An ‘Almanac’ of Family, Legacy, and the Rural World: Q&A with Austin Smith

Austin Smith Almanac (96 pages; Princeton University Press) is the first full-length book of poems by Austin Smith, a Wallace Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford University. His poetry has been published in ZYZZYVA (Issue No. 83 and forthcoming in Issue No. 100), The New Yorker, The Sewanee Review and other places. Recently, his fiction has appeared in The Kenyon Review and Glimmer Train.

In his collection, which was selected by Paul Muldoon for the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets, Smith explores Midwesten scenes—of bait shops, county fairs, abandoned silos and barns where cows are giving birth—in narrative poems which are as remarkable for the shining particularity of their imagery as for their compassion for the lives chronicled within. Almanac is infused with a nostalgic yearning for a world that is being destroyed, so that there is a dearness to these poems even when they’re at their most darkly comic or surreal.

I met Smith in 2011 at the University of Virginia, where he was a classmate of mine in the MFA program studying poetry. Recently, I caught up with him via e-mail about the writing life, what it means to have “spent the first eighteen years of my life on the same three hundred acre farm in northwestern Illinois,” and Almanac.

ZYZZYVA: Almanac opens with “The Silo,” a poem that enacts in microcosm many of the themes of the collection, prime among them family, legacy and the steady destruction of the natural world and with it the fading of traditional practices. What do you think it is about poetry as a medium that lends itself to speaking about loss?

Austin Smith: I’m glad that those themes come through in “The Silo.” They are certainly the themes that continue to obsess me.

In regards to poetry and loss: to drastically misquote Auden, I often feel hurt into poetry. Most of my poems could probably be considered elegies. As with prayer, poetry arises in the space between what is and what is not. This might explain why a poem, like a prayer, never seems to quite exist. There is something ungraspable in a poem’s very nature. Even the way lines break seems to frustrate any possibility of wholeness and satisfaction. I think poems should actually make people feel worse! To qualify that: I think the reason why poetry lends itself to speaking about loss is because the best poetry doesn’t make loss go away: instead, it sanctifies loss, and makes sorrow worth it. I think of the title of a collection of poems by Gregory Orr: We Must Make a Kingdom of It. Poetry makes a kingdom out of rubble, though I get annoyed with the idea that poetry might be some kind of balm that heals. Poetry might speak about loss, but the best poetry wounds deeper rather than scars. As Frank Stanford wrote, “Poetry busts guts.”

Z: One of the most moving poems in Almanac for me is “Nancy and Dwayne, Danville, Virginia 1970,” which borrows its title from a photograph by Emmit Gowin. Can you talk a little bit about this poem and about any parallels you see between your work as a poet and Gowin’s in the Danville photographs? (I can’t help but think, for example, of the other half of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which are the photographs by Walker Evans.)

AS: Well, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is my favorite book, and James Agee is my favorite writer. And one of the countless things I love about that book is the fact that when you open it the first thing you see is a photograph (of one of the land lords actually, as if to say, “Before we praise any famous men, you must look at the man who controls their lives”). There is not a single word until you have turned through all Evans’s photographs. And Agee even says, “If you skipped the photographs, go back and look at them before reading.” The entire book is very much a lament about the shortcomings of language. There are certain things that words simply cannot express. One need look no further than the Buddha’s Flower Sermon or certain quotes from the Gospels to see how there is a limit to what can be said or written in words.

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When I saw Emmit Gowin’s photograph, Nancy and Dwayne, Danville, Virginia 1970, in a gallery at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, I felt those summer nights in Illinois when I was a boy, running barefoot through the grass, catching fireflies. There were no words like I’m using now, it was just a feeling, a kind of glow. My very cells remembered my boyhood. And the photograph gave me that feeling irrespective of language. It was like being handed a love letter in grade school by a girl you have a crush on. Before you have even opened the damn thing it has managed to mean as much as it is ever going to mean. But, of course, you have to open the letter. And before I had even turned away from the photograph I knew I was going to have to attempt to write a poem based on it. It was my way of thanking the photograph: the photograph had already done its work in me, but I could not possibly let it go without attempting to express this feeling in language. So that brings us back to Agee, who writes: “If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and excrement As it is, though, I’ll do what little I can in writing…” Similarly, I would have loved to have just left Gowin’s photograph alone, but I couldn’t help but sully it with language.

