Poet, Translator, and International Man of Intrigue:
The Rod Smith Interview
Daniel Gutstein

Rod Smith is the author of Music or Honesty, The Good House, Poèmes de l’araignée (France), In Memory of My Theories, The Boy Poems, Protective Immediacy, and New Mannerist Tricycle with Lisa Jarnot and Bill Luoma. A CD, Fear the Sky, came out from Narrow House Recordings in 2005. His work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies including Anthology of New (American) Poets, The Baffler, The Gertrude Stein Awards, Java, New American Writing, Open City, Poésie, Poetics Journal, Shenandoah, and The Washington Review. He edits Aerial Magazine and publishes Edge Books. The next issue of Aerial will focus on the poet Lyn Hejinian. Smith is also editing, with Peter Baker and Kaplan Harris, The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley for the University of California Press. This interview was conducted over email, throughout the summer, 2006.

GUTSTEIN: You and I have been friends for about ten years. One night, about ten years ago, I tagged along with our mutual buddy, the poet Mark Wallace, to the Black Cat, where you showed up after a while to hang out. Do you want to take it from there? What happened at this historical meeting of Smith & Gutstein? And do you think that Smith & Gutstein should be a brand of firearms?

SMITH: You spilled a pint of beer on me, man. First time we hung out. A week later, in an op-ed titled “Neil Macdonald must go,” Yale Law Professor Jack Balkin explored the innumerable, hidden ways “mothering work” affects Relationship Development Intervention. Smith & Gutstein are the Irish Foosball champs, maybe they should name some foosball camp after us.

GUTSTEIN: True or false: You were a rural mail carrier for several years, years ago, in Virginia. True or false: It is a federal misdemeanor to mishandle a holiday fruitcake.

SMITH: I was a rural carrier in Manassas, VA from ‘80 to ‘86. One morning after I’ve sorted my mail I go to get my packages. Always the last thing one does before going out on the route. It was really something to see other mail carriers sort the packages, literally flinging the smaller ones 10 to 20 yards in the air, bam! and smashing the larger ones nonchalantly down on whatever packages might already be in the bins. So I go to get my packages and there’s a fruitcake there for a nonexistent address on my route. So I leave it in the bin to be dealt with when I get back (if I remember) or tomorrow if not. You have to write up return to sender slips, stuff like that, and at that point it’s all about getting out the door. I go out and go round my route like usual which happened to have my mom’s house on it so I could stop in and get a free lunch or have a smoke break whatever. I get back to the post office and two minutes after I get in, Billy, the assistant postmaster, says come in my office, which is weird, and I get in there, and there’s a couple of guys, one with a cowboy hat who’s sitting behind his desk like he’s the mainbrain in charge here. They start asking me questions. The first question: “What’d you do today?” — ???— I’m like “Uh, I delivered the mail.” They then start asking me all kinds of specific and weird questions. And I’m starting to freak, like did I run over a kid out there and not know it or some crazy junk like that. Clearly they had followed me around my route. The questions go on, never adding up. Finally I just stop them and say “What is this???” and cowboy hat stands up and leans over the desk like he’s sure he’s got me and says, “What’d you do with the fruitcake?” Pause for “dramatic” effect.

I then take them out on the floor and reach in my bin and give it back to them and say “If you’re trying to get somebody to steal something you need to come up with something better than a fucking fruitcake.”

GUTSTEIN: Have you ever written a poem about The Fruitcake Incident? If not, please write a poem, special for this interview, entitled The Fruitcake Incident. Thank you.

“The Fruitcake Incident”

As fruitcake sd to my
fruitcake, because fruitcake is
always talking—fruitcake, fruitcake

sd, which was not his
fruitcake, the fruitcakes sur-
round us, what

can fruitcake do against
fruitcake, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big fruitcake,

drive, fruitcake said, for
fruitcake’s sake, look
out where yr going.

GUTSTEIN: Some readers will remember the Robert Creeley poem upon which the fruitcake poem is based. I know that you’re working on a book of Robert Creeley correspondence and that you’re working on translating some French poetry along with the poet Cole Swensen. How are those projects going? Are you working on any other projects—regarding other poets or your own poetry—at the moment?

SMITH: The Creeley letters and a big issue of Aerial magazine (over 300 pages) on Lyn Hejinian are the big projects right now. I’m co-editing the letters with Peter Baker and Kaplan Harris, which is great, and necessary, as it’s a big job. The breadth of his correspondence is rather astonishing. Just the letters to Robert Duncan and William Carlos Williams and of course Charles Olson could make a terrific book of at least 500 pages but wouldn’t begin to document his collaborations—the man had such a passion for connection—not “connections” as in business—but that sense of, as he so often said, of “company,” in and of the work, and in and of those doing, those making. How we will whittle it down to 500 pages I don’t really know, but it will be a helluva book. We have another year’s work before we turn it over to UCal. So I’d guess two years before it’s out.

