Thursday, September 28, 2017

1/2 Dozen for Mike Smith

I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of Mike Smith's beautiful memoir, And There was Evening And There was Morning. I finished it late at night and scrawled my thoughts in the near dark. I called it a sweeping love story that was also about loss and hope and renewal. What I love most is that it isn’t a book about learning to let go but instead learning that the heart can expand to hold more love.

And now... a 1/2 Dozen Q and A with the author, Mike Smith: 

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

Smith: In many ways, this book began the day of my stepdaughter’s diagnosis, when my first wife’s book, Demanding Our Attention, happened to arrive in the mail, finally published three years after her death. This was, perhaps, the most improbable coincidence in a series of parallels between my wife Emily’s illness and death and the treatment and recovery of my 11-year-old stepdaughter, also named Emily, during the first year of my second marriage. Here’s a little bit from early in the memoir:

At some point during the calmer hours after admission, I remembered the most improbable coincidence of a small package resting on the bedside table beside my stepdaughter, who was lying on the bed with her eyes closed. It had arrived in the mail that afternoon, and in the urgency and panic of the day, I’d just tossed the package on the van’s dashboard. I’m not sure why I’d brought it inside with me, though I knew what the package contained—a copy of my first wife’s book, Demanding Our Attention: The Hebrew Bible as a Source for Christian Ethics. 

The book’s title appeared in black block type, like her last name….Inside, the front matter included a dedication to our daughter and son, as well as forewords by the Biblicist Yvonne Sherwood and ethicist Jean Porter, and Emily’s own preface, written before she was diagnosed. Reading her words at that moment, her voice came back to me in such a palpable way that I was grateful I was sitting down. 

Emily had just finished up her first year of teaching at Georgetown University when she was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer, three weeks after giving birth to our second child, Langston. She was an ethicist and, as the book description states, her book suggests that by “placing ourselves in relationship to such complex, challenging, perhaps unresolvable sacred texts,” we can “learn to relate authentically and ethically to others.” One of the central motifs of my memoir is that my first wife’s book became for me, in the turmoil and trauma of my blended family’s difficult first year, a guidebook and abiding source of solace.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

This just came up during my annual summer trip back home, where I told my skeptical parents that I viewed my childhood as ideal! And I do. There was a divorce and relocation to another state when I was five, and a relatively speedy remarriage, but our future stepfather was our first friend in our new home. He lived in the same apartment building, and my brother and I used to go over to his place to watch Saturday morning cartoons. We actually introduced him to Mom.

Money was always tight, and I went to nine different schools between kindergarten and the start of high school, but all this did was deepen the bond between me and my brothers. I ended up attending the same high school as my first wife, but we never met, which was probably a good thing. I was a mess, and not at all sure of who I was or who I wanted to be. This has become clear to me now that I have daughters in high school and college, who, in very different ways, manage to convey genuineness and a poise I try not to envy.

Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

I’ve learned I must, but I haven’t quite managed it yet. In the memoir, I talk about my “golden month,” those weeks in late spring when school is out for me, but not Jennifer and the children. I begin all my large projects during this month:

It’s the first of June and I am, as usual, restless. I’m nearing the end of what I call my golden month, the four weeks every year between the semester’s end at Delta State University and the last day for the public schools. Jennifer is ready to say goodbye her fourth grade class and our kids are itching to greet their summer. The year is 2014, which means I’m enjoying my fourth such month and regretting, again, that I haven’t found a way to make the most of my time. In three days, school will be out, the kids will not sleep in as long as I hope, and so my mornings will no longer be my own. Every year, I’m torn by whether I should embrace this development or not.

Faith. Do you consider yourself religious? If so, how does that manifest in your work and/or your process?

I’m afraid my “spiritual journey” has been as haphazard as my early education. As you might imagine, faith or my struggles with it, come up often in the memoir. In another chapter of the memoir that deals with two separate and distinct experiences I had during my wife’s illness, I talk about this.

