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Away You Rolling River

An Interview with R. T. Smith of SHENANDOAH

by Heather Frese

Heather Frese: Hello, and thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview!  Let’s start with something fun—what are you reading lately?  How about some of your favorite books to read and re-read, and why?

R.T. Smith: Right now I’m reading three books about Mary Todd Lincoln, biographies by Clinton and Burton, and a little book called The Madness of Mary Lincoln, which focuses on her insanity trial.  I was first drawn to Mrs. Lincoln by her interest in spiritualism and séances, but I soon discovered that she was an often pitiable and sometimes noble character whose life after the war was akin to Job’s.

The books I read over and again include Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Huckleberry Finn, Flannery O’Connor’s stories, Warren’s Audubon: A Vision, the poetry of Dickey, Heaney, Boland, Rodney Jones, the stories of Pinckney Benedict and Mark Richard, King Lear, The Odyssey, Owen, Donne, Stafford, Coetzee, Erdrich, Angela Carter.  That’s a sample.  I spend a lot of time reading submissions to Shenandoah, and pretty soon I resume reading the work of my fiction students.

HF: Holy cow, R.T. Smith.  You’ve got the kind of career those of us in the midst of our graduate degrees dream of—you’re the editor of a prestigious literary journal, and you also teach at Washington and Lee University and Converse College.  Your work has appeared in countless journals, you’ve published books in poetry and fiction and won practically every award a writer could wish for—Pushcart, Best American—not to mention the fellowships, Pulitzer Prize nomination, and winning a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.  What sort of advice can you give to us burgeoning writers?  What’s the ride been like in getting where you are now?

RTS: It’s like dog-sledding uphill; it can be done, but you have to keep cracking the whip and yelling.  It’s really been a steady, modest career which has allowed me to make a living and keep indulging my compulsions.  Not much glamour or fanfare.  It’s really hard anymore to gauge the careers of anyone but those who’ve made it to the fast lane with National Book Awards, laureateships and prestigious chairs at universities.  If I were beginning today, I’d be flustered and bewildered by the abundance of magazines, presses, websites, writers, editors, blurbers—Lordy, but it’s a multitude, and many “successful” writers publish texts that either evade my understanding or leave me cold.

Here are a few simple rules I try to cling to: 1. try to write some every day, or as Frank O’Connor put it, “Get black on white.” 2. From the pen of Elmore Leonard: “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” 3. Re-write with a cold and clinical eye, as if you’d been given a chance to take a red pen to work by somebody you despise. 4. Don’t try to seem smarter (or more compassionate) than you really are, though your characters might. 5. Tell all the truth but tell it slant.  6.  Follow Dickey’s lead to be “precise and reckless.”  7. As Flaubert said, “The true end of style is clarity.”

We live in an age of literary gamesmanship, fragmentation, puzzle-mongering and very fancy dance steps.  Although I admire some of the writers who believe in the mysterious gestalts and post-structuralist experiments, at heart I’m a neoclarificationist.  Of course, we all want to make uncommon sense, but I believe it’s also important to make some common sense first.

HF: During my cyber-stalking/research on you, I ran across a talk you gave on Updike, and how incredible it was that he was able to write in every genre, except, perhaps, “military manuals.”  You are also adept at the genre-crossing game, having published both poetry and fiction.  Do you write in one genre at a time or switch back and forth doing both at once?  Does the genre you’re reading impact the genre in which you’re writing?

RTS: I haven’t written a real story in almost two years (a time occupied primarily by the re-imagining of Shenandoah), though I have done several prose monologues, “fictions” that don’t fully satisfy the range of needs we try to fill in our shaped and extended stories.  However, I live on that threshold where narrative and lyric overlap, like estuaries where salt and fresh water meet, and I’m likely to veer one way or the other according to how sweet my coffee was that morning or how soon the doves spoke.  And when one genre seems more accessible, I follow it till the trail goes cold, then try switching paths to ward off the Lost-it Blues.

HF: What are you working on currently?  Plans for any military manuals?

RTS: My new book, Sherburne, is a set of stories about a family of law enforcement officers in mountain Virginia, but it’s not indicative of my current hobby horses.  A year ago I was deep into a collection of poems about Flannery O’Connor, but I hit a snag.  The editor who’d been encouraging me suddenly changed her mind, at least on the tack I’d taken.  I’m sure the collection is fully realized, all there, but it probably needs to be trimmed, undone a bit, before I try to find another publisher.  That’s what I should be doing.  Instead, however, I’ve written a couple of poems about the Civil War, a topic I’ve often returned to and hope to expand on.  That’s what’s drawn me to Mary Lincoln.

