THE COLUMN

presenting Poets, Poetry, and more…

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I LOVE POETRY FROM THE INSIDE OUT.  AND LOVE IS CONTAGIOUS, ISN’T IT?
An interview with Mark Smith-Soto

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In which language did you first encounter poetry?

In Spanish. I remember my mother reciting around the house poems by her favorites Gabriela Mistral and Juana de Ibarbouru when I was barely able to talk myself.

Could you talk about your language?  Which is your first?  

Apparently the first word I spoke with any authority was “apple,” but since my family moved to Costa Rica when I was two, I soon ended up speaking Spanish almost exclusively, and had a lot of catching up to do when we came back to the US some eight years later. I wish I could say I am fully bilingual but the truth is that it has been too long since I lived in a Spanish-speaking country for me to command the vibrant language of everyday life. After seven months in Madrid some thirty years ago, I found myself writing poetry in Spanish for the first time since my adolescence, but that ability quickly faded upon my return to the U.S.

How do the Spanish and English languages interact with one another in your creative mind?

Truth is, I have no idea! I know there must be constant, ongoing commerce between the two languages in my brain, and surely both must contribute energy to my creative use of words, but just how that synergy works will always be a mystery to me. On my Costa Rican mother’s side, I come from a poetry-loving family. On my American father’s, from a long line of practical-minded lawyers. And yet, for some reason, I have written all my poetry in English, and almost all my academic, scholarly work in Spanish. There is a criss-cross there I have never begun to understand!

Can you say a few words about books that strongly influenced you?

The first book I remember loving was a Spanish translation for children of the Thousand and One Nights, and the exotic world of magical adventures that it evoked profoundly affected me… Not long after, when I came to the US I found myself psychologically overwhelmed by my new environment and took refuge in the school and public libraries, reading omnivorously and indiscriminately, until in early adolescence I read Jack London’s Sea Wolf thinking it was an animal book. It profoundly shocked me and provided a salutary counterpart to the fantasy world that I lived in until then.

Can you describe your earliest encounters with poetry?

Growing up in Costa Rica, I had the good luck to have uncles and aunts who loved poetry and took every opportunity to recite it. Rubén Darío, Amado Nervo, Alfonsina Storni and José Martí were frequent guests at our dinner table whenever my extended family got together. My uncle Enrique, whose daughter Ana Istarú is now one of Costa Rica’s foremost poets and whose work it has been my pleasure to translate, was particularly fond of Darío and knew many of his poems by heart. I think it was listening to him proclaiming the verses of that exquisite Nicaraguan poet that first made want to be a writer myself.

When did you start writing? Any particular experience that triggered it?

Actually yes, there was. When I was twelve, my grandfather in Costa Rica became gravely ill and my mother went back home for several months to help care for him. I began writing poems to send her in my letters.

You have spent part of your life in Costa Rica; now you live in the USA. How do those experiences (or any one of them) relate to your writing?

My childhood in Costa Rica and my extended family there are a constant source of inspiration for me, even though the number of poems that I have written with a specifically Hispanic theme is relatively small. On the other hand, I believe that the shock of being torn away from my Costa Rican life and family at the vulnerable age of ten has imbued very much of my work with a sense of loss, of nostalgia, of time irrevocably passing.

As a scholar, you have taught and written about poetry; as a poet, you write poetry. Can you say a few words about each of those pursuits?

Although I have thought of myself as a poet since my late teens, the practical part of my brain always knew I was not the kind to starve to death in a low garret writing verses. An academic career came easily to me, and I chose poetry as my field because I knew I would never be bored studying it. I am glad to say that indeed turned out to be the case.

Could you elaborate on the relationship between writing poetry and writing/teaching about poetry?

I think that being a poet myself has given me an insight into the workings of the art that my students have appreciated and benefitted from. They always knew that I loved the poetry that I was teaching, that I loved it from the inside out. And love is contagious, isn’t it?

