To Witness through Invention: An Interview with R. T. Smith
VL: After years of success as a poet, you have recently begun publishing literally dozens of short stories. Is this a natural evolution in your writing, or have events in your life changed what you are drawn to write?
RTS: Three and a half years ago I discovered I had cancer of the neck and throat with a 50-50 chance of survival, so I underwent a damaging series of surgeries, a full regimen of radiation, and extensive chemotherapy, including wearing a pump that pulsed chemicals into my system around the clock. I developed a fatalistic view, a siege mentality, along with a gallows sense of humor. And, yes, it changed everything.
I expect my initial response was the further darkening of my native perspective. When I recovered enough to resume writing, I delved deeply into the life of John Wilkes Booth and started writing poems about his journey from our first matinee idol, "the handsomest man in America" according to one critic, to the black vulture of American history. One of those poems appears in the fall Southern Review, and even now the series and my immersion in the research give me the creeps when I look back.
The whole time I was working on the poems, I hankered to give the narrative more force than the lyric, so I felt I might be traipsing towards fiction, which I wrote furiously back in the eighties. As soon as I opened the story gate, I found a dozen or so were simmering inside me. They seemed to hatch en masse, like cicadas, and they're all identifiably Southern, full of rural people who love God too much or too little. I wanted to write about the kind of folks I knew as a child in Griffin, Georgia, and later in rural Lee County, Alabama. Or the people I dreamed out of those circumstances. By the time I was immersed in the stories, my wife suggested that my awareness of both violence and humor had grown more acute. I guess Samuel Johnson was right to say that thinking about death quickens one, because I drank deep from that well and was refreshed. In fact, I began to create a whole community in the stories for me to talk to. Since I'm not really a member of an academic department anymore, I don't work in an environment with colleagues as office neighbors and confidants. Add to that the isolating nature of illness, and I was getting pretty stir-crazy. I made up people like Uke Rivers, the famous midget ukulele player; Chef Pelvis of the Pink Cadillac Café; a child-mauling bear named Sugar; and Granny Annie the hymn-breaker to keep me company, but I had to give them dire circumstances to intensify the kinship. I mean, we're all in dire circumstances, but it seemed important to explore the nature of jeopardy and the available responses to it to the point of discomfort. If you want to fish for shark, you have to use blood bait, and I was also tired of feeling that threats are usually subtle and have to be met with reasonable discussion and endless negotiation. I wanted to witness, through invention, some cleansing action, some catharsis. Many of the people in my mind were God-haunted, and a lot of them were angry, which was probably easy enough to anticipate and to explain, given my life at the time. When the ground shakes under you, you start thinking about penance and redemption if you have any Protestant background at all.
So I've written a couple of books' worth of short stories. The best ones I've gathered into a collection with the title Jesus Wept (from the story of that name in last spring's Southern Review), and I'm currently looking for an agent, a publisher, or an angel to take it off my hands.
VL: Can you say a bit about how you work with a story once you have the outline of a plot?
RTS: I would so love to come up with an outline of a plot early on. What I get instead is a phrase or the look on a character's face, and then I have to ask, "What's troubling her?" or, "What's he running away from?" The early stages of composition have to do with finding the eccentric music of the narrator's voice, and sometimes I have a scannable rhythm and a general notion of the accent before I have many words. Most of my stories are told by first-person narrators, so I have to get them talking, unleashing their word-hoard. Most of these characters are having that Frostian "lover's quarrel with the world," and once I start trying to give their stories "a local habitation and a name," well, right soon there's a person and a place and a sense of some antagonism. Before long I detect some Biblical or mythic pattern in it, and that gives me confidence that I'm not just doing some brand of self-flagellating alphabetic therapy.
When the ground shakes
under you, you start
thinking about penance
Then I start to sing it. Not exactly, but I read aloud what I've written over and over, desperate to find what note—linguistic, emotional, intellectual—most naturally falls next. I just read a very useful essay in the Georgia Review by Ira Sadoff. He's explaining how he thinks a poem comes into being, how its tone develops, and he says this very smart thing: ...as readers we know nothing until we read the first word of the poem; feeling accrues syntactically, from one word action to the next; feeling is altered by syntactical movement and accumulated (inside the history of the poem) narrative or lyric.
