Beyond the Manicured Surfaces: Talking with Aaron Smith
Some years ago when I had just begun teaching at Florida International University, my colleague and friend Denise Duhamel left a photocopy of one of Aaron Smith’s poems in my mailbox. She included a Post-It that read, If you don’t know his work already, let me introduce you to Aaron Smith!
I didn’t know Aaron’s work yet, but when I read “The Problem with Straight People (What We Say Behind Your Backs),” I knew I needed to read more of it. And I did. In fact, I have had the inordinate pleasure of reading all four of Aaron’s published collections to date as well as meeting several times with the poet in person.
I’m grateful to Aaron for letting me ask him these questions and for speaking so honestly—as I knew he would—about his literary influences, the challenges he sets for himself as a poet, and the need for other art besides poetry in a working poet’s life.
The Rumpus: When I read your poem “The Problem with Straight People (What We Say Behind Your Backs),” I was so grateful that a fellow gay person had put these thoughts and feelings into words and then had taken the care to arrange them into art. You became for me at once—and have remained—an essential touchstone: a poet I trust to always say the true thing, even when that true thing may be hard for others to hear. Can you talk a bit about your candor as a poet, which is likely connected to your candor as a person? Do you consider yourself a confessional poet? And? Or? How would you describe your aesthetic and ideological commitments in coming to the page?
Aaron Smith: First, let me say how much I love Denise. She selected my first book, Blue on Blue Ground, for the 2004 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. I’ve gotten to know her over the years. She was and remains a touchstone poet for me. When I found her book, Girl Soldier, it encouraged me to believe that my poems could exist. I wish someone would reprint that book in its entirety.
I am rather candid both in my work and life; I’ve always been this way, for better or worse. I love to know the strange, weird sides of people. The world makes more sense to me when I see beyond the manicured surfaces. It’s not a strategy, or particularly conscious, but I do find when I’m candid and open that people are more willing to be that way with me. I have a sentence in the new book where I say: “I’m the person friends invite to parties and then warn everyone / before I get there.” My friends deny that, but I don’t believe them.
When I think about the term “confessional,” I think literally of the poets: Plath, Sexton, Lowell, and Snodgrass, so it’s not possible to be a confessional poet in that sense (that’s like saying you’re a Beat poet). But I definitely position myself as someone influenced by their work and confessional in the sense that the word gets used today.
As far as being candid as a poet, poetry has always been the place where I figure out the “unsayable.” My earliest influences were Alice Walker, Irene McKinney, Sharon Olds; Toi Derricotte was my teacher. I think of the risks they took writing into difficult spaces, particularly in a culture where so many bullshit expectations are placed on women to act or behave a certain way. Their bravery made a space for other writers like me outside the mainstream.
Sharon Olds, for me, is a poetry gay icon like Cher. I think of her poem “Station” where the speaker “runs out on the dock to write” leaving one child with the father and one in bed. When she comes back, the man looks down on her through the window (“as the lord looks down”), both literally and figuratively, in judgment for putting art above the domestic, “the poems / heavy as poached game hanging from [her] hands.” I love the line break on the word “poems” that accents the significance of her voice as a writer.
I feel if I’m lucky enough to have pages of my own to fill with words—and people who want to read them—then I can’t waste my time being safe, avoiding content that matters to me, or that might make people uncomfortable. Truth is often uncomfortable. (Lucille Clifton said: “you can’t play for safety and make art.”) I also—as you and I have in common—grew up in the cult of fundamentalist Christianity. We were taught to bring “into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” Poetry is a way for me to keep my thoughts, write them down so they exist somewhere outside of me. That’s why I get freaked out by groupthink among poets. I didn’t leave one fundamentalist church just to end up in another one.
Rumpus: As it turns out—and as I’m not at all surprised to learn—we have so many favorite and formative poets in common! Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, all the capital-C Confessional poets, and of course the incomparable Denise Duhamel. I also completed my MFA at the University of Pittsburgh (a few years after you, I believe), where Toi Derricotte directed my thesis and served as yet another luminous example of someone writing the hardest truths.
When I think about Toi, I think of her poems, of course, but I also think of her memoir, The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey, which was the book that led me to the rest of her work and also to Pitt, hoping to study with her there. I think a lot about confessional poetry (capital- or lowercase-C) and memoir as literary analogs, and since I teach and write both genres, I’m always thinking about the spaces of overlap between them.
So I’m curious to know whether you consider your poetry collections works of autobiography and/or memoir—these words carry different meaning for different people. When I think of your poems collectively, the word “testimony” also comes to my mind—a testimony that challenges and indeed refutes the “manicured surfaces” of things.
