By: Robert Lavett Smith
AMONG THE MORE DISTURBING ARTIFACTS
Then there’s the new moon—
like a button torn
from the suit you’ll be buried in.
For Charles Simic
An old woman squats in a shorn field,
gathering pepper spilled from a bowl,
heedless of the dust that mingles
with the granules sown like seeds
along the length of the empty furrows.
Her shawl is crimson, a shade so vivid
it threatens to overwhelm the setting sun.
But the color retreats, since the moon
has risen already, bearing darkness
like a crust of black bread in its mouth.
The first stars are beginning to appear,
white as grains of pepper strewn across
the endless expanse of the falling night.
Stillness settles everywhere. Poor dear!
She’ll never be able to gather them now.
THE PREACHER TURNS HIS BACK ON THE DROUGHT
“Remember my affliction and my wandering...”
He was a stranger from some farm town,
run out on a rail when months of prayers
and candlelight vigils failed to make
the parched sky yield even a single drop.
In the only surviving photo, his eyes
are slightly wild, brimming with light
from something other than the Lord.
Behind him the thin horizon, treeless,
tightens to nothingness. There’s a date,
handwritten, on the back: 1935, nothing else.
We’re left with an enigma, a Dust Bowl martyr
bereft of a name, a wanderer who clutches
in gnarled hands a forked hickory
divining rod—a dispossessed Moses
with neither flock nor promised land,
following the smell of rain.
Raised in New Jersey, Robert Lavett Smith has lived since 1987 in San Francisco, where for the past twenty years he has worked as a Special Education Paraprofessional. He has studied with Charles Simic and the late Galway Kinnell. He is the author of several chapbooks and five full-length poetry collections, the most recent of which is Collected Early Poems (Full Court Press, 2019).
Interview with the Poet:
Cathexis Northwest Press:
How long have you been writing poetry?
Robert Lavett Smith:
It astonishes me to realize that I’ve been writing poetry for 48 years now, particularly in view of the fact that when I was 14 and just starting out, my mother dismissed my ambitions as a “phase.” For many years, I lived in very real terror of reaching the end of the phase.
Can you remember the first poem that you read that made you fall in love with poetry?
When I was a sophomore in high school, we read section 6 of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” which begins, “A child said, what is the grass?” I knew immediately that I wanted to spend the rest of my life trying to write something that would move people as much as that poem moved me. I haven’t even come close, but I continue, every day, to try.
Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?
My favorite poets, apart from Whitman, are T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Charles Simic, Galway Kinnell, Allen Ginsberg, Jared Carter, and Geoffrey Hill. I had the honor of studying with both Simic and Kinnell, who were not only fine teachers but very nice people. As for favorite poems, Kinnell’s “The Still Time” is the only poem that has ever actually brought me to tears. I also admire William Stafford’s “Ask Me,” and Hill’s “Merlin.”
Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process? Any specific rituals that get you into the zone?
While I do sometimes write from personal experience, it’s more common these days for me to begin by using a writing prompt, or an exercise. My favorite exercise is the reversal, which involves taking someone else’s poem and replacing each word with its nearest possible opposite. The initial result is gibberish, but it serves to throw words together in unexpected ways. The poet is then free to add to, subtract from, or change this “word soup” in any way they wish. Over the course of several drafts, the source poem should disappear entirely, leaving you with something entirely your own. My poem “The Preacher Turns His Back On the Drought” was begun in this way.
How do you decide the form for your poems? Do you start writing with a form in mind, or do you let the poem tell you what it will look like as you go?
I usually decide in advance to attempt a specific form, especially when dealing with formalist poetry. Over the years, the majority of my poems have been free verse, but I also enjoy writing sonnets and villanelles, and the discipline of these forms is another thing that helps me to overcome writer’s block. In my mid fifties, I found myself unable to produce anything of value for nearly two years. I solved the problem by spending the next two years writing a book of sonnets.
Any advice for poets who have yet to find their voice?
An old friend told me years ago that “you don’t find your voice; it finds you.” I think that’s true. There’s nothing wrong with imitating the writers you admire when you’re first starting out. Be patient. Just keep writing, and eventually your own unique voice will emerge.
What is your editing process like?
Years ago, when I was still using a typewriter, I used to have a stack of drafts several inches high for almost every poem. These days, I still edit a lot, but with the advent of the computer, the old notion of drafts as such has all but disappeared. It still takes an enormous effort to reach a version I’m satisfied with. But it’s worth noting that in recent years I’ve grown used to completing a poem in a day or two, whereas when I was younger the rewrites would take weeks,
When do you know that a poem is finished?
I don’t so much know when a poem is finished, as I know when I’ve taken it as far as I’m able to. Even then, I sometimes return to subjects I tackled years ago, feeling I can do better. Just the other day, I produced a six line version of a poem I’ve been tinkering with since 1982, but was never satisfied with. I think I’ve finally nailed it. The original was 12 pages long. The six line version is much more powerful, but it took decades to arrive at it.