Claire Sylvester Smith, 26, Austin, poetry MFA fellow at the Michener Center for Writers
“This Is What You Look Like”
A tool’s being simple doesn’t make it an
unhelpful tool. See: rhetorical devices, many
of which are just taking something forward,
making it backward and saying it again—as in
Ask not…, as in ask not how the past is before
but also before us, as in visible, as a subject
to be knighted, whereas were the future
in the room, trying to see it would be like using
a hand-held mirror to figure out what
you look like while asleep. Walking backwards
has something to do with the dead, but so does
being left-handed, and many companies make
special desks and scissors for that. Not even
out of sadness. If philosophy’s either séances
or lab work, then in these realms what constitutes
our protective equipment and supplies?
Anything can be a science if you have enough
foot soldiers with clipboards. We drove out
to the library to see what the pillars looked like:
anecdotally perfect, I thought. Linguists argue
that using the first-person in relationships
indicates my being emotionally weak. Not out
of sadness. I saw a mountain lion this summer,
but didn’t get a picture of it, and that’s how
things have been going. This too, is a device: life
is terrifying and exceptional, though if pressed
as to why, I have no decent answer or proof.
I do not deny ennui my attendance at its altar, nor
do I pretend it doesn’t suit the type of lady which
I am—awash in uncouth, frowning customarily, the
sinuses my playthings, forsooth lacking all trinkets
but my bracelets
and chains. I am watched even abreast, even with my
spyglass in hand, and if pearls appear small within
gilt frames it is the fault of the painter as much as the
husband who opened
his purse. The authorial book spake to me in a dress-
maker’s way: it said a club is like a gun just better
for hitting. My hands like early moonlight, my hands
like little wrists,
there is intractably an appropriate garment for every
occasion—even bathing, even nudity, and as to the
furs of nobility, I have loved the tiny foxes as I loved
their labor: their lustrous, pathetic attempts at escape.
will you quickly catch us up to speed on what you are doing and how you got here?
I’m a student and a poet. Right now I’m a third year fellow in the MFA program at the Michener Center for Writers. Before this, I worked as part of a dyslexia research study in Portland, OR. Before that, I worked on a dude ranch, before that, I was a college student.
tell me a good metaphor.
Here’s a vehicle I like; I’m still looking for the tenor: a block party where no one owns outdoor chairs, and just brings their dining room sets down into the street.
what is your writing schedule like?
I try to write new material every morning, which is a relatively quick process—maybe twenty minutes to an hour—after which I try to edit and arrange that new material into a poem. That all happens, sometimes with interruption or other projects nosing in, from about nine until I break for lunch. Usually after lunch I have class, or some other distraction, and in the afternoons, I run errands, arrange my life, and deal with other, non-writing responsibilities (like coursework, reading, or poetry-editing the Bat City Review). After dinner, sometimes I’m social, and sometimes I continue on with those other responsibilities, and also work on more arranging, editing, and trying to corral poems.
do you keep lists of things you’d like to write about?
I used to keep very long lists, when I couldn’t just drop everything at any moment to write. Now, I have facts or quotes or comments that I’ll write down and hope to come back to, but usually they make it into poems before stretching out long enough to become a list.
what do you do about distractions?
Often, I allow them to occur and dissipate. My schedule allows me to have plenty of freedom with this, and I like working, so when my attention wanders, it usually doesn’t wander for too long. And sometimes—even better—distractions can work their way into whatever I’m writing.
do you have a sense of when you sit down whether or not it will produce something good?
In terms of academic writing, yes. Or even with fiction. Poetry’s much more slippery. It’s hard to tell when something good will come out. The chances of that happening are greatly increased, though, the more often I sit down. That is, usually I write a few pages at a time, and anywhere from one to twenty lines from those pages make it, eventually, into a poem. So it’s always good to sit down, though there’s no telling quite how good it will be.
how do you write (computer, free-hand)?
I used to primarily write freehand at first, and then move over to the computer for editing and rearranging. I’ve been trying to start writing on the computer more recently, just to shake up my habits. I make sure to turn my wireless off while I’m doing it, which I don’t usually remember having done, until I catch myself trying to load a page.
do you use special notebooks?
This reminds me of when my car was broken into in 2008, and one of my passenger’s journals was stolen. In taking down notes for the police report, the deputy assigned to our case asked her if it was just a regular journal, or if it was a “secret journal.”
I do use special notebooks, and I try to switch them up every so often, in attempts to stir up or shock some vitality into my writing.
do you write based off real-life events?
My poems are often based off conversations—interesting things that people say, or a strange turn of phrase, or a connection I hadn’t noticed before. It’s more rare that I would write about a real life event, because my poems aren’t event-driven per se, but events do often intersect and overlap with other aspects of a poem—other examinations, ideas, or images.
what about a dream?
I did write a poem semi-recently that had a section directly inspired by a dream.
tell me more, please.
A dream worked its way into a poem recently called “Out of Place.” In the dream, I was talking to an old friend, saying over and over “I’m speaking I’m speaking I’m speaking…” and the friend had headphones on, so couldn’t hear me, but he responded, very proud of himself, “I can read lips.” I really enjoyed the disjunction of that conversation—that both parties were really talking about themselves more than talking to the other—so I stuck it in a poem that investigated, in addition to this one, other awkward, out of place, or out of context interactions and events.
can you describe your working setup to me in detail? (ie: do you work on a desk? laptop in bed? coffee shop? what are some everyday observations about either, please?)
I usually sit on my couch, with one or two legs up on the coffee table. I use my laptop, and it’s often quiet, though I can handle some instrumental or non-English language music depending on what I’m doing (English language music messes me up—it get’s tangled up with whatever I’m reading or writing). Sometimes I go outside to write, in the early stages, which I like. More unexpected things happen outside than in, which can jumpstart the creative process in different directions. Outside I sit at a picnic table in the courtyard of my apartment building. Inside, I can see out my front window, but because I’m up on a hill, can only see the heads of the people walking by.
is it hard to name your poems?
I think it’s one of my favorite parts of the whole process. Recently, I’ve gotten into a habit inspired by the title of one of (my fellow Michener fellow) Mary Miller’s stories, “This Boy I Loved a Rock.” I like the title because it’s taken out of context, and that’s what makes it really beguiling and beautiful. It comes straight from a line of dialogue within the story, “I gave this boy I loved a rock once,” though in the title, the narrative element—the verb—is lost, and the rock becomes associated with the boy, as in This boy I loved [was] a rock. I’m fascinated by that kind of syntactic twisting, and how a title can force us to look at the same language from a different angle.
what is the best poem you’ve recently read?
“The Drunken Boat” by Arthur Rimbaud
are there any topics you refuse to write about?
I’m always a little afraid of sentimentality, so I try to avoid too much romantic love. I also have trouble writing about new technology. Older technology—bulky machines, or VCRs, or slide carousels, are fine, but I have trouble getting my poems to acknowledge anything digital.
what do you think the role of poetry is?
To describe things that are difficult to describe, to be surprising, to be somehow true, and to make noise.
do people even call themselves poets nowadays?
Yes, though that’s rarely their career title. More often they’re a student (of poetry writing or reading), a fellow (in poetry) a professor or teacher (of poetry), an editor (of something related to poetry), or something else entirely, and also a poet.
all images by Ann Lowe