A Guy on the Rack, Falling in Love: An Anti-Interview with Jim Smith

JIM SMITH’s many books include the recent Back Off, Assassin! New and Selected Poems (Mansfield Press, 2009) and Happy Birthday, Nicanor Parra (Mansfield Press, 2012). His magazine, The Front, lasted from about 1972 to 1980, and the spinoff Front Press published books and pamphlets in the ’80s by writers like David McFadden, bpNichol, Wayne Clifford and Stuart Ross.

Between 1979 and 1998, Smith published about half a dozen books of poetry, plus a number of chapbooks and ephemera. In the mid-’90s he diverted himself to law, and has been a civil litigator for the last decade. He continues to live and write in Toronto.

Jim Smith

Gary Barwin: Happy Birthday, Nicanor Parra, is a book filled with homages, shout-outs, and riffing-offs. I find it fascinating that the poems contain so many people, so many names. How do you locate yourself, the poem, the persona in the poem, the fractured modern self or the dislocated poetic self in relationship to these people, and to the rich quilt (or web) of culture which you refer to in the book. And how does this relate to ‘voice’?

Jim Smith: This question really threw me. First I raced to the bookshelf, grabbed random volumes by Forché, O’Hara, McFadden, Cardenal, Szymborska and Sesshu Foster# with the intent to see if I mentioned significantly more names than them. Realized this was defensive. Wondered why. Second, I started googling “fractured modern self” and “dislocated poetic self” and even “voice.”  Realized that I was gonna bone up on terms I didn’t fully understand so I could make some terribly cute abstract pronouncement which would most likely be utter pedantic hogwash. Realized this was insecure. Wondered why. Penultimately, I went in search of Vic Coleman’s squib about me in a 1994 Open Letter,

‘Jim Smith is single-handedly attempting to redefine and demystify the form of writing known as agit prop. His is a political poetry, that opens the reader up to subtle action through humour and the absurd. Smith’s soap box is mounted by a Chaplinesque figure who speaks in large signs, broad strokes, and wide berths. Think of the Marx Brothers in a script by Noam Chomsky….Smith embodies, more than most, Zukofsky’s designation of poetry as the communication of particulars.’#

Realized that Victor would hardly enjoy me hiding behind his verbal skirts, so to speak, to avoid the question. Then I realized that that was a way into an answer. The particulars of my world, my poetscape, are people, both real and imagined. It’s crowded in here. So when I’m writing, some of these people leak in, or are carefully worked in, or wander by and get trapped. Some are friends, some are heroes, some are objects of fear, some are enemies. A rare few may be all at once.#

But none of this directly answers your question. I was born with a certain lack of interest in abstract analysis. I could have gone into my theory of speaking for or to the dead, or how this relates to the old wisdom about no ideas but in things.

An anecdote to end with? bp used to speak to me from time to time about a Black Panther draft dodger he got close to in the ‘60s named Kit James. Who disappeared. Next time I met Kit he was living in the small piece of the Martyrology which Barrie tied to me by dedication, “Diatribe.”# He ended that poem with “i’s wanting to be heard.” Of which mine are a subset. Or the culture.

GB: I’m interested in your interest in Nicanor Parra and the notion of the “anti-poem.” There is a current of political—indeed moral or ethical—engagement throughout the book.  How do you think about this engagement with the political, with the cultural position of the ‘poem’ and the ‘poetic’?

JS: Two favourite photos come to mind. The first is of Mayakovsky and Diego Rivera in some crowded Mexican bar. It is Mayakovsky’s first trip to Mexico, and he speaks no Spanish. The photo shows all heads turned toward Mayakovsky, who at well over six feet, towers above the crowded patrons. The story is that there had been a fight, and threatened drunken gunplay, when Mayakovsky’s huge voice rose above the furor and distracted them all, as he declaimed one of his works in Russian. The fight, and the threatened gunplay, dematerialized. That photo is one of many on the cover of my book, 100 Most Frightening Things.

The second photo is also from a bar – this time, a working class bar in Madrid in late 1936. The patrons are eating, drinking, but all watching poet Rafael Alberti intently as he declaims to them from near the entrance. At the time Madrid was under siege and doubtless at least some of these worker/soldiers would soon be off to fight and die.

