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R.T. Smith’s Book of New and Selected Poems Reflects the Arc of his Career

R.T. Smith’s new book of poetry, “In the Night Orchard: New and Selected Poems” (Texas Review Press, 2014), reflects the arc of his exploration as a poet for the past 33 years, during which he has been acclaimed as “a 21st-century master” (David Huddle). The Georgia Review calls him “one of the most vital voices in American poetry,” and describes his writing as “a richly metaphorical style that encourages the reader to proceed slowly and savor each carefully placed word.”

“I started off writing how a lot of young poets did then and are still doing today, kind of narcissistically—’I went out today, and I did this, and it was meaningful, and aren’t I sensitive and clever with language?’,” recalled Smith.

Smith knew, however, that he didn’t want to write about the nuances of culture or politics. He liked to cut down trees while observing wildlife, worked in New Mexico one summer, and on the Appalachian Trail he built shelters. He described the ensuing poems as “not bookish but filled with dogs, gardens, horses and axes.”

“I just followed the smell of the most recent polecat that went through the yard to see where it went, and I watched the seasons,” said Smith. “But eventually it wasn’t enough for me, as a mature reader, unless there was a cultural context. So I began to expand and, as my poems became stories, I began to really like what I was doing and to get some attention for it.”

Smith continued, “The first poet I ever read who did that was Robert Browning, who wrote about Victorian England and artists in the Renaissance and aristocrats engaged in shameful behavior. His poems tell stories, but they often rhyme, and they are in meter and stanzas and make allusions and elegant metaphors. So I went back to Browning and said, ‘That’s what I want to do’.”

Of the poets who influenced Smith, perhaps James Dickey had the most galvanizing effect. “I went to hear him give a reading when I didn’t know much about poetry,” remembered Smith. “But when I walked out of that auditorium, I knew that writing poetry was what I wanted to do. I was a schoolteacher at the time, and within two weeks I had handed in my resignation, effective the end of the year, and started applying to graduate schools.”

Smith has never taken a creative writing class, and explained that it forced him to follow other, probably less efficient ways, to discover his own style. In an interview with Southern Quarterly (Spring, 2014), he said, “I’ve never been in a bona fide poetry workshop. Trial and error, catch and release, hide and seek: those were my methods as I learned about prosody.”

Although he has an undergraduate degree in philosophy and an M.A. in American literature, Smith said he doesn’t throw his learning around and sometimes tries to conceal it in his poetry. In fact, he said, he suspects that, because of the subjects of his poems, people find it easy to think of him as “another hick poet.”

Smith said that of all his poems, he would most want to be remembered by the title poem of his new book, “The Night Orchard.” “It shows me at my most unguarded about having real country farm roots on the one hand and being educated on the other hand, to the point that my family will say college ruined me.”

Smith continued, “Yes, I grew up on a chicken and pig farm, but I also did other things and learned other things, and I don’t think they are incompatible. In the poem, I talk about being in the woods, seeing the deer, trying to understand how they are like us, but I also talk about the Bible and St. Augustine’s confessions.”

Smith sees three main ingredients in his poetry: Southern culture, the relationship of human beings to the natural world and historical narrative. At this point in his career, he also includes “talking to the dead.”

The three penultimate poems in “Night Orchard” feature Mary Lincoln as the speaker. One, “Summoning Shades,” refers to the spiritualism that Lincoln pursued. “Why wouldn’t she, with the Civil War going on, and so many people dying so fast, and so many of those left behind who wanted to talk with them,” said Smith. “She was trying to conjure up her dead children and then her dead husband.”

Smith said he has been summoning dead artists, writers and soldiers from the Civil War for the past 15 years, as well as his own personal dead—grandparents and great-grandparents. He has titled a poetry-book-in-progress “Summoning Shades” because it begins with the Mary Lincoln poems and goes on to assemble his other poems about the dead.

“I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to find publishers and readers for my work for a long time,” said Smith. “One of the things that I think contributes to, maybe not happiness but satisfaction in the world, is to have work that you like and to be able to do a lot of it. And writing poems is work that I like.”

Smith won the 2013 Carole Weinstein Prize in Poetry. He has twice won the Library of Virginia Poetry Award, for “Messenger” (2002) and “Outlaw Style: Poems” (2008), and is nominated this year, for “The Red Wolf: A Dream for Flannery O’Connor.” The award will be presented on Oct. 18.

His poetry has been published in “Best American Poetry,” and his stories have appeared in “Best American Mystery Stories,” “The Pushcart Prize Anthology,” “New Stories from the South” and “Best American Short Stories,” as well as in three earlier collections.

His books of fiction are “Faith,” “Uke Rivers Delivers,” “The Calaboose Epistles” and “Sherburne.” He has edited “Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review” since 1995 and was named writer-in-residence at W&L in 2009, where he also teaches courses on fiction writing and literature.