Dale Smith with Andy Fitch

dale smith photo
Dale Smith

Over the summer, Andy Fitch has interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Smith’s book Poets Beyond the Barricade: Rhetoric, Citizenship, and Dissent after 1960 (University of Alabama Press). Recorded May 30th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.

Andy Fitch: For people who know you best as a poet or advocate of poets, can you first reintroduce yourself as a critic, talk a bit about your rhetoric background, when you started and how it generally informs your life and work?

Dale Smith: I did an MA at New College, a funky school. I went to study with poets and deepen my study of poetry. Then in the mid-90’s Hoa and I moved from California to Austin. We published magazines and books, and hosted readings at our house. I delivered flowers, worked as a security guard, that kind of thing. As we had kids and needed more and more money I found myself teaching at a community college, but soon realized I could make as much in a Ph.D. program as I could as an adjunct. And I could write critical prose quite easily. So I enrolled at the University of Texas, mostly because a professor named Jeffrey Walker was the only scholar of modernist poetry doing what interested me. His first book focused on Williams, Pound, Olson, and Hart Crane, yet he specializes in rhetoric, particularly, now, ancient rhetoric and poetics. At that time I had no idea what rhetoric was. Though Jeff did interesting things in his work I wanted to know more about. The rhetorical tradition emphasizes democracy and citizenship, going back to Athens, since that’s what the rhetors, or orators, of Athens did by negotiating the civil society of their time. But Jeff went back and said actually this begins with poetry, with Homer and Hesiod and how they model rhetorical possibilities in poetry. This history of language uses going back to antiquity interested me—everything from ancient rhetoric to medieval, Renaissance, all the way up. I tried to situate what I saw happening in contemporary poetry amid that much larger tradition. Still, when poets ask about rhetoric…people understand linguistics and understand theory, though rhetoric in the States most often gets tied to composition, that kind of pedagogy, which represents an important but not exclusive aspect of rhetorical studies. The questions Jeff posed helped me understand a lot: does poetry do anything beyond the poem, beyond the poet, beyond the coterie, beyond institutional audiences? What relation does it have to popular audiences? The book I wound up finishing at the end of this long process asks similar questions: how does poetry place itself in the world? How does it respond to social or cultural situations?

AF: I’ve got substantial follow-ups. But you said you can write critical prose easily?

DS: Yeah. In part I came to poetry because you can’t just write your own poetry—you’ve got to advocate in some way. My friends do translation, publishing, scholarly work. Years ago, I began writing book reviews for people. For whatever reason I could do this easily. I enjoyed advocating for certain types of poetry, and using critical prose to discuss broader cultural conditions. People had invited me to write pieces. I’d stumbled into it. In graduate school I learned to develop my perspective within a larger tradition of writing.

AF: This helped in your role as advocate? To have additional historical context?

DS: It did. I’d found myself, besides needing money, at a point where I was writing book reviews, had a book column, had my own journal (Skanky Possum), and did a lot of writing but felt something still missing. Studying the history of rhetoric and poetics helped open a larger conversation about what poetry does, what writing does, what writing instruction and public engagement can mean. What does it mean to be both a citizen and a poet—to participate in smaller communities? These questions provided a foundation for considering what writing does in specific situations for specific people.

AF: Since it might be a new concept for readers, can you provide a quick description of a rhetorical poetry? This phrase appears early in the book. Is all poetry inherently rhetorical if viewed from the appropriate perspective? Do you value certain self-conscious elements to the rhetoric found in particular historical eras, or specific individuals?

DS: Those are helpful questions, since “rhetoric” as a term remains contested, and various readers use it quite differently. I think about a rhetorical poetics as not aimed to the coterie, to the local community of initiates, but at some broader possible public. That audience could take many different forms. Allen Ginsburg and the Beats moved beyond their local community into a much larger popular community. Others, like the New York School, say Frank O’Hara writing in the ’50s, spoke, at least initially, to a much smaller coterie of fellow poets. The poetry that most interests me, and that my book calls rhetorical poetry, aims at a public space. Of course people ask, what’s public space? To some extent, public spaces describe imagined communities, imagined spaces. I look for moments when poetry reaches beyond in-group poetics, and enters the world in a distinct way, possibly to affect a wider public audience—like how Denise Levertov or Robert Duncan addressed the Vietnam War, or Kristin Prevallet and Anne Waldman respond to recent wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. The use of the poem matters most here.

