Midwestern Gothic staffer Megan Valley talked with poet Abraham Smith about Ashagalomancy, the relationship between the performance and the page, writing with the body and more.
Megan Valley: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Abraham Smith: i was born in madison, wisconsin; raised in rusk county and taylor county, wisconsin; did my undergraduate degree in archaeology at the university of wisconsin; plus I return to wisconsin every winter – to chop wood – and every summer – to help on the farm.
MV: Ashagalomancy, the title of your collection, is divination through animal bones — what are you trying to divine through your poetry?
AS: i am yanking my totemic animals – my favorite wild ones – into my family. i am reaching and yanking ’em pretty hard into the scrabble of woebegone, messy people. while i feel a little like a jerk for folding them into soap operas, i am indebted, and one might say wed – upon the weft of musical words – to ’em. the condition of devotion. of love. is the impetus for poetry. for me.
MV: I’ve seen several videos of your readings, and your performances are completely captivating. What’s your inspiration for this reading style and how do you incorporate that into your writing?
AS: way back when i tried for townes van zandt’s stoical nature; greg brown’s head wag; and chris whitley’s foot stomp. years later, i am sure the patinas of all three remain. but i have always been a squirmer up there on the stage. pretty sure i won a few speech contests when i was a kid because the farmer judges thought i was possessed – and feared my wrath should i not win. teehee. the performance and the page tip back and forth. i roar the poems – and the poems, unpunctuated, stream along i hope in a somewhat freshety style.
MV: How has teaching at the University of Alabama influenced how you approach your own writing?
AS: not sure that it has. on the other hand, teaching is a lot about cultivating listening spaces. and writing is a big ear – as much as it is a big pair of wriggling hands.
MV: You spend your summers as a farmhand in Wisconsin — how does this affect your writing?
AS: that is my writing. my writing is my body. and hauling my body there where i trap sound and let it ferment is key to my process. i absorb over summers. let things percolate. then reach and screech come the fall.
MV: How does splitting your time between Alabama and Wisconsin help shape your poetry? What does each place add that the other can’t?
AS: both are out-of-the way places. i appreciate the liminal spots i get into, here and there. all rural places elide. as i was saying, i turn into a butterfly net in summers; in falls i clip all the mesh in the net and pluck at it – lute-style – seeking song.
MV: The poetry in Ashagalomancy explores how our natural and man-made environments interact with each other. How does this relate the the idea of divination?
AS: that’s the point of all loosely or tightly spiritualized wordmaking. to doodle in the dusty. to pinch a mustard seed between lip and gum. how else get at the holy? one must loam truffle in the main.
MV: I’ve noticed you don’t use traditional capitalization, even in your emails. What’s the reasoning behind this?
AS: i used to say it was because i didn’t feel i had anything – through a MEGAPHONE – to say. but i don’t think that’s true. i know it’s not from laziness. i know it’s not from mimicry. at the end of the day, it suits me. and i am not sure why. as i say, i write with my body. and it feels good to my cells. good to my finger bones. good to my eyes. to write this way.
MV: What’s next for you?
AS: i have a forthcoming book about farming. i can’t say where yet. but when i can, i will indeed lift the MEGAPHONE to my lips and yodel that good news forth. i am working on a manuscript about cranes. they are high on my list of soarers. the whole human planet is coocoo for ’em. i am enjoying riding the myths and legends of old, all the while trying to glue a few new wings of my own to the deep old lore.
Abraham Smith is the author of four full-length poetry collections: Ashagalomancy (Action Books, 2015); Only Jesus Could Icefish in Summer (Action Books, 2014); Hank (Action Books, 2010); and Whim Man Mammon (Action Books, 2007). In 2015, he released Hick Poetics (Lost Roads Press), a co-edited anthology of contemporary rural American poetry and related essays; contributors include Michael Earl Craig, Juliana Spahr, G.C. Waldrep and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, among others. His poems have appeared widely in journals and anthologies such as The American Poetry Review, jubilat, Fence, Denver Quarterly, Ecotone, and The Volta Book of Poets (Sidebrow Books, 2014). His creative work has been recognized with fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown, MA, and the Alabama State Council on the Arts. Recently, he completed Destruction of Man, a book-length poem about farming; presently, he is at work upon a poetry manuscript about cranes – birds whose song and stature electrify him. He teaches at the University of Alabama.