I have never set out to write a political poem. I think that the political, moral or ethical engagement that you have observed is simply the result that when it comes time to sit down and write a poem, or part of one, I also do not choose to filter out concerns that arise from what I am interested in, either at that moment or long-term. Unless that filter is the project-at-hand. Some of my areas of interest are highly politically charged – the U.S.-sponsored Chilean coup, the replicative crushing and obliteration of Republican Spain and Sandinista Nicaragua inside half a century, the crushing of every liberation movement everywhere for that matter, the sheer Orwellianness of the world in which we live day to day. A grey, grisly Tea Party analogue government in our own country. It leaks into the work, a little here, a little there. How could it not?

Such obsessions as I have are there to offer up their own specialty language, and facts, and fervour, should I choose to draw on them, as are my encyclopedic knowledge of science fiction, my obsession with dogs and a taste for ’60s cartoons. And, for a book like Leonel/Roque, whose overt subjects were a 20 year old poet who died during a police siege following a political bank robbery (Rugama) and a 45 year old poet who was killed as a result of political infighting within a coalition revolutionary movement (Dalton), it’s likely going to be seen as more political than I felt it was while writing it. Some of my work might be seen as exhortatory and aspirational, some definitely not. But to look at it a different way, as I said in the introduction to Leonel/Roque, when forgetting is used as a weapon against us, remembering is an act of rebellion. “Don’t take the soma, kids.” Moral or ethical engagement?  My work is certainly not the clever intellectual playfield of a McCaffery or a Bernstein. But if there is an undercurrent of moral or ethical engagement, it too is not something I set out to include, though it may well be a side effect.

I have never set out to write a political poem. I think that the political, moral or ethical engagement that you have observed is simply the result that when it comes time to sit down and write a poem, or part of one, I also do not choose to filter out concerns that arise from what I am interested in, either at that moment or long-term.

I found Parra, or Parra found me, at just the right time. I was looking for different ways to write. His Poems and Antipoems was a revelation. I stood there in the third floor basement stacks at Queen’s University’s Douglas Library where I found the translation, and marvelled. A satiric touch, a simple lexicon, a cosmologist mathematician’s perspective on big human questions, the direct opposite of the florid fecundity of his almost-contemporary Neruda. I started mistranslating some of his short works (along with some of Alberti’s & some of Vallejo’s) at the beginning of the 80s. Stu Ross published a bunch in my 1986 Convincing Americans, from his Proper Tales Press. I’ve never stopped. For the new book, Happy Birthday, Nicanor Parra, I took on something longer. Was his Christ of Elqui a roman-a-clef to the early Pinochet years? I haven’t decided. And I deliberately didn’t ask him when I met him in February 2012 at his house on the Pacific in Las Cruces, Chile.

It wasn’t politics that led me to Parra. In fact, the rare political aspect to Parra is his several decades old commitment to what he describes as deep environmentalism. I am still astounded at his hunger strike at 97 years old to call attention to the deplorable abuse of the Mapuche Indians by the Chilean government. But that’s not a poem. And his most recent anti-poetic statement? To send his 20-year-old grandson and his old typewriter (on which he had typed Poems and Antipoems in 1954) to Spain to receive the Cervantes Prize from the King. Parra, bless his unique soul, continues to surprise, to make it new.

GB:  Form. There’s a lot of it here. Of the surprising kind. The book is a compendium of diverse approaches to form. To invention, to structure, to play, to notions of coherence. And you seem to be a master of the list poem. Please respond with a prose poem, a list poem, or a ghost villanelle.

Drop Line-breaks for a Prose Poem, Trim Both Ends for a Villanelle

The funny thing about my poetry is the funny thing about my poetry is the funny thing.
But if they live up north half the year and live on a boat half the year when will we be neighbours?
Up until now I was worried I did not receive Stu’s New Year’s Poem but I am no longer worried.
& I recently wondered if I would buy the same books if I got that 1972 Philosophy Book Prize all over again.

I know people who would not pass the Turing test, not the one about being persecuted for being gay, the other one.
In a previous draft I actually mentioned that I carry a tuft of my last dog’s hair in my wallet.
To be honest I also carry a tuft of my current dog’s hair, two old pictures of Jo-Anne and a card whose print has rubbed entirely off.
& I have one eyebrow that looks just like Avril Lavigne.

