blackbirdonline journalFall 2016  Vol. 15 No. 2
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Tribute to Dave Smith
captured February 9, 2017

On February 9, 2017, in Washington, DC, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs hosted a panel discussion in tribute to the poet Dave Smith, a Virginia native, whose distinguished writing, editing, and teaching career stretches nearly fifty years. Panelists shared their favorite Dave Smith poems and discussed their personal and literary connections. Kate Daniels moderated the panel, joined by T.R. Hummer, Mary Flinn, Molly McCully Brown, and Ernest Suarez.

Kate Daniels: My name is Kate Daniels; I’ll be moderating this gathering of fellow poets, editors, scholars, former students, former colleagues of Dave Smith, including some of the authors he’s brought to print over the years, and all of us dear friends of this remarkable poet.

Dave Smith is one of the poets I have admired most in my life, both for his poetry and for his life of poetry, his life dedicated to poetry—to writing it, to teaching others to write and to read it, to performing service for American poetry through his editing of journals and poetry publishing series, for the ways that he’s always kept poetry and his commitment to it front and center in his life—at the same time that he has managed to live an equally committed life as husband, father, and family man. I admire both the intensity and the balance he seems to have achieved, and I am grateful for the prodigious literary output that’s resulted from that nearly half-century balancing act—what I consider to be a major contribution to American literature and a profound influence on many lives that came into contact with him and his love of and dedication to poetry.

In a moment I’m going to introduce our panelists, but first I need to tell you, very sadly, that Dave Smith is not here with us this afternoon. He and Dee had planned to make the trip up from Baton Rouge to join us, and we were hoping to cajole him into reading a poem or two, but he found himself unable to make the trip at the last minute, and, as he’ll understand, we regret that. I have to say, I secretly—I suspect that—I know he regrets not being able to come, but I think he may also be secretly relieved that he didn’t have to come and sit here and listen to people expound upon him and his poetry. One of my best poetry buds is Mark Jarman, who was emailing me this morning, saying, “Don’t feel bad that Dave couldn’t make it, Kate, I think these tributes to poets are kind of like reverse ‘roasts’ anyway: they don’t always turn out the way you think they’re going to.”

My fellow panelists are:

T.R. Hummer: he is one of the most prodigiously productive poets writing today, a work ethic that I admit being envious of, that was possibly imprinted in him while he was a graduate student under the tutelage of Dave Smith. During a forty-year stint as an academic migrant worker, T.R. Hummer has published fourteen books of poetry and prose and edited various literary magazines: Quarterly West, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Georgia Review. Born and bred in Mississippi, he lives in peace now with his family and animals in Cold Spring, New York, plotting more books and eschewing committee work. He also plays a little saxophone. Terry is one of the poets in Dave Smith’s Southern Messenger series published by LSU.

On the end is Mary Flinn. Mary is senior editor of Blackbird: an online journal of literature and the arts, one of the pioneers in the field of online literary publishing and continuing to be one of the journals that one turns to for a sense of what’s happening in American poetry. She is the coeditor with George Garrett of Elvis in Oz: New Stories and Poems, and she facilitated and worked on the editing of The Gazer Within, a collection of essays by Larry Levis that is in that wonderful University of Michigan Press series. Mary won the inaugural Theresa Pollak Award for Words from Richmond Magazine, and Style Weekly recognized her as one of their 2016 Richmond Women in the Arts. If you live in Virginia, if you’re involved in poetry and creative writing in any way, you’ll know how essential Mary is to the functioning and the health and the rich [unint.] quality of that community.

In the middle is Molly McCully Brown, who is the author of The Virginia State Colony For Epileptics and Feebleminded, which won the 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize and is being published in 2017 by Persea Books. It’s actually, like, maybe published today or yesterday, quite literally hot off the press, if books are still hot off a press. Her poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, The Adroit Journal, Image, TriQuarterly Online, Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, and lots of other places. Raised in rural Virginia, she holds undergraduate degrees from Bard College at Simon’s Rock and from Stanford University. Currently she studies creative writing in English as a John and Renée Grisham fellow at the University of Mississippi.

Right here is Ernest Suarez, who is the David M. O’Connell Professor of English at Catholic University and the president of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers. He is published widely on American literature, particularly and especially southern poetry, and on the intersections between blues-based popular music and poetry. The chairperson of the English Department at Catholic U for many years, though not currently, he early on proved himself a true friend of writers and writing, organizing many events over the years that combined scholarship and creative production in mutually beneficial—and, I might add, hugely entertaining—forums for both writers and readers. His publications and honors are far too numerous to mention, but I will mention a couple things that seem relevant: one, a really great collection of essays called Southbound: Interviews with Southern Poets; he’s also written full-length books on James Dickey and on David Bottoms; and he does this really cool thing called “Hot Rocks: Song and Verse,” which is a regular feature that appears in Five Points: A Journal of Literature and Art—you may know it, it comes out of Atlanta, Georgia State writing program, and he coedits that with Mike Mattison.

