Like a Dog a Rabbit Through the Underbrush
Abraham Smith follows the sonic sense.
Abraham Smith’s Destruction of Man (Third Man Books, 2018) is a book-length poem about small-scale farming and the broken nostalgia of a modern rural soundscape. Smith is a poet and farmer who writes of farming and family in a familiar county as told through “tractor blister song,” “rockpile country silence,” and “the invention of the wheel tied up umbilically.” Tyehimba Jess described Destruction of Man as “a compass setting toward music caught between the hungry teeth of vole and buried bone of river,” and Ada Limón described Smith’s work as “part song, part guttural wail into the American rural landscape.” Smith is the author of four poetry collections: Ashagalomancy (Action Books, 2015); Only Jesus Could Icefish in Summer (Action Books, 2014); Hank (Action Books, 2010); and Whim Man Mammon (Action Books, 2007). His creative work has been recognized with fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown, Massachusetts, and the Alabama State Council on the Arts. Smith will be reading his poetry in Portland, Oregon, on Saturday, June 9th, with poets Jamondria Marnice Harris and Dan Hoy at the High and Low Art Space and Gallery. —Thea Prieto
Thea Prieto: There is a lot to admire in Destruction of Man, both in content and form, and your photos, scattered throughout the pages, create a particularly immersive experience. There are also recordings of your poetry readings linked to Destruction of Man, making your book much more than a single object. What do these multimedia forms say and do for Destruction of Man?
Abraham Smith: Thanks for these kindest words, Thea. Yes, I hope these myriad ways in trace the broader bell and contour and constellation and nostril of the person. Reading is companionship. I am sure there’s a lot of carotid in any book of poems. One leaves the window or side door of a poem book with a very good sense of the jotter’s dog and cat and houseplant and dust. Unless of course the book comes and goes up the eyeball and through the brain without any stabs or bites of eros and thanatos. Anyhow I hope my book is an eros/thanatos teeter-totter-tater-tot. And the apple didn’t fall far: my mom paints and my dad is a photographer and poet. By I blood adore to picture. Plus I am a pretty rabid performer—yowl-sweat and stomp-spittle aflyin. So I was supremely jazzed when Third Man asked to dial in photos and a flexi-disc. A simile is a hand: yanks you elsewhere. And there are a few thousand of those sorts of pawin pirouettes in this book. But ol Virgil, if he’s in here at all, in among these crooked woods, well, he just might be that cross-eyed chicken pic. In wayward cluckers I trust. Or to sidle a sidestep farther: if you’ve ever watched a chicken, like a napkin full of wind, gust out across a yard, then you know what you are in for in Destruction of Man.
Prieto: I remember the cross-eyed chicken, and also the photo of the key in the ignition with the frayed twine-fob presumably hung around the driver’s neck. It brought me back to a few lines earlier in your book: “‘ractor slow enough to / belabor anatomy again.” These lines, and many other parts of Destruction of Man, often reminded me of the sort of thinking that manual labor can inspire. After enough hours of chopping wood or clearing orchards on my family’s farm, my brain is usually done thinking about went right or wrong with the day, week, year, and beyond that thinking are stranger, more pronounced impressions of the world. I’d be interested to learn about your own kind of labor creation and your writing process in relationship to farming.
Smith: That’s marvelous that you chop as swell well. Is liminal the most overused word among writers in kitchens at parties? Can you hear the trite trike of it, hear it scuttling and jouncing down the gravel road? But it’s true. There’s that heightened sense of things at the computer. Things maybe sometimes get pinched there. Strained and cooped and stooped. Sort of that expression on Bailey’s face in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Ah but it’s in those liminal spaces—on a tractor, on the woodpile—when the eyes sort of relax into a little reptilian chill and the brain widens wide as a hangar in the Aleutian Islands and these freer gusts freshen through, from toe to scalp tip: and the body percolates the embodied mind and images and soundscapes set roots and gurgle up. Ah then I am known to be seen by a storm-ragged robin up on the pine up on the nest, seen sort of doing a weird little skitter at around 17mph towards the Shackteau where my computer is like, Uhoh, here comes that dear weirdo Smithy, again.
