A Conversation with Aaron Smith
~Eduardo C. Corral
Aaron Smith is the author of Blue on Blue Ground (Pittsburgh, 2005), winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett prize and a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. His chapbook, What's Required (Thorngate Road, 2003), won the Frank O'Hara Prize. He is a poetry editor for Bloom and lives in New York City.
I hope you don't take this the wrong way, but your name is pretty common. Have any of your friends suggested a nom de plume? Something dramatic and ear-catching. Perhaps the name of your drag persona? Or a favorite cartoon character?
Yeah, my name is a snooze, except for the double A. I think that makes up for a lot. If I were a hip-hop artist, I would be ďDouble A Ron.Ē But since most days I feel like a lesbian folk singer, Iíve just stuck with Aaron Smith. I thought about adding my middle initial (R), but it felt weird because Iíve never been a person who uses his middle name. So, adding it made me feel like: Who the hell is this guy trying to put his name on my book!?!? I decided just to be Aaron Smith and to hope for the best.
The next Aaron Smith who publishes a book of poems should use his middle initial or I will start a terrible rumor that he sells drugs to children and touches himself inappropriately in public spaces. I guess I could have used my soap opera name: Ray Miller. That is your middle name and the street you grew up on.
Denise Duhamel selected your collection for the 2005 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize. Doesn't "Agnes Lynch Starrett" sound like a drag queen's name? Tell the truth. Ed Ochester will never read this.
It was actually the 2004 Prize, and the book came out in 2005. It does sound like a drag name. Maybe we should rename the prize with another drag name: The Nicky Derm Poetry Prize. I could wear a bright blue wig and hand out nicotine patches at readings while chain smoking. I donít know if Rick Hilles, whose new Starrett-winning book just came out, is willing to wear a wig, but we can ask him. Iím sure Nancy Krygowski, the newest winner, would be game. My favorite drag name is Helluva Bottom Carter.
Your work and her work share some characteristics: self-referentiality, pop culture awareness, open forms. Were you surprised Denise Duhamel picked your book? Have you been able to thank her in person for selecting your book? If so, did you bring her flowers? A Barbie Doll?
I was hugely surprised and thrilled Denise picked my book. I knew I was a finalist, but I didnít know who the judge was until Pitt called to tell me that I had won. I was stunned and thrilled. I started reading Denise in graduate school. Girl Soldier
was an important book for me. Itís so gutsy and awake and honest.
Terrible confession: I had all of her books except for Smile!
, and I could never find it because itís out of print. My first roommate in NYC had a copy. After six months of living together, my roommate booted me out so her boyfriend (now husband) could move in. I stole her copy of Smile!
when I left (If you are reading this, Jen, Iím sorry.) I also took her copy of Sharon Doubiagoís South American Mi Hija.
I got to thank Denise at a reading she gave in NYC. It was so nice to meet and to spend time with her. Her enthusiasm for poetry is contagious. I didnít think to take her a Barbie Doll. Though I think itís hard to buy a Barbie for someone, since selecting a Barbie Doll is a very personal decision and one not to be taken lightly. Light hair or dark hair? A dress or a smart pantsuit? So many things to think about. So much room for error.
How long did you shop around the manuscript before it got picked up? Did you keep changing the manuscript as it made its way through the contests?
I wrote the first poem in the book in 1995 when I was an undergraduate, though I had no idea I was starting a book or becoming a poet; I finished graduate school in 1998 with a version of the book, but it was not nearly good enough for anything to happen. So, I just stayed with it and kept writing. Periodically, I would get out my new poems and compare them to the poems in the manuscript in whatever version it was in at the time. I would replace weaker poems in the manuscript with the new stronger poems. Then I would have to think about order all over again and think about the book the poems were trying to make.
I think itís hard to write a book over a long period of time. A person becomes a better writer, and each new poem calls all the previous poems into question. It was also hard because I was attached to some of the old poems, but often I had figured out how to do the same thing in the new poems, but better. It took a long time, but I feel like Blue on Blue Ground
is the book I wanted to write.
I sent the book out for a few years, but it got taken pretty quickly once I got it into the version that is published. The Dr. Engel poems were the last poems I wrote for the book, and they seemed to bring everything together in some odd way. Something clicked, I guess. It was a finalist for the National Poetry Series but wasnít selected. That same year it was selected for the Starrett.
Can you expound on how the Dr. Engel poems brought everything together in the book?
