The Poet’s Poet 

Virginia’s new poet laureate on the physicality of poetry, what drew him in – and his college life on the gridiron.

click to enlarge art28_poet_ron_smith.jpg

Gov. Terry McAuliffe named Ron Smith as the state's poet laureate last week. And it's likely that no one who ever set foot in his classrooms at Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Mary Washington, the University of Richmond or St. Christopher's School -- where he teaches and was chairman of the English department for 21 years -- was surprised.

Smith is a poet's poet, highly erudite and passionate about the work. Most important, he is always working, filling notebook after notebook with words.

"Ron is a poet of great accomplishment who has long been an incredible role model and mentor for others in pursuit of the art," emails Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and former laureate Claudia Emerson, who now teaches at VCU.

A native of Savannah, Ga., Smith came to Richmond in 1967 to play football for the University of Richmond, where he was a stout offensive guard on a team that won the Tangerine Bowl and became the first-ever "team of distinction" inducted into the Spider Sports Hall of Fame.

Since 2009, apart from teaching, traveling and serving on advisory boards for James River Writers and the Poetry Society of Virginia, Smith has been the poetry editor for Aethlon: the Journal of Sports Literature. There, he says, he's even found sports poems he loves about curling.

Smith's new designation lasts two years, and he will succeed Sofia M. Starnes as the 17th poet laureate since the post's establishment by the General Assembly in 1936. Style Weekly connected with him the day after he was officially appointed.

Style Weekly: So how did you find out you had been named poet laureate and what was your reaction? Where does this accolade rank for you among your many others?

Ron Smith: I got a phone call on my cell Friday afternoon, I think about 4 o'clock, the end of the work week. That was two weeks ago. I tried to keep it quiet until the official announcement seven days later. Jennifer Sayegh phoned from the secretary of the commonwealth's office to say that I had been appointed by Governor McAuliffe.

I knew who the other two nominees were, and I was already very, very pleased to be in their company. David Wojahn is, I think, one of the best American poets alive. Henry Hart is a fine poet, too, and a major biographer of great poets, James Dickey, Robert Frost, just to name two. David and Henry are both friends of mine. I knew that of the three of us, whoever was chosen, the other two would be happy about it. Not to say poets aren't competitive, but some poets are generous, and their attitude toward competition is actually healthy. I would have been happy if either of them had been chosen. They're good guys and fine writers. I am humbled, as well as honored.

Where does it rank? Oh, at the top. Right up there with the Carole Weinstein Prize. Right up there with the excitement of getting my first book accepted -- and my second, after a long, long period between books. One editor said I should win the Ralph Ellison Prize for the longest period between first and second books. I wish that prize existed. I'm pretty sure I had that one locked up.

So: delighted. Delighted and humbled.

What does the duty entail as you understand it?

The recent poet laureate, Sofia Starnes, wrote me that the powers and duties were defined, by the General Assembly, this way: "to encourage the exchange of arts information and perspectives. The poet laureate is not obligated to write any verse."

Good. I take that to mean, mainly, that duties amount to encouraging and representing poetry. I won't be called upon to write "The Charge of the Light Brigade," thank God. Though I wish my duties required me to write the 21st century equivalent of Tennyson's "Ulysses" or "The Lady of Shalott."

What first led to your love of poetry and when did you realize you were a poet?

Reading first led me to love poetry. The way listening to guitar leads people to take up the guitar. And just general love of books. I spent hours in elementary school sitting on the library's hard tile floor in front of the astronomy books. They were on the bottom shelf. Those books about the vastness of the universe made me feel like somebody was pumping helium into my head. The first serious book I asked my father to buy me was Fred Hoyle's "Frontiers of Astronomy." I went to college expecting to be a bio-chem major.

