Auburn University, Auburn, AL, served in various positions, including as faculty member, alumni writer in residence, and as coeditor of Southern Humanities Review, c. 1983-95; Washington and Lee University, Lexington, VA, faculty member and editor of Shenandoah, 1995—. National Historical Park, Harpers Ferry, WV, artist in residence, 1998; former resident at the Wurlitzer Foundation, the Millay Colony, and the Tyrone Guthrie Center at Annaghmakerrig, Ireland.
Recipient of several fellowships and grants, including from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, Arts International, and the Alabama State Council for the Arts; Pulitzer Prize for poetry nominations for Trespasser and The Cardinal Heart; Cohen Prize, Ploughshares; Richard Hugo Prize, Poetry Northwest; Guy Owen Prize, Southern Poetry Review; International Poetry Prize, Salmon Publishing, for Split the Lark; Theodore Hoepffner Award, Southern Humanities Review, 2001; Maurice English Prize, 2004, for The Hollow Log Lounge; corecipient, National Magazine Award in Fiction, Virginia Quarterly Review, 2006.
Finding the Path, Black Willow (Harleysville, PA), 1983.
Rural Route, Tamarack Editions (New York, NY), 1983.
From the High Dive, illustrated by Coco Gordon, Water Mark Press (Huntington, NY), 1983.
The Cardinal Heart, Livingston University Press (Livingston, AL), 1991.
Gristle, illustrated by C. Abbott Meader, Slow Loris Press (Fairhope, AL), 1996.
Hunter-Gatherer, Livingston Press (Livingston, AL), 1996.
Trespasser, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1996.
Split the Lark: Selected Poems, Salmon (Cliffs of Moher, Ireland), 1999.
Messenger, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 2001.
The Hollow Log Lounge, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 2003.
Brightwood, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 2004.
Faith (short stories), Black Belt Press (Montgomery, AL), 1995.
(Editor, with wife, Sarah Kennedy) Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets of Virginia, University of Virginia Press (Charlottesville, VA), 2003.
Uke Rivers Delivers (short stories), Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 2006.
Contributor to anthologies, including New Stories from the South, 2002, 2004, 2006; The Pushcart Prize, 2003, 2006; Best American Short Stories; and Best American Mystery Stories. Contributor to periodicals, including Atlantic Monthly, Georgia Review, and Gettysburg Review.
A university professor who has also served as editor of the respected literary journals Southern Humanities Review and Shenandoah, R.T. Smith is an award-winning poet and short-story writer. Influenced by the literary traditions of the American South, Smith often writes of Southerners in his fiction. His poems frequently concern the natural world. Commenting on the poet's typical themes, Brenda Galvin noted in a Hollins Critic review of Smith's collection Messenger that one obsession is "the discovery of the sacramental in the natural." The critic added that Smith is interested "in contemporary uses of myth, history, folklore, and proverb, and the rich inheritance of natural history as passed down from heroic exemplars like Bartram and Audubon," as well as having an "empathy and concern for victimized women."
Calling Smith a "first-rate, prolific poet well-rooted in his Southern origins," Edward C. Lynskey praised Smith's early collection Rural Route in the Hollins Critic. The fifty poems in this collection celebrate lower-class workers in the small towns of Alabama, and Lynskey observed that Smith avoids letting his poems indulge in "homespun philosophy and cracker wisdom." In the more recent collection The Hollow Log Lounge, Smith's verses take on the voices of characters in an Alabama bar, where they provide windows into their lives. Ned Balbo, writing in the Antioch Review, noted the author's evident "knowledge of human nature; his ear for speech and supposedly unpoetic diction leads to poems that perfectly capture character, place, and time."
Nature plays an important role in many of Smith's poems, such as those in the collection Hunter-Gatherer. "Combining muscular syntax with intricate verbal textures," related Ben Howard in his Poetry assessment, "Smith observes the particulars of the natural world, ponders the process of artistic creation, and probes the moral ambiguities of American history." The natural world intrudes in many of Smith's other collections, as well, such as Messenger, which is also one of his works that explores his Irish-Catholic heritage. "Nature's head-spinning forms and processes haunt Smith's verse, and he describes them in quasi-religious terms," noted Bill Christophersen in Poetry. In the title poem, Smith tells a fantasy sequence in which he is a ten-year-old boy visited by a spirit who tells him: "You must say your life to save it," thus establishing his life path as a poet. Through the collection, his subjects range widely from reflections on Ireland and the biblical story of Lot's wife, to tales of loss and celebration. "The excellence of this collection," asserted Christophersen, "begins with its fresh renderings and extends to the way many of the poems segue to form a whole." Galvin concluded that Messenger "is a deeply satisfying book." Another collection that has much to do with Ireland is Smith's Trespasser, which Howard characterized as "at once an American's exploration of Irish culture and a further engagement with Smith's abiding moral themes."
In his short stories, Smith features lower-class Southern characters who are often eccentric in some way. Each character faces his or her own unique problems, such as one man who is separated from his wife because he cannot understand her singular fascination with a comet, or the woman who is determined to save her nephew's soul in her own fanatically religious way. While appreciating the "sharp insights" offered by Smith into such characters, a Publishers Weekly critic found that "their futures loom so bleak it sometimes seems difficult, or too risky, to care about them." On the other hand, Booklist contributor Mary Carroll felt that "their dilemmas and humanity will speak to readers from every region." The short-story collection Uke Rivers Delivers contains stories told from the viewpoint of Smith's unconventional Southern characters. Many of the tales here concern the Civil War past that still haunts the American South, yet Smith adds humor by having his characters' flawed perspectives lampoon "the heroic Southern tradition the narrators believe themselves to be upholding," as one Kirkus Reviews writer explained. A Publishers Weekly reviewer felt that in this case Smith does not quite bring his characters fully to life, though the critic felt that he "does a credible job with his various players' down-home diction." The Kirkus Reviews contributor, however, concluded: "At their best, these flavorful pieces reside firmly in the tradition of great Southern storytelling."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Antioch Review, fall, 2004, Ned Balbo, review of The Hollow Log Lounge, p. 776.
Booklist, December 15, 1995, Mary Carroll, review of Faith, p. 687; March 1, 2001, Ray Olson, review of Messenger, p. 1219.
Hollins Critic, June, 1983, Edward C. Lynskey, review of Rural Route, p. 17; October, 2001, Brenda Galvin, review of Messenger, p. 20.
Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2006, review of Uke Rivers Delivers, p. 698.
Poetry, June, 1998, Ben Howard, reviews of Trespasser and Hunter-Gatherer, p. 168; January, 2002, Bill Christophersen, review of Messenger, p. 217.
Publishers Weekly, November 6, 1995, review of Faith, p. 84; January 10, 2000, review of Split the Lark: Selected Poems, p. 60; August 14, 2006, review of Uke Rivers Delivers, p. 182.
Cortland Review,http://www.cortlandreview.com/ (February 27, 2007), J.M. Spalding, interview with R.T. Smith.
R.T. Smith Home Page,http://www.rtsmith.org (February 27, 2007).