AN INTERVIEW WITH RON SMITH
Mary Flinn: This is Mary Flinn, one of the editors of Blackbird, and I'm sitting at VCU [Virginia Commonwealth University] with Ron Smith, who was kind enough to give us a poem for Blackbird Number Two, a poem about Greece. Ron has written with some regularity about places to which he has traveled, and we're going to try to talk a little bit about the role that travel plays to a degree in poems and literature.
Thinking of the old line of "There is no frigate like a book," there's that kind of travel. There's the travel when the poet or the author goes somewhere like Johnson or Boswell and reports back on the journey. There are different kinds of travel in literature. What does travel do for you as a poet? Does it stoke your muse-flame, or what?
Ron Smith: You know, when you asked me to think about this, I thought, "Well, this is a good thing to think about," because I haven't actually thought it all through, either in my own work or in the books and the poems I read. Then, as I was driving down, I thought, "Uh-oh, I might actually figure this out during the interview, and then I won't have to write about it or travel anymore," so I'm sort of hoping I still won't quite know what I'm talking about when we finish, if you know what I mean.
Emily Dickinson's a good place to start, since she never traveled. She left New Englandwhat? Twice in her life, I think, something like that. It seems to me that writers travel probably for the same reason everybody else does, and that's to make the world new, to be able to see things again. Familiarity makes you blind, and you can't even see your own neighborhood until you come back from a trip. And then you see what your yard looks like, and you see what your neighbor looks like, and you didn't realize how hunched over he was before you left, and that sort of thing.
So I think in general I travel to . . . Usually I have a destination. I'm sort of a pilgrim traveler, I'm doing a pilgrimage usually. A very skeptical pilgrimage. I like Mark Twain's approach to the Holy Land as a pilgrim. He had almost nothing positive to say as he traveled through the Holy Land. But he went there as a pilgrim to a sacred site, either without or with the quotation marks, and he did have some real spiritual experiences. And so I go, hoping to find a kind of sacred site. If you call the Appian Way, the Via Appia, sacred, I've gone there three times in particularDolores and Ijust to see it and to trace it, thinking that we'd find something ultimate. And knowing we might not.
MF: What kind of ultimate in particular on the Appian Way?
RS: Well, I don't know. Italy is one place I go every chance I get, partly because it has so many layers of time, and you can see the layers of time just by looking down the street, down the road. But partly, space travel, travel through space, is time travel, I think. Trying to see Terracina the way Horace saw it, but knowing you can't, knowing you can only get a glimpse of it from time to time. Or, not too far off the Appian Way, the Lake of AvernusLago D'Avernoand Cumae. Being in the cave at Cumae was as chilling, as thrilling, as I hoped it would be the first time.
MF: Did the sibyl speak?
RS: The sibyl did not speak. The sibyl left behind some strong urine smell in a couple of parts of the cavesome of her henchmen. But, you know, I didn't know I'd had this same reaction until I read, after I'd been there, about Mark Twain going to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. He was just angry the whole time he was in Israel, I think, at the desecration and commercialism, and he went into the Holy Sepulcher angry because, mainly because, if I remember the passage correctly, the Christians needed Muslim guards to keep them from fistfights, fighting over the square of the church, etc. So he went in there, as I went in there, already with a chip on my shoulder, having to pack in with all the tourists and go up to the place where you're actually going to see the spot of the Crucifixion, and there are people there with video cameras and all kinds of flash-cameras and jostling and lots of picture-taking. There's something very magical about it, very holy and powerful. And I got back and read that Twain had the same experiencejust, out of the blue, kind of sideswiped him.
MF: There is something interesting about those sites that have been either pilgrimage or tourist sites for a very long time, that you can go to places and see the initials of people from 1800. Does that fascinate you too?
RS: Yes. As I say, I'm almost alwaysI hadn't thought about this until the last couple of daysbut I'm going there as a pilgrim but always skeptical. When I went to Canterbury, I thought, "Well, this will be just overrun with tourists," because you always want to be the only tourist there. But one of the wonderful things about Canterbury is that it's been a tourist site for so many hundreds of years, and so has Athens, and so has Rome, and so has Cumae. And, yeah, there is something really wonderful about being the millionth visitor. And you know it because you've read that Byron carved his name on the temple at-what's the name of that place? Sounion. And there are famous writers' names carved in the window at Shakespeare's birthplace in Stratford. I always see those things with irony and humor, and yet you have these moments, these wonderful moments of, I don't know, peak experiences.
