Monday, November 26, 2012

Jared Smith on the late small press icon Harry Smith: A MOMENT IN THE MAGNIFICENT TIME WE SHARED


By Jared Smith

To even begin to understand the scope and power and dignity of Harry Smith, you have to understand the social and intellectual maelstrom that he rode the center of in the 1960s and 70s onward in New York City.  Rage.  Vietnam.  Women’s rights: Our Bodies Ourselves. Civil Rights.  Gay pride.  All piled against the vast complacency of the mainstream media, initially unfocused  through a rising up-swell of tortured voices that were easy to ignore in the beginning.

And there was Harry Smith moving into the center, a bear of a man rolling boisterously with the passions of the time and focusing all that power through his own words and actions, and also through organization of the un-organizable, his giving voice to The People, his own majestic poems that included both formal verse and open jagged dashes into the solar plexis of complacency.  And his publishing.  The small press world we draw our writers from today would not have existed without the work of Harry Smith and only a handful of others who worked with  him.  Harry was the poet and publisher I sought out and pursued diligently through eight years between his inclusion of my early work in an anthology of young poets and his finally accepting my first book of poetry in 1983.  Harry Smith, who brought together Menke Katz, Poet Laureate of Lithuania, with the likes of Sid Bernard, Tom Tolnay, H.L. Van Brunt, and the heart of the dissatisfied New York writers into a powerhouse of revolutionary cultural change that he combined with the voices and machinations of Len Fulton and Hugh Fox to create a full cross-country counter-culture of change through his work at COSMEP, CCLM, the Pushcart Awards, and other ventures.

But what right did I have to even approach Harry Smith, I thought, as I walked into the beehive of activity that comprised the offices of The Smith at Beekman Street in Manhattan? Stan Nelson was rushing out the door.  Sid was dripping cigarette ashes over a pile of manuscripts, having just stopped in from his work as a freelance writer and a roving editor for Smith.  Lloyd had a phone clutched in each hand as he strode up and down the office.  And Harry sat calmly in the middle of it all, his high forehead and white mane of hair reminding me in that first moment of Melville’s blank white wall—whether of good or evil, impervious and containing massive power that came from something indescribable that transcended our beliefs and wove them together.  I found myself at a complete loss of words, merely mumbling and scraping and lowering my own eyes in order to merely be around Harry and these other men, and listen as intently as I could in the time given me to the words they had to say, knowing those words would become a part of me.

I was young and very small, but Harry was magnificent and welcoming and generous, bringing me into the center.  He took me to Suerken's a restaurant  (near his office)  where he maintained a table famous among the New York literati, introduced me to mid-morning Bloody  Marys, and offered a very generous advance for what was after all a first book of poetry.  I see him to this day, with the broad dark round table set before him with white napkins and a rose in a vase upon it along with “whatever food  you would like,” his arms opening wide with welcome repeatedly as ideas took shape and were tasted between us..  Here was the ferocious man who played passion into the poetry of his time in the same way that William Packard was playing control and craft into the same scene through his work at The New York Quarterly.  Here was the writer of Trinity and so much more, an intellectual magnet, and we were there together at the center.

We moved our separate ways again as time moved on, though Harry published a large number of my poems over the years since.  And we remained the closest of friends even after I moved west.  I would visit him in his  brownstone years later in Brooklyn, and we would exchange poems and ruminations and praise for the natural world after he moved to Maine.  But that center, that Suerken's  where we sat and had our fill of literary alcohol has always been at the heart of my most cherished memories.

Harry, we would not have had the world we live in now—would not have had the freedom of choice over words and actions that we have—had it not been for you, your strength, generosity, philanthropy, and creative majesty.  I think that we all wish that we could have given you more.

Bio.Note: Jared Smith is not related to Harry Smith, though he wishes he could claim the connection.  Harry published Jared’s first book, a book-length poem, Song of the Blood, and it is reprinted in full in Jared’s Collected Poems: 1971-2011, published by NYQ Books,  and available through Small Press Distribution at

(for Harry Smith
in Memoriam)

"And how from all death life is reborn"
Louis Aragon

We remain here
forgetting little
of your departed life
full of winds
of mirth
and reverie
of burning nights
in attics
for restless exiles
and new arrivals
sacrificing time
for others who struggle
to locate the right phrase
from the ephemeral,
colliding with idealism
often with the young,
outcast and invisible,
in a protective fate
of keeping your Word
and us alive
on cerebral tongues
as a warm inner light
for generations.

--B.Z. Niditch


  1. This is sad news. Harry was the soul of independent presses. He published me. Many times.
    Harry said he liked to have half The Smith be first time authors. Wrote YES on the envelop of the acceptance
    letter. Barbara and I visited Harry and Claire last summer. Harry was in rough shape but generous, feisty, and
    wonderful as ever.

    Luke Salisbury

  2. Yeah Doug, Harry was one of the influentical voices of the small press world that I was so much a part of, especially in the late sixties and through the seventies. He was a spiritual soul with a mischievous side to him, like the time he and I changed all the signs at the Lennox COSMEP conference, pointing to the wrong rooms at the wrong time, or the time he encouraged me to take a piss on the COSMEP van, funded by the NEA, at another COSMEP conference. I visited him at his home, saw him at bookfairs, and drank and ate with him at COSMEP events. He was generous with both time and money for those who neeeed one, the other, or both..
    Richard Morris, Len Fulton, Hugh Fox, and now Harry Smith, all giants of the old COSMEP crowd, and all at one time Board Members, now departed.

    A.D. Winans