May 1998

R.T. Smith


R.T. Smith

R.T. Smith
  Muffy Bolding
  John Kinsella
  Richard Foerster
  A.F. Moritz
  Miriam Levine
  Louis Armand
  David Shevin
  Stellasue Lee
  Adrian C. Louis
  David Sutherland
  Gregory Djanikian
  Paolo M. Bottigelli

J.M. Spalding
  R.T. Smith

William Heath

Douglas Thornsjo

R.T. Smith R.T. Smith, the editor of Shenandoah, has poems in recent issues of Poetry, The Georgia Review, Black Warrior 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.R.T. Smith Signature
J.M. Spalding: How did you come into being the Editor-In-Chief of Shenandoah?

R.T. Smith: Brendan Galvin suggested I apply, and I was one of about a hundred who did. I was interviewed, and then I think a ouija board somehow came into play.

What changes did you want to make (or did make) when you took over?

Very few physical changes other than a bulking up. I'm using more personal essays and less criticism. I've sought more international work than Shenandoah had lately, and I've been writing an editor's note.

Clearly you get many submissions. How many do you read personally?

I have occasional help from contributing editors, but I read 85-90% of the submissions myself.

Having published some of our finest poets (such as Merwin and Montague) Did you ever regret publishing someones work?

Oh, no, but I regret a few I've not had the quick good sense to accept.

Recently, Norton issued Neal Bowers' "Words for the taking." A book that you reviewed. What are your thoughts about Neal's ordeal with the plagarist?

A slow nightmare, like termites and taxes. I hope somebody makes a movie so Neal can go to Italy and relax, get away from the scene of the crime.

What do you make of the Merwin poem "Suite in the Key of Forgetting" a poem you published in the Spring 97 issue?

Well, although I am, as somebody, maybe Henry Taylor, said last weekend, all for meaning, I don't like to make any pronouncements and swerve from suggestions most of the time, unless I'm teaching. Still, I think "Suite in the Key of Forgetting" addresses the ways that the personal and the historical merge and blur and the twilight territory between memory and imagination, if they are indeed two separate capacities. It opens a little like a fairy tale, which may be a key to how it goes about meaning, a long walk through a city, a quest with all sorts of Grimm obstacles, helpers, charms. The inevitable transformation of story seems to provide one salient feature, and since the story has to do with the source and fate of a text, I suppose it's about writing.

The sinuous path the narrative takes through those short, often rhyming, lines is what drew me to the poem long before I had a clue what it was about, and that's what brings me back to it. A clever critic would start talking now about how the text subverts itself and its genre, and how the implicit nature of the narrator is a social construct. I'll say instead that it seems a riddle about solving a riddle.

Changing the subject... How did you begin as a poet?
At what age did you begin? And who are your heroes?

I didn't begin writing poetry until I was in my mid-20's and my heroes number in the dozens—Dickinson and Dickey, Home and the Bard, Faulkner and O'Connor, of course, Yeats and Heaney, Chappell and Virgil, Snyder, Frost, Beckett, Warren, Ono no Komichi.

Well, one of the aspirations of poets is to get into print. What was your first publication, and how did it feel?

A now-defunct magazine from Davidson, The Miscellany, accepted three poems when I was in grad school and gave me their prize. I remember reading the letter by matchlight in snow under wild stars. I fell back into the snow and made a snow devil with my silhouette.

How has your work changed since you began to publish regularly?

I still try to tell a truth, slant.

How does editing Shenandoah affect your writing? Does it take time away?

Only if I let it. Shenandoah gives me an excuse to put off the writing until I have to do it.

How much of Shenandoah reflects your own tastes? (against what you think deserves to be in there regardless of whether you like it)

I try to gather comments and suggestions from trusted friends and contributing editors—Jeanne Walker, Fred Chappell, Margaret Meyers, Scott Ward, Reetika Vazirani. It's important that I not enshrine my own quirks, but I also want to avoid any feeling of a committee decision.

Do you think the artwork "Midnight in the Borghese Garden" by Carol Robb (Shenandoah, Winter 1996) was a bit risque? What are your feelings?

"Bordering on impropriety or indelicacy?" It hadn't occurred to me. I thought it was beautiful. Our spring '98 cover is very demure, Edwardian, but also beautiful.

When you sit down to write, what kind of setting do you have? Are there any objects like a paperweight or a picture that you keep around you?