MF: Where you're seeing the same things that they saw. It can be quite fascinating, I know. When we went to the Peche Merle Caves outside Cahors [France] a couple years ago, where they had the handprints of the painters and you could, if you were allowed, put your handprint where that print was and sort of touch it across those years. Do you think it's things like that that provoke the poems, or is it just the differences? Are the poems a conversation with the other people who've been there? Thinking of Greece, a conversation with Homer?
RS: For all the traveling I've done, the many hours and hours of travel, I've written very few poems, very few lines really, about that. It's very frustrating. I've been going to Italy since 1990 and filling up notebooks with what I assumed would be poems, and, year after year, I couldn't get poems out of them for some reason. Well, I wrote drafts, but they were all sort of travelogues or funny anecdotes or something. They didn't seem worthy of more than a few drafts. So I don't know. It seems to me that there has to be a certain distance between me and the experience before I can actually see it clearly. So part of the reason I'm writing a lot of poems about Italy now is that the trips were so long ago. There's a kind of mist of time between the "now" of the writing or the re-reading the journal and the "then" of the experience, and somehow the gap in time makes me able to see the experience more clearly. I'm not quite sure how that works. I'm not sure I've answered your question.
MF: But thinking of the poem "Greece" that we [Blackbird] have and the poem aboutI think it's Ithaca ["To Ithaca"]that you read here a couple of years ago at the [Virginia] Museum [of Fine Arts], and I think it's been published by The Georgia Review, those are both Greek poems. When one thinks of Ithaca, one immediately thinks of Odysseus . . .
RS: Yes. Homer is the first travel poet, and Odysseus the first real traveler in literature, I suppose. He has a very specific mission: he wants to get home. And he doesn't wanthe just wants to be home and be normal, if Odysseus could ever be normal. But he doesn't want to be immortal. He's offered immortality, he's offered all kinds of magical things along the way, but he just wants to get home. And yet he's not home. And that tension, I think, between being the person you are from the place you are and being in a strange place . . . I haven't written about England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales. I've got notebooks and travel notes and journals, but I haven't really written poems about those things. I think I will in the future. But the one trip, very short trip, we took to Israel, I could write about right away. And I wrote a number of poems about being in Israel. Greece is a little bit similar. I guess they're both exotic enough to me that I can see them more clearly, and they stick in the mind, and they kind of worry parts of my mind and sensibility so that I have to write about them. And keep writing about them.
MF: Do you feelparticularly thinking of Italy and the number of English writers or English-writing poets and writers who have written about Italy in one way or another, from Charles Wright, who's up the road [in Charlottesville, Virginia], to Ezra Pound to a fellow who was reading at a conference I was at a couple of summers ago after he'd been to Venice, and a fiction writer said afterwards, "There ought to be a law against letting these poets go to Italy and write these poems!"
RS: Especially Venice!
MF: Do you feel them sort of crowded in with you if you are thinking about writing about Italy?
RS: I don't. I guess I haven't read a lot of what I consider to be a lot of wonderful poems about Italy, although every writer has to go there practically and has to write about it for the reasons we've already talked about. Because you can see and feel layers and layers of history, century upon century, and they all seem to be right there.
MF: Dante was right there too.
RS: Well, you know, I was thinking about Dante as I drove over here.
MF: Speaking of journeys.
RS: Speaking of journeys and travel writers. He's a travel writer. And not only is he, the character, traveling through Hell and Purgatory and then finally Paradise, but he's constantly comparing the mountains in Hell to the mountains in Italy or the cliff here to the cliff outside Ferrara or some such place. But his was a forced journey, a bit like Odysseus's, and the very fact that they don't want to travel but they're traveling creates a certain charge in their descriptions and in their response to the landscape and to the world in front of them.
I think part of the tradition we're talking about here is people north of the Alps being able to cross the Alps and be in the Mediterranean. I think that's a lot, has a lot to do with it. There's something wonderful about being in that part of the world anyway, especially if you're an Englishman, I'm sure, or a German or those Scandinavian writers, Ibsen and those people, who had to go to Rome and such places. You can live outside, which you can't do north of the Alps. And that creates another thing about Italy or suggests another thing about Italy, that I think I need. I'm so puritanical, I need to be around the Italians because they know how to live and how to enjoy being alive. One of the things I've learned about the Italians is that that old stereotype I grew up withthe Italians, you know, they couldn't win a war if it were given to them, they're so inefficientit's just completely wrong. I think the Italians could conquer the world if they wanted to.
MF: They did once.