I'd not differ with him, as they say in the Smokies. And I think it's equally true for my way of making a story. I choose a word or phrase for the components (pitch, denotation, associations, rhythm) that I believe will jigsaw it in with the words that precede it, but then it brings in other qualities that influence what words might follow it and snug in. I find the character through the voice, the habits of inflection and trope that arise when I try to get her or him to talk back to me. Obviously, this is a tricky way to write the rough draft of a story, and I do try to get some notes down about what might happen next, notes to guide my tonal obsession, but I think this is a residual method from my poetry composition practice. I wouldn't recommend that wholly sane people write stories this way, as it's probably akin to some mania and comes with more snares and pitfalls than anybody needs. After I get a draft that resembles a real story with episode and summary and maybe even dialogue, I enter a process of abrading and kneading, always aloud. This is also my way of making a poem, but I think the commitment to composing stories aloud is a decision to defy the throat cancer. During and after the treatments, I had difficulty with articulation. I mean, they destroyed my salivary glands only in order to save my life, but spit is something you really miss if it's gone. Pliny the Elder knew that; he says spitting can protect us against evil spells, so every writer needs to be able to expectorate.
Once I get a decent draft, I start asking if the story has to begin where it does, what I've left too far in the shadows and what too explicitly in the light. I have to rearrange it and wrestle with the structure and subtext. Everything is open to question, especially the obviously brilliant phrases, for as Mr. Faulkner reminded us, we have to "murder our darlings." In short, as Bill Monroe says about making the mandolin behave and render the true sound, "You got to whip it like a mule."
VL: How do you usually discover stories you want to pursue?
RTS: Who was it that said, "The first line comes from God; I have to do the rest"? Shelley, maybe. But if it's the other party who gives the call, I'm equally attentive. I'm not saying I've had a vigil at the crossroads like Robert Johnson and waited for Scratch to show up and negotiate, but most every writer's had days when he or she thought, "I'm ready to bargain."
Maybe the best way to answer this is to provide a couple of examples. I read in an old newspaper the account of a man in north Alabama selling his daughter as wife to a neighbor for some ridiculous barter price. That spark stayed with me till one day it just somehow hit the tinder of the Rumplestiltskin story, and I wondered what a frontier fairy tale would be like—the requisite atrocity, followed by ordeals, expectations, cunning defense and rescue. I just wanted to hear that story, so I made it up, thinking all along that it should have an unusual framework, not quite fictive, not quite fabular. "Fabulous" is probably the proper word; "fabular" sounds like a short curved bone. But "Rampskin" is the result, and I'm looking forward to seeing how readers respond.
I've always been fascinated by the variety of forms that Christian piety takes in the South. My experiences with evangelists, apostles, anchorites, and disciples (though no martyrs, so far) has been, well, stimulating, to say the least, and I keep promoting the real ones I've known into the fiction realm. Witnessing, in my way. Maybe I should call the manuscript Camp Meeting. Really, the self-appointed, self-anointed variety really intrigue me, because they got to be prophets and divines the same way I got to be a writer: they farmed around at it awhile and then one day just declared it to be so.
Last summer I was thinking about a man I knew in Alabama who prayed in his outhouse, and I was growing a big crop of sunflowers, so when I put them together with the kind of bewildered child narrator who talks in my head a lot (Huck, I guess, turned to new purposes), I began to make "Jesus Wept." It's full of things that interest me: subsistence farming, rural religion, multi-faceted betrayal, cracker sublimity, domestic turmoil, innocents who are smirched and damaged but who find their way to stoic survival. At some point, I began to see the trappings of a Pandora story in what I'd done, so I worked that angle a little, too. And labor. I love to write about people who really work with their hands, instead of their fingers.
I wouldn't recommend
that wholly sane people
write stories this way...
One more, and I'll cry, "Hold, enough." The physical centerpiece of Washington and Lee University's historic identity is the Lee Chapel, with a salt-white marble statue of a recumbent ("sleeping," his widow insisted) General Lee on the stage, and a museum in the crypt/basement, along with the Poe-gloomy treasure trove of Lee remains from Light Horse Harry to, I like to imagine, Annabel. I see the building every day. I usually give visiting writers and other guests a tour, and sometimes I find myself sounding like a volunteer devotee. You know those docents who guide you around some museums with open zeal and a smuggled agenda? Well what, I thought, if the Lexington community supplied one of those, one who had gone so peculiar that she's not even allowed in the museum part anymore? Thinking of the fervor found in some Daughters of the Confederacy makes this easy to conceive. Let me back up a minute. The Civil War and Poe's writing and history are long-time interests for me, and I've taught courses on both here at W & L. One day on an unsettlingly turbulent flight south on a prop plane about the size of a honey wagon, I came up with this guerilla guide to distract myself. I imagined her—Sybil Mildred Clemm LeGrande Pascal, but "Miss Sibby" to you—as simultaneously cool and breathless, distorted and cunning, disappointed and empowered; in short: kinked. Are there Southern women like this? Well, maybe. But I wanted a monologue, her spiel to a bunch of "innocent" tourists, and it began to take on the feel of a crackpot aria whirling toward the abyss. While I was on my trip, a literary raid to Alabama, I worked hard on her vocabulary in my swanky room, and when I came home, I had to educate myself further on the facts and lore touching the Chapel, then decide how I was going to blend them with Sibby's addled but cunning attitudes. One thing that was in my mind from the start, which dovetailed this story with my overall project: there's a memorial stone in the Chapel for a young W & L student, and the epitaph is "Death loves a shining mark." Since I first saw that almost a quarter of a century ago (on the day that Bruce Catton died, really!), I've wanted to repeat it in some twisted context. The story, "Docent," appears in this year's editions of New Stories from the South and Best American Short Stories, so it's running loose now.