I’m going to make my few short comments and read my poem first, and then everyone else is going to make a few short comments and read their poems. Not our poems, but poems by Dave.

I can no longer actually remember when or where I first met Dave Smith. He was never my teacher. He was never my colleague, though he almost was at LSU in the early 1990s. However, as a poet from the state of Virginia who attended the University of Virginia as an undergraduate and who was the first in my family to attend college, I identified with that same set of facts from his life from the first time that I became acquainted with him. It seems to me that I’ve always known and cared about the poems of Dave Smith. Certainly by the time I entered the MFA program at Columbia University in 1978 I was aware of him and reading his work. My generation of young writers born in the 1950s considered him to be one of the important poets that one absolutely had to read.

By the time I first read him, he’d published three books of poems: Goshawk, Antelope; Cumberland Station; and The Fisherman’s Whore. The Fisherman’s Whore I never read as an individual volume, as I was enraged by the title, there at the end of the 1970s feminist movement. I did read Goshawk, Antelope, although I also approached it with trepidation, worrying that it might be all about hunting or birding or other overtly masculine activities like that, which also, to me at the time during that charged era, seemed suspect. Cumberland Station, which came out in 1977, when I was living in Los Angeles, is the first book of his that I remember reading in its entirety. It was the one that hooked me, that showed me not only how one poet did his work but gave me an early clue about how I might do mine, as well. In those poems, I found a poet who loved the enthralling interplay of words’ music set in narrative contexts, whose thematic terrain and southern settings described an area and considered a way of life that was familiar to me from my own life, and who was unafraid to engage with difficult subject matter that today we might identify as identity politics.

Dave was born only nine years before me, but our lives in the South as white working-class folk were very different because of the civil rights era, which encompassed both my childhood and adolescence but which he encountered later in his life. We had very different experiences in our schooling and in our social realities. I was afraid of my subject matter until I read Dave’s poems that explored many of the race-inflected situations and issues that I felt strongly I needed to read about but could find neither access into nor poetic model for doing so, until I encountered Dave Smith’s poetry. His genius for narrative, his insistence on honest self-reckoning, his sheer seriousness—not just about life but about poetry—was deeply attractive to me, and beyond that: it was inspirational. I recall thinking more than once as a much younger poet that he might have written some of his poems for me. From the beginning, Dave Smith’s poetry has simultaneously explored southernness at the same time that it has lifted southern poetic parlance far above the platform of regionality. Smith’s interest in the linguistic object that a poem makes identifies him as a poet for the ages, even as we see, reading his work, his insistent focus on settings, details, situations, and circumstances that are specific to the American South in the post–World War II and postmodern eras.

Well that’s my little spiel. I’m going to read a poem, the title poem of Cumberland Station. I think he wrote it around 1976, and I found this wonderful interview from a few years ago where he recalled writing it. Here’s Dave speaking:

Then I wrote a poem called “Cumberland Station.” It was a funeral elegy about my uncle Melvin. He’d been a diesel engineer. The poem was about the old Queen City Railroad Station, which again I remember as being a very imposing building with this huge set of stairs that you walked up, and then there was this glistening, almost senatorial marble floor. It was very like a church. When I started writing this, I hadn’t been back to Cumberland in more than twenty years. I didn’t know what I was trying to do in it, just say something about a place that I missed, and the life that was there, and how I had been disconnected from it and all that. But when I got done, this felt to me like the first real poem I had ever written.

So, one of my favorite poems, possibly a first real poem Dave Smith wrote, and a poem that was just enormously important to me in showing me how to connect with some of my own subject matters and helping me be less afraid to embrace that.

“Cumberland Station.” Even though you all are writers and readers, I always think it’s good to warn people. So it’s two and one-third pages long, OK? That’s how long it’s going to take.

[“Cumberland Station,” Dave Smith, Cumberland Station, published by University of Illinois Press, 1977.]

Next we’ll hear from Terry Hummer.

T.R. Hummer: Here’s another poem of Dave’s, one that you might be less familiar with if you know his work; or, if you don’t know his work, you’re certainly not familiar with it.

[“Dreams in Sunlit Rooms,” Dave Smith, published in Poetry Magazine, 1977.]

I chose to read that poem for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s, at first blush, quite uncharacteristic of the poems that we most often associate with Dave Smith. It’s relatively short. It’s not primarily a narrative. It’s a very dense lyric poem. The language is distinctly Dave Smith-ish; if you know his work you will know how much he is influenced by the Anglo-Saxon poets in particular, and you can hear those kinds of consonantal rhythms in this as you can in so much of Dave’s work. So, it’s different, you know, say from “Cumberland Station.” Another reason, though, and probably the main reason why I chose to read it is because it was published in Poetry Magazine in 1977, which is the year that I met Dave Smith. And so, the route that I took to Dave was in some ways through another kind of poetry, through more like the Cumberland Station poems. But I discovered in him several poets, you might say, all of whom were of great use to me, and that’s why I suppose I’m standing here today to talk about Dave Smith a little bit.