RS: That's right! But those were the Romans, and most Italians would say, "We're not Romans. There's no connection." But they don't want to; they want to make the best pasta within a thousand miles and the best life and the best shoes and even the best art. There are many Italies really, but in general I think that's true. You go to Italy to learn how to be alive, not just to see the Caravaggioswhich does help you to be alive.
MF: Where have you traveled lately?
RS: Speaking of poets, because I was doing a lot of reading in Byron and Shelley, I felt I had to go to the Gulf of Poets, and so we were in Liguria this past summer. Liguria is wonderful. It's one of the places I've sort of stayed away from because it seemed like such an obvious place to go. Sort of like Paris. You don't want to go to Paris; everybody goes to Paris. When I finally went to Paris, I realized what a wonderful, wonderful city it was.
But we went there, and I had the same experience with the Gulf of Poets, which is named that apparently because of Shelley and Byron living there, that I had when I first went to Walden Pond to make the pilgrimage to the site of Thoreau's cabin. Pulled up there in August, saw, not entirely to my surprise, that there was a beach with four lifeguards sitting up on lifeguard chairs. In a fatalistic frame of mind, I walked up to the first lifeguard and asked, "Excuse me, could you tell me where the site of Thoreau's cabin is?" Knowing that she was going to say exactly what she said: "Who? Oh, I don't know," she said. "Ask her. She's been here longer than I have." So I asked the head lifeguard, and she had a vague idea that there was something like that around to the right; it was about half a mile away.
I think of Casa Magni where Shelley was living when he died and the descriptions I've read all my life of the sea washing right up into the lower floor. It's so desolate and isolated, so I had to see this house where Shelley and Mary Shelley and everybody else that came by were living. And there it is, right on a beach now. Actually there's a road in front of it, then a beach. Almost none of the Italians who were there knew why it was called the Gulf of Poets or what that building back there was. And there's something wonderful about that, I think. There's something about that combination of the past and the present and the frivolous attitude toward the past, which is not entirely frivolous, but is just vital and alive, that is wonderful.
I didn't like Rome the first time I went to Rome, by the way. I had a reactionI remembered reading what Joyce said about Rome. He hated Rome; he got out of Rome as soon as he could. He said that Rome reminded him of a man who made his living by displaying the corpse of his grandmother. I didn't think of that till I was there overnight on a trip down from the Italian Alps, and I had a very negative reaction to Rome, and then I remembered what Joyce had said about it. But it was partly becauseby the way, a lot of people have that reaction to Rome on their first trip, apparentlybut now Rome is probably my favorite big city in the world.
MF: This is Mary Flinn, one of the editors of Blackbird, and I'm sitting at VCU with Ron Smith, who was kind enough to give us a poem for Blackbird Number Two.
Let's go back to Ezra Pound, who had certainly sent many American poets to Italy. Didn't you go to an institute one summer and sort of study Pound in Italy?
RS: My first trip to Italy was to Merano, to what they call the Ezra Pound Center for Literature at Brunnenburg Castle, where Pound's daughter Mary de Rachewiltz lives. And Olga Rudge was there too when I was there, in 1990. After Pound was released from St. Elizabeth's [Hospital in Washington, DC, where Pound was committed for insanity], he went there first, you know, after he crossed the ocean, he went to Merano to Brunnenburg Castle to live with his daughter, and then he packed up and went to Venice, which is the city heI assumeloved the most. I went to Italy to live in the Alps, thinking I was living in Italy. It's technically Italy, but it's more Austrian, I think, than it is Italian. To study Pound, really to spend the whole summer reading The Cantos and trying to figure out what I'd missed in The Cantos, it was wonderful, not only to live up in the Alps, but also to get down into Italy proper and see Italy for the first time. Speaking of travel, Pound traveled all of his life.
MF: Did he have a home?
RS: I guess the place that was really his home of all the places was Rapallo, which is right there in Liguria, where we were this summer. And I had that same experience in Rapallo when I went there in 1990I had a guidebook, but I couldn't find the Pound sites, and so I would ask people, you know, hotel clerks, and they'd be standing right next to the building I was looking for, but they didn't know it was there. And it had a plaque on the wall very clearly. But Pound loved Italy, there's no question about it. He seemed to settle down in Rapallo. I don't know how this is related to his psychological problem.
MF: Or his political problem.
