Poet Austin Smith on Flyover Country

Flyover Country is a powerful collection of poems about violence: the violence we do to the land, to animals, to refugees, to the people of distant countries, and to one another. Drawing on memories of his childhood on a dairy farm in Illinois, Austin Smith explores the beauty and cruelty of rural life, challenging the idea that the American Midwest is mere “flyover country,” a place that deserves passing over. At the same time, the collection suggests that America itself has become a flyover country, carrying out drone strikes and surveillance abroad, locked in a state of perpetual war that Americans seem helpless to stop.

Why did you title your collection Flyover Country?

Because I despise the term. I’ve always found it to be extraordinarily condescending. I had heard the phrase for years, and it always grated on me, but since the election of 2016 it has become even more common. As with most things that hurt us, I think my impulse was to take it in and use it. This is a risk, because, as poets, the titles of our collections announce to the world what we’re about. The title is a the purest distillation of the themes a reader can expect to find in the book. I’ve already had one reader ask me whether I’m nervous that using the term might not offend the very people I’m writing about. But my intention is to say to readers: “Here is book about the Midwest, so-called ‘flyover country,’ and now I’m going to show (if the poems are successful) all the ways in which that definition of this region is offensive and inadequate.” I try to set up an expectation, and then challenge it. And after deciding to call the book Flyover Country, I realized that the title also resonated with some of the war poems in the book, particularly the poems that involve American foreign policy, preemptive war, drone strikes. While I refute the idea that the Midwest is flyover country, I would argue that the nation itself has become a flyover country in our utilization of drone strikes and other acts of war that protect us from seeing the damage we are doing.

Your first collection, Almanac, was chosen by Paul Muldoon for the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets in 2014. What are some of the differences between Almanac and Flyover Country?

The manuscript for Almanac was a decade in the making. In some ways it began when I took a poetry class with the inimitable Michael Theune as an undergraduate at Illinois Wesleyan University. Within a year or so of graduating I was submitting a manuscript to prizes. Every year the book changed, from the title to the selection of poems to individual poems themselves, all through two graduate programs in poetry. I had many different titles, including Salvation Army, Ducks’ Misery and Autumn’s Velocity. It was Theune who suggested I call it Almanac. Eventually the book began to stabilize. Certain poems just stuck, and versions of poems became indelible, so that I felt I couldn’t change them. If Paul hadn’t taken the book, it surely would have kept changing. I feel a bit disconnected from Almanac, because I have no idea how the book came together. It grew parallel to me. It was different with Flyover Country. The publication of Almanac wiped the slate clean. I knew that every poem I wrote from then on would be vying for its place in the next collection. Also, the fall that Almanac was published I had just started the Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford in fiction, and so was focusing more on prose. All this to say that I wrote many fewer poems, and therefore Flyover Country came together more deliberately. Once I started recognizing some of the themes I was working with, I started writing towards those themes. I’ve never been able to understand when poets say they’re working on a book: I tend to just write poems and let them fall together as they will. But my process for Flyover Country was definitely more linear and rational, whereas Almanac was much more subconscious.

Many of your poems involve political subject. I’m thinking in particular of “Augury,” which suggests Trump’s inauguration, and the poem “That Particular Village,” written in the voice of Donald Rumsfeld. Do you consider yourself a political poet?

I’ve thought long and hard about the role of the poet in relation to politics. I’ve had intense but jovial arguments with many friends on the subject. To require that poets’ poems be political (perhaps in the hopes that their art might agitate for change) seems dangerous to me. People say that these times are crazy, and that poets should be putting their shoulders to the wheel and writing about the world as it is now, but we know that all times have been crazy. If poets have to be political today, they ought to have always been political. I got in a pleasant argument while at Stanford with the incredible novelist and teacher Richard Powers. To paraphrase his argument, he suggested that any fiction writer who isn’t writing about climate change is shirking their moral responsibility. He didn’t mean, of course, that every novel be explicitly about climate change. But he seemed to believe that, in being alive at this moment, it was only appropriate that our work respond to this moment. This argument makes me extremely uncomfortable. I worry that one day books will require a kind of imprimatur, vouching that they have been deemed sufficiently politically-engaged in order to be published. I make this argument in recognition of the fact that Flyover Country is at times explicitly political, especially in the poems you mention in your question. These explicitly political poems are my least favorite poems in the collection. The poems I have the most affection for are those poems that suggest the political, but work at a deeper, more symbolic level. For instance, when I wrote the poem “Cat Moving Kittens,” I wasn’t thinking about the Trump administration’s immoral policy of family separation at the southern border because I wrote the poem before Trump was even elected, but I can’t help but read the poem in that context now. This is only possible, I would argue, because the poem operates by suggestion and metaphor. I want to write poems that have a chance of becoming relevant in the future, not poems that becoming more and more irrelevant as time goes on.