AF: Does this necessarily relate to intention, to something thought through in advance, with anticipation of a potential audience and a strategy for reaching and engaging that audience? I ask because, while conducting these interviews, I’ve noticed how few of the poets claim some conscious intention for their work and its anticipated future. I’ll find it hard even to pose such questions, since no conscious intentions guide most of my own writing. So in terms of the vocabulary you’ve presented, would these be instances of in-group insularity, which don’t even recognize themselves as such?

DS: Here I think of how Duncan and Levertov addressed the Vietnam War. Their letters from 1967-69 rehearse various possibilities. They know where they come from as poets, reading Olson and Pound and Williams. But now they get confronted by a larger social or political conflict. How should they apply their poetic attention to this particular purpose? Levertov really wants to reinforce the peace movement’s drive and urgency—to support it and help increase its numbers and make it an important social phenomenon. Duncan wants to reach a larger audience that could include even the opposition, the conservatives. So it’s not just about transferring in-group desires to broader social situations, but shaping a poetry that can prompt people to reflect on the meaning of war, its terrors.

AF: Just to get a few more critical terms in place, could you define the Epideictic mode? Could you place that in relation to deliberative and forensic modalities?

DS: Epideictic is just a fancy-ass word Aristotle used, along with forensic and deliberative modes of rhetoric, to describe familiar situations of language use. Forensic discourse happens in court. A jury assembles; somebody’s dead; who did it; how do we prosecute the accused; how do we remedy this situation? Deliberative discourse takes place in a congress or parliament. People stand up, make speeches, try to decide should we go to war, should we not go to war? Deliberation demands considering different sides of something, making a conclusive decision. Whereas the Epideictic, Aristotle says, encompasses a rhetoric of praise and blame. It’s largely ceremonial. In my book, again following Jeff Walker and people like Sharon Crowley and recent work in rhetorical theory, I look at the epideictic as a space of belief and desire, as a rhetorical mode addressing ideology in some way, addressing people’s beliefs. Of course, ideologies also get constructed and reinforced through language situations that are neither deliberative nor forensic. Car commercials reinforce certain expressions of masculinity—those kinds of things.

AF: Does Roland Barthes’ Mythologies fit here as a point of reference, a study of how ideology reinforces desire and desire reinforces ideology?

DS: You could talk about semiotics and signs. Though in rhetorical studies, emphasis might get placed on the situational discourse, considering audience reception, not just the sign itself. Rhetoric also intersects with cultural studies, again in its emphasis on the larger discursive situation.

AF: When you describe the epideictic as a discourse of praise and blame, I’m curious as well how it relates to aesthetics, to aesthetic criticism, to a criticism of value.

DS: Literature and aesthetics clearly would fall into the realm of the epideictic. The epideictic has existed for a long time. This mode of descriptive discourse precedes even the idea of literature or aesthetics. Literature became institutionalized and first practiced fairly recently, really as an invention of the 18th Century. The belletristic arguments of Hugh Blair or Adam Smith of the Scottish Enlightenment invent what becomes literature. They develop the taste and audience to appreciate the aesthetics that only a “literary genius” provides. This ties into developing the morals of a society changing and growing during the Enlightenment and just following. To me, aesthetics and literature seem recent inventions, carrying on what people called the epideictic in Aristotle’s day, and later in Cicero’s, or into the Middle Ages. So I look at poetry not just in terms of how it interfaces with literary institutions or aesthetic theory, but as something beyond those, outside those, pointing toward other types of public, social, cultural practices. That’s where I see rhetoric and the epideictic differing from certain literary practices to which we’ve grown accustomed—at least in the English department, right?

