The Poem as an Archive of Your Life and the World Around You: The Rumpus Interview with Clint Smith
Through various poetic forms he shows us how living is rife with struggle and challenge and uncertainty. The poems in Above Ground are at turns philosophical, musical, lyrical explorations of Black fatherhood, family, self-discovery and the angst and anguish of living in a world where modern technology and violence can end all of this in a microsecond. But, Above Ground is also a celebration of the miracle of birth, humor, and of being able to dance even when you know one day the music will stop playing— a recognition that, as my Great-grandfather, Robert Jordan would say “Any day looking down at the blossoms beats an eternity looking up at the roots.”
I first encountered Clint Smith at a literary event in Boston after the release of his first volume of poems, Counting Descent. He was generous and respectful and both he and his poems were well received. His delivery was easy and relaxed, expertly timed and masterful—as if he’d been used to being himself in front of crowds of strangers. After a bit of research I discovered that Clint used to perform at poetry slams in the D.C. area. This explained a lot to me. Because in a poetry slam one never knows what crowd one will be presenting in front of, one needs to be prepared for as many audience-types as possible. And, to do this effectively, requires one to have multiple styles of performance and be able to hold forth on a range of subject matters from the intimate to the irreverent, the political to the romantic. And this, of course, requires one to be unafraid to, as we would say… “go there” with oneself and the audience. In Above Ground Clint Smith certainly does.
I caught up with Smith in a Zoom call to his California home. Even though he was between interviews and deadlines he showed that same generosity, depth, and deeply considered humanity he exhibits on stage and in his work.
The Rumpus: Why did this collection, Above Ground, need to happen?
Clint Smith: It needed to happen for me. I began the collection before How the Word is Passed. I started it when my wife got pregnant in September, 2016. I didn’t start How the Word is Passed until the confederate monuments came down in May, 2017. Pregnancy, as I write about in the book, was not guaranteed for us. We were told we had less than a 1% chance. So, when it happened, it felt miraculous. It felt remarkable. It also felt incredibly fragile and precarious. Poetry, for me, is about paying attention both to the world and to my interior self. So, I wanted to use poems as a way of tracking how I was experiencing what was going on with my wife becoming pregnant and everything that went along with that. And this kept going through when my kids were born, to when they were babies, became toddlers, up until now when they are little kids.
Rumpus: I relate to your idea of poetry being a way of tracking. Do you see poetry as a form of documentation?
Smith: Absolutely! I’ll look at old poems that I have . . . (well, I don’t look at them because they’re terrible) but, I think about the poems I have on YOUTUBE from 15 years ago and it’s hard for me to even watch, read or hear those poems. They feel unfamiliar. That was half a lifetime ago, and my sensibilities are different—my disposition is different, my writing is different. But, my friend, poet Safia Elhillo said, “You could look at these poems as time capsules of where you were at different moments in your life—and how beautiful it is to have them serve as breadcrumbs that allow you to track who you’ve been over the years.” I’ve been really struck by that—the poem as breadcrumb—the poem as an archive of your life and the world around you. So, yes, a huge way of thinking about poetry is as a process of documentation.
Rumpus: There are many pop-culture references in your poems. I wonder to what degree is this about documenting the present day for your children? And, is there any fear of your poems sounding or becoming “dated” by your doing so?
Smith: Hmmm . . . I don’t think I carry that fear. Each poem is different and has its larger life among those in the collection. Some of the books and films I love the most make references to cultural phenomena happening at that time. I don’t think that prevents it from being universally understood or causes it to only be relevant for a specific period of time. It helps one understand the social, political and cultural context in which a poem took place. Pop culture is a part of our lives and can be part of the writing we use to mark the different moments of our lives.
Rumpus: Well said! This collection contains quite a few lyrical narratives. I experience these as being more conversational in tone and tending away from the highly wrought, scripted, sculpted, sometimes stilted use of language often employed in poems. Is there a power or advantage to just speaking plainly?
Smith: I think one of my literary and intellectual commitments is to the idea that intellectual rigor or artistic integrity don’t have to come at the expense of legibility. It’s a stylistic choice, right? So, for me, I am often writing for a sort of teenage version of myself. I think about what sorts of poems I would have been drawn to. What poems were inviting me into the poem rather than making the poem feel obtuse, inaccessible, or difficult to navigate. Again, this is a stylistic choice. There are visual artists and painters who paint abstract works, and those who paint portraits, or landscapes. Neither is wrong! They just reflect different ways of seeing the world—of holding and depicting it.
