As poets go, Dave Smith is not what I expect. He’s more down-to-earth. He’s disarmingly matter-of-fact. Yet this is a two-step Smith performs with an almost formal flair. It’s likely a Southern thing. He doesn’t just come from Tidewater Virginia; he carries the place with him wherever he goes. You can catch Smith showing this off now and again, if you listen for the way he delivers his best punchlines with an extra pinch of drawl.
But what is it I expect a poet to be like? Brawling bohemian? Inscrutable intellectual? How the heck would I know? It’s been 20-some years now since I packed away my liberal arts degree and got about the business of life. It’s not like I go to poetry readings. It’s not like I even read poems.
Smith is the Elliott Coleman Professor of Poetry and chairman of the Writing Seminars. He came to Hopkins four years ago from Louisiana State University, where he had been the co-editor of the Southern Review. He’s written more than 25 books. He’s won Guggenheim and NEA and Lyndhust fellowships. He’s twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
The winter morning I call at his home is uncommonly warm. I find the poet standing outdoors in a rather menial pose, hosing down a fenced-in side patio where the dog likes to roam. He greets me with a wave, then makes his way around front to let me in.
Smith pours us coffee, then leads the way upstairs to the converted bedroom that serves as his office.
At the outset, I remind Smith of things I’d already told him in arranging this get-together. I tell him how I’ve lost what connection I had with poetry. I tell him how I suspect the same has happened to lots of other folks going about the business of an adult life.
Perhaps, in a meandering talk, he and I might find some little way to spark a reconnection to that literary world?
The rest of this story is built from his side of the conversation we had there, with pieces of it pulled out and rearranged into an order designed to unfold in a more reader-friendly way.
Beginning: The Poet
Where to begin? It’s always a difficult matter, isn’t it? I come from a country town, out of a family of people who were not readers—or not conventional readers. We had two magazines in our house: Sports Illustrated and Hot Rod.
I studied those things as a boy. Looking back now, I can see that those magazines had something in common—a high degree of figurative and imaginative language. Think about it. Such language is absolutely necessary in articles on tri-carburetion and high-lift camshafts. Anybody who’s followed Sports Illustrated over the years knows about its incendiary level of vocabulary and diction.
Those magazines are probably where my initial attraction to language comes from.
I didn’t have a clue what college was all about. Nobody in my family had been to college. But I decided to go off to the University of Virginia. The amazing thing to me from the very first day was how people were constantly telling you what you could do instead of what you couldn’t do. I’m writing a paper I’ve got to deliver at Oxford next week on Walt Whitman, so I’m thinking of Whitman’s famous lines:
“Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!”
It was like that, a complete revelation that life could be different. And I found poetry. But poetry to me was so frightening at first that I did everything I could to avoid it. It always seemed that my fellow students had the answers, and I didn’t.
I graduated in 1965. Vietnam was incipient. I thought I might go to law school. But my father had died, my mother had remarried, and there was no money.
Then I was drafted. I had signed up to go through Officer Training School, but I was going to be drafted before I could get a space in class. That’s the military for you. The draft board said I should find a high school teaching deferment. I must have called 20 high schools that didn’t need an English teacher.
At the last minute a small high school in Virginia asked me if I could teach French.
Then they asked if I could coach football.
Actually, I had played football in high school.
It was in this period that I met the woman who would become my wife. Suddenly I didn’t want to go into officer training school. So I stayed on teaching. In my second year there, I started to write poetry. I have no idea why this happened. I do know that it was bad poetry.
Beginning: The Poem
There is one poem that I guess I could talk about. It’s illustrative of things I care about in my poetry. Maybe this is an immodest thing to say. Maybe it’s something I don’t really know how to say. So I’ll put it this way: This is the most famous of my poems.
My mother thinks so, anyway.
It’s called “The Roundhouse Voices”
Who am I? That’s always the big question in poetry. Whitman wrote “Song of Myself.” He didn’t write “Song of Yourself.” Now, let’s admit that less enthusiastic readers from the beginning have said, “‘Song of Myself’? Isn’t that a little egotistical?”
And it is, except to say that all he’s trying to say is what we’re all trying to say: Who am I?
Sometimes, I think about it like this. I’m not good at parties. I always kind of stand off against the side and wait for people to come up, and the whole time I’m thinking, “What am I going to say to this guy?” And then what I say is: “Where you from?”
That is to say: Who are you? Who are your people? It’s the most fundamental question, even when you make it sound like you’re asking how the weather is. This is how we orient ourselves, by saying who my people are and where my people are from. This is what you’re always doing in poetry, trying to orient yourself in a world of flux and mystery.
My parents were born and raised in Cumberland, Maryland. My grandfather worked there for the B&O Railroad as a foreman of the backhouse. My Uncle Lloyd, his brother, was the foreman of the roundhouse.
Later, after the Depression, my grandfather came to Baltimore for a while and then went down to Portsmouth, Virginia. This was about the time my mother was graduating from high school. She went with him. My father followed her. So I was born in Tidewater Virginia, 300 miles from Cumberland.