My parents, mainly my mother, read to me when I was little. There was nothing else in my life like that. Golden Books -- we got a new one every Friday when we bought groceries at the Colonial Store on Bay Street -- those were my first loves, the Golden Books. Those and my dog Sam. But Sam couldn't talk. The first fictional characters I wanted to be were Pinocchio and Little Black Sambo -- I think he's called Little Sam now. I wanted to be them, especially the kid with the great clothes and all those pancakes, the one who outsmarted the tigers and had tiger butter on his tower of pancakes.

Jack Drawdy, my neighbor across the street, when I was 8 saw I was reading "The Young Lions" -- I absolutely believed I was understanding it -- and brought me over to his house to choose a book from his three or four shelves. He urged me to read Poe and I did. "The Tell Tale Heart" scared the-you-name-it out of me. And "The Raven." I've been twisted toward the literary ever since. Jack worked for the Savannah Power Co. and was a weekend painter. He taught me how to color realistically, rather than with Disney colors. He taught me atmospheric perspective, though I didn't learn that word until much later.

Later, it was Shelley -- a terrible poem called "The Cloud" utterly enchanted me -- and Wordsworth and Byron, especially "The Prisoner of Chillon." That was junior high and high school. Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" and "Macbeth" blew me away. I had to memorize passages, I loved doing that. Was glad to be forced to do it. In the eighth or ninth grade a teacher -- the wonderful John Marks -- asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I said, surprising myself, I want to write books. What kind of books? I don't know, I said, just books. A little later Frost and Wallace Stevens. The novel "Catch-22" and the play "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," that mixture of horror and humor, and I was done for. Oh, and "The Crucible." Such intensity

I wrote poems in high school. "Eternity Sea" is one title I remember with great cringing. But I sure wish I hadn't destroyed those. They would be instructive. If you could stand to read them.

click to enlarge State poet laureate and former offensive guard Ron Smith was on the University of Richmond football team that won the Tangerine Bowl in 1968. “I started off and on for four years, busted wedges every game,” Smith says. “But I was certainly not one of the stars. Just a crazy lineman who liked to hit.”
  • State poet laureate and former offensive guard Ron Smith was on the University of Richmond football team that won the Tangerine Bowl in 1968. “I started off and on for four years, busted wedges every game,” Smith says. “But I was certainly not one of the stars. Just a crazy lineman who liked to hit.”

You're known for having physicality in your work – can you talk about how your sports background has influenced your writing?

I've never really separated sports from poetry. Or sports from intellectual activity. (Poetry's more physical than, say, philosophy, though.)

I said to my graduate school advisor, when he asked me about what he seemed to think was my transition from the thuggery of the football team to the realms of gold — I said that I thought football was more like Shakespeare and graduate literature classes were more like Chekhov. I don't think he liked my saying that. But I still think so.

Sports can teach you precision. And perseverance. And how to turn pain into something useful, maybe even glorious. Most of the poetry I love is intensely physical. It makes you as aware of the body as of the mind.

What comes to mind when you think about the qualities of being a Southern poet -- or has that term become too reductive considering many Southern writers are world writers?

I heard William Matthews say once that a young American poet was any poet who hadn't yet had his first stroke. I think a Southern poet is any poet reared in the South who wasn't raised to think exclusively in Russian or Italian or Chinese. Ha! But I bet they would count, too!

Yes, most people seem to use that term narrowly. I did have a bunch of poems once with "Southern Poet" in the title. "The Southern Poet Reads Eliot," stuff like that. I was exploring what it might mean to be Southern writer and making fun of the stereotypes. I wrote "The Southern Poet Reads Emerson" because I couldn't find the perfect Southern poem for my students to analyze at the end of a course. I put it on the final exam. Later, New England Review published it and nominated it for a G.E. Younger Writers Award. My poem "Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery" began as a description of that wonderful place in Richmond, then became a parody, a sort of mash-up of Dickey's "Cherrylog Road" and Tate's "Ode for the Confederate Dead," two poems I was saturated with at the time. One day I looked it over and said, Huh, my subconscious is actually writing a poem here. So I stripped some of the sillier stuff out -- the Mel Brooks or James Joyce sorts of dumb jokes -- and shaped it into what I thought was a real poem. It's important to let the poem do what it wants. Southern poets are poets from the South who write poems. Period.