AF: Could you here articulate the concept of scale shift that gets applied in your Charles Olson chapter? Something that stood out (in relation to questions of Olson’s immediate political impact, versus the exemplary role he might provide for future poets’ civic engagement) is that publishing in the Gloucester Daily Times doesn’t seem a dramatic scale shift, in terms of quantity of readers. It still sounds relatively local. I’m not saying that’s bad. But could you describe the concept of scale shift so to explain away this potential contradiction?

DS: Sure. A scale shift doesn’t depend upon numbers for me, but types of audience. I take the term from Jules Boykoff, a poet and scholar of political science, someone interested in less literary types of audience formation. Boykoff uses the example of Martin Luther King. How does King go from leading a local Montgomery congregation, to addressing large national audiences? Such questions definitely involve size. But Olson moves from a focused literary coterie to a broader public discourse. This requires advocates, newspaper editors and publishers, interpreters that can make sense of Olson’s project for other people. He advocates to preserve Gloucester’s historical homes and buildings, its wetlands. Many of his projects, most of them, fail. But beyond those particular topics, Olson tapped a collective pain shared by the community through the recognition of fundamental economic changes coming to Gloucester. Olson shared his civic awareness with others. So this doesn’t reflect an equation like “scale equals mass.” It’s more like scale equals some other possibility, some other modality, some terrain in which poetry does not limit its scope to those readers trained by English departments. Instead you find many institutions interfacing.

AF: As you describe Olson’s public intervention, one which doesn’t produce pronounced physical consequences, I wonder about the concept of the poet as witness (which gets thoroughly critiqued in the ’70s and ’80s)—this potentially elitist formulation of a sensitive poet suffering for others, providing a pseudo engagement that prompts further complacency. How do you respond both to traditional and more recent characterizations of the poet as witness?

DS: The poet as witness is not a realm that interests me. It doesn’t seem a rhetorical concern. In order to make it rhetorical, it ultimately has to involve some kind of action. To witness just means that you observe or emotively respond to an event. For poets I discuss, what takes them beyond the level of witness is that they call forth some kind of action, or try to inspire some better possible outcome beyond the literary scene. They don’t just pay tribute to the moment. Rhetorical studies emphasize dynamic forces, change. Of course this could take the form of propaedeutic, self-reflective writing, which expands local audiences’ capacities to respond to future debates. I don’t demand some deliberative discourse in which the poet stands up and provokes instantaneous action. I focus on addressing beliefs and desire, how our capacities to live in this world change over time— how, as we encounter new ideas, our feelings change. Those smaller confrontations might not force us to make decisions right then and there, but to open up and reflect and consider further outcomes down the road.

AF: One last question about Olson. His Gloucester Daily Times pieces most amazed me because they sound like Olson the poet, not some conventional op-ed columnist. I wondered what you would think of, let’s say, a poet who becomes a speech writer. Or conceptual art projects from the ’60s in which artists go work at factories, and intervene at the places where society gets engineered. Do these provide effective means of rhetorical engagement, or an entirely separate enterprise? Do you focus on Olson because he does remain a difficult poet even when writing for the newspaper?

DS: Yeah. He remains that poet. And if you remove the label of poet, and examine it in terms of performance, he publicly performs this masculine-constructed voice amid working-class Gloucester in the ’50s and ’60s. He appeals to his audience in a certain way, through a performance that only can happen because the editors and the publisher provide that space, and produce their own performances of editorializing—proclaiming Charles Olson the poet of Gloucester, this important figure. Olson desires to say something about a house scheduled for destruction, then comes in and it’s just full-on Olson, right? He gets invited to write a weekly column and turns it down, basically arguing that it would interfere with his poetry life too much; he wants to get involved, but won’t become this civic entity; he’s very much his own engaged person as a poet. Still he valued that poetic/civic space as a modality of the possible. Olson saw Gloucester’s basis of economic security eroding. He wanted to address the beliefs and desires of people there. He designed poetry that made readers reflect on these transformations, and placed it in very public venues.