I didnít know what the Dr. Engel poems were going to do when I started writing them.
I just knew I had to write them and spent most of a winter kind of obsessively working on
them. I wrote something like twenty-five, and eight ended up in the book. My doctorís name
actually is Dr. Engel. I put the disclaimer in the book because I didnít want people to
attach any sort of truth about him to the poems. What is true, though, is that Iím intensely
afraid of all things medical, and I find the dynamic between doctors and patients very
problematic and stressful. Itís too much to get into here, but I wanted to explore this
anxiety in writing. Since I didnít want to only write about it in an obvious way
(the poem ďPrayer for a DoctorĒ is a more obvious exploration), I tried to attach some of
the intense emotion I was feeling to a fictionalized idea of doctor. I wanted to strip him
of the white coat and make him absurd and strange and ultimately, for me, more approachable.
The writing of these poems was a lot quicker and came from a different place than the other poems in the book. I deliberately pushed myself to make moves I donít usually make and resisted certain moves in revision that I had been relying on. I showed them to some of my friends, and, at first, only a couple friends were on board with the poems (I think most people thought I needed to get out of my apartment more.) But ultimately, as I started thinking about placing them in the book, the poems started making the other poems more complicated or alive in different ways. Thatís why I spread them out through the book and didnít make them one section. I think they would have lost their power that way. But being spread out through the book, they add another dimension that makes the book, I hope, a lot more interesting and gives it a more complicated reading. I was also conscious that the poems would pretty much perform the same function every time they showed up in the book. I knew if I put too many in, they would start to be ignored, taken for granted, or glazed over. It was important to select the strongest ones. Thatís why I didnít publish all the ones Iíd written.
In case youíre wondering: I took the manuscript and showed it to the real Dr. Engel before the book came out. He was great about it and didnít ask me to change a thing. He just wanted a signed copy of the book, which I gave him.
I once asked a friend why he divided his manuscript into three sections. He responded, My teacher told me to. Why did you divide your manuscript into three sections?
It seems like a poet is either going to use sections or not use sections when putting together a manuscript. I considered not using them. I love the intensity of a book like Marie Howeís The Good Thief
that proceeds uninterrupted from beginning to end. I think, however, that some books cannot get away with that, and I think my book is one of them. The poems in Blue on Blue Ground
run from being wild to being sad to being lonely to being funny, etc. I hope the emotional range is a strength of the book; however, I was conscious when ordering the poems that because of that wide spectrum, I needed to impose some boundaries. The sections accomplished this. I think of sections as containers: anything can happen, but it all happens in here. Sections give the reader a break, too. They are like the sides of a pool: after youíve been treading in the deep end awhile, you can hop out and rest. As for why I used three: Sometimes itís just practical in regard to how long the book is. Two sections seemed suspect to me. It felt too heavy-handed: first, second, or beginning, end. Four sections or more stripped the sections of any power and made them too thin. Three seemed to work.
The title of your book comes from a Mark Rothko painting. How long did it take you to finalize the title? Do you expect anything to flash through a reader's mind when s/he reads the title? What other titles did you consider?
It took a long time to find that title. When Denise Duhamel selected the book it was called Notes Composed in a Heat Wave.
It was also at different times called Straight
and Man Suspended.
All the titles I tried seemed to limit the reading of the book or they just werenít that memorable or interesting. Ed Ochester actually suggested Blue on Blue Ground
right before the manuscript was getting ready to start production. When he said it, I knew that was it. I donít know if I expected anything to flash through a readerís mind. I just wanted it to make someone curious and to do service to the poems. That title is taken, as you know, from the poem ďDr. Engel Interprets Rothkoís Blue, Green, Blue on Blue Ground.Ē
I donít think it takes readers long to see that Iím up to something other than a straightforward interpretation of Rothko. In a practical, literal sense: so many of the poems have blue in them and even the epigraph from Carl Phillips has blue in it. In a less literal way, the title opens the book up and doesnít decide from the beginning what the book has to be. It leaves a lot of space for the book live in.
Rothko refuted figurative representation in favor of color fields. Your work is full of people and urban landscapes. Yet, I think his paintings and your poems are both affective. I feel serene and enthralled when I view a Rothko. I feel jovial and corporal when I read your book. How important is it to you that your poems make an emotional connection to readers? Have you received mail/email from readers?