When people in the family would die off, my grandfather and my mother and my father would go by car back to Cumberland for funerals. They would take me along. I was quite a young boy for some of this, so often enough, someone would be detailed to take me out to the roundhouse and look at trains. My Uncle Lloyd, he’d actually bring a softball, and we’d throw it back and forth in the roundhouse.
In my memory, this roundhouse is a huge building. I don’t think it was all that huge, actually, but the imagination remembers things figuratively rather than literally. I remember a glass ceiling. The glass was all sooted over, yet it had holes in it through which the light would shine like stars.
To me, this seemed magical. That my uncle was in charge of it, this seemed like another world.
It’s funny, how “The Roundhouse Voices” came. I had had a dream of six men lying head to head like spokes to a wheel. I didn’t know the men. I didn’t know why I saw them. Only, there they were. I wrote a poem of 22 lines around this. It didn’t work. I put it in my desk drawer. I thought I’d come back to it.
Becoming: The Poet
This is one thing you wouldn’t expect about the world of poetry: People tend to be almost abjectly generous to those coming up.
I was still on a deferment when I went off to graduate school at Southern Illinois University. I lived in St. Louis, which had a very active poetry community. Don Finkel was a poet there at Washington University who was publishing at the top level of American poetry. I had never heard of him.
But I went to a reading of his one night, and then I decided to call him up. I’m a 22-year-old student, saying, “Can I have lunch with you?” He talked to me that day for at least two-and-a-half hours. His generosity was overwhelming.
Eventually, I reached the end of my deferments, and I was drafted. I thought, “Well, I’ll give this poetry foolishness up now.” I went into the Air Force, and I was stationed in the finance office at Langley Air Force base, three miles from where I’d coached high school football. It was my home country. That was some mitigation for the horrors of being in the military.
I found myself in a world where any real connection with the arts is very unlikely, but I began to read and write poetry at night. I used the local library in an interesting way. I’d go down the aisles, looking for the thin books. Thin books are either poems or plays. If it was a play, I’d put it back.
I had a small book published as I was getting out of the Air Force. I didn’t even understand the difference then between big presses and little presses or serious ones and garage ones. Some guy in Pennsylvania accepted the book, and for a week I was elated.
But I was moving so fast at this point, making such rapid gains. Almost in a matter of days I started to see how bad my book was. I tried to get it back from the guy, but he wouldn’t give it back. It wasn’t published in that many numbers, and in the end, I owned most of the copies.
I suspect there are some still out there, though. If I see one now, I buy it and hide it away.
I was back in graduate school after that. I went for a year, then dropped out and taught at little colleges, then went back and finished my PhD at Ohio University in 1976. I published two books during that time, but I continued not to think of myself as a poet who had any right to be on the big national stage.
Then I wrote a poem called “Cumberland Station.” It was a funeral elegy about my Uncle Melvin. He’d been a diesel engineer. The poem was about the old Queen City Railroad Station, which again I remember as being a very imposing building with this huge set of stairs that you walked up, and then there was this glistening, almost senatorial marble floor. It was very like a church.
When I started writing this, I hadn’t been back to Cumberland in more than 20 years. I don’t know what I was trying to do in it, just say something about a place that I missed and the life that was there and how I had been disconnected from it and all that.
When I got done, this felt to me like the first real poem I had ever written.
My next book was called Cumberland Station. When it was published, what I heard was great silence. That’s usually the way it goes. A friend of mine said once that publishing a book is like spitting in the ocean and listening for the echo.
Then one day I got a letter from Professor Helen Vendler at Harvard. She said she was reviewing my book, and she enclosed a copy of the review. It was very laudatory. I knew enough about who Helen Vendler was to know that this was a real signature of approval. It felt like a higher power saying, “Okay, you can join up now.” That was very releasing for me, in a strange and powerful way.
But it gave me a big head. I had to work through that. It’s a hard thing to learn, that you really are better off as a writer if you just pay attention to the writing. We’re all human. There’s gratification in publishing, in getting the notices, in getting the prizes.
When I work with good students, I try to tell them how, ultimately, the gratification is in the doing of the work. Once a poem is finished, it really has nothing much to do with you anymore. You have to learn a distancing. It’s the same as it is with a potter. He makes a pot. He sells it. He doesn’t know where it goes from there. He doesn’t care. He’s too busy making the next pot.
Becoming: The Poem
“The Roundhouse Voices” should have been in Cumberland Station, with the other railroad poems. But it didn’t come until maybe a year later.
It came in a funny way. I kept taking it out of that drawer I’d put it in and looking at it. I did this over the course of 11 years. It’s not like I was writing it every day, but I have enough drafts of it to show you that I was active on it during each of those years. The whole time, it wouldn’t go anywhere.
Then the memory of my uncle taking me out to the roundhouse and playing softball came to me. I started trying to integrate that with the original image of the spokes, but the whole thing with the spokes just fell away. It was like a door I went through, that’s all.