The Aerial issue on Lyn Hejinian has been an ongoing project for the past four years. It will attempt to really cover her career from the seventies through now—poems, essays, and interviews by/with Lyn and lots of articles and essays about her. I’ve done two of these kinds of issues before, one on Barrett Watten, one on Bruce Andrews. I’m working with Jen Hofer on the Hejinian project. I’ve always been fired by Lyn’s work—such an open mind, such articulate feeling in the art. I’m excited to see it coming closer to fruition. I want it out in the world. Here’s an author page for Lyn: http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/hejinian/.

In terms of the French poetry, yes, Cole and I have been translating Emmanuel Hocquard’s most recent book—L’invention du verre (The Invention of Glass)—the first time I’ve done this kind of thing. It causes one to examine a poem extremely closely, and the collaboration with Cole is first rate. There’s a good Wikipedia on Emmanuel with links, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmanuel_Hocquard.

My own poems of late sort of pop up and demand time in the midst of all these other projects. I’ve been writing some things called “Ghost Brains” which are very gestural, influenced by listening to/reading about the free improv guitarist Derek Bailey (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derek_Bailey) who describes his work as ‘non-idiomatic’— i.e. it’s not rock, it’s not jazz, it’s not classical, etc etc. So I’ve become interested in writing poems that don’t fit my understanding of the various idioms I’ve worked in or read. What that leads to really is a lot of pressure on their movement from word to word, phrase to phrase. They’re certainly weird, but then most of my stuff is weird in one way or another.

I’m also trying to finalize a few manuscripts, one called You Bête, which I think will be an old fashioned book of poems. Not broken into series. Which will be a first for me. The other manuscript, probably closest to print, is The Good House and Other Poems. There’s some on line at http://washingtonart.com/beltway/smith.html and an essay by Kaplan Harris about it, at http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/smithr/harris.html.

GUTSTEIN: Given the mention of your journal Aerial, let’s turn the discussion to your publishing—Aerial Magazine and Edge Books. What “mission” did you have in mind when you began publishing the magazine and book series? (And when did you put out your first volume?) How has that mission evolved over time—and how do you see the future for Edge Books, in particular? Do you have a favorite book or author, published by Edge?

SMITH: Well, I started Aerial with my friend Wayne Kline in 1984 before I moved to DC (in 1987). We had our own little gang of writers out in Northern Virginia and would come into DC sometimes for readings, etc. Aerial was a way of being in contact with other poets, of seeing what’s going on. Making friends. The first issue was riddled with typos. We didn’t really know what we were doing.

I definitely recommend starting a publication of some sort to people just getting started. You learn a lot quick, and it’s gratifying to put it together. I had the example when I started of two very active publishers in the area—Douglas Messerli’s Sun & Moon press and journal, and Rick Peabody’s Gargoyle Magazine / Paycock Press. So it was something that was going on, seemed possible. I enjoy the whole editorial process, selecting, ordering, working with authors, finding a cover etc.

The first Edge Book was Wayne Kline’s Asbestos, and then a chapbook by Harrison Fisher, World Prefix, which has a cover by Charles Bernstein. The ‘favorite’ is always the newest book I suppose. So there’s three right now, Some Notes on My Programming by Anselm Berrigan, Once Upon a Neoliberal Rocket Badge by Jules Boykoff, and Cipher/Civilian by Leslie Bumstead. You can have a look at www.aerialedge.com. That’s what one’s always most excited about. Though I’m particularly pleased to have worked with John Cage. Aerial 6/7 includes a large selection of his work. And in terms of my own aesthetic, Kevin DaviesComp. is another ‘favorite.’

As far as the future, I’m not sure what will happen with Aerial but Edge is going strong—books soon from K. Silem Mohammad, Cathy Eisenhower, and one talented Mr. Daniel Gutstein.

GUTSTEIN: It should be noted that you’ve published works by Tom Raworth, a rowdy English poet; Anselm Berrigan, who you mention above, son of the late Ted Berrigan and current director of the Poetry Project in NYC; and a variety of other experimental writers, including Joan Retallack, Mark Wallace, and Chris Stroffolino, to name a few. How have your Edge Books dealings (selecting, publishing, etc.) influenced your own writing? That is, have your publishing activities led you to re-examine or re-invent any of your own approaches to poetry?

SMITH: I suppose it can’t help but affect one’s writing in that one becomes quite familiar with the work one publishes. Certainly Raworth’s Ace or Davies’ Comp. have had an impact on my sense of writing. Anselm, whom I’ve published 3 books and one chapbook by, is a continual source of, dare I say it—inspiration. Really. Keeps me going. And of course Mark Wallace, Buck Downs, and Heather Fuller are all rightful legends in their own time.