As for parallels between my poems and Gowin’s Danville photographs, I would just say that I respect his decision to root himself in a place and work from there. I don’t even know if it was a decision for him: it was certainly never a decision for me. It just so happened that I spent the first eighteen years of my life on the same three hundred acre farm in northwestern Illinois, and because those were my impressionable years, I got so thoroughly marinated in that place and culture that I doubt I’ll ever write about anything else. Gowin has traveled around the world taking those beautiful aerial photographs of the disrupted earth, and I hope that one day I’ll find another subject besides farmers and rural life, but not until I feel like I’ve said what I have to say regarding that world.

Z: Still, you’ve cut trails in Alaska, lived in Hyderabad, India, lived in Italy What’s it like to actually go back home now?

AS: I only feel like I’m home when I’m writing. My parents live in Wisconsin now. Where they live is very beautiful but it isn’t where I grew up. The old farm will always be home to me. I doubt I’ll ever love a place the way I loved the place where I grew up, and I doubt that that’s uncommon. I reside in California but I live in Illinois and home is any passage or poem I manage to write that makes me feel like I’m back on the old farm, even if only in my imagination.

Z: You are an extremely visually minded, narrative poet, with the poems of Almanac almost always being grounded in a physical, felt reality. I’m intrigued by the structure of your poems, how often they seem to be stitched together by images that, as they accumulate, open up multiple lines of inquiry just as they service a specific narrative. In “The Silo,” for example, the three brothers “took turns climbing to the top to see/ grain [their] grandfather had harvested,/ black and numerous now as teeth/ in a mass grave…” In a way, it’s a technique that allows for a space for recklessness within the poem—a space where you can exceed, go for broke, and then fall back into step.

AlmanacAS: I’d never thought about it before, but much of my childhood was spent reading on the porch of the farmhouse. I was constantly journeying away from the farm in my imagination, only to return to the same house, the same land. I’ve always loved to travel, and I think my wanderlust shows up in my poems. I can’t get through a poem about the Midwest without taking a little trip in time and/or space. And, you’re right, there’s something nice about knowing that, if I fail, I can always fall back into step in that familiar world of the farm. But I think there’s something else going on here, too, an anxiety I’ve always had about my work being seen as provincial. I’m a bit doomed by the fact that most of the people who pick up my book of poems will not have grown up on a farm, and maybe one way this anxiety about provincialism manifests itself is in the way I try to write metaphors that link the world of the farm to the world entire, so that rotten kernels become teeth in a mass grave. If the image is working, then those kernels and those teeth are not so dissimilar after all. And I hope that this reaching after strange images helps the poems to cover more ground.

Also, metaphor is my favorite part of writing. Metaphor might indeed be my favorite part of being human. I think it’s nothing less than magic. And the great metaphor makers are my saints, my heroes, so I’m constantly attempting to imitate them. When Thomas James describes petals the color of a wedding band, or Rilke says that death is a blue distillate in a cup with no handle, or Lorca insists that a corpse moaned for three years because of a dry countryside on his knee, I know I’m in the presence of the masters and my first reaction is always to toss their poem aside and try to do the same magic trick, and even if I’m just a kid clumsily concealing a quarter in my palm, those are the moments I feel most alive.

Z: The Chilean poet Raúl Zurita has said that poetry is the “process of collecting traditions and cultures and rejuvenating them.” Do you agree? Do you see yourself as a kind of collector?

AS: I like the idea of the poet as a collector, though I feel more like a curator. I think the brunt of the collecting happened in childhood, and now when I write a poem I sort of go down under the museum and look through the cellar for things to bring up into the light. One of my favorite writers is the novelist William Maxwell. He grew up in rural Illinois but spent most of his life in New York City, but used to say that there was enough in his Illinois boyhood to write from for the rest of his life, and that’s more or less what he did. So I guess I feel like I have quite a storehouse of images and characters and stories to draw from, and I have certain obsessions that I think I’ll probably never feel finished with.

