December 17, 2015
Interview with Abraham Smith
by Lauren Howton
Abraham Smith hails from Ladysmith, Wisconsin, a neck of the woods he returns to every summer to chop wood and make hay. He has four books via Action Books: Ashagalomancy (2015), Only Jesus Could Icefish in Summer (2014), Hank (2010), and Whim Man Mammon (2007). With Shelly Taylor, he edited Hick Poetics (Lost Roads Press, 2015), an anthology of contemporary rural American poetry. He’s been the recipient of fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown, MA, and the Alabama State Council on the Arts. He teaches at the University of Alabama.
L: I wanted to ask if you could talk about the title of your newest poetry collection, Ashagalomancy. How did the title come to you and how does it relate to what you’re doing with poetry in the book?
A: at first, the title was pretty default: IN THE OLD DAYS. ashagalomancy arrived in my life one internetly wayward day. not sure just what i was looking up. but, i saw that word: ashagalomancy. i saw it and i felt it. it seemed to tap at my shoulder in the ways that old men in northern wisconsin tap maple trees. it means divination via animal bones. which was a perfect taxidermy to the book i’d created. as i had prophesied creation myths for my favorite/totemic animals, well, i found that ashagalomancy was a perfect dovetail.
L: Are there certain themes you find yourself revisiting in your poetry?
A: yes. animal life. vegetable life. i try to ride via sound in poems that liminal space where vulnerability and potency hinge.
L: What is your writing process like? Is there anything (day/space/drink/shirt/chair) that aids your productivity or creativity?
A: i make a particular motion with my hands on the keyboard. it’s not rote for me, writing isn’t. it’s ritual. i tend to be mostly a diurnal writer. some days i’ll revise a lot. some days i’ll add more sound here or there. motion begets emotion for me. so sometimes i’m guided back to poetry wordings by a walk or jog. mostly my creative process ends in the late morning most days. sometimes i’ll fiddle in the afternoons but morning is largely my expansive time.
L: I know that you spend the academic year in Tuscaloosa and your summers in Wisconsin, how does this change in place influence your writing? If you start a piece in one state, are you able to finish it in the other?
A: i don’t work in pieces. i work with great big bolts of fabric of sound. so the whole thing is always ongoing. i celebrate ongoingness. and regionalism. the provincial gaze is actually expansive not myopic. it’s interesting i am always writing at home on the farm in the summer but most of that doesn’t survive. what i take in there incubates and grows while i am back down south. so i write through rusk and taylor county up north but those spaces see their fruition here in tuscaloosa. i guess i am all the time agape up there and i let fly that farm life more vividly most vividly while here in the south.
L: Reading your poetry on page and attending a reading are two very different experiences, especially since you have such a distinctive style. I wonder if you could describe your reading style and maybe the importance of hearing poetry read aloud. Are there things that text can’t convey?
A: yes there are things text can’t convey. but we all must in our way embrace the rhetorical triangle. i try to care for my silent audience on the silent page. my performance process is also ritualized. i recognize performance as a going away. as a spiritual practice. as my best and most actualized self but as an enactment of selflessness. nevertheless there was a process. just as there is a process in meditation for example. and that performance process for me was an early on endeavoring to practice the craft of persona. to take on aspects of others’ performance stylings. to mask myself in order to allow myself ultimate egress. via greg brown. via chris whitley. via townes van zandt.
L: How has teaching influenced your writing? Positive/negative?
A: i teach like a talk and i talk like i write. so i think of teaching as the unveiling of my ardor for sound. we read thoreau yesterday. so many of those arrowing firebrand thoughts of his have saved lives and i love to commune with students over writing like thoreau’s: pure emergency; a chanticleer at the inner ear.
Lauren Howton is from Birmingham, Alabama. She is an MFA candidate at McNeese State University and the social media coordinator for The McNeese Review.