GUTSTEIN: Can you name a couple of other writers who have influenced your work? Who has meant the most to Rod Smith?

SMITH: Frank O’Hara and George Oppen may be my two favorite poets. The ones I come back to most. Are in my mind as models. Oppen’s work moves like no other. And O’Hara’s so quick, so alive, so varied. They both have an openness and an intensity entirely their own yet very much of use.

GUTSTEIN: Speaking of favorites, what is your favorite sport? Why?

SMITH: Ubuntu Cafe, Movies at Wal-Mart, and natural pyridoxal. A kind of foosball played at Graceland. Why? paranormal golf ate my straight-leg raising Flarf clock.

GUTSTEIN: I heard that Roy Brown whooped Elvis in foosball, but not at Graceland; they played down at Carl Perkins’s Apollo Hair Systems, in Memphis, Tenn. I know that soccer is your sport, that you were a star soccer player in high school. And that you love baseball, too. You and I have misbehaved many times in the cheap seats at RFK, watching the (g)Nats. But you chose to mention Flarf as a sport. What is Flarf? Is it a contact sport? What are its prospects for future growth? Will it burn out or fade away or—gulp—hang around?

SMITH: Yep, I’m typing this while watching the Portugal/Angola match. Flarf is the latest in a series of poetries to catch my enthusiasm, Language and New York School being a few of the others, earlier on. It’s a group of us on an email list that’s been going for about five years. Something of its history can be found at: http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/bernstein/syllabi/readings/flarf.html. Flarf is serious nutty fun. And I mean serious in that there a number of very talented, committed poets involved, who are quite serious about what they’re doing and quite serious about having a great time doing it. The irreverence and outrageousness of Flarf rubs some people the wrong way, it has a certain relation to dada in that way. For some of the poems you can check out http://mainstreampoetry.blogspot.com/. For some of the conversation about it, Kasey Mohammad’s blog is a good place to start, http://limetree.ksilem.com.

Here is an example of one of my own Flarf poems:

Things happen every day that you just
Don’t hear about. Like the other day

Grover & me was hangin’ out eatin’
satanic koala meat with Elvis, like they say

& alluvasudden 4 equal parts
heathen butler guts & spew-boogers erupt all

outta everthing like we was sposed
ta re-understand the northern lights

as actual rat-incisor transmissions from Sun Ra
& shit— Grover didn’t have his camcorder

& I didn’t have my ass. So, I don’t know.
Wal-Mart is like Alpha team re-assigned from Tukwila?

GUTSTEIN: I just watched Ghana kick the shit out of the Czech Republic, 2-0. Their first victory over a European side since 1964. In talking about that other contact sport, Flarf, you mentioned the Language “school” of writing and the New/New York School. How, exactly, do these movements qualify as “schools?” Do they mark you down for being tardy? Is it a bunch of poets swimming together in the East River?

SMITH: Ted Berrigan used to joke that he invented the New York School and you could join for 10 bucks. I don’t know maybe the school thing is just laziness on people’s part—like you can just say ‘New York School’ instead of having to type out five or ten names. They’re just really, like they say, social formations. Groups of poets that egg each other on. Ya know, stuff like that. So, I guess it continues to fire me in terms of having a lot of friends involved in various groups whether they get a name or not but the Flarf thing is really no bull, several people kickin’ it for real. I’ve noticed people referring to the DC Poets meaning the gang involved in the reading series posted at www.dcpoetry.com. So, maybe we’re a school. Don’t even have to go to school, just stay busy and it’ll come to you.

GUTSTEIN: Speaking of schools, you are the only person I know who has an MFA but hasn’t gone to college. At the time you were accepted to the George Mason program, you’d already established yourself as a poet— published some books and in numerous journals, etc. Why did you do it? What did you get out of it? Is it a step you’d recommend to other former postal carriers?

SMITH: Well, I have to credit Carolyn Forché and Joan Retallack, quite literally, for that even becoming a possibility. Carolyn was then at George Mason and she and Joan were talking and it turned out there was a stipulation in the MFA program charter for allowing in students without B.A.s that the staff agree has done enough work to qualify. It was really a privilege to work with Carolyn, who’s been a good friend for years. But yes, my experience was quite different from many people. I had actually taught a workshop at Mason a few years before I was a student, and was working full time at Bridge Street Books, publishing Edge Books, traveling for readings, etc. while doing the MFA—so it wasn’t that kind of concentrated time for attention to writing that many students experience. That, plus my allergy to bureaucracy made it rough going at times but overall I’m glad to have the degree. Certainly I’ll teach part-time and if the right opportunity comes along I would seriously consider a full time position.

GUTSTEIN: At this very minute, which two words constitute your favorite rhyme?