So they're gifts, the stories. They come from unexpected collisions between something I've seen recently, something that's been simmering and something else I am in a fidget to know. Add to that my inclination toward social satire and my compulsion toward self--amusement, and the ingredients for some sort of language outburst are there, waiting to catch me with my guard down and my loading chutes open.
VL: There is something in the nature of narration that hardwires it to memory and imagination. Can you say something about how storytelling engages those faculties and how you find them related?
RTS: I believe maybe our natural mode of perception is narrative. This instinct varies from person to person, but I think we isolate and appropriate information—which seems a step towards a defining of imagination—only as we can imbed it into our own story or some tributary of that story. So esse est percipi doesn't go far enough. Things exist as they contribute to our chronicle. Otherwise, never mind. It's a magpie impulse. I don't think those birds collect material they don't plan to use. Now I can't imagine that my notion here even borders on the original, but I think that imagination is already involved as we snare the bits and pieces of the world. When we start to process it for storage, I think we really manipulate and alter what some scientific recording device might call "the data." We start to digest it even before we ingest it.
Wright Morris is said to have said, "Anything processed by memory is fiction," but I'd go a step further in my antic epistemology and say that anything even perceived is fiction or at least fictive. According to my father, a law enforcement officer all of his working life, eyewitnesses are the least helpful ingredients in making a case. They "misremember" and disagree and are more like wind than rock. The eye serves a greater master than the Superintendent of Fact; it serves the Survivor General, and its working relationship with the tongue has always been problematic.
I don't expect anybody will disagree that we all make up stories, but I'm sure some would dispute that we can't stop, we can't move forward without fabricating, creating the story in which our actions and passions are appropriate responses to that Rubik's cube we call the world. I hope this doesn't sound like an endorsement of lying, for I think there's a point when the fabricated world is altered dishonestly, for imperial, selfish (as opposed to selfhood) reasons, and most of us allowed to eat with forks know when we do that. Fiction writers, I think, are among the people who recognize and cultivate their inclination to create stories which don't serve the neurotic self-story needs as directly as civilians; they don't want to conflate the story space with the immediate practical one.
When the siren says come
hither, you've got to set
aside your oar and go.
Not all of us, I realize, know when we're constructing; the marketplace (along with personals ads, the Web and so on) is rife with those who don't know their own identity--shaping point of view from their desire to deceive. God, this gets me in over my head, the tender, explosive intersection among ethics, aesthetics and epistemology. I need to address another question to bring me back down to earth.
VL: You edit Shenandoah, one of America's finest literary magazines. Do the demands of this job, plus your obligation to teach at Washington and Lee, make it more difficult to write?
RTS: The manuscript selection process can be exhausting— 18,000 poems a year, a third that many prose pieces. At its best, of course, it's a stimulant; at its worst, a soporific. The world's realtors say everything is location; the entertainers say it's all about timing. These are powerful considerations in the editor/writer juggling act. And energy management, endorphins, rotation. Sheer endurance. It's best for me to keep submissions out of my own study at home and best not to let the scheduled regimen of assessing submitted work dominate when something in my mind turns on that faint radio station with its fugitive, teasing music. I need to shift, alternate, vary. Any time I'm so behind with submissions that I have to switch off that private radio signal, I damage access to my most valuable creative frequency. When the siren says come hither, you've got to set aside your oar and go. And yes, I know what happens to those who heed the siren, but it's a sweet crash, a transforming storm.
Still, I have to stay a little ahead of the game reading work for Shenandoah, and sometimes deadlines make me refuse that muse melody. I believe those occasional denials are useful, too. Character building, maybe.