Your father was a dairy farmer for many years, and is also a poet. What impact has his work as a poet had upon yours?

I came to poetry through my parents’ love of poetry and of literature generally. The farmhouse I grew up in was chock-full of books. For whatever reason I was instinctually drawn towards the poetry collections. Before I could even really understand the poems I was reading, I just liked the way the poems looked on the page, visually. I still find myself randomly pulling a book of poems down from the shelf, just to consider a poem’s shape. My first book of poems was the New Directions edition of One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, translated by Kenneth Rexroth. I loved the book itself, the simplicity of the cover, the feel of the pages, the font. But when I really wanted to be a poet was after seeing my Dad read poems at the art museum in town. He was writing about the farm, about places and events I was utterly familiar with, but in what seemed to me a completely different language. Actually, it wasn’t a different language but the same language heightened. The poems had more in common with prayer and song than with ordinary speech. I distinctly remember the first time I found that heightened language myself. It was my first poem, called “Christmas,” rhymed couplets, beginning: “The fire is burning hot. / I can hear the hunter’s shot.” Something clicked for me there. And then there were the poets who would come out to the farm for dinner, having been brought to Freeport by the poet and provocateur Kent Johnson to read at Highland Community College. I met Gary Snyder, Forrest Gander, Michael Mott, Margaret Gibson, and many others. I saw how poets inhabited the world, how they talked and laughed and walked and ate and drank. It struck me early on I think that to become a poet was not merely to become a person who writes poems, but to live a life oriented towards what poetry suggests: careful (by which I mean “full of care”) and compassionate language and living. So, yes, it was my Dad, his books, his poems, his friendships, who sent me on my way. I was very nearly derailed by the embarrassment of turning in a collection of haiku titled Silver Moon for the Young Author’s competition in third grade, but after recovering from that pitfall it has been more or less smooth sailing.

Who are the poets who mean the most to you?

My reading habits are so eclectic that I’d rather give a broader answer, composed mostly but not entirely of poets. To be honest, I don’t read many poems these days. I have many friends, poets all, who sit down and read new collections straight through. It’s rare that I’ll do that. It’s rare that I’ll like a poem, including my own. And usually, I become enamored with a poet, not with a particular collection or even a particular poem, and everything that poet has written will seem like gold to me. An example is the great French poet Jean Follain. I love reading Follain’s short, unpunctuated, imagistic poems, considering how he makes the moves he does, and comparing different translations. It seems to me that his poems are reflective of some deeper quality he must have had, and that cannot have helped but come through in his poems. Another poet like this is Keats, not so much in his poems, but in his letters: I feel I know him, his humor, his compassion. And then there are the Wordsworths, especially Dorothy, and Coleridge. I read Dorothy’s journals in a kind of continuous loop. I also love the French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard, especially The Poetics of Space. All of these people, Follain, Keats, Dorothy Wordsworth, Bachelard, are like saints to me. So I could say that the poet Larry Levis has been very important to me, or that the poet W.S. Merwin has been very important to me (and the namesake of a long-lost cat of mine), but a more accurate answer would be that I live in an atmosphere of blended enthusiasms, which transcend genre.

Austin Smith grew up on a family dairy farm in northwestern Illinois. He is the author of a previous poetry collection, Almanac (Princeton), and his work has appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, Ploughshares, and many other publications. He teaches at Stanford University and lives in Oakland, California.