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Smith, Dave

SMITH, Dave


Nationality: American. Born: David Jeddie Smith, Portsmouth, Virginia, 19 December 1942. Education: University of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1961–65, B.A. in English 1965; College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia, 1966; Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, M.A. 1969; Ohio University, Athens, Ph.D. in English 1976. Military Service: United States Air Force, 1969–72; Staff Sergeant. Family: Married Deloras Mae Weaver in 1966; one son and two daughters. Career: Teacher of English and French, and football coach, Poquoson High School, Virginia, 1965–67; part-time instructor, Christopher Newport College, Newport News, Virginia, 1970–72, Thomas Nelson, Community College, Hampton, Virginia, 1970–72, and College of William and Mary, 1971; instructor, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, 1974–75; assistant professor, Cottey College, Nevada, Missouri, 1975–76; assistant professor, 1976–79, director of the creative writing program, 1976–80, and associate professor of English, 1979–81, University of Utah, Salt Lake City; associate professor of English, University of Florida, Gainesville, 1981; professor of English, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, 1981–90. Professor of English, 1990–98, and since 1998 Boyd Professor of English, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. Visiting Professor of English, State University of New York, Binghamton, 1980, and The Writing Seminars, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, Fall 1999. Editor, Sou'wester magazine, Edwardsville, Illinois, 1967–68; founding editor, Back Door magazine, Poquoson, Virginia and Athens, Ohio, 1969–79; poetry editor, Rocky Mountain Review, Temple, Arizona, 1978–80; columnist, American Poetry Review. Philadelphia, 1978–82. Since 1990 coeditor, Southern Review, Baton Rouge. Awards: Kansas Quarterly prize, 1975; Breadloaf Writers Conference John Atherton fellowship, 1975; Borestone Mountain award, 1976; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1976, 1981; Southern Poetry Review prize, 1977; American Academy award, 1979; Portland Review prize, 1979; Guggenheim fellowship, 1982; Lyndhurst fellowship, 1987–89; Virginia prize in poetry, 1989. Member: The Fellowship of Southern Writers, 1996. Agent: Timothy Seldes, Russell and Volkening Inc., 50 West 29th Street, New York, New York 10001. Address: Department of English, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70803, U.S.A.

Publications

Poetry

Bull Island. Poquoson, Virginia, Back Door Press, 1970.

Mean Rufus Throw Down. Fredonia, New York, Basilisk Press, 1973.

The Fisherman's Whore. Athens, Ohio University Press, 1974.

Drunks. Edwardsville, Illinois, Sou'wester, 1974.

Cumberland Station. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1976.

In Dark, Sudden with Light. Athens, Ohio, Croissant, 1977.

Goshawk, Antelope. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1979.

Dream Flights. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1981.

Blue Spruce. Syracuse, Tamarack, 1981.

Homage to Edgar Allan Poe. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1981.

In the House of the Judge. New York, Harper, 1983.

Gray Soldiers. Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Stuart Wright, 1983.

The Roundhouse Voices: Selected and New Poems. New York, Harper, 1985.

Three Poems. Child Okeford, Dorset, Words Press, 1988.

Cuba Night. New York, Morrow, 1990.

Night Pleasures: New and Selected Poems. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe Books, 1992.

Fate's Kite: Poems 1991–1995. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1996.

Floating on Solitude: Three Books of Poems. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1996.

Tremble. Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Black Warrior Review, 1997.

The Wick of Memory: New and Selected Poems 1970–2000. BatonRouge, Louisiana State University Press, 2000.

Recording: The Colors of Our Age, Watershed, 1988.

Novel

Onliness. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1981.

Short Stories

Southern Delights. Athens, Ohio, Croissant, 1984.

Other

Local Assays: On Contemporary American Poetry. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1985.

Editor, The Pure Clear Word: Essays on the Poetry of James Wright. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1982.

Editor, with David Bottoms, The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets. New York, Morrow, 1985.

Editor, The Essential Poe. New York, Ecco Press, 1990.

*

Manuscript Collection: Ohio University Rare Books Library, Athens, Ohio.

Critical Studies: By Robert DeMott, in American Poets since World War II edited by Donald J. Greiner, Detroit, Gale, 1980; "The Mind's Assertive Flow," in New Yorker, July 1980, and Part of Nature, Part of Us, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1981, both by Helen Vendler; by Alan Bold, in Times Literary Supplement (London), November 1981; The Giver of Morning: On the Poetry of Dave Smith (includes bibliography) edited by Bruce Weigl, Birmingham, Alabama, Thunder City Press, 1982; "Unfold the Fullness: Dave Smith's Poetry and Fiction" by Thom Swiss, in Sewanee Review (Tennessee), Summer 1983; "A Secret You Can't Break Free" by the author, in A World Unsuspected, edited by Alex Harris, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1987; "Southern Weather" by Helen Vendler, in New Yorker, 1 April 1990; interview with Dave Smith by Ernest Suarez, in Contemporary Literature (Madison, Wisconsin), 37(3), Fall 1996.

Dave Smith comments:

The poems I have written are attempts to conflate the lyric and the narrative. I believe we make meaning by telling a tale, and poetry without meaning does not exist. But poetry is also song. I have wanted to find meaning and song in the prosaic and ordinary moments of our lives, in the local place and in the colorfully immediate. I began by wanting a language in the poem that was neither excessively and artificially poetic nor slack and crude as most talk, in most circumstances, usually is. I wanted a rough, measured music swelling out of and defining a narrative occasion in the way a particular man's talk, once heard, carries the full weight and shape of idiosyncratic character. All this rests on my assumption that poetry emerges from the individual spirit in crisis, that poetry matters because it is the death wrestler, the courage giver. Poetry is an entertainment, but it exists to give us pleasure in all the ways enumerated by Dr. Samuel Johnson: the pleasures of memory, of landscape, of diversion, of identity, of event, and of knowledge. Such pleasures arrive only from the struggle with words to know what can be known, to reveal and reinforce the human bond, the human responsibility in this world. I would be pleased to think my poems had such an effect on readers.