I have also accumulated a series of short prose pieces, each one the slightly-archaic and tongue-in-cheek exploration of some oddity or strangeness, like spontaneous human combustion, birds falling from the sky, divining, hermaphrodites.  They’re called “Col. Othniel Sweet’s Mysteries of Nature,” and I have no idea what to do with them.  I started last December, and I’ve never shown any of them to anyone.  I don’t plan to write a drill or maneuver textbook, but I’ve read a couple, and who knows what Col. Sweet will turn his attentions to next.

HF: Let’s talk about Southern Literature.  To my chagrin, I was born and raised in Ohio, and thus cannot claim to be a Southern writer, despite my affinity for the region and its writers.  The big guns of Southern Lit—Faulkner, Welty, O’Conner, etc.—with their emphasis on place, family, and history seem to encompass Southern Literature in many ways, but how would you define contemporary Southern Literature?  Do you think the earlier delineations of Southern Lit still hold water?  Do you see the face of Southern Literature changing, and if so, how?

RTS: The giants are pretty much gone; McCarthy has transformed himself into Hell’s Cowboy, and even the talented Loyal Followers like William Gay and Tom Franklin know to leaven their Faulkner and allow a Marquez smile at the corner of the canvas.  Shadowy local gothic just isn’t enough anymore.  Collectively we still have our two old shames – we held people in bondage and we got whipped – and our continuing ones – we love NASCAR and the literal Bible too much and education and art too little.  And we still love to walk forward into was, but I think Southern writers today are all products of more complex identities, and the recognition of that.  Think about those poets from the highland South who call themselves Afrilachian (I have no idea how to spell this), or the Latina writers in Birmingham, the mystery writers of the Killer Nashville conference.  Maybe such a broad term as Southern Lit is the wrong instrument for investigating a house with so many mansions.

The country mice have often gone to the city or at least to graduate programs, and we’re as mobile and media-bedazzled as folks from Gotham City or Seattle.  My generation is probably the last to grow up with a mule, and by the time I was walking, it was retired, kept as a pet and a symbol.  Family, history and place are shiftier now, less predictable.  It’s pretty complicated for me, as I know there’s a whole school who claim that “Southern Literature” is more a construct than a useful descriptive term.  Define it?  Not in less than a full-fledged essay.  I will say this: standing on the shoulders of giants provides us with a long way to fall if we slip.

Lately I’ve been thinking about just the contemporary literature of the Southern Appalachians.  You might imagine that’s a manageably small congregation, but it’s not.  Consider Charles Frazier, Ron Rash, Kay Byer, Denise Giardina, Pinckney Benedict, the Pancakes, Don Secreast, Lee Smith, not to mention Charles Wright, Bob Morgan, Fred Chappell, Lynn Powell.  Wendell Berry to Maurice Manning.  Mining backgrounds, farmers, academics, furniture stainers and loggers, gays and wounded vets, bikers and greeners, Asheville lawyers and Kentucky wind farmers.  Highlanders were never as monochromatic as outlanders imagined, and now a gathering of Appalachian writers would be as varied and unpredictable as any AWP session could provide.  Even when they choose to work in a particular tradition, they are a ramified and unstable crowd, so the old categories now exist less as definitions than as questions, which is probably healthy but confusing.

HF: Do you consider yourself a capital “S” Southern writer?

RTS: Why not?  Though I find myself leaning pretty strongly against state-( or town-)sponsored  flying of Confederate flags, I know where I’m from and where I’m located.  I’ve kept to the South most of my life, and since I believe that a writer’s most important tools, besides a loose-cannon imagination and discipline, are his abilities to watch and listen, I know most of what I’ve heard and seen has been in one geographical zone.  Even when I don’t share beliefs, practices and values dominant among my neighbors, their way of life influences mine more strongly and unavoidably than people I don’t see and hear on a regular basis.  Driving a pick-up with no CD player last Sunday, I listened to one static-y local preacher after another exhorting and scorning till their little stations faded.  I am compelled to do so neither from technological deficit alone nor just for their cadences and often-accidental humor, but for their mother wit and because what they say has to be reckoned with, even if opposed.  It will never not matter to me what these zealots believe and preach.  That said, Melville, Frost, Dickinson, Trevor’s stories, Dubliners, Marquez – all have been vital in the sculpting of my imagination’s landscape, wordscape, dreamscape.  The Bible got there first, but these relative newcomers carry weight.  And it’s of no small consequence to me that my wife Sarah Kennedy is a poet who’s not from down here.  She’s a substantial facet of that hybrid imaginary reader whom I hope will see what I’m doing with language beneath what I’m ostensibly doing with story and shape.  The allegorical element in my work and the social criticism seem not to be evident to many readers (if I have many readers), but she gets it every time.