I didn’t write down anything because my relationship with Dave is so much second nature to me that I didn’t feel I needed to, but I also didn’t know how. I felt a little like James Wright at the beginning of one of his poems when he says, “I don’t know how to write this thing down.” It’s a complicated matter. I arrived in 1977 at the University of Utah, drawn there by this relatively new beacon of poetry. I went there specifically to study with Dave. I had not been, frankly, that aware of his work until about a year before, when the poems that are now in Cumberland Station, I think, began to come out in very visible magazines.

I was living in Mississippi, which is where I’m from. I was working for the State Arts Council there, running the writers . . . the Poets in the Schools program—actually it was all the Artists in the Schools programs in the state—and I had a poet working for me, my own age, whose name is Harry Maxson. He and I had published, each, a book with the same press. I’d hired him to work for the state of Mississippi for a year. He came down from New Jersey to work in Mississippi, so for him it was kind of a weird culture shock, and at some point he said, “Well what am I gonna do next year? I’ve just got this one-year gig.” I said, “I don’t know.” I said, “What am I gonna do next year? Because working for the state of Mississippi in the field of the arts is not a growth industry, Harry.” And so, he plunked down in front of me a copy of The American Poetry Review with a bunch of Dave’s poems in there, and he said, “Let’s go work with this guy.” So I said, “OK,” and we did. Harry and I packed up—we were accepted into the program at the same time—we packed up in tandem a pair of U-Haul trucks, and we headed to Utah. What a strange adventure that was.

I’d never really been much of anywhere at that point, you know, I was this kid who grew up on a farm out in rural Mississippi, and I thought I was finally getting out of there, you know? I mean I had—my relationship with the South is not like Dave’s. Dave is one who has a tendency to romanticize and glorify the South. I do not. I grew up in a different South than Dave, you know, I grew up in rural Mississippi. Dave grew up in Tidewater, Virginia. It’s different. And furthermore, actually he grew up in Norfolk, and from there he romanticized Tidewater, you know. We have a running conversation about this matter. But in any case, I thought, OK, finally, finally, finally, and somebody said to me, “You’re leaving Mississippi to go to Utah?” He said, “Do you know what you’re doing?” I said, “No, I have no idea what I’m doing. What am I doing?” He said, “Well, you know they have Mormons there,” and I said, “Well, can they be worse than Baptists, really?” Well no, but they’re different, right? So there I am in Utah, with my friend Harry. Here’s this man Dave Smith, a southerner. So I had escaped, not to escape.

About Dave Smith as a teacher, I could tell you many things. The main one, though, is that he is, and was, and will always be, utterly uncompromising. There is no way that you can have a poem go through a Dave Smith workshop that is not, in his opinion, up to standard, without him telling you so. He will not lie to you. He is a man who believes deeply in honesty—to a fault, if anything, you know? Sometimes one wishes he would not be so honest. Tell me a lie, please! He used to say something in workshops that I found, at the time, objectionable. He would say of a poem in a workshop, “This is not a poem.” He said that a lot. I don’t know if he still says it; he may. I haven’t heard him say it in a long time. You know, at the time I thought, no, you can’t say that. It’s a poem. It may not be a good poem, you know, it may need work, but it’s not . . . But I began to realize that he said it because he had a particular reason for saying it. His approach to pedagogy was to be in your face about your assumptions, and he would not let it go until he was satisfied that you actually believed in your assumptions. Eventually he would leave you with your assumptions if he deemed them honest and earned, but only if he deemed them honest and earned. And this for me was a great lesson. It took me a while to learn it, but once I figured it out, it’s a simple thing, you know? And yet it was a revelation—as if to say, you actually have to believe in what you’re writing about, and you actually have to take responsibility for it. You cannot not take responsibility for it.

There was a whole lot of stuff in my life at that point I didn’t want to take responsibility for, frankly. That is, I had grown up in rural Mississippi. I was born in 1950. There was, you know, Jim Crow lived right down the road. No, he lived in our house. I lived in a county that was seventy percent African American, and yet black people had nothing. White people didn’t have much either, but they had more than the black people, and we stole it all from them, and everything we were was built on their backs. And all during the ’60s, from the time I was ten to the time I was twenty, I was busy learning that lesson. It was not an easy lesson to learn, and at some point I came to understand that my job as a white boy from the racist South was to destroy the selfhood they had constructed in me and make myself a new one. Now, all of that requires a lot of self-examination, and I did sort of the first quarter of that self-examination by the time I was twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two. At that point, I wanted nothing more than to turn my back on it all and pretend it had never been. And I thought poetry was the way to do that because poetry had nothing to do with where I came from or what I did—what they did, you know? People didn’t . . . it was not that people didn’t like poetry or objected to it, it was that they were oblivious to it. It was not part of their universe. The first time I ever heard anybody say anything about a writer outside of school was my father, who one day excoriated quote-unquote “Faulkner, that traitor to the South.” You know, so I mean, that’s how bad it was. But poets of course never crossed anybody’s radar at all. And when I discovered poetry, and it was something that I could do, I turned to it as if to a rocket ship, you know, to take me to another universe.

