Sunday, August 14, 2011

Salt Modern Voices Interview 2: Lee Smith

Salt Modern Voices are a series of poetry and fiction pamphlets published by Salt Publishing. This Autumn, several of its authors will be touring the UK and reading in various venues. More info on this can be found on the website. In the lead up to the tour, SMV authors will be interviewing each other and posting the results on their personal websites. In the first of these, Lee Smith and Claire Trévien interview JT Welsch on form, masculinity, and his American heritage.

Interview with Lee Smith

In the second interview, made available here for the first time, questions from Claire Trévien, Mark Burnhope and Adrian Slatcher have been asked of Lee Smith, whose collection "Away from the City" was No.1 in the Salt Modern Voices series. Growing out of an exhibition of photography and poetry, the collection explores not just connections between written and visual arts, and also the two cities, Melbourne and Cambridge, where he has lived, and where the poems were written.

A lot of your poems seem rather minimal. When they're not 'short', they often consist of taut, clipped lines, or short numbered sections. One of them is a haibun. There are photographs included in the collection too, which add to a kind of 'travel journal' feel, where these elements might be collected together to chart a journey. Do you see visuals as an inherent part of your practice? Could you tell us something about your composition and organising principles?

Away from the City is indeed a travel journal, an account of a year spent in two cities. I wanted the poems to form a series of images, short instances of emotion, movement, or even nothingness, that transport the reader through these urban environments. This journey is very much a visual experience. The photographs create an atmosphere within which the poems emerge. This process reflects how many of the poems were written - observing and capturing visual exchanges, and then interpreting these elements in poetic form. I can't write long poems. The images get lost in the writing. I don't have a huge attention span, so the more immediate these observations are, the more they are allowed to resonate.

The title seems deliberately misleading considering the predominance of urbanity in these poems, but then as one realizes that it's a tale of two cities, it seems perhaps as if the title captures that sense one has when 'belonging' to two places: of always missing one when with the other. Did you write your Cambridge poems in Melbourne and vice versa, or where they done in situ?

The title does hint at that sense of belonging in two places. Indeed I did write some Cambridge poems in Melbourne, and vice versa — which led to a number of interesting links between different poems. I think the title also tries to convey the feeling of movement in the series as a whole. I felt sometimes that by merely walking and observing the people who inhabit the city, I was moving further away from it.

We're used to a "transatlantic" language writing between Europe and America, I wonder to what extent you felt you had to choose or develop a "trans-pacific" language to write about two such distant, and distinct cities as Cambridge and Melbourne. There seems a consistency in your writing between the two places, but its quite impressionistic - as if you're seeing both the new and familiar for the first time. To what extent was this deliberate?

When I first began writing these poems in Melbourne, I had been there a number of times previously. I was familiar with most of the city, but I still felt like a tourist every time I returned. I tried to harness these feelings of alienation, but apply them to local, everyday situations. Perhaps it's this element of alienation that ties the language of the two cities together. Or it may be that influences on my own dialect had seeped through when writing this series — I felt very strongly connected to Melbourne after I returned to Cambridge.

I like art/text collaborations - for you was this always an important element what you wanted to do? I'm interested in how the exhibition, and then the pamphlet emerged, and whether you had to write within those constraints, or found this enabling?

The collaboration with photography was an essential element in the germination of this book. I felt inspired by the way that these two cities had very clear visual identities (architecture, fashion, business etc.) and the power that photography has to capture poetic visual images. The original exhibition of Away from the City contained 24 photographs, and only eight poems. I wanted to experiment with the way that people navigated around the images and text, and what parallels they would draw between them.

With the pamphlet, I constrained myself to including only twelve poems from each city. Here I wanted the images created by the poetry to be in the foreground. The choice of using only eight photographs was a difficult one, and perhaps I would choose eight different ones for a new edition.

I'm just interested in what other poetry you like/read - particularly given that you must have come across a lot working for Salt. I published some of Chris McCabe's early poems for instance in Lamport Court, and his approach to how the poems look on the page, as well as the kind of short poems he does, seems to have something in common with your work. Did the Salt list/or particularly other poets feed into your work is it something in parallel?

Working for Salt obviously exposed me to a huge array of contemporary styles. And to an extent, I guess editing and typesetting the Salt list allowed me a broader knowledge of the range of poetry being published. I remember, not long after joining, reading Luke Kennard's The Solex Brothers and thinking how completely different it was from anything I had studied at university. It encouraged me to experiment with style, and I remember writing many more prose poems after reading that book.

I've tried hard not to emulate poets that I enjoy reading. It spoils my experience of their poetry. However, looking back on the poems now, I can see elements of Matthew Sweeney, Tobias Hill, Bashō. I believe I first read McCabe's work after writing Away from the City.

On the whole, I'd rather remove myself from style comparisons and influences. My fear is for a reader who stops mid-way through one of my poems (or anyone else's) to consider who the poet has been influenced by.

I believe you're returning to Melbourne. Where next for your artistic practice then?

I've just invested in a new camera, so more photography/poetry collaborations. I want to experiment more with exhibitions and digital. There may be room for a 'spin-off' pamphlet, but I certainly couldn't manage a full collection.

Melbourne's a perfect place to develop the visual aspect of my writing. Also, I'm looking forward to having a huge range of creative artists (music, art, design) to collaborate with. The poetry community in Melbourne is very different to the UK. I like the idea of not having to conform to a particular school/publisher, developing new audiences, and generally not being outcast by an antiquated poetry establishment.

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