HF: You founded Cold Mountain Review when you were at Appalachian State University—what did that process teach you about literary journals and their place in both academia and the literary world?  What did you learn from being in on the process from the very beginning?

RTS: I learned it’s useful to cast a wider net than my own reading preferences would dictate, and I learned that everything quantifiable is going to be a headache sooner or later – readership, funding, your own time limitations.  An editor who’s going to survive as a person, especially if he or she doesn’t have a lot of canny and committed assistance, is going to have to learn how to decide very early into reading a prose piece or a poem whether or not it merits full exploration.  That gives rise to an uneasy feeling that never goes away, but certain kinds of errors early on do not bode well, and it’s time to act like a doctor sentenced to perform triage at a field hospital—identify the hopeless ones, genuflect and turn your attention to the others.  I know I have to be ruthless on behalf of my readers.  One other lesson I did pick up early—many editors are more self-sacrificing than I am, willing to give up their whole imaginative lives, and it’s a pleasure to know and converse with those folks.  Running a journal will infuse your life and infect your dreams, especially if you don’t have staff continuity and skill.  The other lesson that editing a newborn journal teaches you can be picked up lots of places, as Heller’s Yossarian learns—you’ve got to be prepared for the unexpected.  You’ve got to jump.  Every time I remember that CMR still exists after almost forty years, I take heart.

HF: You’ve edited Shenandoah since 1995.  Can you describe some of the changes that have taken place over the years?  What’s the most significant change?  Other than a tradition of excellence, what’s stayed the same?

RTS: The big change—news flash!—is that as of September 1 Shenandoah exists exclusively as a no-fee online journal located at shenandoahliterary.org, joining Blackbird, TriQuarterly, Cortland Review, Poetry Daily, How a Poem Happens and others,  which means the graphic and audio aspects of the journal are new muscles for me to learn how to work.  We’ll publish two full issues a year (Sept. and Feb.) but we’ll have a monthly feature, a poem of the week, a series of streaming quotations which will advance or can be changed with a mouse click and a blog that might have new posts at any moment.  Although I rejoice in the Bible’s claim that there will be no end to the making of books, I’m excited about this new venue and format and hopeful that it will reward the hundreds of hours that the designer and I have put into it.  I’ll never tire of the physical book format and celebrate as fully as Christopher Smart did his cat Jeoffry, but I enjoy shorter works online and love to hear the author’s voices and learn what others have to say.  I’ve long been a fan of the sites listed above, as well as Terrain, StorySouth, Per Contra and others.  Every item on our online version will be sharable and printable and will provide a space for reader commentary.  I’m eager to see how that turns out.  Now that we’ve got a first issue, a prototype, I’m also keen to see what my Washington and Lee interns will do to outreach my aspirations.

I believe the journal will not much differ from its earlier manifestation in content as long as I remain in the saddle.  I’ve edited Shenandoah since 1995 and think I’ve created a distinct identity for it, though I’m in the worst position to describe that identity with objectivity.  We will have more reviews and interviews, and the blog (which we’ve christened Snopes) will obviously be unlike anything in previous years.  There’s also a viewable section which describes the internship course, shows photos of interns at work and displays the comments from my interns who helped with the journal last winter.

HF: How do you and your editorial staff go about putting an issue of Shenandoah together?  What do you look for in a submission?

RTS: Since I’ve seldom had any assistant editors other than student interns, I make all the final decisions, but students read and write comments on the work that comes in and pass on to me the ones they want to argue for.  At the same time, I’m the first reader for over half the submissions, and I read them with an eye for error, sameness, sluggishness.  On the first round, I want to eliminate the obviously unsophisticated and unoriginal; I want to get rid of 80% of the options because I want to devote my time to the real possibilities.  I meet with the students and discuss their favorites, and we start ranking and debating, pointing to specifics, identifying clichés of phrase, situation, character.  I have no set number of works I need to select, though the budget plays a role here, and I want the amount of work to approximate what we’d print in an actual published volume.