Prieto: [Laughs] Have to move quick for Eros and Thanatos! Do you find, after skittering and writing down what’s been percolating, that your words need little or much editing? Your poetry reads to me like a seamless stream of consciousness, and I couldn’t help but wonder if your poems ever pitch themselves out of the liminal and onto the page fully realized.
Smith: Thanks so! That’s a mix always. I devise these sonic storms and saliva sillystrings and sometimes yes what spills turns to cement asap. But often I am busybeeing back in there, wedging more soundshine into the edges. Writing for me is an unmaking. I try to bend the branch a quarter millimeter from break. It’s like I am in a popsiclestick chariot yoked to 13 Norwegian forest cats. And my reins are skim milk dental floss. And twelve of the cats are having an excellently bad day.
“I write for the sake of song, if you’ll allow Townes Van Zandt to stagger in stage left. And I pledge allegiance to sound.”
Prieto: Writing at its finest. And after the unmaking, is audience something you consider during your writing or editing processes? Audience is a subject I find myself considering most when writing rural stories. My concerns usually cook down to questions of representation—am I writing for or about the people and landscapes of my home? If not for them, then who?
Smith: I write for the sake of song, if you’ll allow Townes Van Zandt to stagger in stage left. And I pledge allegiance to sound. I follow the sonic sense like a dog a rabbit through the underbrush. I am very proud to be from Rusk County. And I am deeply grateful for the chance to graft some Rusk County culture history upon the papyrus. What a divided country. I know my mangy poetry rust scraps ain’t going to suture it. But just like that cat carrying fieldmice to the doormat I am grateful to ambassador a little for the rural among the urbane. Book as hick votive candygram. Maybe we all have a dear friend up all featherweight or anvilapron upon us while we write. Do you? I do. Steve Timm. Care to weird your ear? He(a)r(e): Timm. Steve and I sit on his deck every summer. And there among the sibilance of a vodka tonic or nine we unspool the year’s trove back and forth, forth and back, chevy and ford. He’s my touchstone. I poem hammer all the year with the hope that when I drag my sounds along his ears and 12point buckwide brain, he’ll say, mmm, gazooks, yeow, hmmmoo, mphh, mmm, good shit.
Prieto: [Laughing] Steve seems like a most excellent friend, and good for sound dragging especially. And I can think of a few one-or-nine friends who hang out in my mind while I write, though I hear my dad the most while I’m editing—he was pretty good at making jokes out of bad situations, which is one way to describe my first drafts. Earlier you mentioned the artists in your family, Rusk County, and of course Steve Timm, as inspirations, and reading your “crows for pets” poetry, I was reminded briefly of the hog in Frank Stanford’s “The Snake Doctors.” Are there any poets in particular whose work inspired you while writing Destruction of Man or any poets who you would suggest to readers approaching your work for the first time?
Smith: Wonderful, as per your dad. If we are able to patient our way, see the glint even, in among dark murk—surely that’s a big old barometer for character. Stanford, absolutely. Craig Arnold led me to Frank. And Steve Timm did too. When I read him I found we shared a lexicon. Throttled lines similarly. And all. So finding Frank was like swabbing the maw and sending it off in a vial and having it come back ½ Frank. Through the Stanfordian consanguinity, I emailconnected with CD Wright. Through whom I found certain kinds of peaces and swaggers and qtip torches I’ve carried with me ever since. As for others, I was raised on Kerouac and Dylan Thomas and Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan and Greg Brown and Roethke. Anyone soundy is a good way in: so Ronald Johnson and Fred Moten. Any emergency is a good way in: so Sandra Simonds and Safiya Sinclair.
Abraham Smith is the author of four previous poetry collections: Ashagalomancy (Action Books, 2015); Only Jesus Could Icefish in Summer (Action Books, 2014); Hank (Action Books, 2010); and Whim Man Mammon (Action Books, 2007). In 2015, he released Hick Poetics (Lost Roads Press), a co-edited anthology of contemporary rural American poetry and related essays. His creative work has been recognized with fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown, MA, and the Alabama State Council on the Arts. Smith is an Assistant Professor of English at Weber State University, Ogden, Utah.