I have friends whose work is stylistically very different from mine, but, I love it! Their poems lean more into non-narrative complexities, and I think that it’s great. However, those are not part of my poetic sensibilities. But to be clear, that’s just a decision I’ve made in my poetic commitment.
Rumpus: I wonder to what degree our style is a decision? Gregory Orr once put forth the idea that there are four basic temperaments poets possess: Music, Imagination, Story, and Structure—and our particular temperament for one or more of these will guide our writing. How does that notion strike you? And, do you think these were things you considered as that younger-poet version of yourself?
Smith: No matter what genre I write in I am ALWAYS thinking of the music of the language: The way the poem sounds out loud. I read all of my non-fiction work aloud—whether for The Atlantic, or any book I write. I do so because I think that hearing the work is the best process of revision. Probably I also do so because it’s also difficult for me to consider my own ideas and approach to the craft without recognizing and naming the tradition I came out of and in which my work was born: the performance tradition. I came up as a young writer in the D.C. poetry slam scene, and the three-minute boundary of the slam shaped what the narrative arc of poems I performed looked like. It shaped where the climax occurred, the narrative turn, the denouement, etc… And, as a young writer it gave me structure. It’s like when some beginning poets are taught to write poems, they often only write in a specific form. Well, the poetry slam is a form. There are also norms and styles that were popular to varying degrees over the years. The slam shaped the ways in which I approach writing. And it not only gave me structure, but an editorial community. So, without what I learned from that scene, there is no How the Word is Passed, no Atlantic staff-writer position; there are no collections of poetry.
Rumpus: The poems in Above Ground tend to be shorter and there is a use of repetition that serves to bring the reader back to what is the poem’s central theme. How much of this is coming from your time as a stage performer?
Smith: Again, because I read my poems aloud, I am attuned to repetition, anaphora, and alliteration. All of these different configurations of figurative language lend themselves to different experiences with the poem. In some poems that contain more humor, you might notice more anaphora than you would in a poem where there is less humor. When I think about the poets I have experienced in the slam community who were funny, there are different styles they would use to elicit laughter and create a different emotional texture in poems. I carry all of those lessons.
Rumpus: How do you find the humor? Is that just the way you look at the world? Is it something you had to work for? Or—was it imitative and emulative of what you’d seen and resonated with?
Smith: All of that! I also think that having kids allowed me to tap into humor and bring it into my writing in ways I was previously unable to access. I think kids just make you sillier! Having young kids made me take myself less seriously. They don’t take me seriously! I mean they love poop jokes! My kids will laugh at things I say that I didn’t intend to be funny and make me think I should give up being a journalist or poet and become a standup comic!
Rumpus: Speaking of humor and your kids, I am thinking of the poem “Gold Stars,” one of several poems in which you delve into the imaginative and slightly absurd. What are you going for when doing so?
Smith: It’s a mix. Speaking again about figurative language—I certainly lean into hyperbole. I push it. However, much of what’s going on in that poem is true. I have had people thank me for “babysitting” my kids—someone actually rolled down a car window and yelled “Father of the Year!’ No, it is not the case that confetti falls from the sky. But what I hope such hyperbolic moments do is heighten the absurdities, contradictions, and tensions about the experiences that produced the poem, namely, the way a father with his small children is perceived relative to a mother. And, in particular, a Black father relative to a Black mother.
Rumpus: In several poems like, “The Drone,” “The Gun,” and “In the Grocery Store,” you eschew traditional punctuation or employ it very sparsely (only a question mark in one and an interrobang in another)—instead, you employ caesura. What are you hoping the reader gets from this? Does it affect the way you read the poem when rendering it for an audience?
Smith: It definitely shapes how I read the poem. I think the caesuras serve as de facto punctuation. Part of what I think it’s meant to do is sort of capture breath and indicate a pause, but not a stoppage. For example, in “The Drone” and “The Gun,” I am trying to capture that the presence of drone warfare and gun violence are ongoing. There is nothing stopping it—there is no period. There may be a momentary cease fire, if you will, but that is not to say it is finished. There is only a moment that might allow a breath before being inundated again with violence. So, I am hoping to convey the relentlessness of that violence and how these momentary respites can be deceptive.
Rumpus: In your poem, “The New York Times Reports That 200 Civilians Have Just Been Killed by U.S. Military Air Strikes,” you write “I wonder what it is that turns mourning into metonym or proclamation or conjecture?” I kept thinking that you are asking not only what is it that does so—but, what is it in us that does so? Is that accurate? And, to what degree might all art, especially poetry, do the same things—that is, turn something like mourning into metonym?
