J.D. Smith is an amazingly versatile writer who explores the art of telling a story, capturing an image, scattering truths and creating worlds from any number of angles and vantage points. His books include the collection, Settling for Beauty (Cherry Grove Collections), The Hypothetical Landscape (Quarterly Review of Literature Poetry Series), the edited anthology Northern Music: Poems About and Inspired by Glenn Gould (John Gordon Burke, Publisher), and The Best Mariachi in the World (Raven Tree Press), a recently released bilingual children’s book. Three of his poems, along with an excerpt from a 2005 essay, are featured on the Creative page. We conversed through email exchange, discussing his work and his approach.
DJ: The first thing that strikes me is your ability to move swiftly between genres and forms. You prove adept at moving between emotions and perspectives within a given piece – connecting what’s happening beyond the “I”, then projecting what’s happening within. I’d like to discuss your poem, “Elegy,” which is a wonderful example of this in-and-out movement.
The opening, coupled with the title, is a great set up for nostalgia:
“Dusk. The plangent geese migrate.
Ragged chevrons that used to bisect a continent
now settle near a golf course and the retaining pond”
Half-way through, it begins to read like a social and pop-culture commentary:
“…that bathes the climax
of a made-for-TV film
about the latest disease
or another private distress
raised to a social issue, if not elevated:”
Suddenly I’m spun in yet another direction, this one with a great sense of self-deprecation:
“From my depths, I’ve summoned
a spiral thread of hair, less than
what I could have called myself,
without affecting a second language:
With all these wonderful turns, you never lose the reader. We’re always watching a flock of geese settling near an office park. How do you keep yourself from getting lost when the landscape of the poem follows such a meandering course, moving, if you will, through a set of mental gymnastics?
JDS: What prevents me from losing the reader in a poem like that is not inflicting my first draft on him or her. My first drafts are usually considerably longer than the final version and include alternative versions of lines as well as lines and sometimes stanzas that don’t survive until the final draft. Over the course of multiple revisions I try to remove as many obstacles to understanding as I can. This means that over time I have to learn what is and isn’t essential in a poem, which leaps of association can and cannot be made.
As for moving among different tones and levels of languages, that’s something I’ve had to do all my life in dealing with people from different backgrounds. In my first 14 years I lived in a neighborhood with a sizable population of transplanted Southerners, and from kindergarten onward I have been in one or another setting with a variety of ethnic groups, educational levels and social classes. This has meant learning to speak a variety of “languages” on any given day and learning how to shift gears or, as the linguists call it, switch codes.
DJ: Where are you most at home? Is there a path you like to follow, or are you happy to follow whatever path come along? Reading your work, I see a writer who is equally adept at communicating a vision and crafting a story regardless of style. Not many writers have this luxury, or perhaps many writers begin to whittle down their choices over time, finding the place where they feel most “at home.” Have you identified this place, or are you comfortable roving?
JDS: I might get tangled up in semantic games here, but roving might be that place for me. You’ve probably heard about how foxes are supposed to know many things, but hedgehogs know one great thing. With all due respect to the hedgehogs—and you need them to make the world run—I’m one of the foxes who wander all over the place.
Although I still think of myself primarily as a poet, which is probably as much a matter of habit as anything else, I’ve also learned again and again that writing poetry is not something I can sit down and do in the same way that I can write expository prose. I definitely look forward to writing more essays, since essays give me the opportunity to engage in free association in the same way as poetry but without the same demands for compression and heightened language, and with more room for pursuing a line of argument.
In a moment of grandstanding I once told a friend “I want to be an industry.” That doesn’t mean the insane brand leveraging of, say, Hannah Montana, but something more like a one-person studio with a wide range of written “products.” My ideal would be a full-time, multi-faceted writerly life like that of Margaret Atwood or David Mamet.
DJ: One topic or theme that comes up, regardless of form, is our physical/sexual natures. Here again, you approach the topic from a number of perspectives, voices and styles. In your poem, “Coitus,” from Settling for Beauty, you guide the reader with a sense of reverence and distance:
“It is only flesh
Meeting more of the same,
The means for a double helix
To spiral through time.”