You are the editor of International Poetry Review. Can you describe the journal—its history, its character?

Since 1975, International Poetry Review has been committed to bringing to English-language readers the riches of contemporary poetry from all over the world. Because we want to showcase the impossible art of poetry translation and the possible beauties which translator/poets manage to rescue across language barriers, we publish the original poems along side the English versions, giving them both equal status as independent works of art in their own right. The magazine also publishes a section of poems written in English, some book reviews, and occasional essays on the art and practice of translation.

Who is your favorite poet—and why?

I love too many poets in too many different ways for me to declare a favorite. Some like Vallejo because they bring a tear to the heart, some like Philip Larkin because they scrape me with a painful ironic sense of life, some like Emily Dickinson because they constantly surprise me into thought, some like Alfonsina Storni because their human involvement returns me to my own passions. I could go on and on. And then there’s Shakespeare, of course.

Can you describe your creative process? e.g., how a poem comes into being? How much time do you devote to writing? How much do you edit? What is your favorite writing environment?

I love to write in a busy coffeehouse with people talking and laughing and Ella Fitzgerald or Joni Mitchell softly in the background. Spring and fall are times when I write most of my poems, something about the change of seasons I suppose… I go for weeks not writing much of anything and then the happy accident of a line or image will shock me into a writing jag that can last for two or three months. Happy times, those. I am an inveterate re-writer, and often change poems several times even after I have published them… Valéry once said, a poem is never finished, only abandoned. That tends to be true for me.

Splices is your most recent chapbook of poems.  Can you say something about this book? its title?  In Splices, each poem follows a similar form: fourteen lines, ten-eleven syllables, recurring rhymes, etc.  What made you choose this form?

I went through a period when I could not find my way into writing a poem at all. As an exercise, I began to write old fashioned rhymed sonnets with end-stopped lines, and before long I found myself loosening the form, using partial or no rhymes at all, and concentrating on tiny moments of perception, often spliced together, that opened up into meanings I could not really completely comprehend myself. I called these mainly fourteen line creations “nonnets,” and was pleased that writing them kept me busy for a while.

Your newest book of poems, Time Pieces will appear in print in February 2015. Can you describe this book? How is it different? What are the most significant differences between Splices and Time Pieces?

Time Pieces is a full-length book and is not as formally unified as Splices, comprising in large part a collection of poems written and published in journals over a period of almost ten years. An entire section of the book is dedicated to themes drawn from my Costa Rican childhood and extended family, something not seriously explored in Splices. Maybe the major difference is in the more traditional sense of rhythm that prevails in Time Pieces, as opposed to the run-on, head-first rush of images that typifies the chapbook. Still, much as I might imagine that one collection of my poems is clearly distinct from every other that I have penned, my friends tell me that they all unmistakably resemble me.

Actually, if I may be allowed a bit of shameless self-promotion, Time Pieces is now available for advance purchase directly from the publisher, Main Street Rag Publishing Company, at the considerably discounted price of $8.00 plus tax and mailing costs. Anyone interested in the book should go to following web site to check it out: http://mainstreetrag.com/bookstore/product/time-pieces/

What are your creative plans or projects you are currently working on?

I am currently working on a new poetry book, provisionally called “A Momentary Stay,” a title drawn from Robert Frost’s famous dictum the “a poem is a momentary stay against confusion”… I can’t really be sure how it will finally shape up, it’s still a work in progress, but I am exploring in this new work a more open structure in my poems, allowing them more air to breathe, so to speak.

Where people can find you? (Web, social media, etc.)

I am still a novice when it comes to social media, though I have recently been exploring Facebook and Linked-In and can be reached through those channels. Although I have retired from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, I still have a web site there which I intend to update one of these days, and it is reachable at http://llc.uncg.edu/faculty-staff/smith-soto/

Any additional comments?

No really, Joanna. I think we have pretty much exhausted the well for the time being! Thank you so much for your interest in my work.

April 23, 2015

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