature


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