When I was hired by Washington and Lee nine years ago, I was expected to edit the journal, write (and publish), and chair a committee for bringing visiting writers. I had the option to teach, but not the obligation, as my predecessor had evidently convinced the administration that a single editor of a nationally visible journal working with one half-time assistant was -really pretty much occupied, even without classroom responsibilities. Of course, times have changed, and I teach as often as I can these days. Fortunately, the English Department has seemed glad to have me and has indulged my appetites. Right now, for instance, I'm teaching a class in the American short story, and it's my fourth course in 2004.
I've entered this new phase enthusiastically, because in my nineteen years of teaching at Auburn I learned how much I could feed on my discourse with students. Stichomythia, call and response, turn and counter-turn, thrust and parry. The undergraduates are unpredictable and astute, stimulating all the time, showing me which way to go. While I was teaching a seminar on Poe, I wrote a poem—a kind of soliloquy—from the mind of Madeleine Usher. Teaching the Civil War in American Literature, I came up with the story "I Have Lost My Right" (New Stories from the South: 2002), which is about alarming events at Chancellorsville. This past spring, discussion with my students in Survey of Appalachian Literature led me to the long story I have just finished about a crime in Rockbridge County a century ago. This is the best of both worlds—to be a teacher of just enough excellent students without spreading myself too thin. The classroom is a great crucible, an alchemist's laboratory for possibilities, and it's as important to my writing as solitude and silence.
VL: How do you approach the editorial problem of accepting work you recognize as good, but which does not appeal to you?
RTS: You identify here a difficult problem in navigation, a Scylla and Charybdis dilemma. On the one hand, I occasionally receive poems and stories that I like personally but can't fit very neatly into my concept of Shenandoah's identity, which you might say is conservationist and neo--clarificationist. As a reader and a writer, I have an impish inclination that no university would want to officially endorse, and I have to limit the appearance in Shenandoah of works that chord in with that. Contrarily, poetry and fiction do, to my mind, have subject matters—despite the serpentine post-modern proselytizers— and some subjects don't especially interest me, even if the work is accomplished and surprising. I love bluegrass and blues and jazz but am not much interested in the tango, so if I receive a story that conjures a lot of tango information, I have to ask someone else to assess it for me. Same thing goes for affluent urban bar culture and space travel, and for work in some forms or styles. I'm not particularly interested in gymnastic Welsh forms or deeply coded interior meditations, but that doesn't completely preclude them from appearing in a magazine I edit. The best way to deal with this quandary is, I believe, the occasional guest-edited issue, one piloted by someone whose taste is distinctly different from mine. With more financial resources, I'd do this more often.
...the web undermines
hierarchies, opens more
gates than it shuts,
sweetens the mix.
VL: You are recognized as a mainstream poet and writer of fiction, and you edit a prestigious print journal. How is it that you have so easily and enthusiastically adopted publishing poems and stories on the World Wide Web?
RTS: Worldwide? Maybe that's the answer, but I'm no computer whiz and had to be abducted, which the original editors of the Cortland Review accomplished with energy and conviction. They were so encouraging and enthusiastic, I couldn't resist.
I like the potamic suggestion in "mainstream," and it allows me to belabor the figure and suggest that my father's mansion has many tributaries, all of which together make up the river. Once Cortland got me into the current, I realized that the web reaches and appeals to a somewhat different audience from wonderful print journals like Virginia Quarterly Review and Gettysburg Review. At first I was suspicious of the democracy of the web, where all voices and eyes are equal, all bites equally toothy, but I started to recognize and appreciate the ways this at least discourages snobbery. There's a lot of snobbery in the literary world, a lot of cliquishness, and I'm sure I'm not guiltless in this, but the web undermines hierarchies, opens more gates than it shuts, sweetens the mix.
It doesn't hurt that virtual space is so vast. Editors are not fenced in by postal regulations, printer costs, binding limitations and so on, so they have a different set of parameters concerning what they publish. And of course these modes of publication aren't mutually exclusive. Many journals have active websites that are not just Internet versions of their print editions. Don't get me wrong: I still love the feel of a book in my hands, and if I had to choose one to the exclusion of the other, I'd go for books; but I was in a Barnes and Noble the other day, and it seems the Biblical prediction about the unending making of books is accurate, so we don't have to choose.
The web also has an archival advantage, and I really envy journals with the personnel to preserve their back issues electronically and invite online browsers. Access to that kind of resource is invaluable to the critic, the historian, the polymath and glutton. If Shenandoah had more staff, I would love to see us store our contents in a more accessible vault.
One last thing I want to say about the web. The people who run websites are sometimes more adventurous than many print editors. Often they don't have to answer to institutions; they feed off the air like Spanish moss, and their appetite for the transgressive might be reflected in this Ariel nature. As a writer, I like that thought. It convinces me that anything I can bring off, that I can execute skillfully, might find a venue, readers, even if the seneschals of the official credentialed, entropic, and powerful, and sometimes feudal, literary world have reservations about valuing this web world that's still in the maverick stage. I have a story about a woman who responds to the mummified body of John Wilkes Booth as an aphrodisiac, for instance. It seems more likely that I'll find a home for it in the virtual world.
