5 Questions with S.E. Smith (interviewed by Madeline Farr)

1. How has your writing style and/or perspective on writing changed since the publication of I Live in a Hut?

Oh, gosh. Lots of life things have happened, and the short answer is not sure/something is still cooking. I quit drinking, and my relationship to writing is still shifting to accommodate that huge and necessary change. I didn’t fall prey to the romantic notion of writing while slammed or anything like that—actually, I wouldn’t write while drinking & it was one of the last self-imposed drinking rules I clung to, although I was hungover maybe 95% of the time when I wasn't drunk, so I’m not entirely sure I deserve a parade for that. I was doing stuff that put me in constant physical danger, but even beyond that, I had pressurized my life in a way that would not remain tenable for much longer. I felt like such a shithead most of the time that I could only redeem myself by writing something good, so I tried really hard to do that. It was the way I earned the right to walk on the earth, or so it seemed to me.

So, getting well, I find, dissolves that immense pressure, but also makes it confusing to approach the page. It’s the same, but the gravity that holds me down against the words is different and less deadly. I think this is good, but tremendously frustrating. The things I’m writing feel so embarrassing sometimes. I’m relearning all of it, kind of. I’m learning how to summon the intensity in a way that isn’t so harsh and self-negating.

One thing I like, though, is how I can look at my poems and see them as these fantasies of power and competence. I had never realized before that this was my standard mode of thought in a poem. Years and years ago, I wrote a sad little poem about the terrible weight of being responsible for everything that happened in the world, sweeping the winds and grasses around all the lovers, making the streetlights come on at the right time. So much pressure! It’s an attitude I’ve encountered in recovery among many other alcoholics. Sometimes I think alcoholics and addicts are basically failed, pissed-off wizards. Like, goddamn I couldn’t use my anxious mind to keep it from snowing. Again, cruel world. Fuck it. Pass me that Old Crow so I can listen to my one Neil Young song on repeat.

Part of me is afraid—and this is a classic fear-of-wellness thing, I think—that the recovery paradigm won’t coexist with the way that I write poems. Which is silly, because I think the bewilderment and humor of failing to control anything in the world is absolutely a human situation and not one that belongs only to alcoholics. Nobody is at perfect peace. And I'm in no danger of becoming too good, too serene. Not anytime soon!

So: It’s weird, but I’m moving through it. I’ve been writing some really childish breakup poems. Like, “I hope you get a pearl stuck in your anus!” That’s been fun. Sometimes I stumble into the right slant of thought and remember, “Oh right, this is my favorite thing to do!” But it’s been hard, no lie. It’s been one of the hardest parts of recovery.

2. What are you working on right now?

I’m almost done with the second draft of a novel. I can’t believe this is true, but there it is! The first draft was such garbaggio, but there were 50 pages I liked, so I started over with those. This year, I’ve been working on it in marathon spurts. I write a poem every 10 days or so. When I put the novel aside for the few months, I also write and revise stories—I have one in the current issue of Tin House, and another forthcoming in The Masters Review, and another in this really exciting anthology of stories based on Roky Erickson songs, forthcoming from Makeout Creek.

I’ve been slowly sending out my second poetry manuscript, Negative Cape. It’s almost done, maybe? Most of the poems I wrote during my really bad drinking times, so they’re pretty dark and desperate, even though I had no idea I was writing about alcoholism at the time. I love this book so much, but it’s really different from I Live in a Hut. I think it’s not quite what people would expect. There’s no tiny jelly cakes, no funny animal poems. But I think it’s good this way. I don’t want writing to become an exercise in self-caricature.

I’m moving back to Pittsburgh in a few weeks, and I’ve been kind of daydreaming about starting a reading series there. Not the standard polite three-writers-and-a-cheese-plate kind of thing, but more a guerrilla affair. A few summers ago, I got to go on tour with my best friends as Line Assembly—we did readings and workshops and stuff, and filmed everything for a documentary—and one of my favorite things we did was this series of informal, almost anonymous readings around Boston. Anne Marie read a poem to the purses in the window at the Prada store. I read a poem of mine in the produce section of a grocery. It was kind of amazing. There wasn’t a lot of direct feedback because public life is so much about nonacknowledgement, staring into the middle distance while people all around you persist in being themselves. But it seemed to make the readings more intimate. You could see the strain in the people’s faces—it takes effort, pretending to not notice this poem being read in the park or the skyway or whatever. But that strain is also a kind of concentration. It seems to open up a channel, but gently. In 60 seconds, the moment is over & you can go back to buying your lemons, your Prada purses, go back to looking at the pond in the park or finish your soup-salad combo. I don’t know how, but I’d like to do something related to that.