One morning, near the end of Emily’s first hospital stay, I promised her I would convert to Catholicism. This sudden decision was consistent with my religious biography. I have suffered through baptismal ritual four times. Growing up, my family moved from Quaker to Presbyterian, Baptist to Moravian. Every time we joined a new congregation, I experienced a rush of conviction and strode down to the font to reenact my rebirth in whatever faith had flushed my face and swelled my racing heart. When I returned to the pew, my family kindly hid their smiles. My parents finally settled on the Episcopal church, but I was in college then, so remained unclaimed, vacillating between the tenets of my childhood and unbelief, steadied only occasionally by guilt.

Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?

Not consciously. In fact, before tackling this project, I might have argued that I was a writer of place, despite my intentions. As a poet, I’m more intrigued by questions of form, not that “place” can’t be a formal question. Perhaps it’s that I believe a writer’s preoccupation with “place” can sometimes suggest ownership of that place, which is dangerous.

When you live in the Delta, two hours by car from the nearest airport, you either find yourself covering a lot of ground in your daily life or you don’t. It’s almost always a matter of economic means. I live in the Delta but I’m not from the Delta, so this is a tough question for me. Given how homogenous much of America has become, if a writer is not lucky enough to be born and raised in a place saturated with peculiar human histories or geographic extremes, is she obliged to seek them out as poet-tourist? Conversely, if you were born in, say, West Virginia mining country, must it become a central concern of your own writing, even if your writing sees that place as the Mount Moriah of your biography? As you can see, I’m as unsure about this as about most things.

What project of yours was the easiest writing of your life? And, flip-side, which one was the most like wrestling bears? (And could you tell before you started or did they turn on you, for better or worse?)

Excepting the memoir, which I don’t believe I quite chose as a project (so feel unable to think about in terms of easy or hard), the “easiest” project I’ve undertaken was probably my role in another book that comes out this fall, Contemporary Chinese Short -Short Stories: A Parallel Text, edited by Aili Mu. The “easiness” for me was absolutely the work of my wonderful collaborator, who had been developing this anthology for 10 years. I learned more than I can say here about process, and had the opportunity to think about translation in ways I hadn’t quite before.

Aili and I corresponded by email and phone several times a week, arguing and compromising, building trust, and a rhythm to our work. About midway through our project, I began to see our strategy of collaborative translation as analogous to the way a reader might come to any translated text, an act which requires nothing more than an earnest desire for understanding and a willingness to allow that understanding to remain, at times, elusive. As my first wife argues in her book, a reader ought to be prepared to encounter a difficult text much the way she engages the people to whom she is obligated to give ongoing attention in her life. In 21st century America, I think, the translator’s willingness to act as intermediary and proponent for both author and reader stands as bulwark and buttress against the entitlement of empire. Given the continual paucity of works translated from other languages into English, and our current obsession with borders and separateness, the present moment cries out for such an approach. 

The hardest project is still the two anagrammatic cycles that make up my second poetry collection, Multiverse. The first cycle is comprised of 24 poems that all use the same 952 letters, so, for instance, in every poem there are exactly 6 “k”s, 125 “t”s, 1 “j,” etc. In the second cycle, I responded to 16 pieces by American writers using only the letters of those pieces. I composed by hand, painstakingly marking off letters on endless sheets. The composition of these projects was separated by exactly five years, and though I believe I nearly went blind, those months are very happy ones in my memory, as they were also the months leading up to the births of two of my five children, Virginia and Langston.  

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Mike Smith directs the Honors Program at Delta State University. He has published three collections of poetry, including Byron and Baghdad and Multiverse, a collection of two anagrammatic cycles. His translation of the first part of Goethe’s Faust was published by Shearsman Books in 2012, and he is co-editor of the anthology, Contemporary Chinese Short-Short Stories: A Parallel Text, published by Columbia University Press. Together with software engineer Brandon Nelson, Mike created and curates The Zombie Poetry Project at His memoir, And There Was Evening and There Was Morning is published by WTAW Press.