One of my many shortcomings as a writer might be that I don’t tend to seek out new material at all, and in fact I can be downright obstinate when someone suggests I might try writing about something else for once. For example, I live in a cabin in the redwoods west of Palo Alto and the nearest establishment is in La Honda, about a thirty-minute drive away. I was in the bar one night writing when a guy a few stools down demanded to know what the hell I’m always scribbling, and after trying not to I finally admitted I was writing a novel, and he asked what about, and I told him dairy farmers, and he informed me that dairy farmers are boring and that if I really wanted to write a story he had stories for me. And I said: “No story you can tell me will interest me more than the story I was working on before you interrupted me.” It didn’t really go very well after that. But I guess what I’m saying with that anecdote is that I don’t feel like I’m out there collecting stories, nor do I feel I’m rejuvenating the Midwest by telling the stories that I’ve already collected. What I’m doing feels much more elegiac, more curatorial. I have an almost physical sensation when I’m writing of being back in time, in a world that is vanishing if it hasn’t already vanished. I can almost feel myself being transported to Illinois and sort of flipping through the catalogue of images. I really have to be careful when I’m driving.

Z: Your father, Daniel Smith, is a poet himself (Home Land, 1997). How has your relationship towards poetry developed in relation to your father’s work?

AS: I think the reason I’m so damn stubborn when it comes to my opinions about poetry is that the first poems I read or heard were my father’s. My brothers and I were quite young when he did most of his poetry readings, for the collection Home Land, and I learned a lot just watching the way he interacted with the audience. He wasn’t trying to stump them. He was speaking directly to them. His poems are about farming and farmers and the audience was composed mostly of farmers, or of people who at least understood that world. He had no interest in being baffling. I saw the value of clarity, which has remained one of my poetic tenets. By clarity, I don’t mean that the poet has to be simplistic. If the poet wants to express their truth in riddles and parables, there’s a long tradition of that, going clear back to a poet named Jesus.

But there has to be an interest in communicating something directly, a looking outward, and there has to be a real expression of gratitude for the fact that people have shown up to hear you read. Poets who seem antagonistic toward their audience drive me mad. And my dad also taught me that poets shouldn’t take themselves too seriously. There’s time between poems to look up, smile, laugh, acknowledge the people listening to you. And there’s time afterwards to have a drink and talk with people. It doesn’t have to feel like a wake. The fact that my father could make an audience laugh and cry in the same half hour set a certain bar for me. I did two graduate programs in poetry and I really struggled with the poets (and professors) who seemed to see poetry as a way of letting people know how much Marxist or critical theory they’d ingested. I think I had such a hard time with them because from a young age I saw another way that poetry might connect with people, and it had absolutely nothing to do with theory. In fact, it had hardly anything to do with literature. It was a sharing of and a reveling in a kind of community wisdom, and the poet (who just happened to be my father) was not the focal point of that community: his poems simply communicated those things that people had lived through and felt but might not have had the words for before encountering my father’s work.

Z: In the poem “How a Calf Comes into the World,” a boy follows his father out to the barn in the middle of the night to help with a birth. There’s a visceral familiarity behind the poem that’s explained by your having grown up on a dairy farm. I’m taken with the level of specificity in the poem: the reference to the obstetrical chains hanging on the wall, the way the vet “cinches the chains tight around the white forelegs,/ just above the pinkish hooves” and how this level of particularity helps you avoid conceding anything to the sentimental.

AS: I guess I struggle against the idea of a farm being idyllic. A response I’ve sometimes gotten when I tell people that I grew up on a farm is, “Oh, how lovely.” Sure, farms are beautiful places, but they’re also violent, brutal, death-haunted, gross, etc. And the birth of a calf, especially a difficult birth, was always a very intense experience. It was serious. So if I was going to write a poem about a cow giving birth, it sure as hell wasn’t going to start with the cute calf suckling in the morning sun. I wanted to get down something of the excitement and fear that we boys would have felt on a night when we happened to be present when the vet came to pull a calf. This didn’t make it into the poem, but one of the most incredible things I ever saw was one night when a cow went down with milk fever after having her calf and my dad dragged the calf before the cow’s eyes, screaming at the cow to see what she had to live for. I remember that very distinctly. So in answer to the question, I think it’s a combination of a fear I always have about my work coming off as sentimental and idyllic, and the very vivid memories I have of calves being born. Also, feeding and caring for calves was our principle duty on the farm as kids, so a few days after watching a calf being born, we’d be feeding it a bottle, which connected us to the whole process in a pretty direct way.

Z: You’re currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction at Stanford. Is there a particular difference, say in inflection or subject matter, that you think defines your poetry as opposed to your prose? How has your long apprenticeship to poetry informed your fiction?

