It’s hard to say when I first became aware of Bud Smith’s writing. I’m sure it was online; his work is fairly ubiquitous here—an essay here, a poem there, a short story someplace else. He’s got a few books under his belt to boot, the stellar F-250 and Calm Face, as well as the most recent, Dust Bunny City, for which his wife, Rae Buleri, did the brilliant illustrations. Bud’s writing is unpretentious and refreshing. He writes about his life and work. Smith’s day job is at an oil refinery in New Jersey (or night job, depending on the shift). It’s all fairly romantic—a blue-collar union worker who moonlights as a poet/writer—but it’s true.
I’ve been a colossal fan of Bud’s writing and how effortlessly he weaves together anecdotes from his life or work into great art. There’s a song I like that goes, “Why’s it so hard to separate/who we are from what we do?” Bud tosses this whole conceit out the window—why even bother?
The Rumpus: I love your work because, to me, it is an affirmation of the everyday, or, the day to day.
Bud Smith: Thank you so much. Feel like if I don’t live day to day I’ll be tricked into hurrying up to be dead. Bump my head in my coffin, say, what happened?
Rumpus: Not completely unrelated (I hope), I heard you say in an interview that Seinfeld was important to you, or an influence on you, or something to that effect.
Smith: Big influence. It came on TV when I was eight years old and ended when I was fifteen. We lived in a small town on a dirt road. Their city seemed unlimited.
Plus, Seinfeld is a written in a circular loop where pieces of the story may seem random in the beginning, but by the end, we realize it was a catalyst for an important thing that was mistaken for a mundane thing. I think real life is like that, always circling back. There’s deep meaning, and even something like being bored (wherever you are) is very important.
Rumpus: This is interesting to me because it sort of contradicts the oft-made claim that Seinfeld is a show “about nothing” or is a “nihilist” television series.
Smith: It’s a show about nothing because it’s not interested in career or the nuclear family. I’m half sure it’s why I moved to NYC. Living uptown from 2005–2016, reverse commuting across the GWB to power plants, trash burners, refineries, and nuclear power plants in a car I parked on the street for ten years. Just like Jerry, George and Kramer, kinda.
There are two ways to look at life: either everything means something or nothing means anything. We all get to decide. Nobody is wrong.
Rumpus: Last summer, I interviewed Donald Ray Pollock and asked him if his time driving an ash hauler at the paper mill for over twenty years in southern Ohio taught him anything about writing. He said discipline. I was wondering if you feel there is anything that your day job has taught you about writing.
Smith: Well it definitely didn’t teach me discipline. Discipline would be sticking with something I didn’t like, and toughing through it. I’m not that kind of person. If I don’t like something, I almost immediately quit it. Right now I feel like most of what I’m doing with my silly life is making gasoline and stories. I’m not sure what the stories are doing for anyone, but at least the gasoline helps some ambulances and fire trucks get around town when things go wrong.
Rumpus: Is there anything in your life that you wouldn’t write about? Is anything off limits?
Smith: I’d like to still be making status updates on social media, making fun of the doctors as they cut the life support on me. Real time.
Really though, I don’t write about my sex life because, I don’t know, this might seem counterintuitive to myth but even at my construction job, guys aren’t talking about that. There’s not too much, “So there I was fucking… did y’all get that? I was f…u…c…k…i…n…g and it was GREAT.”
Rumpus: Could you talk about the genesis of Dust Bunny City? Did you and your wife come up with the idea together?
Smith: One Friday night I worked at the refinery till the sun came up. My wife had gone out dancing all night with her friend. Instead of going home and sleeping, I got on the train from 173rd street, going downtown. On that train, I saw a poster for a poem and was hypnotized by it. Tracy K. Smith’s “The Good Life.” How beautiful it was, just hanging on the filthy wall, covered in other people’s fingerprints on the brushed steel. Someone yelled at me as I tried to read it, so I yelled back. I met my wife around ten in the morning and we went out drinking. We bar-hopped all across town and I wrote down some of the trouble we got in. A week later she had to go to China and India and I wrote down some of the trouble I got in while she was gone.
Part of Dust Bunny City (section 2) won a chapbook contest, but the press folded up before it came out. Then later, a different press contacted me and asked to publish that chapbook, because a reader at the first press had started their own thing, but I said I didn’t think it was a good idea. To me the thing seemed unfinished. I asked Rae if she’d want to illustrate the loose draft that was Dust Bunny City… but she said no. She said she hates illustrating other people’s ideas. So I said, “Well, remember when we went drinking that day? Would you draw from memory what the day felt like?” And she drew the whole world then. Jukeboxes. Skulls. Hydrants. Bodega cats. Weird birds. After the fact, I used those drawing as a guidance to finish my final draft of Dust Bunny City. It was the most organic creative experience I’ve ever taken part in.