It is very important to me that the poems make an emotional connection. As I said earlier, I hope the emotional range is one of the bookís strengths. Also, I donít love language enough to let that be my only impetus to write. Iím interested in language, but Iím more interested in its ability to represent and what it can create beneath its surface. Since first coming to poetry, Iíve been drawn to poems that connect me to the world. Iím not dismissing other projects; one thing I like about poetry is that there is room for pretty much anything someone wants to try as long as they do it well. But for me, I want someone to read something and relate to it, to see themselves in it, to feel something. Itís not a particularly hip approach to poetry, I suppose, but it works for me and makes the process worthwhile.
I have received mail from readers. Some young writers have contacted me to tell me that the book has helped or encouraged them. The actress Mary-Louise Parker sent me a very lovely note about the book. Being a huge fan of her work and a pop culture junky, that letter kind of made my year.
There a few prose poems scattered throughout the collection. Is there a specific reason you begin the book with a prose poem? What can you do in a prose poem that you can't do in lineated verse? Which prose poets do you admire?
I didnít choose to start the book with a prose poem as a formal statement so much as I just think the poem ďKeep Him ThereĒ introduces a lot of the things that I deal with in the book (men, relationships, loneliness, loss, memory, pop culture.) I do think the prose poem form in general pulls the rug out from underneath me as a writer. I rely a lot on line breaks and value what they can do. Prose poems take away that one aspect of a poem and require me to rely on other poetic devices. I also often experience prose poems, as a reader, as moving quickly. When I want a reader to move through a poem rapidly, I try that form. None of the poets I really admire are strictly prose poem poets. They go back and forth depending on what they are trying to accomplish. I think some of the prose poems in Maureen Seatonís Furious Cooking
are stunning. She can move a reader through a prose poem with no punctuation and dense syntax and make it look effortless. I study that book a lot. Thatís a book I read when I want to write but feel stuck.
Have you read Kate Greenstreet's wonderful first-book interviews? I'm going to rip her off and ask you one of her questions: What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
Thanks to links on your blog, I have read some of Kate Greenstreetís interviews. After you turn in the manuscript, there is still so much work that you have to do: editing, selecting artwork, working with the publisher on marketing, etc. You work on so many of the pieces that you kind of get used to seeing them. And then they send you a bound galley. So, you have an idea of what it is going to look like. But I read an interview with one first book author who was really flippant about seeing her book the first time (not an author in one of the interviews Kate has done.) The author said she really couldnít remember, and seemed uninterested. I thought she was being pissy and arrogant, and that kind of attitude really diminishes it for the people who are working their butts off to get their books published. So let me be clear: It was very nice to see, and I am very grateful to have it.
Pitt told me the book was finished, and they were sending me one. I was at work staring at the brick wall outside my window that they try to convince me is a ďlight court.Ē Itís really an abandoned space in the center of the building with a big generator in it. When the mailroom called to tell me that I had a package, I knew it was the book. There was a kind of relief that it was here after so much work, and I thought it looked really beautiful. I still do. Iím very, very pleased with the cover. The artist, Megan Craig, who painted the cover used to paint from a studio on the 91st floor of One World Trade Center. When the buildings were attacked, she lost her work. She painted the painting on the cover from memory, and I think itís stunning.
D.A. Powell blurbs your book. He writes, "Here's a book that will make your heart jump as it unzips and reveals the crispest imagery....a book that will leave bite marks on the inner thigh of literature." I guess we all know what's on D.A.'s mind. What do you think he means when he says your book "will leave bite marks on the inner thigh of literature?"
That some of the poems might not be appropriate for your next family gathering.
Speaking of blurbs, Robert Creeley also provides one for you. Was Creeley your teacher? If so, what do you remember most about him?
I didnít study with Creeley. I met him at Vermont Studio Center in May 1998. I had just finished graduate school and had gotten a residency there. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was write, but I managed to write two poems that made it into the book (ďCher UncensoredĒ and ďValedictoryĒ). Creeley was there for four days and several of us really connected with him. He gave a lecture and reading, and he did individual critiques with all the writers.
A group of us would sit on a porch in the evenings and drink wine and talk. I was just out of graduate school and feeling pretty lost, and he was very encouraging. We e-mailed back and forth right up until his death. Sometimes I would send him poems, and he would write back critiques. Usually short and encouraging, and always smart. I donít have all the e-mails we sent over the seven years, though I wish I did. I remember when he told me to call him Bob, and I was almost too nervous to do it. It took me forever to start addressing him as that. I only saw him in person two more times after Vermont, which is strange to think about.