I know you travel quite a bit. Where do you find the most inspiration for your work today?

Travel is still a source of poems, though it's not easy to get a poem out of a trip, no matter how long you stay. I've found that I have to feel just the right mix of familiarity and unfamiliarity with the setting. It's basically a mystery. One trip to Israel and I had poems I liked. Italy took nine years of visits, often twice a year. I have yet to get decent poems out of Ireland or Russia. I've been working on those for many years. So far, they're just boring. Or unconvincingly celebratory.

But poems come from everywhere, from the newspaper, from the backyard, from a joke made by my granddaughter.

Are there any particular teaching methods that you have found to be especially effective at instilling a love of poetry in students?

I think so. Extremely close reading. Reading out loud. Rereading. Finding a way to take pleasure in just the sounds. Then to find the meaning in the sounds. However you can do these things, you should. Poems are physical things. They are as immediate as music, as real as the taste of pizza. Eat the poem. Sniff it, breathe it in. Feel its texture. For God's sake find a way to enjoy it. I start there.

For many young people today, poetry seems to have become confused with performance art, slam poetry or confessionals – not that there isn't some poetry to be found there. What do you feel is the biggest challenge facing the future of poetry in this country?

The biggest challenge is clearly lack of poetry education. Young children love poetry: They love to play with words. Our educational system fails to nurture and build on that love. We turn kids into abstract thinkers — which of course has its place — but we let their love of the immediate, the palpable, the sensory — we let that die.

Slam poets or confessionals? Hmm. The former need to remember that a good poem has to be rereadable, that it has to yield more and more pleasure and meaning upon subsequent readings. The latter have to remember that just because it happened to you, we probably don't care. Raw life is not polished art. You have to be artist enough to make us care. Facts might have to give way to invented details. Truth is more important than fact. Tell the truth and make it sing.

What do you think of Twitter and do you use social media of any kind? Are we moving back to becoming an oral culture?

It some sense I hope so, that we're moving back toward an oral culture. Poetry is half oral. Most poets, I think, would say more than half. But since Gutenberg it's also been visual. I think of poetry as a kind of Trinitarian mystery. It's both aural and visual. It lives in the ear. But, in another mode of existence, it lives on the page as a kind of verbal sculpture. Look at the poem "Red Wheelbarrow" and the poem "We Real Cool." Two forms of ontology. Two ways of being that are separate but not separate.

I like Facebook. At least I like it in the limited way I use it, mainly to chat with other writers about writing. Mainly, but not exclusively. I try not to tell my FB friends what I had for breakfast and when I went to bed.

Before the poet laureate announcement I had been the subject of precisely one tweet. I do not tweet. Yet.

Where do you feel is the best outlet for poetry in Richmond? Or where should locals be going to hear the very best?

In Richmond? Blackbird magazine. Terrific journal online. Chop Suey for readings. Poetic Principles for readings. UR for readings. VCU for just about everything. Right this minute VCU might well have the best poetry writing program in the nation, now that Claudia Emerson has joined David Wojahn and Kathleen Graber and the other fine writers and teachers there. Thank you, Dave Smith and Maurice Duke, for launching that rocket.

The first book of yours I read back in high school was "Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery" – do you still jog regularly and do you have a favorite poetic place in Richmond? Can you see the layers of time here in some sense like you can in Italy?

I haven't been able to run for years. I can't tell you how much I miss it. I work out at UR's Weinstein Center. I love the StepMill.

Favorite places ... obviously, the cemeteries in town. I've always loved cemeteries. Monument Avenue with Arthur Ashe turning his back on the glorious past and facing west, the American direction for the future. The Poe Museum. Capitol Square. I suppose I'll be looking harder and longer at Virginia sites now. In fact, I plan to. But, no, no place in North America has the layers of history and atrocity and art and emotion and architecture that call to me from Rome and Sicily and the Peloponnese.

