Tuesday, May 25, 2010
Poet Jared Smith: Taking a stand for the workingman at Bunker Hill Community College.
Interview by Doug Holder
It seemed fate was against poet Jared Smith. Smith arrived in Boston from Colorado to read at Bunker Hill Community College. Just before he was to take the stage a fire alarm made us evacuate the building, and stand and bake in the unseasonable heat for early May. And if Smith wanted some tap water for his parched throat—forget about it. The Boston area was in the midst of a water crisis, so everything had to be bottled or boiled. Yet Smith, who wrote a poetry book about a large body of water, Lake Michigan, braved the fire alarm, the paucity of clean water and took the stage. And he was in rare form, with his verse of the workingman, and other themes.
Jared Smith is a prominent figure in contemporary poetry, technology research, and professional continuing education. Having earned his BA cum laude and his MA in English and American Literature from New York University, he spent many years in industry and research. Starting in 1976, he rose to Vice President of The Energy Bureau, Inc. in New York; relocated to Illinois, where he became Associate Director of both Education and Research for an international not-for-profit research laboratory (IGT); advised several White House Commissions on technology and policy under the Clinton Administration; and left industry in 2001, after serving as Special Appointee to Argonne National Laboratory.
He is the author of nine volumes of poetry: Looking Into the Machinery: The Selected Longer Poems of Jared Smith (1984-2008,) (Tamarack Editions, PA, 2010;) Grassroots (Wind Publications, KY, 2010;) The Graves Grow Bigger Between Generations (Higganum Hill Books, CT, 2008;) Where Images Become Imbued With Time (Puddin'head Press, IL, 2007;) Lake Michigan and Other Poems (Puddin'head Press, IL, 2005;) Walking the Perimeters of the Plate Glass Window Factory (Birch Brook Press, NY, 2001;) Keeping the Outlaw Alive (Erie Street Press, IL, 1988;) Dark Wing (Charred Norton Publishing, NY, 1984;) and Song of the Blood: An Epic (The Smith Press, 1983.) He has also released two CDs of his work: Seven Minutes Before the Bombs Drop (ArtVilla Records, TN, 2006;) and Controlled by Ghosts (Practical Music Studios, IL, 2007.)
I talked with him on my Somerville Community Access TV show “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer”
Doug Holder: Tell me Jared, why is your work often focused on the workingman? Are you a fan of the poet Philip Levine, who also writes of these themes?
Jared Smith: I am very much a fan of Philip Levine. To answer your question: "Why is my work focused on the working man?"-- it’s as Ted Kooser, the former Poet Laureate said to me: “ Poetry is about trying to communicate with other people.” If you are going to be a poet who communicates—you have to talk about the other things you do to stay alive—to earn a living for their family—to put food on the table. That’s why I didn’t go in to teaching poetry. But I held a number of jobs in industry and government. I have taken all of this into my work—all the different kind of experiences people in our society have.
I had to support a family. But if you are really writing poetry it’s got to be as important as putting food on the table. It’s not just entertainment. It is an intellectual exercise—you got to learn something from it that gives your life meaning. Maybe that’s communicating with other generations , developing abstract ideas. Most of the words in our day to day life are used for “commercial communication.” Like words that express how much money you have, or what do you want to buy. That's 99% of the words we use. And poetry gives us a chance to develop words for what we really feeling or thinking about. If you go back to American literature from Whitman, Robert Frost--all these people were trying to develop new and noncommercial ideas that they could bring back into the culture.
Doug Holder: You were involved in the literary scene in Greenwich Village in the 70's. Can you talk about those days?
Jared Smith: Well... it was a wonderful time. I spent all of my time writing, talking with other writers, I was on the screening committee for the New York Quarterly. When poems came into the Quarterly there were 7 of us who reviewed them, and if 5 of us liked the poem, it would go directly to William Packard, the publisher. He would decide what goes into the magazine. Our advisory board at that time consisted of Isabella Gardner, W.H. Auden, Allen Ginsberg, Anne Sexton, Philip Levine and others. I got to know all these people. I got to be a drinking buddy with Gregory Corso. So I got to know the Beat poets as well. I knew both the intellectuals and the Beats because in the NYQ we encouraged excellent poetry of any school. If you did it well, if it had passion, if people experienced it, it would go in. So I got to hang with a great number of people. This was great because I wanted to think like them. This was original thinking. This was not something planted in the textbooks.
Doug Holder: You write a lot about water. In fact one of your collections deals with Lake Michigan.
Jared Smith: In my work in science and industry I was looking for proof of the transcendental quality of life. This was what Walt Whitman was talking about. He would speak of the ocean, the float, etc... I was looking for a scientifically proven metaphor--that all animals and people are very much the same. So I went to Lake Michigan because Michigan has a hundred mile area where every living person, every blade of grass drinks from the same source of water. All of these animals are 88% water. We all consume. There really isn't that many differences from one another. Given this knowledge--that you are almost completely like another person--how on earth can you go to war? How can you kill people---you are killing yourself. Basically it is bodies of water going to war.
Doug Holder. The traditional Blue Collar worker is an endangered species. Do you think there will poetry for the High Tech worker?
Jared Smith: I think there will be. I tried to do some. There are some very creative people in the arts, who are also in the sciences. If you go back to the "The Act of Creation" by Arthur Koestler, you will find that he talks about the creative process being very much the same whether you are Einstein working on the theory of Relativity, or if you are Mozart composing a concerto. So creativity from science will most certainly spill into the arts.
Evening, Yes, But A Man Is Still A Man
When shadows grow from Chicago's alleys
and rattle garbage can lids with gusts of wind
that come in across the heartland,
an old man's attention flickers like a cigarette lighter.
He stubs the morning's sales beneath a worn boot heel,
and looks to stars that have not been seen for generations.
Babies are hung out to dry from fire escapes.
A truck becomes a German steelworker's family
clearing their throats outside a vacant echoing oven in Detroit.
A broken hydrant leaks into the gutter, becomes a flood,
washes years from a plot where the pavement ends.
The man is a newspaper soaked into his own days,
where one page becomes glued onto another indelible
and indistinguishable from the stench of drunken nights.
The bottle to his lips has no name but darkness,
though it was filled from grains growing beneath the sun.
Call him stockbroker, and he will sell you a steer
with a wooden mallet buried between its eyes,
and he will follow you from city to city across our nation
offering up his family on every empty plate you come to.
Call him a tradesman, and he will trade every iron worker
for one closed out steel mill and a teenage soldier.
Tell him he is a product of the Rust Belt
and the infrastructure of every city will come uncoupled.
Do not try to sing his song on the radio.
Hunt for it instead in the loves he has left behind him.
Do not try to tell him what his interests are:
they can no longer be recognized for what they were.
Do not try to buy his wages or his time:
his is the Midwest voice newscasters dream of catching.
Tell him you're from Wall Street and you can offer a better living.
Tell him that, and he'll brick you in.
For more information about Jared Smith go to http://www.jaredsmith.info
Jared Smith's new collection "Looking into the Machinery" is available on Amazon.com