AF: In terms of your previous comparison between Ginsberg and O’Hara, and how their cultivations of audience play out: you’ve suggested that a rhetorical poetics presumes some future trajectory of agency, one that extends beyond the writing or reading of the poem. Here I’m curious if you could discuss how scale shifts relate to poetic temporality—to questions of present versus future engagement. What I mean is, for example, Craig Dworkin’s recent article “Seja Marginal” discusses the “long tail” of literary circulation. Over the long term, if you look at, let’s say, Amazon sales, books that never became bestsellers can maintain some purchase on the future and end up constituting (if you add this whole conglomerate together) where most readers’ attention really seems to lie. So could you describe how scale shifts play out in relation to an audience of contemporaries versus audiences of the future?

DS: Nobody read Blake in the late 18th century, right? But everybody reads him now. Clearly some kind of scale shift took place as critical advocates desired to institutionalize him. I’ll think about that in terms of marketing. Malcolm Gladwell writes about this ad nauseum, how word-of-mouth marketing campaigns remain much more effective than any other approach. He gives the example of Hush Puppy shoes. In the ’90s, Williamsburg hipsters started wearing Hush Puppies and overnight Hush Puppy saw its sales shoot through the roof. Our access to the internet and Facebook and instantaneous news prepares us to participate in these dramatic shifts. Somebody’s YouTube video goes viral and gets known overnight. Still these are rare exceptions. Poetry tends to work slower, behind the scenes, through critical advocates, through conversations you have with people. Of course Facebook and similar media might allow for new ideas, books, modes of critical engagement to filter through more quickly than they did twenty years ago. But scale of quantity doesn’t matter so much as the quality of dissemination. A really passionate connector will help to move a project in a certain direction, which remains much more useful than the New York Times Book Review for giving you the right audience—that long-term, self-sustaining audience you mentioned.

AF: Could we return to the Duncan/Levertov chapter? First, it may be helpful to distinguish between arguments of advantage and a rhetoric of suasion. But then, in the Duncan/Levertov chapter, you do such a persuasive job presenting this rhetoric of suasion (a model that seems to deny static critical binaries), that I wondered if no strict dichotomy had been there to begin with.

DS: For that particular chapter, the theories come out of Kenneth Burke, who was a friend of William Carlos Williams, though also remains a huge figure in rhetorical studies to this day. The rhetoric of advantage involves what we traditionally think of as rhetoric—where you try to get somebody to see your point of view and to act on it. A direct relation emerges between the speech used and some ultimate action. So Levertov wanted to persuade people to…she wanted to reinforce opposition to the war in Vietnam. Her poetry pretty much across the board does that (whether successfully or not remains a separate question). For Duncan I applied Burke’s concept of a rhetoric of persuasion, or pure persuasion. Burke discusses this as an almost innate activity we can’t keep ourselves from doing. Though for Duncan, this develops into a larger dialectical process. He doesn’t seek to gain advantage over some person or specific group, but tries to reach out across a vast cultural terrain, to point toward certain poetical arguments or possibilities that others could see and reflect on, act on, perhaps. It’s less a science than an art. The social scientist might say, well, where’s the empirical outcome? How effective was it? Whereas Duncan hopes for subtle strategies to take root and transform, and move us down the road. Here I found it more interesting not to judge these two different modes of engagement, but to look at how they frame their arguments around particular public practices, to consider how these practices intersect or diverge or endure in different ways. It seems more useful to explore a situation in which poets want the same thing, but have a different sense of audience and practicalities around what poems can do. Does this start to answer the second part of your question?

AF: So your critical approach itself provides a rhetoric of suasion, in which you willfully recoup what remains beneficial from the argument of advantage, not dismissing or demonizing it, but putting it to the best pragmatic use.

DS: I consider these both valid models for what poetry can do. Levertov makes some fascinating moves. At the height of her disgust with the Vietnam War, she can sound a bit annoying as a poet. But Duncan can sound just as annoying. When he describes LBJ as a monster, you sense he can’t maintain that strategy for long. Still Duncan does a better job, I think, of pushing beyond this impasse. Consider his famous statement, you know, that the poet’s job isn’t to oppose evil but to engage it. That seems a more interesting possibility, right? Though sometimes that position too needs to be opposed, and a more explicit stance should be taken. I appreciate and entertain both sides as providing compelling possibilities.

