This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy and other ideals and practices he values) and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Abraham Smith’s Whim Man Mammon (Action Books, 2007).
H. L. Hix: A reader from a certain educational background [read: a background like mine, may Miss Wilson rest in peace] would not be able to read a short poem called “Eagles” (24) without thinking of Tennyson’s much-anthologized short poem called “The Eagle.” May I ask you to take that juxtaposition (which I take as more contrast than comparison) as an occasion for saying something about what you are trying to resist in your poetry?
Abraham Smith: Ah yups the tennyson eagle poem / i read it in a lawnchair whilst cousins batted a badminton birdie, perhaps 14 years ago / lilac bleeding into the mosquito whinnying wind / have no ms wilson to nod skyward to / thats a bit of a half bit brineless pickle / ways in which poetry is not there for us in the lions share of pub education / in one class we memorized one frost poem / snowy harness bells / some years later we “read” the iliad / this “reading” worked thusly: we were handed a xerox with 25 questions / read, then answer the questions / the answers to the xerox were stapled to the wall / and so, we loitered / donning the faux mask of faux earnestness / count 25 faux glances down at sundry clanking aegises / then sashay over to the wall, write down the answers / then sit back down / then wait to be handed 25 more questions / then loiter, then etc. / anon / talk about a yawning lion wortha education / i hope the whim book, the poetics stamped in there / i hope the whim jig does not resist / i hope it’s that abandoned barn there with vines going in at the windows / i hope bats and broken baseballs and bad breath coyotes and mice and foxes all do the buffalo shuffle in there / i s’pose the ink pot is not poetry so much as the ink black flambeau river and my early yearning haunting feeling thereabouts / the book is pretty much one adolescent pinch with screaming eyes pretty much / i guess it’s a roethke trampoline / i guess it’s roethke and dylan thomas hoboing across a frozen lake / call it rousseau with a musky fish for a walkin stick / if the book resists something it’s the unsurprised fellas who laugh back in the back of their throat and think of the wild as something to kill or to tamp back down or to tame / fence that in there / i hope i am tattling on them / i hope each word feels endangered / hope i am letting the birds in through the windows without the glassy neck / let me hobo on the peaked back of an emily d bird / let me go to heaven all along / mr. bobolink link up / how haunted i am by eagles / by rivers / i love that a young boy can bring the river home in his ears / that that can be painful / i love that a thick young man with a barrel chest and eight ten guns back home can be casually talking about this or that win or gun or winsome wind brought down the shot that woulda dropped the buck / i love that just then back deep in the woods where a little clearing opens / an eagle will swoop down and lift a fawn right off the ground and it’s adios humdrum barrel chest dude / i hope the book stands as preachment to my sundry hauntings / i love how hushed i was in that lawnchair / i love my totems: birds, wolves, and bears / i have spent most of my life trying to eye them / maybe even more than poetry they are my reading life / they the three who tear my mouth off and take it away / i hope whim works as my lost ramble, asking this: you seen my mouth? of every other pine birch and maple . . .
HH: The words “tough” and “tender” seem important in “Venison Tough As” (49). Is the conflict/tension between toughness and tenderness important to this book as a whole (as, obviously, I am taking it to be)? How so?
AS: toughness and tenderness / yeps i’d say that’s the jeep capsized on a bed of sumacs gist or essence or seance of tha bookie / how a room feels close where the passed out man is sleeping / yeps that it / dangerous should he wake so tippy toe / versify on toe in half off tube socks / tuff and tendon / difference twixt a saddle and a stirrup / theres that hombre pistola t is for texas feelin therein / but i hope that the looser almost baby bird on a baby swing sense of a winged thing in a stirrup is in there too / i hope the thin bone heron leg thinly lined poems jab at a reader like an atlatl shipped north from tenochtitlan / i hope tha wider whitman belly laugh meadow widely lined poems feel like youve been hammering at something all day when all of the sudden someone taps you on the shoulder, and says, it’s okay, take a bran bar and a break / these are the confessions of a boy raised into manhood by women / these are the yowlings of the papa-less hound / i suppose this book translates as: hell yes, this muffler is loud, um, i am sorry i am sorry i am sorry.
HH: Whatever else is going on in the book, it looks to me as though you are rethinking confession. “I throw my name / in stone to sea” (56) or “I hell palm the art materials” (67) seems like something different from “I taught my classes Whitehead’s notions” or “Daddy, I have had to kill you.” Do you view your work as a mode of autobiography or confession? Or do you view your work as contesting autobiography and confession? Who is the speaker in these poems, and what is the importance of that speaker’s identity(ies) to the work the poems are doing?
AS: well i have been reading a lot of tolstoy lately so i’d say the book is a bunch of duels between a bunch of myselves with the aurora borealis belching dragons up above and the snow rolling its no number dice and lo: the moon betting on none of me to win / i am going to call these autobiographies / i am going to call my sense of the prep of the poems and their oral presentation the sense of the folk singer straddling a rickety chair by lantern’s least bright brights / they certainly arent confessions / they dont fetch cons out of the river / the speaker is a jittery little guy blowing on a blade of grass / they are that squealing squelching peal / i hope they are shrill chlorophyll / i hope they are a late night call to the jittery boy and the voice on the other end says, say what you know of birds and say it fast, say what you know of the ocean / what you don’t know make up / say what you know of the woods / but hold back a little on the oars / say what you learned from that painful river in your ear, sure, throw that in / the speaker is standing up on top of the mailbox hoping that all of yous guys going to london can see me / i aimed to write these poems via the river to read these poems aloud like a sudden rapids for several hundred q-tipped ears / no jittery waterlogged boy no poems / no eye flashing tween the eagle and the bear flushing down the yawning god mouth of the woods no poems / i hope they are dirty poems with a bar of ivory soap and a map to the river / no land no poem / i hope you can feel my 150 / 100 blood pressure in the thin ones / i hope / in the second to last one you can laugh and hurt and bite your hand to keep from crying and lay around a bit in a brown easy chair with my grandpa sipping coffee / last of a sweet roll on the back right molar / one more swig and swish around and it’s down / gone away / and a ps i notice just now that i called the whim poems confessions then said they were not / ay ay ay / term me a liar, i reckon! mirthfully, a
Abraham Smith hails from Ladysmith, Wisconsin. Action Books published his Hank (2010) and Whim Man Mammon (2007). He is Instructor of English at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.