Rumpus: Your work has this wonderful dose of humorous absurdity in it. I don’t mean in a magic realism sense, but more like, it has a real keen understanding of the absurdity of life.
Smith: I’m working night shift right now, welding patches on the side of a blast furnace. On my way in for this shift, I stopped at a gas station to buy some food to eat, because you know, there’s no better place in the world to get groceries than a gas station in New Jersey. I grabbed a can of chicken soup from the same aisle as the motor oil and porno mags. Campbell’s chicken soup. I took that to the register and the cashier just stared at the soup and said, shit you not, “What the hell is this?”
What the hell is a can of Campbell’s chicken soup at a gas station on the side of the road in New Jersey at sunset? No one knows. Real life is the most absurd thing going.
Rumpus: In one story you say, “Everyone in the bar lives on a different planet. And we will never know what planet that is.” I wanted to ask you if you think that is true.
Smith: I do. There’s always three versions of people: the version you know, the version they are, and the version you hear about from whoever, whenever. Some folks are really great at some things and the worst humans ever at others. Some people can’t even drink a glass of water without starting a forest fire. But others save your life just by blinking at you.
Rumpus: I loved how seamlessly this book switched between styles. How do you decide what’s a poem and what’s a piece of prose?
Smith: I used to think I was a musician, then a poet, then a novelist, then all of the above. Now I don’t think of myself as an anybody. Form isn’t important to me in the things I consume, or the things I make. Everything will do.
Rumpus: The drawings add a sense of unity to the book. We know it takes place in NYC—you name specific places. But, in a way, by it being illustrated and the slight surreal elements present in both the prose and the drawings, you have created your own NYC. Not unlike Wes Anderson in The Royal Tenenbaums or Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Was this something you were both trying to do at all?
Smith: My wife draws how the world looks to her and I write how the world feels to me. I think those artists you mentioned weren’t worrying about retreading on anyone else’s work. They were just so focused, or so oblivious that it didn’t matter to them. Put it to you this way, you have to be a dipshit to keep writing about New York City because everything has been said about New York City. It’ll all get said every single day. But, also, you’re alive and you’re here and there is no one who will ever be you. So, what’s happening in your collapsing, mold infested apartment right now? Are you f…u…c…k…i… n…g and is it GREAT!?
Rumpus: To switch gears a bit, congratulations on the Civil Coping Mechanisms Mainline win. What can you tell me about that book, and maybe the competition for those who don’t know?
Smith: Thanks! CCM Mainline is this thing where writers send in their manuscripts in a mad blitz. Editors read like the wind. You’ll know where you stand daily, because CCM tweets out the standings. Basically, submit what you have, receive instant gratification that night. A literary scratch off ticket.
I’d been writing a column at Real Pants mostly about working heavy construction and making art while doing that. The second night the contest was happening I sent along a manuscript of those essays. I’d been working on that a year… writing them on my cellphone at work on my coffee breaks. The book is called Work Safe or Die Trying and besides essays on creativity and being a blue collar, non-college educated writer, it is also about my family, and the spaces I’ve lived through the years. A memoir but the only lesson you might take away is that I am a dumbass who never pinned down a lesson from the lesson that is life.
Rumpus: Okay, let’s talk about this, just a bit. You are, in your words, a “blue collar non-college educated writer.” Is this something that has helped or hindered you in the writing world? Is it something you resent or embrace or both? Or maybe, in what ways do you see those descriptors as impactful on your creative life?
Smith: I am happy, lucky, and privileged that I get to work with my hands for a living. If I lose my hands, I’ll have to learn to sing and that terrifies me. I don’t feel hindered by much of anything. Mostly, it comes down to believing it’s none of my business what other artists are doing behind the scenes of the art they make. It certainly doesn’t help me make my art better to even speculate. I want to be slapped in the face by all the art from all the different levels of society on this earth. Rich, poor/wise, foolish. I don’t care how anyone does the impossible.
Rumpus: I feel like you are always working on something. Can you tell me what’s in the works now?
Smith: Finishing a draft of a novel that’s supposed to come out in early 2018. It’s kind of like The Odyssey but taking place mostly in a strip mall. Also, working on edits with a press for a collection of short stories called Double Bird.
Author photograph © Brett Gregory.