Continuous Learning: An Interview with Abraham Smith

Abraham Smith
Abraham Smith

As an MFA student at The University of Alabama, Abraham Smith spent his time honing his craft as a writer. Now, as an Instructor in the Department of English, Smith says he continues to learn every day. When he’s not in the classroom teaching, Smith can be found writing. With plenty of publications under his belt, including four books of poetry, Smith practices what he learned while a student at UA. Recently, I sat down with Smith to chat about writing, teaching, and how he comes up with his intriguing poetry titles, such as Only Jesus Could Ice Fish in Summer.

I understand Alabama has not always been your home and that you grew up in Wisconsin. How has moving to the South influenced your work?

Well, my dad is from Texas, so I had a dual citizenship in the sense that I grew up in the north hearing and learning about the south, but I think that all of my work is rural in nature. What is interesting and alive about the rural South and the rural North is very similar. I think rural areas everywhere have a certain kind of quiet to them and a certain kind of noise to them. I would say that moving here hasn’t really changed my obsession in the sense that my obsessions are rural in nature and all rural places have a certain kind of kinship.

What made you choose UA for your MFA?

Like many people, I was unsure of what I wanted. I guess some of the decisions that turn out to be the most important in our lives are not ones that we feel we can ultimately chose. In this case, I just threw a bunch of darts at the wall, and UA seemed like an intriguing place. I spoke on the phone with Michael Martone, and he was very kind and very generous and very engaging, and the next thing I knew, here I have been.

What has been your favorite part of teaching at UA?

Well, a person does this kind of degree, and then a person is thereby, granted the understanding and the credentials to teach. It really can be a difficult world in that regard; the opportunity to do much more than just adjuncting is fairly slim. Having an academic job is a wonderful thing, a remarkable thing, and provides a wonderful stability. I think that I’m a teacher, but I also think that teaching is ultimately about being taught, so I feel that my time here has been instructive to me as a poet as well.

What advice would you give to undergrads who are seeking an MFA?

I think the world seems very frightening, so I think sometimes people want to stay in school because of the safety. I tend to advocate for staying away from MFAs for a while. The age range of the population of MFA students continues to go down, with students entering these programs in their early 20s. I don’t feel that I necessarily have a right to act as a mentor and tell students what they should do, but I do think I would advocate for two things. First, stay away from MFAs in your early 20s, not because those years are negative ones, but because there’s so much more out there. People who’ve had more interesting experiences aren’t necessarily more interesting writers, but I think that getting away from the culture of institutional education is incredibly important to the writing process. I also advise people to read more. Just to read more. You must foster your own omnivorous education, omnivorous in the sense that you read across genres. The more that you follow your own lead and the more you read, and the better you become. I think the world is a good teacher. I think whatever you decide, the best advice is to write however much you wish to write but to read far more than you are presently reading.

Who serves as your biggest inspiration as a writer?

That’s a very difficult question because it is constantly changing. But maybe in the last year there’s been a writer named Robert Walser, who I find inspiring–a writer who makes me want to write when I read him. When I was very young, I think it would have been the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas. These are two authors who made me want to make my own noise on the page. But I think that this world is inspiring. I like to jog and I like to be outside. The landscapes and the sounds of this world are very inspiring.

Your newest book, In the Old Days, is forthcoming. How does this book differ from previous books?

I had a book come out last year, Only Jesus Could Ice Fish in Summer; I have one coming out this year, In the Old Days. It will be my fourth book. My first book, Whim Man Mammon, was a gathering together of the best poems, from various manuscripts that I’ve written. The second one, Hank, had a theme, which is kind of trying to sew together things that I was interested in with aspects in the life of Hank Williams. And then there’s the third one, Only Jesus Could Ice Fish in Summer, which came out earlier this year. It’s more of a book of failures. I’d written a really long manuscript, which I felt was successful, at the time, but when I got done writing it, I realized it was not successful as a complete object. There were, however, moments in it that I found to be rewarding or that I felt were “save-worthy.” So what I did was carve out little moments from that larger work that felt flat or felt like a failure, and I carved out moments that felt dynamic or exciting or worthy of preservation. It is the first attempt that I have made of carving from a larger work.

Where did you come up with the title Only Jesus Could Ice Fish in Summer?

Sometimes, life feels like a thing one chooses and sometimes life feels like a thing that happens. In the case of that title, I was in the act of writing that larger poem that ended up feeling like a failure, but there was a little moment that I chose to preserve where that line just floated through the window, and popped into my mind. So I wrote it down. It didn’t really make narrative sense next to other moments in the poem. It just sounded right at the time. It just kind of flew to my mind like lightning, and I grabbed it and wrote it down. I think that the reason I probably chose it as a title is because it makes me laugh a little bit. It’s a book full of sorrow, but there are moments that are filled with humor that can be kind of redemptive. So it’s a sorrowful book, but I felt that it was both a memorable phrase that people might hold on to, but I think it also has some redemptive humor in it. I think it sums up what I was trying to say overall in the book. There is a lot of familiar sadness in it, but also it is a book about surviving certain kinds of trauma, so in that sense, the book speaks to all our buoyancies—all the ways in which we could and do keep from drowning.

What are you reading these days?

I already floated Robert Walser out there today. Who else have I been reading recently? I read a lot of things. I think sometimes we are guilty of reading a couple things by an author and declaring we know that author. I think that when you dabble more in your favorite writer, you discover that there’s so much more to that writer. So, I’m reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the Russian writer who so many people love and whom I love. I have never read his novel called The Adolescent, so I’m reading that. That’s just something that I remind myself—that there is just so much more, and we rarely exhaust and rarely read everything that our favorite authors have written?