RS: Yeah, I think it was mainly a psychological problem. Pound was very perceptive and thoughtful, and how could he think Mussolini was a brilliant man and a great leader? That's a sign right there that he wasn't right, I think, because I don't know anyone else, any other thoughtful person, who has come to that conclusion. And Pound was in a perfect position to see that he was wrong, but something in his head wouldn't let him see he was wrong. I don't think of The Cantos the way a lot of Poundians do. It's a book to open up and flip through from time to time and, of course, go back to certain Cantos and read them over and over againthe Pisan Cantos are wonderful. But I think it's really his poetic notebook. He's jotting down practically everything in there. I don't often feel a great deal of pity for Pound, but there are two times when I really do, and that's when he was treated so badly after he was captured and was kept in the cage-you know, he was sixty years old or so and kept in a cage, outside, near Pisa. And the other thing that really makes me feel pity for him is I think that realization at the end of his life that it had not worked out, that The Cantos were a big pile of fragments and what he thought he had been doing he had not doneand that's a terrible realization, I think, for someone like Pound, a fifty-year poem.
MF: Yeah. Thinking of travel, I'm going back to the Odysseythat epic poetry and travel seem to be tied together, most of the time. You could call The Cantos an attempt at an epic poem, I guess. And do you think that that's one of those desires of many poets when they travelis to sort of put together in their minds their own epic?
RS: Well, I'm sure. I certainly never thought I was writing an epic when I wrote "To Ithaca," although the title might suggest that. Pound, being the kind of gigantically ambitious poet he was, felt that he wouldn't be the ultimate Pound-poet unless he'd written an epic, since the epic is the ultimate form, I suppose. But I don't think he wanted to do the travel part exactly. It was intellectual travel in the case of Pound, rather than emotional travel or spiritual travel for the most part, or even travel through space. And I think that's one of the things that makes it [The Cantos] a series of lyrics and fragments of lyrics rather than an epic poem. Because I do think an epic, despite Walt Whitman, does have to be a narrative. At least there has to be a narrative spine that pulls everything through and together.
MF: Thinking of that, in this issue of Blackbird, have you been to Norman Dubie's poem [The Spirit Tablets at Goa Lake]?
RS: I haven't. No.
MF: It is an epic.
RS: Is it? How long is it?
MF: We have just the first section [in this issue, "The Book of the Jewel Worm"], and it's fairly long. It's also set at some time in the future and involves travel. So this is an issue that has a number of oddly connected pieces, that little serendipitous thing that will happen sometimes, that involve travel.
RS: But it's not touring travel, it's travel with a destination?
MF: No, travel with a destination that is partly mental or spiritual travel, because it's talking about space rather thanreally limitless space and places in spacerather than any terrestrial travel.
RS: How wonderful.
MF: And also ties into Tibetan Buddhism.
RS: The travel across the landscape is clearly travel into yourself if it's interesting. I think that's what poetry does relentlessly, line after line, good poetry and great poetrybreaks down the barrier between the inner and the outer.
MF: Who besides Mark Twain have you looked at who has said something to you along those lines, particularly poetsbesides Pound?
RS: I don't know. Herman Melville, you know, traveled in the Holy Land, and his reactions are extreme and extremely interesting. His reaction to the Pyramids, which I have never seen, he was appalled by the Pyramids. What he says about them is something like, they really just devastated his spirit. He was amazed by them but horrified by them, I think. They were not like manmade things, and they were not natural. They were some terrible Other, sort of construction. They really oppressed his spirit. For Melville, if I remember Clarel [Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land] very well, all of the Middle East, all of Palestine, anyway, was the Dead Sea basically.
Shelley wrote his best poems in Italy, and I was surprised as I re-read Shelley in depth over the past year, how much I liked Shelley and how much complexity of thought and maturity of thought I found in Shelley, because the last time I remember reading about Shelley, I found him to be rather immature. I expected to read Byron and Shelley in depth over the past year and find Byron much more interesting, and I had the opposite reaction. Shelley was very much stimulated by, partly, being on the move, having to move from place to place, as Byron was, and partly by being in Italy, where every place you look is interesting.
One of the things I love to do when we traveland Dolores is a wonderful traveling companion in this regardthe destination, you know, we have to see as much of the Via Appia as possible and get to at least Capua, let's say, on this particular trip, but it's a flexible itinerary beyond that. Or we have to try to get all the way to Lecce, the end of the "boot," but we take as long as it takes to get there. We get a car, and we just go; we have no reservations, and drive until it's just about dark. This works all over Europe, I think. It certainly works in Italy and England.
