Austin Smith on Becoming a Poet

SmithBecause my father is a poet, I met many poets as a boy. They would come to Freeport, Illinois to read through a series curated by the poet and provocateur Kent Johnson, who taught Spanish at the community college: Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, Forrest Gander, Michael Mott, Armand Schwerner, John Haines, Michael Heller. They would sometimes come out to our farmhouse for dinner. I vaguely recall those evenings, the warmth and laughter, the candlelight, the copious amount of eating and drinking. They were late nights, despite the fact that my dad had to be up at 4 to milk cows. The neighboring farmer, Colberg, would have seen Michael Mott walking down Winneshiek Road with a walking stick and a cape. My Dad still talks with him on the phone almost weekly. When Snyder visited, he told my Dad that he should teach the cows to meditate, so they wouldn’t need to be milked or fed for three days, and then he could come out West for a visit, and Snyder could show him his trees. It struck me even as a boy that being a poet was about more than merely writing poems (though there’s nothing “mere” about that): it was an entire livelihood, a way of being in the world. Were I to become a poet too, there would be friends to welcome come evening, books to exchange, good meals by candlelight, long walks in the morning, conversations that bordered on the theological. That has been more or less true. My best friends are the friends I have made through poetry. One becomes part of a larger family, composed of both the living and the dead. Indeed, sometimes the latter seem more present than the former.

The first time I heard my father read poems, at the art museum in town, I understood that there was a different register of language available to us. It was a similar register to the language I heard at Mass on Sunday mornings. Not long after learning of this register, I wrote my first couplet, in a notebook titled Poetrey (sic):

 

            The fire is burning hot.

            I can hear the hunter’s shot.

 

I can still recall how it felt to write this line, kneeling before the fire on an old woven oval rug that sparks from past fires had charred black divots in. I had built the fire. Now, by its light, I was writing of it. I was writing also of the sound of the hunters on the hill shooting geese. It was a lie: I couldn’t hear them in that moment (after all, who hunts at night?) and yet it was somehow still true. The domestic comfort of the fire was somehow connected to the firing of guns on the hill, and the rhyme of “hot” and “shot” proved that. Language, which had before seemed arbitrary, suddenly held within it an infinity of keys and locks. By using language in the right way, by fitting the right key to the right lock, a door could be opened that had never been opened before. One could enter a room that was being created as one entered it, like a room in a novel.

I started reading the books I found on the shelves, inclined towards the slimmest ones because they were certain to be poetry collections. I loved a short book of short poems by Merwin, Finding the Islands. And I loved also those New Directions volumes that Rexroth put together, One Hundred Poems from the Japanese and One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. To read a poem was as much a visual experience as it was a mental one: the preponderance of white space compared to the black text, the cleanliness (usually) of the left margin versus the surflike shape of the right.

And I kept writing. Kent Johnson published my first poems in the literary journal he edited, The Prairie Wind. When Margaret Gibson came, I shared some poems with her. I remember how we stood in one corner of the living room, in lamplight. She must have thought, “What a strange, precocious boy.” I don’t know what I was asking for. Certainly not feedback on the poems themselves. Some kind of permission, perhaps. I wanted to know, as I still do, whether I’m allowed to live this life, which seems, despite its obvious financial difficulties, the only life I could ever have led: a life of books, friends, travel, meals in cities I would have no reason to visit were I not there for a reading, gossip, but mostly solitude, trying a thousand keys in the lock.

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 YorkerPoetryPloughshares, and many other publications. He teaches at Stanford University and lives in Oakland, California.