Welcome to Ask a Poet, where each week we will present (in no particular order) a Q&A with a poet who will be coming to the Dodge Poetry Festival this October 20-23. Through these blogs, you’ll be able to get to know these poets a bit better in preparation for #DPF16!
Now, let’s chat with Aaron Smith!
Have you ever written anything you were afraid to share?
Poems I’ve written have scared me, and I’ve been nervous about sharing them, but never enough that I didn’t share them eventually. Also, as I’ve gotten older, I worry less about people’s reactions to poems that might deal with difficult or uncomfortable ideas. Now, I actually feel like I’m doing something right if a poem makes me nervous. I must be in an interesting space. I’ve found, too, that when I’ve taken risks and shared work that makes me uncomfortable, the response is usually positive. People often say those poems spoke to them in a meaningful way. When I find myself getting nervous, I go back to a quote by the poet Lucille Clifton: “You cannot play for safety and make art.”
How important is accessibility of meaning? Should a reader have to work hard to “solve” the poem?
As a poet, I hope I’m the one who “solves” the poem before the reader gets to it. I’m drawn to writing about things I don’t understand or to things I want to understand better, so working to understand is what drives the making of a poem for me. I value “clarity,” though that’s not necessarily the same thing as “accessibility.” Whether or not a poem is “accessible” is probably determined by 1) how well I write it and 2) a reader’s willingness to engage all their senses with what’s on the page. I’m definitely not a fan of the notion that a poet should deliberately leave out information to make a poem more challenging. When my students do that, the poems fail.
What is a misconception about poetry that bothers you? Why?
I don’t like the belief that all poets love language. Since I’m interested in making meaning, I find language useful, and I like to see what I can get language to do, but I don’t love it as an end. Language can actually be a frustrating obstacle. I do find it satisfying working with words to figure out how best to say what I want to say, but I don’t walk around saying words in my head over and over because I love them. I also think some writers hide behind language so they don’t have to take any risks with content or with being vulnerable. I get bored with beautifully written poems that sound good but don’t illuminate anything. Worshipping at the altar of language can be as much about the writer hiding as it can be about opening space and communicating something.
With all the other demands and distractions in life, how do you make time for poetry?
I’m fortunate because I write better when I’m busy and distracted. Teaching gives me a more flexible schedule, but a decade before I started teaching, I worked desk jobs, so if I didn’t make writing part of the mess of my day to day, then I wouldn’t be a writer. I’ve written poems on subways, at meetings, on scraps of paper while running errands. I didn’t own a computer when I wrote my first book: I wrote my poems by hand and then stayed late at the place I was working to type and print. I think if you value something, you figure out how to do it and make time for it. You make time to brush your teeth every day because it’s important. If poetry is important, you make time for it.
What is the role of poetry in the twenty first century?
In a century where everything moves quickly, poetry reminds me to engage deeply, to linger with text to discover everything it has to offer. Having spent most of my life looking for the right word, the right line break, I’ve learned the importance of how what we say matters and lives inside people. Poetry is the opposite of sound bites, tweets, and talking points. I believe when we spend time engaging deeply with words and ideas that we are studying compassion. If we need anything in the twenty first century, it’s compassion.
Aaron Smith is the author of three books published by the Pitt Poetry series; his most recent book is Primer (2016). His first book, Blue on Blue Ground (2005), won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Awards. His second book, Appetite (2012), was named an NPR Best Book and was a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize, the Publishing Triangle’s Thom Gunn Award, and the Lambda Literary Award. His chapbooks are Men in Groups and What’s Required, winner of the Frank O’Hara Award. A 2007 Fellow in Poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts, his work has appeared in numerous publications including: Copper Nickel, LIT, The Literary Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, and The Best American Poetry 2013. He is assistant professor of creative writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.