But the truth about poetry is—Dave Smith helped me to realize—was that once it gets hold of you, it will not let you go. And if you do it right, it will take you right back to who you are, and it will never let you forget a thing. And this is what Dave made me face in myself. I had to leave Mississippi and go to Utah to study with a southerner to teach me about the South, even though he had it all wrong, in my opinion. And this is a conversation we continue to have. You see, that’s the thing about Dave: he would make you, and I assume still will, make you face who you are. He insisted that we face who we were.

I was walking down the hall one day, in my third year in the program, and there was one of the younger poets—well I say younger, he was one of the newer poets, I should put it that way—sitting in a chair in the hallway with his head in his hands, and I said, “What’s the matter?” And he said, “Oh, I just had a conference with Dave.” I said, “Well, what happened?” Because he looked like he had lost his dog, you know? And he said, “He asked me a question.” [I said,] “Well, yeah, what was it?” He said, “He asked me, ‘What is your passion?’ and I couldn’t answer. I didn’t know.” That was always the lesson Dave was teaching us. What is your passion? Know it. Understand it. Then, you know, once you demonstrate—you know, to his satisfaction, ultimately to your own satisfaction—that what you feel is true, that your passion is a real passion, then you can have it, you know? Then no matter what it is, as far as he’s concerned, it’s yours, and it’s honest. And if it’s honest, that’s OK.

I continued to be close to Dave for many, many, many years because I found that at some point, in our case—I can’t speak for everyone, but in our case—the transition from the teacher-student relationship to a kind of relationship of, well a friendship, and of equals was easy to make. He came, for some incomprehensible reason, to respect me and what I was doing, and once that happened—I mean it happened even before I was done with the program—then I was no longer really in that relationship anymore. I was an equal, and it was OK, and that’s what we did, you know, and that’s how we still are. We still have many disagreements. Every time I see him we have some argument about the South. I was happy that he moved to Mississippi finally because I said, “Dave, now you’re gonna live in the South I lived in, you know, what’s left of it, and you’ll see what it was like.” And he moved to Oxford, and he said, “This is a great little town.” I said, “Yes it is. Go out of town.” Which he duly did, and I got back an email from him one day saying, “I went out of town, and it was horrifying.” I said, “Yes! Tuck that away for future reference.”

So, Dave, you know, wherever you may be listening to us, and I know exactly where you are, you’re at home: thank you.

Mary Flinn: My connection with Dave Smith dates to 1985 when I began working with New Virginia Review, while Dave was building the MFA Creative Writing program at Virginia Commonwealth University. He guest-edited New Virginia Review volume 4 and in the process was responsible for my association with VCU, a connection that has enriched my life personally and professionally.

Dave and I share a relationship with Virginia, as does Kate, and Molly, and the energy he invested in the VCU program provided a remarkable boost to the entire literary life of Richmond, establishing a standard for practicing poetry at VCU that has been continued by Larry Levis, Terry Hummer, Greg Donovan, David Wojahn, Kathleen Graber, and Claudia Emerson.

In addition to waging academic battles for resources and recognition, Dave also presented three summer conferences that saw nonstop literary events—and dinners at Stella’s—with Dick Bausch, Lee Smith, Reynolds Price, Horton Foote, Gerald Barrax, and he brought writers like Phil Levine, Steve Dunn, and Ellen Bryant Voigt to town to read. And he and Dee generously opened their house to all comers, particularly people with skills at building bookshelves. And let me note here, how central his family has been to sustaining his efforts: Dee, as the anchor to many moves and iterations, and Jeddy, Lael, and Mary Catherine, as beloved participants.

After he left Richmond for LSU, he returned to Virginia for a number of years with the Chesapeake Poetry Festival held at his Poquoson hometown library. And the Virginia landscape, from Charlottesville to Tidewater, certainly grounded and continues to infuse much of his poetry. I can remember driving to the first Chesapeake Poetry Festival in Elizabeth Morgan’s Honda Accord with Charles Wright and Larry Levis in the backseat, and with Charles, a fellow Appalachian, staring at the landscape as we got closer to the water, struck by how flat everything was and noting that there was nothing to hide behind—a good rule of thumb to remember when reading Dave’s work.

Many Virginia poets have also benefitted from Dave’s particular support, way too many to name here, but I will note two who might not be the first people you think of when you mention Dave, since on the surface they are so very different. The first is Eleanor Ross Taylor, the master of the small, the elliptical, and the mysterious, and firmly supported by Dave in her reemergence in her later years. The second is Claudia Emerson, a poetic justice of the peace who married personal, emotional honesty and acute natural observation to formal precision and grace, and critically supported by Dave at her poetic beginning. Their work has a home in the world because of Dave. I also think that Claudia and Eleanor would have loved to have honored him here and been very eloquent about it, though Eleanor very brief. The three of them also share a sensibility and a toughness of mind that is demonstrated in these three short poems. The first is by Eleanor Ross Taylor.

