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.

National Poetry Month: Featured reading by Austin Smith

almanac smith jacketAustin Smith’s debut collection, Almanac, is a lyrical and narrative meditation on the loss of small family farms. Most of the poems are personal, set in the rural Midwest where Smith grew up. Though they are geographically specific, the greater themes such as death and perseverance are as universal as they are disquieting.

The collection is also a meditation on apprenticeship. Smith, the son of a poet, reflects on the responsibility of a young poet to mourn what is vanishing.

Listen to Austin Smith’s reading of his poem, “Coach Chance”.

austin smithAustin Smith was born in the rural Midwest. Most recently, he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford University. He has written a collection of poems entitled Almanac: Poems.

Celebrate National Poetry Month with Poem in Your Pocket Day

Small-Blue-RGB-National-Poetry-Month-LogoNational Poetry Month is in full swing, and April 21st is designated  Poem in Your Pocket Day. Celebrated across the country, the “pocket poem” is a simple reminder of how powerful and overlooked poetry can be. Spread poetry in classrooms, libraries, offices, or wherever you happen to be by printing out either an old personal favorite or a poem you’ve newly discovered. You can share your choice on Twitter using the popular hashtag #pocketpoem.

Although Poem in Your Pocket Day was founded by the office of the mayor in New York City in 2002, it quickly gained national momentum. You can find more information about the event at poets.org, which features news, updates, and additional programs that are taking place throughout April.

To promote and celebrate Poem in Your Pocket Day, Princeton University Press is pleased to present a selection of six printable PUP poem cards you can take with you throughout your day.

Jollimore poetry card On Birdsong

Troy Jollimore is the author of two previous collections of poetry, At Lake Scugog (Princeton) and Tom Thomson in Purgatory, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. His poems have appeared in the New Yorker, McSweeney’s, the Believer, and other publications. He is a professor of philosophy at California State University, Chico.

Feinman poetry card The Way to Remember Her

Alvin Feinman (1929-2008) taught literature at Bennington College from 1969 to 1994. He was the author of Preambles and Other Poems and an expanded edition of that work, Poems (Princeton). He was born in Brooklyn, New York, and educated at Brooklyn College, the University of Chicago, and Yale University.

Greenbaum poetry card The Two Yvonnes

Jessica Greenbaum’s second book, The Two Yvonnes (2012), was chosen by Paul Muldoon for Princeton’s Series of Contemporary Poets. She teaches inside and outside academia, and as a social worker she designs workshops for nonconventional communities. She received a 2015 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, is the poetry editor for upstreet, and lives in Brooklyn.

poetry_cards_Carelli

Anthony Carelli’s poems have appeared in various magazines including The New Yorker, Columbia, and Commonweal, and on various websites including theparisreview.org, AGNI online, and Memorious. His first book, Carnations (Princeton University Press, 2011) was a finalist for the 2011 Levis Reading Prize. Recipient of a Hodder fellowship and a Whiting Writers’ Award, he currently lives in Brooklyn, New York and teaches at New York University.

Whitehead poetry card A Glossary of Chickens

Gary J. Whitehead’s third collection of poems, A Glossary of Chickens, was published by Princeton University Press in 2013. His previous books include Measuring Cubits while the Thunder Claps and The Velocity of Dust. He has also authored three chapbooks of poetry, two of which were winners of national competitions. His writing awards include, among others, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, the Pearl Hogrefe Fellowship at Iowa State University, and the PEN Northwest Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency Award. His poems have appeared widely, most notably in The New Yorker.
Smith poetry card The Key in the Stone
Austin Smith has published four poetry collections: In the Silence of the Migrated Birds; Wheat and Distance; Instructions for How to Put an Old Horse Down; and Almanac, which was chosen by Paul Muldoon for the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets. Austin’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, Yale Review, and Sewanee Review, amongst others. He was the recipient of the 2015 Narrative Prize for his short story, “The Halverson Brothers.”
poetry_cards_Sze-Lorrain (1)
Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, literary translator, editor, and zheng harpist. The author of three previous books of poetry in English, My Funeral Gondola, Water the Moon, and The Ruined Elegance, she also writes and translates in French and Chinese. She lives in Paris.