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NewsJul 2, 2018

Taking a risk with honest poems

Mass Cultural Council fellow Aaron Smith urges fellow poets to resist giving away their verse and voice on social media

Artsy pick of Aaron Smith reading from a book, taken through a glass case at a museum.

Aaron Smith is the recipient of the Mass Cultural Council Fellowship Award for poetry.

“When I was putting the application together, I asked a friend what poems I should include,” Smith says. “He told me to submit my most honest poems, the poems that really reflect me and my work.

“Some of poems I submitted were pretty vulnerable, so I hope that openness, plus my craft, spoke to the judges.”

As an associate professor at Lesley, his areas of expertise include creative writing, poetry, popular culture and gender.

“As a teacher and a writer, I hone both crafts every day, and am committed to helping my writing and literature students enter into the public experience of what is often perceived as a solitary undertaking,” says Smith, who holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Pittsburgh.

We were eager to hear more about Smith and his acclaimed verse, as well as some of the elements of his fellowship.

Aaron Smith headshot in black and white

You won $12,000. Do they just cut a check to you, no strings attached? Or does the money have to be spent for a specific purpose?

The money was actually deposited to my bank account! It is "no strings," but the intent is to support an artist in their creative projects. I hope use it to assist me in future projects.

What to you is unique about poetry as a means of expression? I like that poetry can take different forms, which makes me able to explore the best way to express what I want to say. Spending time revising and experimenting with forms is as much a part of the process as the initial writing.

How did you apply for the Fellowship? Did you submit a number of your poems?

Yes, I had to submit a sample of poems. The whole process is anonymous, so the judges only have the poems to guide them as they make decisions.

Do you have common themes in your poetry that you keep coming back to?

I find myself returning to what it means to be a gay man from a rural, working class environment. As I get older, I also find myself investigating my childhood more.

How long have you been writing poetry? How long have you been writing poetry seriously?

I wrote my first poem in 1990. I remember because I still have it. It is terrible, so nobody will ever see it.

I got serious about poetry in college when I studied with the then-Poet Laureate of West Virginia, Irene McKinney. I began my MFA program in 1996, so that is probably when I really invested.

Part of being an artist is the silence, listening to the internal voices without public opinion.
Aaron Smith, Associate Professor

What is your advice to poets, whether or not they are your students?

Enjoy the process and not just the result. We are in a time of social media and instant gratification. I tell my students not to give their ideas away so quickly over Twitter or other social media.

Part of being an artist is the silence, listening to the internal voices without public opinion. Poets should protect their poems from wide consumption until they are finished.

Who are some of the poets who inspire you?

Terrance Hayes, Diane Seuss, Denise Duhamel, Lucille Clifton and David Trinidad.

In the poem “Boston,” you intertwine themes of longing, sexual energy (as in the club) and sacred concepts (“holy” “holy ghost” and “still, small voice”). Could you speak to this a little bit?

When I first started writing poetry, I used to compartmentalize all the parts of myself. Poems that dealt with the body went one place, poems that investigated religion went another place, etc.

In graduate school the poet Toi Derricotte said to me, “Why do you keep everything so separate? What would happen if you let all the parts of your experience into the same poems?” I took her advice, as scary as it was, and still try to do that as much as possible in all my poems.

“Still Life with Antidepressants” – one of my first thoughts is that it describes a suicide attempt (the spilling, emptying, consolidating of pill bottles, and suicide brings life to a standstill), as well as the idea of making a still life by artistically rendering the pills into words (though not quite enough for “happy.”) I also notice the jeux d’esprit with “light lights,” “drill drills,” “live life,” which, while potentially confusing on the page, makes perfect sense if one hears the words.

Do you play with those consecutive noun-verb pairings often in your work? (The “dog digs” is a savory twist on this.) I also love the line “To get rid of the thing requires entering the brain.” The line reminds me a bit of “Fantastic Voyage,” or even just the concept of it being equally difficult to try to remember or try to forget something.

That poem was a bit of experiment. I was dealing with difficult content, suicidal ideation, which my third book “Primer” really investigates. Since content alone does not excite me as an artist, I like to give myself a formal challenge when writing. That is how those noun-verb pairings came to be. I always try to find some kind of craft element that engages me when writing.

Not sure where to land on “Brad Pitt”: On one hand, it seems scornful of a movie idol perhaps complaining about his life, or simply “having it all,” but at the end, maybe the chain-smoking reveals the protagonist’s sense that even the “perfect” have wounds to medicate, too?

I write a lot about celebrity culture since we are so saturated with it. This poem was a challenge to myself to see if I could write about several male celebrities I saw on the cover of a magazine.

For the poem to be interesting, it had to be about something other than Brad Pitt. I tried to get into the idea of body issues, particularly with men. I think gay male culture is so body-conscious that I wanted to critique happiness, or sadness, beyond the surface. This is one of my most popular poems. It floats around the internet.