[“How to Live in a Trap,” Eleanor Ross Taylor, Captive Voices: New and Selected Poems, 1960–2008, published by Louisiana State University Press, 2009.]

The second is a short poem by Claudia Emerson that we originally published in Blackbird under the name “The Bat.”

[“The Bat,” Claudia Emerson, published in Blackbird, 2003.]

The poem by Dave that I’m reading was originally published in Blackbird, I think about five years ago, for which we’re grateful, and it tracks back to Audubon and Robert Penn Warren, which were certainly keystones for many of his poems and reflections. Its title is “Ruffed Grouse Feeding on Moonseed Berries.”

[“Ruffed Grouse Feeding on Moonseed Berries,” Dave Smith, Hawks on Wires: Poems, 2005–2010, published by Louisiana State University Press, 2011.]

And so, thank you, Dave. And, at a moment when the connections made in art seem critically necessary in a landscape of chaotic bloviation, thank you particularly, not only for your efforts in the poems, but for the muscularity and endurance with which you practice friendship. I am grateful and honored that Dave is my friend.

Molly McCully Brown: So I am honored to be up here today. It feels like a kind of strange position to be in because I have known Dave so much more briefly than all of the people here on this panel. But, in a certain way, I am going to say that I think I am the luckiest person up on this panel, because Dave taught—his last couple of years teaching—taught at the University of Mississippi. He came the year before I started graduate school there and just finally retired at the end of last year, and it occurred to me when I was thinking about what I wanted to say today that that meant that I was among the last writers, the last generation of writers to be educated by this man. And, as I hope you will be able to understand from Terry’s wonderful speech, that is a huge privilege. I will report that he has not softened particularly, over all of his years of teaching. I never took a workshop with him, only literature seminars, but in a way, that should tell you something about his enormous generosity as a teacher. He spent a good deal of time in my work anyway, even though I was never formally his student in that way.

He once looked at a piece of a very bad poem that I had written, which at the time I did not know was bad; in it, there was a moment in an otherwise relatively urban setting where someone made a fire out of animal bones, and he looked at me and said, “Molly, where did they get the bones?” At first I thought, “Dave, that’s an insane question. It’s a poem, they just, they, they arrived.” But what he led me to see is that, in fact, moving to that image which was so out of the scope of the poem was a way of avoiding saying, as Terry said, the thing that I was afraid of saying, of looking at the thing that I was afraid of looking at, and that was always true about Dave. He had, when he arrived at Mississippi, an appointment which just led him to teach one class a semester, and he would have had every excuse to check out of that enterprise, you know, to sit back and just sort of impart whatever wisdom he felt like imparting and go on about his life. He would have had every reason to do that, and it would’ve been warranted after such an extended and generous career.

But I sat down in his class on what I think was my very first day of graduate school, my very first class and my very first day, and he looked at us all, and he said, “I’m delighted to be here.” And it was impossible not to believe him. Dave’s one of the only professors I’ve ever had who could lecture for the entire two and a half hours of a graduate seminar, and you wouldn’t realize that that was what had happened, that he had in fact never stopped speaking for two and a half hours, and you had not gotten up that whole time. He was so committed to what he loved about poetry and what he loved about the writing world that once, there was a tornado—what moved from a tornado watch, like there might be a tornado in the area, to a tornado warning, like, OK it’s imminent, it’s coming—and the siren sounded. And in general what you do if that happens in Mississippi, where tornados often do hit, is that you go home, right? And you go hide in a basement so you don’t get killed by the tornado. Dave, however, was talking about Elizabeth Bishop, and he was having none of it. So he was like, “Listen, we will go down to the basement, but class is going to continue.” So we all huddled down in the basement in this like tiny room that barely had enough room for all of us, and he continued, and nobody begrudged him it for a moment.

Dave is, as Terry said, remarkably honest and remarkably uncompromising in his devotion to poetry, which is bigger than his devotion to your feelings, or your sense of how it is that the world ought to proceed, or your sense of your own talent, however youthful and misguided it may be. But he is enormously devoted to poetry, and when he found students who he felt were equally devoted, he would do everything he could, even at this last stage of his career, to make them feel like they had a place in the literary world that he had spent so long helping to cultivate and bring about. He brought Kate and Terry to the University of Mississippi’s campus for a conference in my second year of graduate school, and when he saw that I was interested, when he saw that I wanted to be involved, he sort of stepped back, and he was like, “You know what, you run the show. Here, you make it happen.” And in doing that he gave me an opportunity not just to learn a lot about the logistical life of an academic, which would be such a skill, but to cultivate a relationship with two writers and two teachers that has lasted beyond that conference and is part of what led to me being on this panel here today.