As you can probably guess, I like (among other things) poetry with lots of narrative and fiction with a lyric pitch.  The following is a list of attributes of fiction to consider which my winter 2011 interns came up with: lack of excess (not overwrought), strong sense of setting, inventiveness of style, sensory details, credibility, character development, characters unique without being far-fetched, action, wit and ingenuity, wisdom, surprises, sense of shapes, tension (timing), energy, economy, humor.  Although there’s a bit of overlap here and there, you can see how with these parameters before us, a discussion might go.  With poetry, we have a similar list, but at the end of both we ask, “So what?”  For our interest to continue, there should be a rousing answer to that.

HF: You teach in the low-residency MFA program at Converse—what do you see as the benefits of a low-residency program versus a traditional one?  Drawbacks?

RTS: I’ve been a visitor and in some way involved with several creative writing programs, but I was never a student in either a graduate or undergraduate creative writing class, so I come at all this a little strangely.  The benefits of low-residency seem primarily practical and logistical—students don’t have to quit their jobs, relocate, see each other often enough to develop antipathies or remain in a distracting collegiate atmosphere.  The last of those is important to some students and anathema to others.  I see going back for a low-res degree as a very private pursuit.  One asset of low-res programs is that a student will often get to participate in workshops led by three or four completely different sets of writers.  However, since low-res students don’t have the opportunity to teach, they’re unlikely to negotiate their degrees into a university position, they seldom get to work with literary magazines, and most of the visiting writers who come in for the benefit of the undergraduates don’t show up in those summer and winter holiday residencies, so the grad students miss out on a lot.  I don’t think the scholarship programs in many low-res situations are very strong, either, but there are exceptions.  The crucial answer probably lies in the relative commitment of the directors and various teachers, as well as the quality and determination of the students.  If the director works in concert with her faculty and is dedicated to steady improvement, the resulting stimulating atmosphere will be one of the assets of a program.  I think it’s important to have some sense of shared standards and to create and cultivate a program as a team.  If the workshop leaders prepare like fiends and bring their most resourceful selves to the activity, if they deliver professional craft lectures and bring substantial experience, energy and cunning to the situation, a low-residency program can be amazing.  If the teachers don’t prepare before class or drowse off during discussion, don’t fully participate and attend most of the various (and admittedly exhausting) activities, then you’ve got a one-winged duck.  So the value and success of a program, low-residency or high, will depend on the quality of commitment by all—administrators, faculty and students.   I don’t know much about full residency programs these days, but I believe many applicants to low-residency programs should be encouraged to attend conferences like Sewanee and Kenyon and to work hard with local mentors, then apply to an MFA program in a year or two.  It’s not just a matter of location, location, but timing.

I suppose I should address the question of whether or not creative writing workshops tend to homogenize the work of their participants.  This is one of the old saws – “the ‘products’ of programs look like apples off the same tree.”  It seems unlikely that real power of mind and heart, authenticity and originality can be smothered, so I don’t think even the sometimes regimented and often distracting nature of writing programs can defeat a talented student who’s not lazy or prissy or arrogant.  The strong will survive.  Iowa did not reshape Flannery O’Connor.  It just fed the fire and gave her room.

R. T. Smith is writer-in-residence at Washington and Lee University, where he has also edited SHENANDOAH since 1995.  His dozen collections of poems include Messenger (LSU) and Outlaw Style (Arkansas), both recipients of Library of Virginia Book of the Year Awards.  His fourth book of short stories, Sherburne (Stephen F. Austin Press) is being released this fall.  Smith’s work has also appeared in the Pushcart Prize Anthology, Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories, Best American Poetry and several editions of New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best.  He has received fellowships from the NEA, the Alabama Arts Council and the Virginia Commission for the Arts.  In 2008 he and Shenandoah were presented the Governor’s Award for Achievement in the Arts.  He lives in Rockbridge County, VA.

Heather Frese received her MFA from West Virginia University and her MA from Ohio University.  Her work is forthcoming in The New York Quarterly and The Southeast Review, and has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, The Los Angeles Review, Fiction Weekly, and Front Porch.  Her essay, “Fatigue,” received notable mention in the Pushcart Prize Anthology 2011 and Best American Essays 2010.

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