What are you reading these days?

Rereading Wordsworth. Reading histories of the Bible. Listening to lectures on Biblical wisdom literature. Lots of contemporary poems in journals and anthologies. Oh, Sarah Churchwell's "Careless People" and Louis Schwartz's "Cambridge Companion to Paradise Lost," terrific books, both of those. Anything having to do with ancient Rome or contemporary Italy. Lots of stuff in magazines and journals, the usual suspects and some oddballs. I love the "TLS" and "New York Review of Books."

A lot of sports related poems. I'm the poetry editor of Aethlon: the Journal of Sport Literature, so I get submissions almost every day. Most of the poems are in the pretty-good to very-good range and are a pleasure to read. Recently I edited the journal's anthology. After lots of reading and choosing and un-choosing [because of space limitations] I was very pleased to have good poems about over a dozen sports, even curling.

If you could provide three books of any kind to an aspiring poet, what would they be?

Ooo, that's hard. Assuming a young American poet ... "The Complete Works of Shakespeare" Read that first, ye poets—at least twice and slowly, out loud. A massive anthology of American poetry, one with generous helpings of Frost, Whitman, Dickinson, Eliot, Stevens, Williams, Bishop, Lowell, Warren, Moore, Plath, Levine, Komunyakaa. Oh, and it has to have the best of Melville, a much-neglected American poet. Third? A gigantic anthology of British poetry, to be read, I guess, before the American, but probably these days that doesn't matter. That behemoth would have to have the ballad and sonnet traditions well represented. Marvell and Donne and Milton. Pope and Gray. As much romantic stuff as can be stuffed in. A little Tennyson and Browning and Arnold and Hardy and Hopkins. Yeats and Lawrence. Larkin and Hughes. And Heaney, Heaney, Heaney. Oh, Heaney's "Beowulf," which we'll count as the once and future masterpiece.

OK, maybe that's cheating. I'll be less inclusive. Assuming my young American poet has already absorbed Homer and Virgil and Dante and Shakespeare. . . If you have to neglect one, neglect Virgil. (Sorry Virgil.) Wordsworth's "Prelude"—all three versions. Whitman's 1881 or deathbed edition of "Leaves of Grass." Dickinson's "Complete Poems." There, that's your foundation. Now, repeat, while reading newer stuff.

Could you give me a couple of your all-time favorite poems?

Sure. Stevens' "Emperor of Ice Cream" and his "Sunday Morning." Eliot's "Waste Land"—sorry, got to choose that one. It's part of my DNA. Whitman's "Song of Myself." Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz." "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night," the one villanelle I never get tired of. Byron's "Don Juan" and his "Prisoner of Chillon." You asked for personal favorites. I've got lots of Dickinson in my head. Bishop's "In the Waiting Room." Frost's "Home Burial" and "Witch of Coos." Pound's "The River Merchant's Wife." And even his tiny "In a Station of the Metro." Each of these poems has taught me something different—and pleased different parts of my head and heart. Richard Wilbur's "Running." Buffy Morgan's clever "Family Life" and David Wojahn's vivid poem about the wax museum display of John Lennon's murder.

When is your next book coming out, is there anything you can tell us about it?

Bad luck to talk about books before they are nearly done. And maybe even then. Let's say I'm always hoping to figure out how to write quickly and always failing. The year I took off to do nothing but write poems I said, "Dickinson wrote 366 poems in one year. I can to that." Well, I proved I couldn't. I'll be lucky to get one poem as indispensible as a hundred of Dickinson's.

So, bad luck gods, stop your ears: It sort of looks like the next book will have a section of short, delicate lyrics -- I've enjoyed going back to that sort of thing -- and a section of long, indelicate narrative poems. The longer poems will be largely historical. Maybe. Maybe.


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