The best memory from Vermont: One night he invited three of us back to his apartment to hang out. Your friend Keith Vezeau was one of those people. We were sitting there, and Keith looked over on the table, and there was a manuscript. It was Allen Ginsbergís last unpublished manuscript (Death and Fame: Last Poems 1993-1997
). We were in awe, of course. Creeley was writing the introduction for it. He told us we could look at it, and then he told us to read something out loud from it. He told us Allen would like that we were reading from his book. Keith read out loud (I hope Keith remembers this!) the poem ďThings Iíll Not Do (Nostalgias).Ē It was truly one of the moments in your life where you know something big is happening.
You're a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. What did you love about the program? And what would you change about the program?
I liked graduate school, though I wasnít always a good student. I worked a full-time job and did a three-year program in two years. So, I was tired a lot, and itís a blur. I was a residence director and received my funding through the universityís residence life department. I spent two years getting up at all hours of the night running around the residence halls of the University of Pittsburgh breaking up underage drinking parties and sniffing for marijuana smoke. Not very glamorous, but it gave me a free apartment, a meal plan, and extra money. I bought a lot of poetry books and read all the time. I often didnít read class assignments, if the assignments didnít involve poetry books that I wanted to read. I was kind of single-minded in those days about what I wanted to read.
I like that in graduate school you can say that youíre a poet and people get it. Even now, with a book published, I donít really say it. I say I write poems. But I never say Iím a poet. It sounds pretentious or something. In grad school, it was okay. I feel like that was the last place in my life where being a poet was valued and accepted and made sense.
What I would change about the program: Each graduate student has a mailbox in the department, but they are separated according to whether a student is funded by the department or not. One wall is for funded
students and the other wall is for unfunded
students. Since I was not funded through the department, I was relegated to the wall of shame. They say it has something to do with the fact that funded students receive different mailings, and it makes things simpler (blah, blah, blah.) But as most things do, it became a status thing, a quiet judgment. So, itís nice, years later, to have a book out, and most of the ďfundedĒ students donít. I know thatís petty, but we all have those things whether we admit it or not.
Do you have a particular writing process? Pen or pencil? Notebook or laptop? Has your writing process changed since the publication of your book?
I pretty much always write on a computer, since my freehand is too sloppy to read if I write quickly. I write at work when the ideas show up. Iím not necessarily supposed to be doing that, but if an idea shows up, Iím going to write it down. I put it in an e-mail, send it to myself, and revise it at home.
If I get an idea on the train, Iíll write down a few lines to get myself started, but I wonít really think about it a lot until I can start typing it. If I figure it out in my head before I have a chance to figure it out on paper, the energy of the poem weakens, and it doesnít come out as well and sometimes not at all. I need the initial arrival to happen when I have the resources and time to actually write it. I also often revise as I go. Sometimes I canít move to a new line until the line before it is kind of smooth. A lot of people say you will lose the poem if you revise as you go or that youíll self-censor. Thatís not true for me. I usually lose more when I try to rush through something. I find writing to be an uncovering process. Occasionally I have to push through something quickly because itís showing up quickly, but mostly itís line by line or a few lines at a time.
Also, if I donít get through a draft completely in the first try, then I usually wonít ever finish the poem (I have on occasion.) The poem obviously doesnít have to be perfect on the first try, but all the elements pretty much have to be there. I think a lot of it has to do with discovery. Once the discovery is over, my mind switches to a more objective mode. Once I get objective about a poem, itís hard for me to go back and try to learn something new from whatever particular need caused me to write it in the first place. It becomes an object that needs to be revised. I can learn from whatís on the page, from what the poem is trying to do, and Iíll stick with a poem for as long as necessary in revision. But poems pretty much have to show up on the first try or they feel forced and over-written, or like they are trying too hard.
Do you have an ideal reader in your mind when you compose your poems? If so, can you describe this ideal reader?
I assume all readers are coming to my poems knowing nothing about my work or my subjects, and I want to make sure they have enough on the page to navigate through the poem and also, I hope, to feel like theyíve heard something in a way theyíve never heard before. I donít write for a specific reader when Iím in the process, but more for a general reader. Outside the process Iím aware, obviously, that other poets are the majority of poetry readers. So, I want to make sure, that in addition to being interesting, the poems also stand up to scrutiny concerning craft, etc.