And while we’re on this subject, I feel I should ask about prose—your relationship with it, your influences from it. Being a poet doesn’t preclude you from writing other genres, of course, but perhaps the bigger question is what draws you to poetry, first and foremost? What can you, Aaron Smith, do in a poem that is different from what you might do in a novel, say, or an essay, or a memoir?
Smith: It’s funny that you say testimony. Growing up in church, people always stood up and gave testimonies, shared experiences about personal trials, etc. The one thing that always left me hollow in those circumstances was that before there could be any real grief, or authentic emotional experience, the person had to circle around to the cliché language of an unwavering faith in God. My earliest relationship to poetry was a place where anything could be said and left to stand in all its complexity, without certainty. Poetry doesn’t let people—writers or readers—off the hook with clichés and easy outs. That is what I love about craft: working to say something as clearly and as singularly as possible through form and content. I’ve always felt if I could succeed in saying something clearly, “differently,” then people would at least hear me out, whether they agree with me or not.
When people ask why I write poetry instead of prose, my quick answer is always: line break. I love the way the line can control a reader, pace, grant different kinds of access as one uncovers the poem. Enjambment! I don’t consider my work memoir. Memoir feels more naked to me, accountable for things I’d rather not be accountable for (timeframes, other people). Memoir feels like the final word, whereas poetry feels like ongoing dialogue, always changing, letting me reconsider the same idea over and over.
All my poems are as true and as autobiographical as they can be. Sometimes making a poem from autobiography requires some adjustments for the sake of the art. I’ve never understood when writers make a big deal out of someone thinking the poem is absolutely them and not a “speaker.” I mean, isn’t it always the writer? Even the things you choose to make up are still from your imagination and tell us something about you as a person, even if it’s what you choose to lie about. I also think it would be fucked up for me to write poems about suicidal ideation and personal experiences with homophobia, and then say I made them up. In the 90s, when I was in graduate school, the pedagogy was: it’s a narrator and you can say what you want. Looking back, though, I see how the pedagogy was still in the hands of the power structure, people invested in claiming every narrative under their umbrella. I think the pedagogy, at least in poetry, needs to shift and writers need to think about whose stories they’re telling and one’s relationship with the lyric “I.”
Rumpus: The first book of yours I read was actually your second book, Appetite, which I had the pleasure of reviewing for Lambda Literary Review. Then, I went back and read your first book, Blue on Blue Ground, followed by your third book, Primer, and now—lucky me!—I’ve had a chance to read an advanced galley of The Book of Daniel, your fourth collection of poems.
I’d like to know how you see these four collections in conversation with each other? What might a reader learn about your evolution as a poet—and perhaps also as a person—from reading these books in the order in which they were written/published? What have you learned about yourself through writing them?
Smith: This kind of goes back to my point with memoir. I have the same obsessions, but I get to go back to those topics and write them again from a different angle, so I know there are thematic elements the books have in common. I mostly think of the books, though, from my viewpoint as the writer, thinking what I was trying to do with each one. I try to challenge myself from book to book. For example, I rely on enjambment a lot in my first book, and then I tried to strip that away in my second to push myself away from strategies I’d relied on before. I double-spaced a lot in The Book of Daniel, which uses a lot of juxtaposition. I wanted the poems to have room and emphasize that technique. And that book is different from my third book, Primer, where the poems feel closer (to each other and the speaker), and I wanted the form to model that.
I also think about words that I’ve used too much and challenge myself not to use them. For example, the words “body,” “beautiful,” and “desire” are almost clichés now in gay male poetry. I’m interested in writing about all those subjects, but it’s more interesting to me to write about those subjects without saying those words. In fact, it almost feels lazy. I try only to use them when I have no other word that works.
Rumpus: Over the years, in conversations with all kinds of people, I’ve been pleased to learn how many of my fellow humans turn to poetry in their private lives as a way to cope, to vent, to try to make sense of themselves and the world around them. But comparatively few people “go public” with their inclination toward poems. Certainly not even everyone who studies poetry formally seeks to publish their work, let alone to place poetry at the center of their lives. I’m wondering when you first realized you were a poet and how you decided to become what I’m going to call a capital-P poet—someone who lives, reads, writes, teaches, and publishes in this genre. Perhaps, in other words, how did poetry become the vocational challenge you have chosen to embrace in your life?