I have a veritable reliquary full of bones and keepsakes, my favorite lamp, an old watch. Sometimes I have to work outside just to escape the overlapping vibes.

Who is your biggest critic as far as your writing is concerned?

Unfortunately, no one sees 90% of my work before I send it to editors. Steve Corey and Stan Lindberg at Georgia Review have made lots of helpful particular suggestions over the years.

Do you ever get defensive when your work is critiqued?

No, because it doesn't get "critiqued." I have to wait for the reviews of books, and they've been generally very positive, especially where Trespasser is concerned.

The poem you sent to TCR, Comet, was fantastic (and one of my favorites of yours). How did that poem come about?

It's usually risky, or risque, to assume that such poems are autobiographical, but this one is. It's based on the as-above-so-below notion of cosmos. Last spring the sky was falling in many different ways, but I was able to clarify my thoughts and feelings by making a few poems around the pain and peril, as I tried not to break or blaze.

Horse, another fine poem, how did that come about?

I have an old school desk top with lots of engraved incunabula and graffitti and a stick horse cut into it. I imagined it all the record of someone's personal cro-magnon age, but better executed than I could have done, so the poem's written out of pen-knife envy. The father behind the poem is very much like mine. It's his way of dealing with such things—let the crime be the punishment. Sometimes.

Do you write in any other forms. Essays (aside from the ones in Shenandoah) or short stories?

A book of very Southern stories called Faith (Black Belt, 95), lots of essays, one in the current Southern Review.

Does music of film ever inspire you to write?

Well, I can't wait for inspiration. I write more from a hunger, but sometimes a fiddle break or sax riff, a flashback from Altman or Kurasawa will perhaps inspire a word or phrase in the middle of a session.

What kind of music do you listen to?

Celtic, jazz, blues, Brazilian guitar, Ralph Von Williams.

Your Pulitzer prize nomination... your feelings on that?

Lost in the throng.

Who are some of your favorite living writers?

Other than the living ones I mentioned above—Reynolds Price, Cormac McCarthy, Brendan Galvin, Merwin, Carruth, Mary Oliver, Jack Gilbert, Kathryn Stripling Byer, the Dillards, grad school friends Donald Secreast and Charles Frazier, Kinnell—somebody stop me...

Who are some of your least favorite writers? (living or dead)

Well, I have trouble keeping up with Shelley, Pope and Gertrude Stein.

Okay, how will the advent of the Internet change poetry? Do you think it could strengthen poetry?

Old impulses, new venues. I'm afraid it may encourage people to send their work out still hot from the oven, but it's only a matter of facility. Some folks just aren't as much ruminative as ex-static. Not enough stomachs, I guess.

What is the status of Poetry today? Is it doing as well as Pinsky seems to think it is, or could it be in a better position today?

I'll be glad to see fewer announcements of poetry slams, when the din dims. They're a little like pro wrestling with words, aren't they? Pinsky's in a better position to know this than I am, but I think we're evolving toward a celebrity-star system in poetry to rival cinema stars and fiction stars.

What do you think of "Magnetic poetry?"

Magnetic poetry? Well, "magnetic sensibility" is "the ratio of the magnetic permeability of a medium to that of a magnetic vucuum, minus one." That's how I feel so far, but I'll enjoy it more when the magnets offer words like "dollymop" and "flitch" and "cornage."

Now lets get to the serious stuff: what is your favorite color?

There's a heron-blue cloud shadow that eases across the local mountains when they're bare with winter. I could look at it forever.

What are your favorite foods?

My favorite foods include bananas, scallops, tuna sushi, salted pecans, thick stews. I've just developed a liking for buffalo burgers, which I share with the beasts and fowl of the backyard, just so I can imagine thundering herds across these hills for the first time in a thousand years.

What is your favorite alcoholic beverage?

Favorite alcohol? Bushmills Irish Whiskey, Black Label.

Favorite curse word?

When I'm driven to curse, I don't play favorites.

If you were stuck on a desert island and could have only three books. Which would you take?

Why is it always a desert island? Why not desserted, or dessert. At any rate, A Gutenburg Bible and The Book of Kells, just to provide incentive for someone to find me. A deep-sea fishing guide, in case they don't.

And if you were stuck on a desert island with Rod McKuen?


Okay, last question: how would you like to be remembered?

As a gentle man who looked unflinchingly and worked hard, a surprising companion and a bemoil.


R.T. Smith: Interview by J.M. Spalding
Copyright 1999 The Cortland Review Issue ThreeThe Cortland Review