ďArs PoeticaĒ is one poem in the book that is geared more toward poets, and it could possibly leave a general reader out, but non-poets seem to find the humor in it. Everyoneís encountered a prude. A lot of people like for a person to say the thing that everybody is thinking but wonít say.
In your essay "The Very Act of Telling: Sharon Olds and Writing Narrative Poetry" you state, "I donít believe I have the luxury of removing 'me' from my poems." Some people might read this statement and believe the "I" in your poems is autobiographical. I think you're saying your life experiences inform your poems. Poems are not memoir; they're constructs. Am I interpreting this statement correctly?
Absolutely. You are correct. Poems are poems. Life is life. In the context of that essay, too, I was referring to being gay. I think some writers with a more secure place in society take for granted the ease with which they get to exist on the page. Thereís more I could say about this, but since it would take a second essay, Iíll just leave it at that.
What's the "gayest" poem you've ever read? Feel free to define "gayest" anyway you want.
My favorite porn star, Aiden Shaw, writes poetry and itís wonderfully terrible. What does it say about me that I equate the gayest poetry with gay porn star poetry? Iíll have to work on that in therapy. But while weíre on the topic: I canít wait to read his memoir: My Undoing: Love in the Thick of Sex, Drugs, Pornography, and Prostitution.
I love that he has an academic colon (did I really say colon
in a sentence with porn star?
) in the title. Maybe Iíll write a poem with that title.
On a more serious note: My favorite poem by a gay writer is ďHealing the World from Battery ParkĒ by Tim Dlugos.
Brad Pitt. Cher. Debbie Harry. Kate Moss. Matt Damon. There are portions of your book that read like transcripts of Entertainment Tonight. Have you always been obsessed with celebrities? Why do you think so many gay man are fascinated with celebrities? I adore Cyndi Lauper and Juan Gabriel. And my first celebrity crush was David Letterman. Wow. I can't believe I just confessed that. Moving on. Can you discuss some of your current celebrity crushes? Do any celebrities make an appearance in your current work?
I can see what you mean about David Letterman. I think itís because heís always getting speeding tickets. It makes you think he has some throw-down to him. I also love Cyndi Lauper. I saw her open for Cher when I was living in Boston, and the concert was the same day JFK Jr.ís plane went down. So many things going on at one time.
Iím not sure why so many gay men are drawn to celebrities. I wonder if it doesnít have something to do with isolation. So many gay men talk about being outsiders as kids, lonely, different, etc. And I think celebrities embody a sense of escaping it all, of getting out of a circumstance, finding acceptance? Just guessing. Maybe, as they say, we really do just like shiny things?
For me it might be related to the fact that I didnít grow up in a reading house. My parents valued education, but they didnít necessarily value reading or see it as something that should be encouraged above anything else. Reading was just thrown in with school and grades. If I would have wanted to read, my parents would have encouraged it, but you couldnít get me to read. I felt like I was being punished when I had to do book reports. I once did a book report on The Red Badge of Courage.
I still hate that book. I didnít read it and had no idea that he ran away (Didnít he run away? I still havenít read that book!) Since I got good grades, though, mom and dad never really cared how I spent my free time. If I wasnít outside or listening to music, then I was watching television. I watched shows that were pretty sophisticated for my age: Charlieís Angels, Dallas, General Hospital.
I can still tell you details about those shows and their characters. It was a great form of escape. In my poem ďAfter-School Special,Ē the narrator explains how you can predict if a man is going to take his shirt off on TV. I consider all the years watching TV, past to present, very valuable research.
Right now Iím obsessed with Jason Statham (Transporter 1 & 2
lovely and terrible films). How can a ten-minute fight scene where a guy takes his shirt off and voluntarily covers himself in oil to fight not be a little good? I love Daniel Craig, too. I canít wait to see him in the new James Bond. Have you seen the blue Speedo pictures? Iíve already written about him. Iíve written about Anderson Cooper and Dennis Quaid recently, too. I like writing about pop culture and celebrities because itís as fleeting and as temporary as we are, as poetry probably is. We take ourselves so seriously, and itís fun sometimes to just laugh and imagine what it would be like to be Daniel Craigís Speedo. And Cher will always have a place in my heart. Yes, Iím that clichť.
What's your favorite poem in the collection? And why?
Boston (ďThrough the windowÖ) Itís a sad poem, but it reminds me of time when I was completely happy.
Eduardo C. Corral
holds degrees from Arizona State University and the Iowa Writers' Workshop.
His work has recently been honored with a Discovery/The Nation Award and a MacDowell residency.