Smith: I get a certain amount of anxiety when I read that question! I still don’t feel like a capital-P poet, or even really know how I relate to that word. I’m much more comfortable saying I write poems. Sometimes I just want to say that I write. People have such strong opinions about what a poem should be, and I feel limited by those expectations if I let them into my head. I guess being a poet feels like a constant “becoming.” When I was in my twenties, I was singular in my desire and pretty obsessed. I read everything, bought every book as soon as it came out. My friends always asked me what they should read. At that time in my life, I knew I really wanted to do this. But now, after twenty years of doing this, my relationship to poetry—and poetry as the center of my life—changes all the time. I’m so fortunate to have four books. Sometimes I’m like: if the twenty-something you knew he’d have four books, he’d be blown away. But other times I feel trapped by the notion that my relationship to this art is tied to my employment. I have to keep making poems if I want to be a professor. I like my job, but it’s an odd predicament because my art is not just mine; there is obligation attached to it. Today I was thinking that maybe I never want to write poetry again. There was no “drama.” It was almost comforting to imagine different ways of spending my time. I guess I wonder if it will continue to serve me, will it sustain me for the rest of my life?
Rumpus: Thank you for being so honest, Aaron. There’s a strange way that a large group of talented and hardworking people vie for very few jobs in an overcrowded field, and we can’t help but feel if we hold one of those coveted positions that we shouldn’t ever have doubt or regret or anything that might be misinterpreted as a lack of gratitude.
Speaking of other things that might sustain you, I recently came across some of your collages in an issue of Court Green and was absolutely enraptured. I’m not on Instagram and didn’t realize you were working with visual as well as literary art. I’d love to know more about your collages—when you began making them and why—and I’m especially curious about any parallels you find, or don’t find, between the impulse to make visual versus textual imagery.
Smith: I think the Instagram question is a good transition from the last question. I started doing those collages several years ago, and to date, I think I’ve made around fifteen hundred. I was in a space where I didn’t feel like writing poems, and I wanted to do something that I didn’t really know how to do, something creative. I also wanted a creative space outside poetry. Since Instagram focuses on squares, I found a program that gives me nine squares to work with. I started messing with images, seeing what collages I could configure with limited space, juxtaposition. I would make them obsessively on my iPhone, not worrying if they were great. I wasn’t afraid to fail publicly.
It’s funny: I have over four thousand followers and ended up meeting amazing artists, including the artist Gio Black Peter who did the artwork that is on the cover of the new book and Elly Smallwood whose art is on the cover of my third book. Making them was a lot of fun. I’ve had some published. I’ve printed some and sold them. It was a nice surprise to stumble around visual art and for others to be receptive, to find a new community. I credit those collages with bringing me to the poems in The Book of Daniel. Like I said: the collages were about limited space and juxtaposition without so much “connective” tissue. When I think about not using so much connective tissue as a poet, I think about making leaps, juxtaposing images and ideas, and trusting my reader to follow without me leaving a trail of bread crumbs.
I think of my impulse to make collage as the same sensibility I bring to the new book. I wanted to throw everything into the book (high art, low art, Brad Pitt, Anne Sexton, etc.) and see how they exist in proximity to each other. I let the strange associations, the big leaps, happen, and this is the most fun I’ve had writing any of my books. Poetry was fun! I also credit my friend and poet Miguel Murphy, who challenged me regarding craft. He encouraged me to trust the work, the poems, and to follow what they wanted to do. It was thrilling for someone to push me in a way that excited me and taught me new things about formal risk.
Rumpus: What comes next for Aaron Smith, the person, the poet, the professor, the collagist, even Aaron Smith, the son, if you like? I’m not only interested in what you’re working on now (though I am interested in that), but in your evolving vision of yourself as a maker and teacher of art in this world. What else would you like to make and teach? What else would you like to learn?
Smith: This question is hard to answer now with my mother’s health declining rapidly. I’m constantly trying to wrap my head around the magnitude of what is happening and how it will change my relationship to everything I know, including my writing. I’ll look back on this interview and know exactly what happened today in regards to her. Recently, I’ve been in a period of silence. I haven’t written (or wanted to write) a poem in over a year. This never freaks me out. I usually go for two years. Lately, though, fragments of lines have been showing up, little glimmers of images. I’m having lots of conversations in my head while driving or walking the dog. That usually happens before more writing comes. I sometimes feel the shape of what the writing will be before I even start. I also start collecting new books and magazines, even objects. I guess I’m stockpiling. Outside of writing, I would like to take a class in metalworking and learn how to make rings. Or maybe I’ll just read magazines and crime thrillers and binge watch television. All of it turns into something new eventually.
Photograph of Aaron Smith by Brian Fizer.