So Dave has this enormous ability to [be]—in being remarkably untender, remarkably uncompromising, remarkably willing to say, “this is not a poem,” or “this is a bad poem,” or “you have no idea what it is that you are talking about”—actually one of the tenderest people that I know. Because he is more devoted not just to poetry and to art, but to the idea that that world is a community and is a place of connection, than anyone that I know. And there’s a remarkable kind of vision in that, in the ability to, at the end of such a long teaching career, look back and think, “I want to connect all of these people that I’ve taught, that I’ve worked with. I believe in the same things now that I believed in then, and I believe they have something in common.”

And so I want to read just a little poem of Dave’s that I admire because I think it is full of remarkable tenderness and because it has the ability that so many of his poems have to talk about an instant, a moment, and hold within it a sense of vision that is so much longer than the poem itself. And this comes from his book Homage to Edgar Allan Poe, and it’s called “Reading the Books Our Children Have Written.”

[“Reading the Books Our Children Have Written,” Dave Smith, Homage to Edgar Allan Poe, published by Louisiana State University Press, 1981.]

Ernest Suarez: Kate asked me to do a type of wrap-up, which is difficult [with] Dave because he’s had so much accomplishment, so I decided to call in some help, and what I did was write to a lot of people, many of them mutual friends of Dave and mine. And what I’m going to do is read: I can’t possibly read from what everybody wrote me or what they wrote fully, but what I’m going to do is read bits of what they wrote, and then I will react to them.

The first is from Helen Vendler:

It was I think in reading Cumberland Station that I realized I had come upon a lyric poet of a distinct region unknown to me, a poet with a profound sense of history and an instinctive relation with the natural world. He was an ethnologist of a vanishing race of James River watermen, and a family memorist, as well. In his work, I saw violent tension between tragedy and virtue. He was an inimitable writer about his youth in its social context. The South came into being on his pages like a polaroid developing itself. His candid poetry of male adolescence included a sustained effort to both understand and describe the conventions of masculinity, conventions he both assented to and repudiated. The language of his poetry betrays the intensity of his struggle with judgment. He both requires and resists it.

Cumberland Station, as all of you know, was Dave’s third collection of verse. It made a splash. So many people up here have cited it and for good reason. It was a remarkable book, one that led to a series of remarkable books in quick succession: Goshawk, Antelope (1979), Blue Spruce (1981), Dream Flights (1981), Homage to Edgar Allan Poe (1981), In the House of the Judge (1983), Gray Soldiers (1984), then The Roundhouse Voices: Selected and New Poems (1985). Think of all those books just within that period, and, if you’re familiar with them, you know just the quality of that work in that time. Writers get hot hands at times. Faulkner from The Sound and the Fury to Go Down, Moses; Warren from Promises through Now and Then, and even beyond; Dickey in the 1960s, one remarkable book after another. This was one of those periods for Dave, and The Roundhouse Voices, it’s really a landmark book in the history of southern poetry and one of the finest collections published by any American poet during the last quarter of the twentieth century.

By the mid-80s Dave was—he was still pretty young and early in his career, he’s still going—but he’d already been on the cover of American Poetry Review, and he’d become a fixture in anthologies of American Lit. You’d open up the Norton, and there would be Dave. What makes so much of his work from this time original is that it’s fraught with contradictory tensions, to which Professor Vendler alludes to in the bit I just read. The technique he used, he described it to me in an interview as “orchestration,” and I’ll quote: “The exfoliation of imagistic constructs which reinforce each other in such a way that the reader is led to perception by repeating signals to create complex narratives with multiple, often contradictory, layers of meaning.”

We know from reading his poems just how knotted they are, how full they are, so much activity within the poem. In “The Roundhouse Voices,” an adult narrator addresses his dead uncle and remembers how, as a boy, he’d sneak into the railroad yard and play baseball with him, which seems like a fairly simple plot. But what we get in that poem are various voices that the narrator has come in contact with at different stages of his life—the uncle, a guard, and others. These voices inhabit the poem and mix to form an intricate meditation on death, social class, and the artist’s urge to combat loss. Another terrific poem from this period, “The Tire Hangs in the Yard,” involves an adult narrator visiting a place that represents, and I quote, “end of the childhood road.” The poem divides into a series of five interrelated memories concerning time and identity, and the unifying image of the tire accrues more and more resonances as the poem progresses.

Charles Wright wrote to me. Charles says:

Dave is Virginia’s finest poet and has been for years. I am from Tennessee, but I live here—Smithless in Virginia. I’ve been reading Dave’s poems and prose ever since I began writing many years ago, often with sudden insight, always with admiration. We’re both southern poets locked at the hip. Dave is able to do, and do superbly, something I am unable to pull off: narrative, storytelling. I often say I’m the only southerner I know who can’t tell a story, but I do know who can, and no one does it better in poems than Dave. I’m not talking of the poet-walks-into-a-bar type of thing. I’m talking about stories of deep delight, permanent stories, permanent truths. I don’t know what they’re feting you up there for, Dave, but whatever it is it isn’t enough, not for you, my hip-locked brother, my brother in bond. So here’s to you, Virginia Boy, here’s to you.