Compare this with your article, “An Immodest Proposal”, where you approach the topic with great objectivity, humor, and humanitarianism, proposing Viagra as a way to curb the poaching of endangered animals for aphrodisiacal reasons. Finally, there’s a story like “Pillow Talk”, where the narrator comes across as something of a hapless yet hopeful everyman, obsessing over a certain part of the female anatomy until he moves on to a new obsession.
As you approach a given theme from different angles, do you find that one style or voice tends to inform or affect the others? Though you demonstrate a keen ability to zero in on your subject in a way that fits the form and genre, I’m wondering if your mental partitions are fairly permeable. When you’re sitting over a poem, for instance, do you find another voice trickling in, informing the words that make it to the page?
JDS: This is a challenging question, but the pieces that you bring up invite that line of inquiry. My relationship with my own physicality has always been complicated. In my earlier years I was overweight and experienced an early onset of puberty, and in grade school I was bigger than most of the other children. Then at about the age of thirteen I stopped growing and am now about five-two. That sense of being different and out of sync, combined with depression that wasn’t adequately treated until I was in my thirties, made for an impoverished love life and a feeling there was this big party that almost everyone else was going to, but not me. I spent a lot of time as Cyrano de Bergerac pining after one or another Roxanne who would have been all wrong for me anyway.
In different pieces I have written about the erotic with detachment or some attempt at being straightforward. Still, what’s painful is also the source of humor. Sexual desire and romantic longing cut through a lot of pretension and show us as the needy buffoons that we often are. All of these approaches have their place, considering how complicated Eros is for humans compared to other animals.
There’s a final irony to this situation. Now that I’ve found the right woman and am married, I largely write about less personal subjects. My thinking and writing are largely given over to aesthetic and ethical concerns, and the state of the world at large.
DJ: What are your present concerns, and how do you see them informing your work? How are you, in your work and even in your life, approaching them to create some sort of reconciliation, or at least attempting to find peace with modern times?”
JDS: Predictably, I suppose, my concerns are moving from the issues of youth to the issues of middle age. These are not just the exclusively personal side of coming to grips with mortality and other limitations, like those of energy, ability and financial means, but also how to make some small contribution to the world within those limitations. Or in spite of them.
In even less personal terms, my writing has turned increasingly to how to help people move toward a balanced relationship with the natural world, which to me seems to bring together aesthetic concerns and human self-actualization in terms of both of our evolutionary biology and our spiritual dimensions. I have more questions than answers, but it seems that we ignore the aesthetic aspects of life at our peril, short-term savings aside. To take just a couple of examples, what happens to food and architecture in the name of efficiency and narrowly defined cost-cutting boggles the mind.
A related issue is how to cut through the thickets of media overstimulation and reclaim consciousness so as to find an authentic relationship with the world and oneself. There’s a lot of media analysis out there, but a lot of it bogs down in theory and academic jargon or simply doesn’t bother to explain why we should engage in what Iggy Pop once called “psychic defense.”
DJ: From here, then, perhaps it’s a question of process for you. Do you go to a different place depending on genre, style, form, etc., or do you drink from the same well using different cups?
JDS: For the most part, different pieces of writing suggest themselves to me in different forms. It took me a long time to learn to listen rather than impose my ideas. I don’t want to get too mystical about saying “where the poem leads me” and such, but I usually know from the beginning what should be a formal or free verse poem, what should be an essay, and what should be a piece of fiction. For a long time I thought of myself only as a poet and tried to turn everything into a poem, which seemed to involve less work, but I only ended up with a lot more failed poems than successful poems. Writing pieces in their most appropriate form may entail more work, but it leads to far less frustration.
DJ: Consider a poem like “Bout” and a short story like “This Time”. Both play with concepts of violence and defeat, yet do so in completely different ways. Reading these, I see a writer who wants to explore a topic from as many angles as possible. Or is it more unconscious than that, where you are simply willing to follow the muse wherever she takes you, whether it’s a 10-line poem or a 2000 word short that appears in a place like Thuglit.com?