3. What poet (contemporary or of the past) should we all be reading?

Jennifer Tamayo. Lillian-Yvonne Bertram. Bhanu Kapil. Ronaldo Wilson. Terrance Hayes, always & forever. Zachary Harris. Jared Joseph. Sade Murphy. Morgan Parker. Adam Atkinson. Anthony Cinquepalmi. Katya Zamolodchikova. Carrie Lorig. Anne Marie Rooney. Doug Kearney. Elyse Mele. Chelsea Minnis. Ben Pelhan. Feng Sun Chen. Yona Harvey. Greg Koehler. Olena Kalytiak Davis. Kiki Petrosino. Sandra Simonds. Roger Reeves. Jerika Marchan. CAConrad. Meredith Blankinship. Ottessa Moshfegh and Sarah Gerard and Kiese Laymon and Joy Williams—all fiction writers, but poets should read them! Jessica Rae Bergamino. Lucas de Lima. Jenny Zhang. Sean Zhuraw. Camille Rankine. Paul Cunningham. Google Image Search. Whoever makes up the hand-written signs in the gas station that tell you the slushie machine is broken.

4. What is your advice for young writers?

Be nice, but have your own back & support others. A community of writers isn’t something you just get—you must participate. You must go to readings. You should read your friend’s stuff in that one magazine, even if you are afraid of being jealous. One of the best ways to secure a community is to help that community, in some way, to exist. Buy your friends’ chapbooks and books and read them. Comparison can be deadly to this engagement.

Don’t get caught thinking the only real poetry happens in grad school, or in your grad school, or in that one grad school. Don’t get caught in thinking that your aesthetic is universal, that other concerns, especially survival concerns and the capacity to raise a voice, are not to your tastes and therefore unimportant. Don’t decide it’s above your pay grade to think seriously about how white supremacy inflects/inflicts/indicts your poetics. Don’t get caught thinking that poetry communities, because they are largely made of self-identified outsiders, will be above racist/sexist/ableist/transphobic/classist/ageist/sizeist/homophobic bullshit. People aren’t above those things, and poets are still people. (I’m not speaking from the mountaintop here. This is stuff I find challenging & still am working on. This is my advice to myself as much as anything. I’m still young!)

Maybe all that sounds cynical, but it’s crucial to my one real piece of advice: Find a way to make poetry a sustainable practice. Find a way to keep writing in the middle of your life without creating conditions around it that make you self-destructive. Oh, I know it sounds so yoga-mom to say it, but you have to take care of yourself. Take care of yourself so you can write things that scare the shit out of people.

5. Where/when do you like to write, or do your best writing?

I have come to dislike the idea that there’s a special magic to where I do the writing. I think it’s easy to convince myself that I need a pot of plum tea from this one cafe and the encouragements/provocations of this one totemic book in order to make the magic doorway appear. I mean, the doorway is magic. But the magic (I hope) is that it can appear anywhere.

Not to dismiss the power of pleasant physical objects, of course. I like my coffee and million cups of tea and cigarettes and oranges. I like to stare at this parsley plant my mother gave me to give to my ex-boyfriend, which he decided he didn’t want since he didn’t think he could keep it alive. I can’t bring myself to eat it because I like parsley so much that eating it would kill it, so it’s gone to seed. I feel so much for it, and feel embarrassed by my feeling. I’ve put it in a lot of poems because I can see it from the futon where I do most of my writing. I have a poem where I berate it for doing such a terrible job of being a woman, because it seems just as ridiculous as the amount of shit I get/give myself every day for not woman-ing adequately. In a way, it’s my effort at self-forgiveness for not being Dreamgirl USA. If it seems absurd to tell my parsley plant it has a fat chin & a smelly pussy, I should probably lighten up on myself! The things around me always end up in poems. There’s some kind of metonymic relationship between the material world and the poem kingdom which I love & love thinking about.

But! I think being too superstitious about writing is a stealth way of talking myself out of writing at all. I’ve seen this happen to lots of folks I love. There is just no way to shore up the world enough to make writing possible, I think. Certainly no way to make it easy, or comfortable. But it has to happen anyway.