Charles touches on another important, if evident, aspect of Dave’s poetry: narrative. In a 1997 interview with me, Charles noted that the last three decades of the twentieth century produced a flowering of southern poetry, and he asserted that from Dickey, Warren to Smith to Bottoms, almost everyone who’s thought of as a southern poet is a narrative poet. That’s something that I don’t think is as true now as it once was, but it’s certainly true for most of Dave’s work, though certainly not all. He has some beautiful lyric poems. But the divide between narrative and lyric is a marker of southern verse during the twentieth century.

In my chapter on southern poetry in the brand new Cambridge History of American Poetry, I contrast Tate with Ransom, Warren and Dickey with Donald Justice, and then Dave with Charles Wright. That’s the configuration, the narrative-lyric divide for most of the century, and, as I just said, later in the century and in this century we see others create hybrid modes, like Yusef Komunyakaa’s tonal narratives, but Dave unquestionably occupies a central place as a practitioner of southern narrative verse.

Speaking of Yusef Komunyakaa, I’ve got a statement from Yusef. Yusef says:

I admire Dave Smith and his brilliant body of work. This fellow rural southerner is also rather cosmopolitan, someone who has endured shifting realities with hardy grace, always honoring the soil and what it surrenders to us, as a blessed but troubled people. Though poets Robert Penn Warren and Robert Frost may reveal themselves at times as guides, this wordsmith is unique. He unearths history as reflection and acknowledgment through a voice that is genuine and generous. Even at this historical moment of transgression and unease in America, I gladly say this: Dave, we wish you a fruitful and spiritous good time in the world you claim through love and truth.

As Yusef and others intimate, Dave is a regional poet with an expansive sensibility, and this is a good time to address how Dave sees himself and what are the central influences on his verse.

Back in 1994 was the first time I met Dave in person. He’d invited me to Baton Rouge to give a talk during a celebration of The Southern Review. He stated that he sees himself, and I quote, “as a regionalist in my deepest sense of self.” This is the sense that drew him to the work of James Dickey early in his career and then on to Robert Penn Warren. But, like Dickey and Warren, as Yusef points out, or like Frost, Dave’s poetry mines the regional and the particular in search of these larger resonances.

Ed Hirsch wrote me. He says, “I started reading Dave Smith’s poems in the early ’20s, and his work has been with me ever since. I was initiated into his world with Cumberland Station. I read his poems when they were coming out in magazines with a zeal reserved for the young. I devoured them. I picked up his models, Robert Penn Warren and James Dickey, but also Theodore Roethke, Richard Hugo, Louis Simpson. I loved and still love his opening salvos, his rich, colloquial free verse, his deep immersion in place, the poetry of his own Virginia. The fact that I had a different history and came from a different place didn’t matter at all”—that larger resonance which I just spoke about.

Ed mentions that reading Dave’s verse led him back to Warren and Dickey. I think that’s important. I think that Terry had a similar experience. This is the stuff of literary history. The emergence of new artists not only results in a contemporary canon that’s different from previous versions but also causes reassessments of writers from various backgrounds with whom current writers are in creative dialogue.

Simply put, Dave’s verse made Warren and Dickey’s more substantial and vital because they influenced an exceptional poet. Writers keep other writers’ work alive in a much more important way than critics do. They provide continuities and disruptions of creative practices that it’s the critic’s job to document and assess.

Ed also mentions Roethke, Hugo, and Louis Simpson—a reminder that Dave isn’t just a southern poet and a devotee of southern poetry. He’s these things and more, just as any exceptional artist transcends specific markers. Phil Levine, of Jewish ancestry and from Detroit, told me he learned to write narrative from reading Robert Penn Warren. When I read the wonderful books Phil published in the ’90s, I also see echoes of Dave’s verse, and in Dave’s poetry I see echoes of Phil’s. This isn’t too big of a topic here, but it’s a reminder of the larger role Dave played within contemporary poetry and in the larger landscape of American poetry. Norman Dubie, Stanley Plumly, Stephen Dunn, Carol Frost, and Ed Hirsch are among the non-southerners whose verse Dave influenced.

Fred Hobson, the great literary historian, wrote me about another aspect of Dave’s career:

Although Dave Smith is rightly recognized as one of the nation’s leading poets, he was also for twelve years coeditor of The Southern Review, and, as such, he put his mark on that distinguished literary quarterly in accepting The Southern Review position in 1990. As the first poet since Warren to edit The Southern Review, Dave placed a greater emphasis on poetry in a quarterly which had earlier focused on fiction and intellectual community. A list of distinguished poets he published would include A.R. Ammons, Charles Wright, Yusef Komunyakaa, W.D. Snodgrass, James Applewhite—and I’m cutting the list unconscionably short—as well as a number of somewhat younger and often, but not exclusively, southern poets such as Andrew Hudgins, Brenda Marie Osbey, Brooks Haxton, and Natasha Tretheway. Warren had left Baton Rouge and The Southern Review in 1942 when the quarterly suspended publication for what turned out to be twenty-three years. The word around Baton Rouge when I was there, whether true or not, (Fred was as some of you may know editor of The Southern Review too.) was that it was a financial matter, coming down to whether LSU should keep and feed Mike the Tiger, its football mascot, or continue to support one of the nation’s literary quarterlies. And Mike the Tiger won. Dave left Baton Rouge under more fortunate circumstances, accepting a distinguished professorship at Johns Hopkins. To my way of thinking, The Southern Review has never been the same.