SMITH: gazillion vermillion or Pâwsuck Kerouac.

GUTSTEIN: If Elvis was The King, and if James Brown, according to Amiri Baraka, is God, then who are Lucky Millinder, Roy Brown, Big Jay McNeeley, Joe Houston, Tom Archia, et. al.—the Universe?

SMITH: Absolutely, but then who’s the Big Bang? Fats Domino or Louis Armstrong?

GUTSTEIN: As much as I’ve grown to like Fats Domino in the past couple months, I’d have to say that Louis Armstrong’s voice, might be, the Big Bang. Although one could argue that New Orleans, birthplace of both Louis and Fats, is/was/is the Big Bang. Let’s stick with music for a moment. Please discuss the influence—on your ear—of the following musicians: Steve Lacy, Sonny Rollins, Elvis Presley, and, let’s say, Anthony Braxton. What did you learn from listening to these musicians?

SMITH: Well, Lacy and Braxton have both made a number of solo recordings—these often remind me of a poet reading, or of the process of writing, those quick decisions, that stumbling searching, making a shape, beginning with an idea and watching it develop into many, and of course the question of how/when to end.

Another thing about the musicians you mention is they all have a large body of work that has developed over time. I’m very interested in that process of development, the different contexts created, the risks taken. The history of any of them is too much to get into here, but how to answer the basic question, what have I learned, specifically, from each one is curiously difficult. Certainly I’ve learned a great deal from each of them, I’ve internalized their understandings of artistic activity to a great extent. And others, such as Cage, Coltrane, Monk, Bird, Cecil Taylor, etc. I suppose one way to talk about it is that it’s part of the culture I’ve chosen. We tend to think of culture as something that we’re in, but within that one has choices of where one puts one’s attention. And what one puts one’s attention on changes that attention, forms and informs it. Grows it, even.

GUTSTEIN: Who was/is your favorite visual artist? How so?

SMITH: Hmm. Duchamp I suppose. Incredibly inventive, sly even. Sexual, philosophical, always surprising. Cezanne, Jasper Johns, Joan Mitchell, Picasso, are other favorites. I’m also interested in a number of contemporary artists, though wouldn’t say I have a favorite.

GUTSTEIN: What do you think of voting machines? What do you think of that pomeranian inside the ATM, at the falafel place?

SMITH: I have a poem that begins with the line ‘Daddy, why come the democrats didn’t buy some voting machine companies too?’ There’s always been treachery in American elections but the voting machine problem takes it to a new level. We need paper ballots. Period.

I think the pomeranian inside the ATM has moved to the jukebox at the Black Cat. I think he’s everywhere pomeranian.

GUTSTEIN: What one question are you dying to ask me?

SMITH: Why you so silly all the time?

GUTSTEIN: Genetics.

I’m thinking about golf, now, another sport that you’ve played. I understand that you can “eagle” a hole, and “birdie” a hole. But how does “par” and how does “bogey” fit into that framework? Is there a “par” bird out there? A “bogey” bird? Do you favor a recent initiative to re-term “par” as “sparrow” and “bogey” as “warbler?” I’m told that a double-bogey would be called a “boeing” and anything beyond that an “airbus.” What do you think?

SMITH: Why you so silly all the time? I mean golf is a very serious sport. Like some of those guys probably have chickens walkin’ on they piano, dig?

Author page including poems, additional interviews, essays on and reviews of Smith's work: http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/smithr/

Aerial/Edge: www.aerialedge.com

Rod Smith CD from Narrow House Recordings: http://www.angelfire.com/poetry/thepixelplus/nhrod.html

O Books: http://www.obooks.com/books/inmem.htm

Roof Books: http://www.roofbooks.com/Book/?GCOI=93780100857170&fa=author&Person_ID=58&PublisherGCOICode=93780

Flarf feature at Jacket: http://jacketmagazine.com/30/fl-smith.html

Daniel Gutstein is a visiting assistant professor of creative writing at George Washington University. A collection of short fiction, non/fiction, is forthcoming from Edge Books in 2007. Poems and stories have appeared/will appear in dozens of publications, including TriQuarterly, Ploughshares, New Orleans Review, American Scholar, and Prairie Schooner, in the anthologies The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, and Best American Poetry (2006), as well as aboard metrobuses in Northern Virginia. He has received grants and awards from the Maryland State Arts Council, the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County (MD), the University of Michigan, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He has also worked as an editor-in-chief, international economist, farm hand, tae kwon do instructor, reporter, theatre arts educator, and disabilities professional.

Published in Volume 7, Number 4, Fall 2006.


To read more by this author:
Daniel Gutstein
Gutstein's Tribute to Dudley Randall: The Memorial Issue

To read poems by Rod Smith:
Rod Smith