Smith: The big questions. Yes, what is it in us that allows us to do so? I am really interested in what serves as catalyst to our empathy and what serves as obstacle to it. What is it about lines drawn in sand by men thousands of years ago that either facilitates our sense of mourning or prevents it? And, what is it in us that allows this? Hmmm… I wonder if any rendering of violence through art is inherently turning it into a sort of metonym? I mean, in the sense that it can never be commensurate with the violence itself. It is impossible to write a poem about drone warfare and gun violence that captures what they are. So, in that sense there is something to your idea that art becomes a metonym—not to say that art is insufficient, but that it is not the same. It is limited.
Rumpus: In this collection there are poems which employ two, three, and four-line stanzas, 1 sonnet-like poem, and quite a few poems with no fixed form but seem organic. What determines your decision to employ any of these structures? What makes Clint Smith determine this poem needs two, three, or four lines and these types of line breaks, and this one I’ll let unfold and have its form follow the line of thought?
Smith: When I was performing poems at open mics and poetry slams, what I discovered and loved was how the poem didn’t only live in the language itself but lived in your body. That there were ways to communicate to an audience what the poem meant by how loud or soft your volume was, how quickly you read, where you slowed down, where your cadence changed, where you used a different intonation, what you were doing with your hands, with your eyes. All of those created performative forms and structures. They were ways of creating enjambment behind the microphone, metrics and line-breaks. When I came to the page, I began thinking of how I could recreate on the page some of what I could do with my body and voice when behind a microphone. If I want a poem to be read quickly, I place just a few words on each line. If I want a poem to be experienced as a stream of consciousness, it might be a prose poem with no punctuation. Sometimes I want a poem to be read as if the form is in conversation with the subject matter, as in “Cartography,” which focuses on the eroding coastlines of Louisiana. So, I made structural decisions to have the poem’s shape mimic erosion.
Rumpus: What is the riskiest poem in Above Ground? What did you try that was challenging? Do you have pieces you attempted that were such utter failures you didn’t include in the collection?
Smith: To answer that last part of your question first . . . YES! I have hundreds of those poems. There are 77 poems in this book, and I wrote hundreds during this same period of time that are not included in this book (either because they are just for me, or my kids, or my wife or . . . because they are just bad poems).
I will say that seven years ago, with my first book, I wouldn’t have included those poems that were leaning into humor. I think there is often a sense that if you are to be taken seriously as a writer, your writing has to carry a solemnity and address topics that are raw, emotionally heavy and speak to trauma. However, I also think my kids, along with writers like Ross Gay for example, have unlocked within me a sense of permission to explore joy, delight, levity and silliness. Expressing these does not mean compromising artistic rigor. We should disabuse ourselves of the notion that serious writing can only be about serious topics. So, in Above Ground, it did feel risky to include poems about dance parties and electric baby swings and dinosaurs. But I think I felt a little more free to include such poems in this collection than I’d felt in my first one.
Rumpus: You mentioned Ross Gay. Let me hit you with a scenario: You’re at a poetry slam and your opponent is Ross Gay. It’s a three–round slam (laughter): What poems from this collection do you pick to go heads-up with Ross?
Smith: Man, I don’t know . . . you can’t out-joy Ross Gay (laughter)! So, I don’t know what the strategy is. I’d have to see what’s up with the audience. Maybe I have to go heavy! If so, then I’m doing “The Drone” to counter the levity. But, if it’s an audience that wants to laugh, I’d hit them with “The Dance Party” or “The Great Escape”—then hit them with “Ossicones” and the giraffes. Nah! I don’t think Ross’ personality aligns with the whole competitive slam vibe.
Rumpus: I know! But it’s interesting to imagine you and him going head-to-head for the book deal! (Laughter).
Rumpus: Okay, last question. Both Counting Descent and Above Ground conclude with poems featuring water. In the former a young boy looks out over a lake while in the latter a man looks into a pond. Why was it important for you to close your collections with images of water?
Smith: The final line of “All at Once,” the poem which begins Above Ground is “the river that gives us water to drink is the same one that might wash us away.” I think water best exemplifies the duality, the complexity, the cognitive dissonance of so much of our lives. The same thing that gives us life can take it! My previous book How the Word is Passed was about slavery. And I was thinking a lot about water in the context of the Middle Passage, the Mississippi River, and what it meant to be “sold South”—that is, to get in that boat heading down the Mississippi to be auctioned in New Orleans. Being a child of New Orleans I thought a lot about Katrina—I was 17 years old when it happened. So, I’ve seen the ways that historically and ecologically water can destroy—and have also seen the ways in which it nourishes and provides. I am fascinated by that, and felt it was right to bookend the collection with reflections on that complexity.
Author photo by Carletta Girma