AF: Amid this Duncan/Levertov distinction, you develop quite interesting, somewhat related distinctions in how Poets Against War and Poetry Is Public Action contest the post-September 11th Bush era. It would be great if you could provide an analogous take on our current historical present. You completed this manuscript, for example, before the Occupy movement emerged. What forms of rhetorical poetry most intrigue you today?

DS: Sam Hamill’s Poets Against War project interested me because most of it happened online. I’d wondered what does this particular community, the online public, bring, if anything? Hamill gets invited to the White House and turns it down, which creates a public situation. Lots of anti-war poems come in. That’s great and all, but there’s, what, thousands of poems nobody reads ever which didn’t stop the war, and we see that. At the same time, Poetry Is Public Action occurs at a street level, pasting poems around New York City, performing public acts to draw attention to these poems. Again, this didn’t stop anything. Scale-wise, and ideologically after 9-11, the country’s mood was like, fuck it, let’s go to war. The opposition couldn’t achieve that much. Whereas now, amid Occupy, I think that the structural, economic transformation has grown so intense, which can produce a very different type of moment. This situation doesn’t reflect an ideological problem exactly. It reflects structural problems about money, jobs, debt, student debt, exhausted resources. So our present rhetorical situation seems to demand persistence, and numbers. I just spoke with Linh Dinh, who, for his State of the Union blog, travels around the country, or around Philadelphia, taking photos of what he sees on the street—which make for compelling visual statements. They don’t offer outright arguments. They don’t provide a call to action necessarily. But they put a frame around certain people and situations. They document political and social realities we face, which seems crucial right now. We need a rhetoric that persistently acknowledges reality. Because our grasp on that reality remains up for debate by different institutions and disciplines and political machines. There’s little confrontation or engagement beyond those venues, toward people on the street or outcast from institutions. I could go on about this. I hope that, as structural economic transformations continue, we’ll see much more of this street-level focus. Again, the Vietnam War is not Afghanistan. Iraq War protestors did something different than Occupy. Each situation demands new communicative strategies.

AF: I’m going to read back one sentence from near your book’s end: “One noticeable change in the present is that the formal obligations of poetry are beginning to give way to a more thoughtful understanding of the contexts in which forms contribute to arguments that can persuade public audiences on issues of social significance.” So, given the broader structural changes you’ve mentioned, can you point to analogous structural changes taking place in poetic communities or poetic discourse?

DS: Yeah, yeah. I don’t know. It depends on who you read. Poetry has so much happening, right? My ideal involves a kind of dumb earnestness in the face of reality. Linh does a good job with it, in terms of documenting the actual, what’s real, what happens in the world. Roberto Tejada looks at the discursive international forces that shape individual identity, cultural identities. Poets who most interest me expand our capacities to deal with what’s coming. Many poets across the globe do this. In America there’s a bit more blindness. A couple of years ago I gave a talk at Naropa about the Duncan/Levertov debate, and mentioned structural economic changes and resource contraction. This poet from Mexico City came up afterwards and said, hey, you’re the only American I’ve ever heard discuss this stuff. In America we rarely acknowledge that level of economic reality. It requires an attention that wasn’t developed…or tools not given to us by English departments or by literature. So working outside institutions, or putting different institutional models together and then smashing them up I find really appealing right now. I can think of novels, films, the Mexican director Iñárritu, or Alfonso Cuarón, who did Children of Men—people working on global problems and issues, not giving us answers but helping us understand the questions we need to ask.

Dale Smith is a writer now living in Toronto, Ontario. He spent most of his life in Texas, with brief jaunts to the Middle East, the Pacific Northwest, and Northern California. Currently he teaches rhetoric and poetics at Ryerson University. He is the author four books of poetry and prose, published by boutique presses. His poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in Best American Poetry, Bookforum, Chicago Review, The Colorado Review, Jacket, and elsewhere. Poets Beyond the Barricade: Rhetoric, Citizenship, and Dissent after 1960 addresses the role of poetry in public discourse, and was recently published by the University of Alabama Press. His creative and scholarly work examines the intersections of personal and public tensions in the ongoing negotiations and clarifications of contemporary life.

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