AS: This is a good question following the question about the calf poem because I was recently working on a calfbirth scene that takes place in my novel, so I had to decide whether to reference my own poem to help me with the prose. I decided not to because I think the two pieces, while dealing with the same subject matter, can’t help but work in quite different ways. In a poem, the way the lines break tends to propel me forward with a certain velocity that it’s hard to maintain in prose, but I find that in prose I feel less pressure, and can sometimes delve into a passage with more patience and depth. I think that my long apprenticeship in poetry has certainly helped me write lyrical, image-suffused fiction, but I’m finally learning that my duty as a fiction writer is to tell a story. It sounds obvious, but for most of the Stegner Program I’ve been working on very lyrical, James Agee-influenced prose, and while I love Agee, and love lyrical prose more than anything, now that I’m almost done with the fellowship I’ve finally started putting story ahead of language.

I think the lyrical prose was a bit of a defense mechanism. I was afraid that all I’m good at is making up weird metaphors, which led to the first twenty pages of my novel being about a farm family waking up on a particular morning. If they weren’t going to get out of bed until thirty pages into the book, they weren’t going to get out the door until a hundred pages deep, and the sun was going to rise around page 346.

Anyway, if asked this question a year ago I would have said that poetry and fiction exist on a spectrum, and that the best fiction writers (Agee, James Salter, etc.) dwell somewhere in the middle. But I’m realizing now that it’s perfectly all right that I love Sherlock Holmes stories and Vallejo poems. I don’t need to qualify those possibly quite disparate likes. I can work on a plot-driven story and a lyric poem in the same day and not feel like I’m betraying either genre. The preceding is probably in answer to the question about inflection. In terms of subject matter, my poetry and my fiction cover the same ground. In fact, in the fiction I’ve been working on lately, certain characters and situations from Almanac are appearing in the stories (for instance, the brothers from the poem “The Bait Brothers” are characters in my novel), so that’s been an interesting thing that has started happening almost without my intending it to.

Z: One of Almanac’s epigraphs is from Robert Fitzgerald’s James Agee: A Memoir: “…some of you are thirty or thirty-one and hard beset and bound to someone in brotherhood, perhaps in art, and you may see that the brotherhood is of a kind really wider than you may have thought, binding others among the living and the dead.” Reading through Almanac, I thought about Larry Levis for his wry, dark storytelling, Philip Levine’s tragic blue-collar odes, Robert Bly’s Midwestern “deep-image” surrealism. Who’s the most recent addition to this brotherhood for you, now that you’re in your 31st (is this true?) year?

AS: Yes, Levis has been hugely important to me. Levine and Bly as well. About the epigraph: when I read that quote in Fitzgerald’s brilliant memoir of Agee (it’s really a beautiful piece of writing, I highly recommend it, even if one isn’t familiar with either writer’s work), I knew I wanted to use it because friendship is very important to me, particularly friendship amongst writers. By using the Fitzgerald quote I wanted to suggest that I feel bound to lots of people (including you Greg!) by a brotherhood that transcends teaching jobs, fellowships, conferences, publication. So I guess I was trying to give a shout out to the nights when you’re sitting with a few friends who just happen also to be writers and all of that stuff falls away and all that matters is the passage you’re poring over together, or the idea you’ve come to after a long conversation, or a shared sense of hatred for a certain style of poetry in vogue at the moment. And I was 30 at the time the book was accepted and I’m 31 now, so it just seemed like an apt thing to include.

But the above is the “living” part of the epigraph. As for “the dead,” I’ve always felt a kind of worshipful love for certain dead writers: Keats, Agee, Dickinson, Woolf, Rilke, Thomas James, Frank Stanford, Levis, etc. So the idea of the brotherhood (which is really a brother/sisterhood) that you gather around you as a writer is very important to me. I only need to have a biography of Rilke at hand to feel like I’m not working in desperate isolation, but am accompanied by a friend who wishes the best for me. But none of this is getting at the question you asked about the most recent addition to the brother/sisterhood. Today, just today, I drove down to the ocean and spent a wonderful hour with Dorothy Wordsworth.

Z: What are you working on now?

AS: Not too long ago I would have said I’m working on poems, stories, a memoir, a novel, etc. but this year I moved out to the woods to work exclusively on the novel I’ve been struggling to write for ten years. Talking too much about it has always jinxed it, but I’ll just say that I wake up every day to the same characters and the same world. In the past I’ve been willing to abandon those characters in favor of other projects, leaving them standing on the threshold between a hallway and a room with their hand on the doorknob, which wasn’t very morally upright of me. I feel a real responsibility now to see the book through to its conclusion, even if it takes another ten years (which it may).

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