JDS: To me, at least, the two ideas you stated may be complementary rather than mutually exclusive. I spend a lot of time ruminating about things from a variety of angles, and some of those thoughts turn into what I write. Many other thoughts, perhaps most of them, do not turn into written work. Of course, I don’t know which part of my daydreaming is “productive” until well after the fact. Writing about topics from different perspectives is also a way of arguing with myself and trying to escape a purely binary mode of thought, something our technologies increasingly impose on us.
Violence is a subject that particularly troubles and engages me. I am squeamish and mild-mannered—I have witnesses for both—but I can’t bring myself to the purity of being a pacifist in the world as we find it. Violence can be great fun to read and write about—or see on screen—but violence also serves as a symptom of other disorders and it places a story or poem in the tradition of the cautionary tale. The work of Flannery O’Connor comes to mind in this regard.
DJ: Tell me a little about your latest work, The Best Mariachi in the
World. Where does a book like this fit in, where did the initial concept come from, and how does it relate to what’s come before? Or, is it a case where the relation doesn’t matter beyond the fact that it has your name on it?
JDS: This book is a very recent publication, but its history goes back to 1997, before my first book of poetry was accepted for publication. I wrote the first draft while commuting by train from my parents’ home in Aurora, Illinois to one or the other of my two part-time, no-benefits jobs in Chicago. I didn’t want those jobs to seem like the only thing I was accomplishing, and I was starting to realize that the only way I would really make anything of myself was through writing. (Some of my earlier plans hadn’t worked out, or I just hadn’t wanted them enough.)
I didn’t have anything to lose besides ink and paper, and I started with a premise that ranges somewhere between wacky and outrageous: Gustavo, a young boy in a family of mariachis, believes that he is the worst mariachi in the world because he cannot play—or isn’t even allowed to play—any of the instruments. I am not musical or from a musical family myself, and I am not of Mexican or other Hispanic ancestry, so I was going out on a limb in addressing these subjects. Working through the story allowed me to figure out that what Gustavo could do at that point was sing, and his family and others applaud him for his ability. It later became clear to me that I had written an allegory of my own attempts to find my way. There were plenty of things I couldn’t do, but I could write, and that would be accepted. For others that thing might be in the arts or in another field altogether, but finding and embracing it is crucial. I dedicated the book in part to all the Gustavos of the world, because almost all of us are Gustavo at one time or another. The only exception might be those blessed few who at the age of five know what they want to be when they grow up and happily follow through with that.
DJ: So if someone was to pin you in a corner and say, “OK J.D. Smith, explain what in the world is going on here,” how would you answer? Personally, it’s inspiring to see a writer approach so many areas of interest with such lightness. Does hopping back and forth between genres, voices and styles help you maintain a certain level of dexterity, allowing you to eschew the moniker of “Jack of all trades” and instead embody the concept of “Master of many”? If there’s a
thread that weaves through your entire body of work, what would it be?
JDS: If someone pinned me in a corner I would first say “Please don’t hit me in the face” and then “I don’t have anything of value—I’m a writer.”
More seriously, I am reminded of one of Goya’s late etchings, a self-portrait of the artist walking on crutches in his eighties. The illustration bears the inscription “I am still learning.” That was true: he explored new techniques and media until the end of his life. This lesson was delivered to me more directly at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in 1992, when William Matthews, my instructor, looked over my poems of wildly varying quality and said, “You’re still finding out what you can do.” And I am still finding out what I can do. I haven’t written a full-length play, for instance. I haven’t written a novel, either, and I’m starting to get some serious peer pressure on that count. I might try and fail miserably, but I’m starting to feel secure enough to live with that.
Writing in different voices and genres allows me to stay fresh mentally, and it also means that I always have something to work on, whether that means a first draft or a revision. And there are many revisions. Crossing genres also helps me to resist complacency. If I’m having good luck in writing or publishing in one genre, there remains the question that would sound something like “What else are you doing, tough guy?”
It’s hard to say what ties all of my work together, but a few ideas come to mind. The first is an interest in the sound of language, especially its rhythms. I learned this initially through poetry, but I’d like to think it comes through in prose as well. I’m also interested in how much meaning can be packed into a given amount of text through word choice, connotation and economy in language, as well as through syntax. I would also like to think that what I write, even if it’s a piece that’s seen as entertainment, carries some intellectual and moral weight and helps to enhance readers’ sense of being alive and engaged in the world.