Friday, February 08, 2008
An Interview with Jared Smith
with Doug Holder
Poet Jared Smith’s latest collection of poetry is ‘Lake Michigan and Other Poems” (Puddinhead Press). His other collection include: ‘ Walking The Perimeters Of the Plate Glass Factory” (Birch Book Press, NY 2002), “Keeping the Outlaw Alive” (Erie St.Press, Chicago 1988), Dark Wing (Charred Norton Publishing New York, 1984), and “Song Of The Blood” (The Smith Press, New York, 1983.) He has published hundreds of times in a wide number of literary journals and magazines over the past 25 years. I met with him after a reading he gave at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston.
Doug Holder: You said at your reading that you don’t have much of an affinity for the academy or academic poetry.
Jared Smith: That’s not quite what I mean. I had an academic upbringing. My father won scholarships to Harvard and Brown. He was the Dean of Continuing Education at New York University. I grew up knowing an awful lot of literary types…intellectuals. I mean there is a real difference between shallow, stylized academic thinking and hardworking people who build a culture.
Holder: You seem to have an affinity for the workers. You said not enough people are writing about them these days.
Smith: It is not popular to write about them in media circles. But the workers themselves are writing. You have tremendous energy on the open mic scene. Many of the participants are dishwashers and such during the day. In Chicago we have active poets from all walks of life. There are a lot of people with raw literacy, and it is important not to loose touch with that.
Holder: Can you tell me about your friendship with Donald Lev, the founder of Home Planet News, a respected independent lit mag started in Greenwich Village in the 70’s?
Smith: Home Planet News has been around for 28 years, but Don has been editing magazines before then and I had the honor of having a regular column in one of them. I met Lev through a wonderful poet around my age named Paul Henning. Paul was writing an epic poem—a science fiction poetry epic called La Via Del Tren Subterraneo es Peligrosa—or “ Subway Tracks Are Dangerous.” He had no money but knew how to take advantage of the system. He share a loft in NYC with a slightly older, wiser and somewhat humorously grumpy Bohemian poet, Donald Lev. We would sit around the studio and talk poetry. This was around 1977, after he had finished publishing HYN and was starting up POETS with Mike Devlin and Philippe Chaurize. I was honored when he asked me to be guest columnist. Paul was involved also, and he also wrote reviews under the name Wergild Krank. My column ran five times and then in the first issue of Home Planet News. I was also on the screening committee of the New York Quarterly.
Holder: You say you are a Transcendentalist. How do you define that?
Smith: If you study objects closely, you discover that all things are basically of the same nature. Whitman and Emerson felt that there was a life source or awareness that people can reach into. I feel it differently. I feel an affinity to animate and inanimate objects, as well as to people. If you open your awareness of what is around you, that which is outside your body, you realize there is something much bigger than you are, but you are part of it. I try to push that---feel what the human experience is about, rather than what my body is about.
Holder: Where did the germ of the idea for your poem “Lake Michigan” come from?
Smith: Who really knows what triggers a poem? It was a very intense learning process. It started with my walking the dog under the stars along the lake one night. I started thinking, “Why does the Lake—Lake Michigan—fascinate me so much? Why does the water fascinate me and everyone so much?” So I started out on a personal level, then on a human level, and then beyond all that. I wanted to know why water is so important. And the ideas and visions just kept opening outward.
Holder: You are not afraid to write political poems. You have strong views. Some say political poetry is polemic, not art. What do you say?
Smith: I have an awful time saying what poetry is. If you read someone like Robert Lowell, or you read Allen Ginsberg, they’re quite different from each other. It is totally different than an open mic rant, if you will. In all these cases, though, poetry is a condensed rhythmic language. You bring things down to a few words—to explore something that cannot be talked about in commercial terms. Poetry should be a language of ideas. There is no taboo for art.
Holder: You left Greenwich Village and went back to your home in the Midwest why?
Smith: Life does strange things to one. And it did it to me. You have to be flexible—you have to respond. I was in graduate school, my father passed away, and my family was in debt. I was busy writing poetry, but as you know you don’t make much money. I started consulting for an energy-consulting firm. I just walked in and said;” You write bad promotional copy.” I can do better.” So I built a career. When you put in 16 or 17 hours a day at a job, you don’t have time to write poetry. I gave up the job 5 years ago.
Holder: How do you make a living now?
Smith: I write, think, travel and invest. I live frugally. I really wanted to return to writing from the beginning but I had two children to raise.
Holder: You are a small press activist. You are also friends with small press icon Harry Smith?
Smith: I love the small press. Harry Smith is a very significant figure. He was a giant at the time when he took me in. A big reason we have the small press is because of people like Smith. Smith felt there had to be a place for independent thinking. He published folks like Studs Terkel—a whole host of writers who were published under “The Smith” press.
Holder: What did Smith do for you?
Smith: He published me in an anthology: "Eleven Young Poets.” On the back of the book he wrote: “Will poets conquer the world?” He published an epic poem of mine: “Song of the Blood.” That was the first book I had published (1983) It lead to a number of interviews (NPR) and parts were adapted for a modern dance at Lincoln Center. Smith is a monster intellect. He graduated Brown University. He is a great believer in democratic ideals. He was a voice of Greenwich Village.
Holder: Are there any folks like Smith out there, like Eric Greinke of Presa Press?
Smith: Greinke has a press in the 70’s “The Pilot Press.” He published some amazing poets like Denise Levertov, Robert Bly—he knew all these people. But like me, for whatever reason, he dropped out of the publishing scene for 15 years. Then he started publishing again. He started Presa press to remind today’s young poets of what Avant-Garde poetry was in the 70’s and 80’s. He wanted to remind people of Lyn Lifshin, Harry Smith and others.
Holder; Any advice for novice poets out there?
Smith: Keep learning. Try on new things. If you don’t the magic will die for you. Remember the excitement of creation—don’t get stale.