Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Austin Smith

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.

The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

Austin Smith

grew up on a family dairy farm in northwestern Illinois. He received a BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an MA from the University of California-Davis, and an MFA from the University of Virginia. Most recently he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford University, where he is currently a Jones Lecturer. He has published three poetry chapbooks: In the Silence of the Migrated Birds; Wheat and Distance; Instructions for How to Put an Old Horse Down; and one full-length collection, Almanac, which was chosen by Paul Muldoon for the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets. His last collection, Flyover Country, was published by Princeton in Fall 2018. Austin’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, Yale Review, Sewanee Review, Ploughshares, New England Review, Poetry East, ZYZZYVA, Pleiades, Virginia Quarterly Review, Asheville Poetry Review, and Cortland Review, amongst others. His stories have appeared or will appear in Harper’s, Glimmer Train, Kenyon Review, EPOCH, Sewanee Review, Threepenny Review, Fiction and Narrative Magazine. He was the recipient of the 2015 Narrative Prize for his short story, “The Halverson Brothers,” and an NEA Fellowship in Prose for FY 2018. He is currently a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, where he teaches courses in poetry, fiction, environmental literature and documentary journalism. He lives in Oakland.


The Interview

  1. When and why did you begin to write poetry?

I started writing poems quite young because my father is a poet, along with being a dairy farmer. Some nights he would come in from the barn, clean up, and we’d go into town to hear him read poems at the local art museum. Glancing down the page, I see that this answer I’m giving can apply to the second question, as well, in that it was certainly my father who introduced me to poetry, not only through his readings, but through the collections on my parents’ shelves. From a young age I felt a particular pleasure in looking at a poem, even, I think, before really reading them. The shape of the poem on the page, the prevalence of white space, the way the lines broke on the right margin like surf. It appealed to me immediately. I still remember distinctly the first line I wrote: “The fire is burning hot.” I was kneeling in front of the fire (of course). Something had changed: I’d gone from hearing my father read poems to trying to make a poem myself. I must have been twelve or so. I still have the notebook, labelled “Poetrey” (sic), various marks in the corners of the pages, some lost order that I was already putting the poems in. As to why I began to write poetry, that’s more mysterious. Of course, I was following my father (my favorite poem on this score is Heaney’s “Digging”), but at the same time, I was striking out on my own, trying to speak of the same place and the same livelihood in a different way.

2. How aware were and are you of the dominating presence of older poets?

Again. I think I touch on this above, but I can say more. I wouldn’t say that I felt that older poets were dominating presences. The poets who meant the most to me were the poets who meant the most to my father: Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, W.S. Merwin, Donald Hall, Jane Kenyon, Forrest Gander, etc. Actually, my father and I have met and/or corresponded with many of these poets. I met Snyder when he came to Freeport, IL to give a reading, and visited us on the farm. My Dad and I have both corresponded with Berry, and I’ve corresponded with Merwin. We both know Forrest. The point being, it was clear to me early on that being a poet was about more than writing poems. It was a whole life, a way of being in the world. It had a lot to do with friendship, with the simple pleasures of sharing a meal and some drinks, trying to say something for the earth and our presence upon it. In other words, it struck me that to be a poet was to take up a kind of moral calling. So rather than their presence being dominating, I felt that a kind of gauntlet had been laid down that I better walk if I was going to call myself a poet. Now, whether I’ve actually managed to walk it is another matter, that I can’t speak to.

3. What is your daily writing routine?

Right now my routine is waking up, trying to write, realizing I have to get my shit together and drive an hour to school, and daydreaming about what I would have written had I been able to stay home. I’m teaching a lot at the moment so I’m hardly writing at all. Certainly no poems. An occasional short story. Anyway, when things are calmer I write in the mornings. After noon I’m kind of worthless. Sometimes I’ll work on poems at night: they seem to require less attention than fiction does. What I mean by that is that poems seem to exercise a different part of the brain. I think it’s actually best to be a little tired, a little distracted, when working on a poem. I don’t like to bear down on them too much, or exert too much control, whereas, with fiction, it’s quite a bit different.

4. What motivates you to write?

I don’t really know anymore. Actually, I’m concerned that I’m losing the will to write. I used to write so much that it bordered on obsessive-compulsive behaviour. I have, in a file cabinet at home, approximately 1700 poems. I don’t write like that anymore. I don’t feel the pull to write about everything like I once did. I used to have to write in order to feel that I had experienced something. In some ways I’m happier, not writing all the time, but when one has identified oneself as a writer, to not write is a terrifying thing. These days, what motivates me to write is the thought of sharing the work with a half dozen or so people (my parents, my brothers, several good friends). I’ve pretty much given up on the publishing world, selling a novel, going on book tours, all that bullshit. I’m more or less writing letters to people I love, only they’re in the form of poems and stories.

5. What is your work ethic?

Well, again, it used to be much stronger! I’ll say this, though: I work hard, harder than anyone I’ve ever met. I don’t say that to brag. I’m actually not all that proud of it. It comes, probably, from having grown up on a dairy farm, and watching my dad get up every single morning at 3:30 for thirty years without a single day off. I approach writing that way. I had a pretty woeful time in graduate school because I encountered poets who don’t think of writing in that way, and I judged them, thinking they were lazy, or fake. The truth is, they were just working differently. Anyway, I like that phrase, “work ethic.” It really is an ethics of work. For me, the ethics of work is the ethics of dairy farming. For someone else, the ethics of work may be very different. Who am I to judge them? I just grew up in a particular world that has guided the way I approach my work. And so I am always reading, always writing or trying to write, always bearing down on one page or another, either mine or someone else’s.

6. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

Haha, hmm. Well, I don’t admire too many. Hardly any fiction, most of it strikes me as absolutely inane bullshit that is only getting published because it might sell books. Only a few poets. Maurice Manning, for how he has blent his work and his life in Kentucky. Joanna Klink, whose poems strike me as truly vital and consequential. Ilya Kaminsky: I trust and admire his patience and his passion. My friend Nate Klug, whose poems are as perfect and precious as diamonds. Yea, that’s about it.

7. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

Read. Read until you find writers who make you so envious that you would die to write like them. Then try to write like them. Try to write like so many of them for so long that you eventually write like yourself.

8. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

Oh there are so many. I’m like Coleridge in this. I have a thousand ideas and hardly any of them ever come to fruition. I’m experimenting with several different novels, trying to get one to click and carry me forward. One is about the appearance of the Virgin Mary to a community of beleaguered farmers in the midst of the Farm Crisis of the 1980s (but it’s a hoax perpetrated by the mother of the boy who sees her). Another novel is about a young woman who marries into a dairy farming family and, over the course of several decades, tries to get to the bottom of a dark family secret. Another novel is narrated from the perspective of a farmhouse. There’s a linked story collection called BROOD XIII, following generations of a farm family, jumping every seventeen years with the emergence of the Northwestern Illinois brood of periodical cicadas. My third poetry collection will be called ALL THY TRIBE after a line of Keats’s. I’m working on a memoir about growing up on a farm, as well as a collection of essays oriented around specific substances (“Milk,” “Blood,” “Grain,” “Manure,” etc.). And I have a short story collection finished, which the NYC editors called “quiet,” which I’ll probably just self-publish online. Again, I don’t really care that much anymore about publishing, I just want to keep writing and sharing my work with the people in my life who matter most to me.

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