As it's getting dark, since you don't want to drive after darkit's hairy enough in the lightyou go straight to the center of the nearest town. Just follow the signs to "Centro," and you get to the center of the town. Then you find a hotel and ask for a room, a room with a view, and there you are. And usually in Italy, you're there at the time of the "passegiata." The entire village, the entire city, turns out and walks up and down the main streets. So not only do you get to see the town, but you get to see everybody in the town all at once. This great sense of community and . . . I think things were different in the early to mid-nineteenth century, but those poets found the same thing in Italy, a great sense of community and life lived outside more than inside. And, of course, the vital life of the village right here, right now, right next to an Etruscan ruin or some such thing.
MF: Do you think that's what's been the attraction for American poets or American writersthinking of somebody like Henry James? Was it the old civilization, the old existing side by side with the new? The different? The better food?
RS: Well, it's the art, to a large extent. Before reproductions were so widely available, you had to go to Rome and Florence just to see the art. You could see sketches of the art, but you couldn't really see it. And seeing a photograph of something like Michelangelo's David, even that is not the same, since the scale is part of the effect of the thing. There's so much to see in the Mediterranean that you can make up a thousand excuses.
MF: Or it's just a good reason to keep traveling.
RS: Keep traveling, that's right. You know I had, personally, I had a kind of Wordsworthian childhood, I guess. I was an only child to the age of ten and lived in Savannah, where it was somewhat tropical, and I spent a lot of my time just wandering outside by myself, just trying to find what was over the next hill or through the next stand of trees. There weren't many hills in all of Chatham County, actually. Down the railroad track without getting run over by the train.
And, you know, when I went to the Lake District for the first time, I felt like such an idiot because I'd been reading WordsworthI think Wordsworth was the first poet I loved, as a matter of fact, in high schooland I'd been reading Wordsworth all of my life, but I'd never been there and never thought I needed to go there. But as soon as we drove into the Lake District area and into Grassmere, I realized I should have been there all along because I do think that landscape explains the power of the literature you love, and cityscapemuch more than you think it will. I took one look around and said, "That's what the poems are really about." They're about nature, but it's nature domesticated almost, it's wildness domesticated, in a weird sort of paradox. The Lake District is wild and has a wild beauty, but it's a manageable human scale. It's not like the Rockies or the Sierra Nevada.
When we went to Dublin the first time, I'd heard all my life and had read Ulysses on my ownnever had a course in Ulysses before I went thereI had heard all these symbolic and metaphorical interpretations of Ulysses, and then I read that Joyce said, if Dublin were destroyed tomorrow, it could be rebuilt stone by stone, using his book. And that's almost true.
MF: He wrote his brother frequently to check on little things"Now, dear Stanislaus, tell me where this was . . ."
RS: Right. "Can you see the clock from this corner, because I want to use that." And I think we were at Sandymount Strand, and I always thought that that passage in Ulysses was somewhat contrived, Stephen Daedalus walking on the beach, that sensibility creating the images was bending over backwards to make it feel like The Waste Land, although this is earlier than The Waste Landif anything, this influenced The Waste Land, not vice versabut you go to Sandymount Strand when the tide is out, and it looks like a desert. The tide is way out, it's not a little strip of sand; it's a long plain of emptiness, and it makes perfect sense. The literal becomes the metaphorical, and that's what I think is interesting about the literature I love, the symbolics and the literal, the spirituals and the physical.
MF: The same thing struck me when I went to St. Petersburg. I thought, this is the only city that Nabokov could possibly have come from.
RS: Yeah. Beautiful, orderly, a little bit of a stage set.
MF: And a great deal going on behind it. Just in terms of the tormented political life. And just the beauty of it, the beauty of the surface.
RS: Yes, and the vistas, the Roman vistas really, constructed like Renaissance Rome.
MF: Before we go, what travel poems might you recommend to other folks, that you have enjoyed reading, that would give you a sense of the inner and outer space that the poet is occupying?
RS: You know, the first person to do a lot of travel poetry in recent years, I think, is probably Laurence Lieberman, Larry Lieberman. He was doing whole books of travel verse before, at least in my experience, anybody else that I knew of, and I haven't looked at his recent stuff, but that'd be a place to look. I was really pleased to notice that, in The Norton Book of Travel, a poem that had sprung into my mind. A travelquote, unquotepoem is "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," which is about reading, but it uses the vehicle of travel to tell what reading is like. I think that's a great travel poem"a wild surmise / silent upon a peak in Darien." That's the experience that travelers get when they really have the experience. And Keats is writing about reading, not about traveling, and he's writing about people other than himself, and he's even got the wrong explorer [Cortez instead of Pizzarro], but he's got the experiences of wonder that you get when you stand on a cliff and then . . .
MF: Well, why don't you find the poem, and we'll end by having you read that?
RS: Great. On First Looking into Chapman's Homer