You have to let the language seduce you. You have to let it flow along to a point where it opens up. “Hey, I didn’t know I was writing about that!” Sylvia Plath has a poem where she talks about throwing the reins of the horse onto the horse’s neck and just letting the horse run. Sometimes, you let the poem take you.
There’s a danger in that, too. It leads to the romantic idea of the visionary, the seer who simply takes what comes. That can be as bad for a poem as over-determining it.
The poet Robert Haas has an essay in which he talks about the way every poem is both an act of listening and an act of making. The difficult part here is that the proportion varies with every poem. In one poem, you listen x amount and make y amount. In the next one, those amounts might be reversed. Sometimes you have to labor harder to get a piece done. Sometimes it just comes to you.
I realized I was writing another funeral elegy. This one was about my Uncle Lloyd and how he had taken me to the roundhouse.
At some point I put a guard around the roundhouse. You couldn’t get to it without passing this guard, and he’s asking questions: “Who are you?” So we’re back to that big question in poetry, right?
The roundhouse never had a guard when I was there. Where did this come from? Well, my father and virtually everybody else I knew in Virginia worked for the military or the government. Just to get in the gate on the way to work, you had to get past a Marine. Every place was secret and guarded.
Somehow, I transposed that to the roundhouse. This made it a place with some kind of secret about it, a place where something transformative was going to happen.
Robert Penn Warren is my poetic hero. A great deal of what I know, I’ve borrowed from him. He was speaking of the novelist Joseph Conrad when he said that a work of literary art is a laboratory, in which character is tested and re-tested, in which you submit people to certain circumstances and see if they will behave as you expect them to.
When I first read this, I thought, “Well, that’s sort of baloney, isn’t it?” But with true neutrality of imagination, it’s exactly right. These characters don’t behave the way you expect them to.
It’s like the answer is in there, somewhere. It’s in this set of circumstances. It’s in these characters. But the fact is, when you’re in the middle of writing, you don’t know what the answer is.
Now if I’m a literary critic I can sit back with “The Roundhouse Voices” and say, “Ah, you’re writing about the Virgilian guide, the man who takes you to the land of the dead and brings you back.” Or I can say, “This is like Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights.” But I didn’t think about all that stuff. All I was doing was telling a story about going to the roundhouse with my Uncle Lloyd.
Being: The Poet
People always say, “Well, what do you write about?” I don’t have a clue. I don’t know what I’m writing about until I see what I’ve written.
You know, a student once said to me, “Why does Robert Frost always write about birch trees?”
I said, “Well, what kind of trees would you write about?”
He said, “Pine trees.”
I said, “Well, Frost writes about birch trees because he lives where birches are.”
Some of what you write about is given to you, by virtue of life. Some of it is chosen. But you can’t set out to make a poem say something didactic or polemic. You’d be better off writing a sermon or an editorial.
The things that poetry talks about are very common human experiences. Certainly you can portray these things in novels, in movies, in songs. But I’m not sure that anything can deal with them as nakedly and with as much resonance as a great poem can.
Literary pundits are forever saying poetry isn’t important anymore, that there are no readers, blah, blah, blah. But when we most want to say something pithy and smart—when we’re giving a talk at church or giving a toast—we go to a poem. Either instinctively or because of the way we’ve been taught, we know that a poem represents language at its most compressed, at its most volatile, at its most emotional, and in its wisest form.
That feeling people have about poetry, it hasn’t gone away. I think people still hunger for poems.
It’s come to me after 35 years that I am a poet. But it’s also come to me that no matter what, I would have been a teacher. I have a son who’s a lawyer and who hates the law. He whines about it daily. In light of that, I’ve been thinking how there have been times when I wasn’t pleased with my colleagues and times when they weren’t pleased with me. There have been rough patches. But there has never been a single day when I regretted being a teacher.
The first thing I can give students is confidence. I’m fairly brutal in my workshops. But I can only be that way after I have given them the confidence to know that they can be good, that I’m telling them the truth in appreciation of what we both know they can do.
They need to be willing to take the risks of failure and to know in advance that however they fail, there will still be a chance to succeed beyond that moment of failure. That’s something I had to learn the hard way.
Being: The Poem
I was a long time in getting aware that what I had written in “The Roundhouse Voices” was, in a way, like a “Song of Myself.” Only it was in a funeral elegy. It had to do with my family, with railroad life, with Appalachian culture. It had to do with what it means to be Southern and with the slow dying out of that Southern culture of manners, this idea of appropriate and decorous behavior.
All of that is brought into the poem, I think. And what you discover at the end is that the speaker who says at the end of the poem, “Who the hell are you, kid?”—this time, it’s the kid saying it. He’s standing outside. The funeral is over. The man is dead. But he feels like he’s still not prepared to answer that question.
I think this particular poem has layers of resonance that I just haven’t managed in other poems.
People have said to me, “Why don’t you write another poem like that?”
Well, hell, I’d write ’em every day if I could! But you know, it’s not like you get the formula down and then you just stamp them out, one after the other.
Jim Duffy is a writer based in Cambridge, Maryland.