*  *  *

Dave Smith began writing almost jealously, defiantly about "his" Virginia country, a peninsula surrounded by the Poquoson River and Chesapeake Bay. As he once said in an interview, he told stories about tough, hardworking watermen and women "because they seemed to me in some respects exemplars of virtues I admired"—stoic courage, passion, a certain dignity, and a certain integrity. He wanted to write poems like "The Seafarer," The Wanderer, and Beowulf and "not merely because of the tough and lonely language, the odd and visceral music."

Smith wrote initially about tidewater Virginia as if it were Troy, a place of elemental struggles and defeats. The man in "Hard Times, But Carrying On" is representative, his eyes "once blue and pure / as the Bay" now "turned thick with grim / trails of tasteless oil":

			Even so,
he works his hole with craft,
eats fish for lunch at noon and dots
 
it with a single swallow of rye, then
drags back hard on the surging
net, while all around the bags
crank up slack as widow's dugs in rain.

The surface of Smith's early poems is hard and tense, the people's struggles occasioned not by political or spiritual forces but by natural ones—wind, water, and sun. In "March Storm" and "Among the Oyster Boats at Plum Tree Cave" these forces are antagonists in a wild, passionate drama that leaves everyone exhausted, spent. In "Cumberland Station" the reader learns why people often leave that country with some relief. Later, in Goshawk, Antelope, Smith turned with equal vigor to the myths and perils of the far West, Wyoming and Utah, where he lived for several years during the late 1970s.

Subsequent collections, including a sequence called "Homage to Edgar Allan Poe" and another called "Men with/without Women"—with its echoes of Hemingway's early collection of stories—indicate quite different powers as a poet, among them a gift for lyricism. "Waking under Spruce with My Love," which begins another sequence, is representative of this later style:

I can feel the sheet luff on my thighs, the emptiness
cool and pleasant inside my body...
I think this must be the silence that love always is...

This group of poems ends fittingly with "Wedding Song," a witty, clear-eyed tribute to the occasion, reflecting again Smith's strong sense of history and topography.

During the 1980s Smith began to move from the tough regionalism of the early poems to a subtler language, with indebtedness to Louis Simpson and Richard Hugo, Robert Penn Warren and James Wright, all of whom Smith wrote about in Local Assays. A poem to Wright, written about the same time, is appropriately entitled "Out-side Martins Ferry, Ohio." "In the House of the Judge," the title poem of a collection published in 1983, employs a narrative structure similar to Warren's in exploring the spirit of place, a residence in a small Pennsylvania town. It is characteristic of Smith's later work, in which he confronts the reader with an unexpected and elemental question in the middle of the poem: "How many hours must a man watch snow shift the world before he sees it is only a dream / of useless hope stamped and restamped by the ash-steps of those we / can do no justice to except in loving them?" The long breath and casual structure of this sentence may pose problems for the reader, at times making one wonder where the poem is headed and if the writer is in control of his language and subject matter.

Many of the poems Smith chose for The Roundhouse Voices: Selected and New Poems were revised, and some were expanded. In the new poems for that volume and in Cuba Night—"Bible School" and "Southern Crescent," for example—he returns to the preoccupations of the early poems, to his native Virginia, and to experiences of family, early childhood, and adolescence as he moves toward maturity in a familiar landscape. As always, the voice in these newer poems is Smith's own, with a respect for place and for the best of what is new in contemporary language and song. Whatever he writes about takes on the look of his territory. Even "Pregnant," for example, that uncomfortable state of being, calls up references to a particular natural setting—"Think of the verbs by which they go: waddle, lumber, loll, / shudder, slide, shuffle, wander— / as if theirs is the aimless pulsing of summer-shallowed / streams through the mountain's / dreaming crowd of spruce."

Smith's collection Fate's Kite consists of eighty-nine thirteen-line poems in unrhymed, loosely iambic pentameter. These fine, bluesy poems act as containers for the poet's endless obsession with certain subjects—abandoned cars, compost piles, racial tension. This is the matter of his southern inscape, a matter that echoes other old places, Seamus Heaney's Ireland, for example, places such as the "leached childhood field you longed to hunt" ("Field Dressing"), where Smith seems to exact a spiritual longing of near peril: "Lord, admit / us, we lived here, almost happy, almost yours."

The Wick of Memory: New and Selected Poems, 1970–2000 marks Smith's early influences, most notably Robert Lowell, and his later progressions. Smith turns from meditations on oyster boats, where "the currents carried / cloisters of murk, / miracles that bloom / luminous and unseen, sweet things to be / brought up, bejeweled, culled from husks," to poems with quirky and surprising attention to the south. "The Holy Mother of Connecticut Avenue," the book's first poem, is probably one of the most electric: "death's hot shit piled up around us, a stinking smoke / coiled like BO out of skinless wires, on floorboards licked, / as if all we wanted was flame-touched at last." Smith's experiments and innovations with grammar and rhythm might be too risky at times, but the poems never fail to explore a deeply imagined world.

—Michael True and

Martha Sutro

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