At a rough guess, I have over 700 remainders in this house.
The form asked how much was I likely to write from now until, well, it wasn’t really clear.
Four wolves I have seen have now escaped from the wolf centre.
& my legs called 911 while swimming because my body looked bent at an unnatural angle.

The process is simply to sit back and shut my eyes and go blank which doesn’t always work such as now.

& the source was a crumpled up overgrown sonnet I found behind the desk.

GB: Humour. Of course this question might relate to the three previous questions. And what about notions of the surreal or anti-rational?

JS: Don’t all three arise in large part from the juxtaposition of unlikely things? Like a creationist prime minister with hair identical to how I draw a steaming pile of faeces? A guy on the rack falling in love with a woman being burnt at the stake? A book without “e”’s?

A close friend has written about how audiences tend to laugh during the occasional serious piece because, well, they just expect humour and wit from the guy. He takes no offence.

”I admit to having clutched at the safety blanket of humour during readings.
There’s something enjoyable about hearing your small audience laugh. It has to be spontaneous.”


Even when I set out to do the Schwarzenegger poem sequence that Lillian [Necakov] published as a chapbook from her Surrealist Poets Gardening Association, I wasn’t intending to be funny – rather, I had been at a Saskatchewan writers retreat and had spent an evening defending my taste for, and rather-too-extensive knowledge of lines from, the former Guvernator’s ‘80s classic oeuvre. I went back to my room in the isolated Fort San former TB hospital, watched for the wild dogs that had run through our supper room that evening, and set out to explore in a poem why Schwarzenegger was important to me. Was actually interrogating myself. The funniest thing of all from my perspective is how wrong I got it. I had him pegged as a democrat “plucked from the fecund soil of Europe” or some such. Reality had the last laugh.

“Ike Met Space Aliens”, reprinted in 2009 Mansfield Press’ Back Off, Assassin: New and Selected Poems, is a different story. I combined my taste for supermarket tabloid headlines with an attempt to explain then past-and-current excesses of the U.S. colonial Moloch. Some people find it humorous, while for me it has always had an undercurrent of creepily nervous horror.  Which, as a matter of fact, is how I felt about the ‘50s, during and after. Nothing can beat the bathetic image of even-newer-kid Ivan and I standing apart in the schoolyard at some separate school in Kingston, frozen in fear during so many recesses, little heads craned upward, sure the missiles would rain down upon us.

I admit to having clutched at the safety blanket of humour during readings. There’s something enjoyable about hearing your small audience laugh. It has to be spontaneous. I have some faves. The less-than-infrequent references to my three-hour reading of a handful of poems at Artculture Resource Centre in the ’80s by current reading hosts who happened to be there. The arpeggios of heckling and response between Vic Coleman and I during my reading with Fred Wah at This Ain’t the Rosedale Library in 2010. The fun I had developing a semiotically-significant postural tic during Mansfield’s Toronto launch of Happy Birthday, Nicanor Parra. The glyphs on novelistic process in which I wrapped selections from “Non-stories” at Lillian [Necakov]’s TPL Boneshaker Series early in 2012. All these happened, however, after the work of the writing has been done.

Think about Dave McFadden’s brilliant line “bark is the sheath of both dogs and trees.” Or one of Nicanor Parra’s visuals from his 2006 Artefactos – a rough wooden cross, a few nails, and a handwritten note roughly translated as “back soon.”  Or “I am His Majesty’s dog at Kew, pray tell me sir, whose dog are you?” These are masters. I’m happy with humour outside the work itself. Whatever else happens, it is out of my hands.
The surreal? Love the period, the spirit, the effect, love the idea of the work, often can only read a page or two at a time.  The anti-rational? Too much like daily life here in the early 21st century.

* * *

Further reading: A great discussion/appreciation of Jim Smith and some links can be found at Cameron Anstee’s blog


Gary Barwin is a writer, composer, multimedia artist, educator and performer. Visit his website at garybarwin.com and his blog at serifofnottingham.blogspot.com. Recordings of Barwin’s work with the Penn Sound archives may be found here.