Norman Dubie: “I have great affection for Dave Smith, and I believe him to be a great poet. Just last week I was teaching work from Goshawk, Antelope, and I was very pleased to see clearly how moved the students were by Dave’s poetry. His body of work is truly vast, including fiction, criticism, and lyric poetry that is often wonderfully ambitious and masterful in length and tone. I love this man’s work and him also.” That last sentence is important. It isn’t just Dave, the person of letters, that’s inspired admiration. It’s also Dave Smith, the flesh and blood person, the individual.

I’ve had to pick and choose what I’ve read from these tributes because of time considerations. The complete version we’ll be publishing in the next issue of Five Points in the “Hot Rocks” section Mike Mattison and I put together, but tribute after tribute mentions his integrity, his honesty, and what a good person he was.

Stanley Plumly, just one line: “Dave Smith’s poems scour the truth until there is nothing but truth.”

David Bottoms:

In 1980 just after I published my first book, I received a somewhat negative review in Poetry Magazine. The reviewer, whose name has escaped me, accused me of “culture,” whatever that means. It wasn’t the first bad review I’d received, but it was upsetting because I’d always held Poetry in high regard. At any rate, a week or two later I received a letter from University of Florida. It was from Dave Smith. In a very kind, thoughtful, and insightful letter, he set about reassuring me of the quality of my book. This was my first contact with Dave Smith, who at the time [was], and still remains, a huge hero of mine. It’s hard to say exactly what effect that sort of letter has on a young writer.

Ryan Woolson, who you may not know, Ryan was a student of Dave’s. As a matter of fact, Ryan was sent to study with me independently by Dave and Rosanna Warren. He also had letters of recommendation from Derek Walcott and Robert Pinsky, so I took him.

It was because I was convinced Dave Smith was the greatest living poet from the American South, a complete poet, one who had not only had great individual poems, but one who had also extended the reach of what poetry and English can do, that I decided to study with him. I’ve heard tell that Dave, upon reading a certain young southern poet’s sentimental lyrics, responded by leaning back in his lawn chair, taking a sip of some potent concoction or other, and crooning two resounding choruses of “Moon River.” Certainly as a teacher Dave could be bullish, could be bossy, and devilishly funny. The thing is, that’s what most young writers needed. I know I needed it.

And finally Richard Ford, the novelist: “People mean to be nice when they say of a novelist that he writes like a poet. I mean an even greater compliment when I say that Dave writes like a novelist. Dave writes to acquaint and dazzle us with the genuine life that’s out there, lest we go off the rails and waste our time, hurt others or ourselves. Randall Jarrell, a writer Dave probably admires, though maybe not, wrote once that ‘the ways we miss our lives are life.’ Dave’s is the poetry of the life not missed.” Let me repeat that last statement. “Dave’s is a poetry of the life not missed.”

That’s what we’re honoring and celebrating here today: the achievement of a person who was a fine, devoted teacher, editor, critic, friend, as well as a wonderful father and husband. Dave’s wife Dee merits a tribute of her own, in part for putting up with him, and we see all of those things and more. These things are also the fabric, the texture of his verse, of a poetry that’s destined to stick around and that’s touched and influenced so many of us.  end

Molly McCully Brown is the author of the poetry collection The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded (Persea Books, 2017) which won the 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize. New work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Tin House, Pleiades, Crazyhorse, and the New York Times.

Kate Daniels’s fifth collection of poetry, In the Months of My Son’s Recovery, will be published by Louisiana State University Press in 2019. Her other publications include A Walk in Victoria’s Secret (Louisiana State University Press, 2010). She won a Pushcart Prize and is a 2013 John Simon Guggenheim Fellow in Poetry. She is the director of creative writing at Vanderbilt University.

Mary Flinn is the senior editor of Blackbird and is the coeditor of Elvis in Oz: New Stories and Poems from the Hollins Creative Writing Program (University of Virginia Press, 1992) and facilitated the editing of The Gazer Within (University of Michigan Press, 2001), a collection of essays by Larry Levis.

T.R. Hummer is a poet, critic, essayist, and the author of twelve books of poetry, including Ephemeron (2011), The Infinity Sessions (2005), and Walt Whitman in Hell (1996), all from Louisiana State University Press. He teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.

Ernest Suarez edited I’m Just Dead, I’m Not Gone (University Press of Mississippi, 2017) and has been published widely on contemporary poetry, music, and southern literature. He is the David M. O’Connell Professor of English at the Catholic University of America.

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