Nantahala Review is a good example of this freedom. I know that "Rampskin" is risky and weird, puckish and more than a little arch, but there it is, ready to come right into homes across America. Other sites I know about and value include story-South, Pedestal, Inertia, and Blackbird. And certainly Don and Diane at Poetry Daily have done plenty to bring poetry to the web in a fresh and dependable way, just as Georgia Review and Missouri Review do in print, but with their own historical thrust and torque. The discourse community just keeps expanding, and I like to think I'm still zesty enough to keep growing with it.
VL: Are there any Virginia writers you wish to recommend to our readers? Many of us buy books for a living.
RTS: Lordy. I have to say right off that I think every high school and college library should subscribe to Shenandoah, if only because our commitment to Virginia writers is strong. Lisa Spaar, Debra Nystrom, Margaret Gibson, Henry Taylor—we provide a regular sample of the local writers whose accomplishments are not limited to the local. This consideration has been much on my mind lately, as my wife [Sarah Kennedy] and I edited an anthology called Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets of Virginia (University of Virginia Press: 2003), which showcases about fifty poets I'd recommend. I'd actually start with my wife, which I think is less bragging than good literary sense. I recommend her Flow Blue and Double Exposure, in which she writes fierce and clear poems about domestic life, including domestic abuse. Her reservoir of feelings, ideas, and tactics is really impressive. The title poem of Flow Blue is about a young woman buying a piece of antique china, but in the highly charged context, her sense that the bleed of pigment resembles a bruise is creepy and chilling. I don't claim to be objective here, but who wants an "objective" reader, anyway? I prefer to operate as a vigilant and informed subjectivity.
Along with Sarah, I'd quickly endorse Claudia Emerson, another woman in her mid-forties who has earned national attention. Her Pharaoh, Pharaoh and Pinion: An Elegy are richly engaged with the narrative tradition, and she has a great ear for the vernacular of Southern thought, if that makes sense, and a haunting sense of family -dynamics.
The discourse community
just keeps expanding...
Obviously, we've got some deservedly famous poets in and from Virginia, about whom everyone knows—Charles Wright, Rita Dove, Henry Taylor, Dave Smith, Gregory Orr, Ellen Bryant Voigt, and more. It's a dazzling array. I'd like to slip in a plug here for someone less known, though. Steve Scafidi is a Virginian now living in West Virginia—I guess he's seceded—and his poems with their Whitman-like breath and furious energy will surprise you and rattle your gourd. He's a little like Catullus, whose credo was "I love and I hate." This is not to say that nuance and insinuation are missing from Steve's poetry, but whether he's writing about Rosa Parks and "that difficult sweet word free" or cursing the sneak who set his truck on fire, he's all nerve and barbed word. He has another new book coming from LSU soon, and his first is Sparks from a Nine-Pound Hammer.
I'm not quite so conversant with the fiction yet, but it's impossible not to think of Richard Bausch, whether in those short stories filling his new Collected or his unpredictable and heart-stopping novels. And of course Lee Smith, who has migrated a few miles south but can still be spotted on Commonwealth soil. If you've never read Saving Grace, get ready to be shaken and stunned. Novelists George Garrett, John Gregory Brown, Carrie Brown, Cathryn Hankla, and John Casey. David Huddle is equally adept at short fiction and long, as is Pinkney Benedict, who's not native-born but teaches at Hollins. His "Miracle Boy" is among my very favorite stories. Two others you might not have heard much about yet are Kurt Rheinheimer of Roanoke, whose book of stories is coming this fall, and an up-and-coming writer just hired by Washington and Lee, Asali -Solomon.
These people can all really write and reward both reading and re-reading. If the eyes are the windows to a person's soul, I believe the arts—especially the literary arts—are the windows to a culture's, a generation's, a commonwealth's, and there's nothing wrong with the "common" in there: it's a double cousin to that great verb "commune," which is central to this whole business of writing. Can I get an amen?
R. T. Smith lives in Rockbridge County, Virginia, and has edited Shenandoah since 1995. During the coming winter he will serve as the Philips Family Distinguished Chair in Composition and Rhetoric at Virginia Military Institute. Li-Young Lee recently selected Smith's The Hollow Log Lounge as the recipient of this year's Maurice English Prize, given to the collection the judge deems to be the best of the year by a poet of fifty or older.