Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Jim Smith

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Ten Questions with Jim Smith

Open Book talks to Jim Smith about reading, writing and his new poetry collection, Back Off, Assassin! New and Selected Poems (Mansfield Press). To have your name entered in a draw to win a copy of Back Off, Assassin!, send an email to clelia@openbooktoronto.com by February 26th with your answer to the following question: How much was Jim Smith paid for his first publication?

Open Book: Toronto:

Tell us about your book, Back Off, Assassin!

Jim Smith:

Back Off, Assassin! is a selection from my poetic work published between 1979 and 1998, plus a lot of new work done within the last year. I’m very excited about it – it’s my first book in 11 years and my first chance to work with editor Stuart Ross since Convincing Americans in 1986. It contains occasional lyrics, mistranslations, portions of some of my book-length sequences, my homage to Schwarzenegger, telegrams, a poem or two involving dogs and a single lonely haiku. We’ve tried for a truly representative sampling of my older work, and included the strongest of the new work, in which I try and push the political, personal and formal/experimental concerns beyond where I had taken them before.

OBT:

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote your book?

JS:

I never write poetry with an audience in mind. It’s just me and the Big Silence, squaring off over a figurative piece of paper.

That being said, as Stuart [Ross] points out in his introduction, this volume is likely to be the first time many readers encounter my work. I like that. Since my last book, Leonel/Roque in 1998, there’s a whole new generation of writers. And, I hope, readers. And I hope they are not co-equivalent. So one specific readership is those who have never read anything by me – this book will give a good overview of what I have been trying to do as a writer. At least in the first 30 years of apprenticeship.

OBT:

You’re a lawyer as well as a writer. How do your practice and your poetry influence each other?

JS:

My practice involves civil litigation, primarily trials before a judge alone, some appeal work. The core skill is advocacy – the art of legal persuasion. You have to be able to take the facts and the law and make a persuasive argument to a judge. And I love cross-examination. Every day, every appearance, every trial gives you a chance to work on those skills and, hopefully, improve. Does it rub off on my poetic practice? Likely, to a certain extent. I may be a little more concise, a little less effusive from time to time thanks to my day job.

Has my poetic practice influenced how I practice law? No. Having worked with words before entering law may have made approaching legal writing a bit easier. It may from time to time help me recognize what may work in terms of persuasion. Beyond that, the jury remains out. There is not really a lot of room for wild flights of imagination or Smithian hyperbole in the court room.

OBT:

Who are your literary influences?

JS:

There have been many in the last 38 years. Beckett. Pound – his Cantos first hinted to me you could aim big; his ABC of Reading text beat it into me that the poet’s job was to make it new, and that there had to be more one could write about than trees, women and war. Louis Dudek. Olson and Williams, that place meant something. Olson and bp Nichol, that the body and the breath and the line should be mutually influential. Dave McFadden, since about 1971, that you could write magically. Wayne Clifford, who took me under his older brotherly wing in about 1970 and pointed me in a number of directions. Gary Geddes who a decade later helped me shape one of my first long serial poems. Jack Spicer, whose work I fell in love with 30 years ago and still read for new lessons. Stuart Ross, to whose work I turn when I want to learn about the true surprises that surrealism and a big heart can deliver. William Burroughs. Ginsberg. Nicanor Parra, for the antipoems, sure, but also for his numinous irreverence. Ernesto Cardenal, who brought political engagement home to me in a poetic way. Rafael Alberti. Enrique Lihn. I’ll arbitrarily stop there.

OBT:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

JS:

Varies considerably. Me and the keyboard on a day when I can forego all the other things that jump up and scream to be done. An hour here, two there. Hotel rooms far away after I’ve called home to Jo-Anne. And Spain. Anywhere in Spain.

OBT:

What was your first publication?

JS:

First paid publication was in 1972, a story shamelessly derivative of Beckett, can’t recall the title, for which the West Coast Review paid me $ 5. I was thrilled. I will never re-read it.

First poetry chapbook was Surface Structures, which was edited, smudgily copied and stapled by Wayne Clifford in his St. Lawrence College days in Kingston, circa 1979 (with a cover by Clifford as well). I think Wayne (who had come to Kingston from Toronto and Coach House Press a decade earlier) wanted to give me a push toward poethood. I hear he still is very active as a mentor to young poets, lo these many years later. Interestingly, given his involvement with Coach House, this, his first “publication” after the move, was the most non-Coach House book I think there could ever have been.

OBT:

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

JS:

First, William Beeching’s – Spain, 1936-1939, a brief account of the 1448 Canadians who went to fight fascism in Spain as part of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, half of whom never returned, by someone who was there.

Second, bp’s Martyrology, entire. Suggestion: Read portions nightly, make of it what you can. There’s a universe in there.
Third, Dave McFadden. - his travel books – the Trips Around the Lakes series, and his collected shorter poems, Why Are You So Sad – a mammoth collection that is full of wonder and crazy wisdom!

OBT:

What are you reading right now?

JS:

I seem to have a dozen books on the go right now. The Maximus Poems (Charles Olson, rereading for a project I’m doing); We Saw Spain Die: Foreign Correspondents in the Spanish Civil War by Paul Preston; Dogtown (the Story of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah, which took in Michael Vick’s dogs); Nicanor Parra’s After Dinner Declarations (in preparation for making a pilgrimage to see him); The Speed of Light by Javier Cercas; The Motion of Light: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village, by Samuel R. Delany; Drood by Dan Simmons; Radio Free Fall (Matthew Jarpe’s first science fiction novel); The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan; and When I was Cool: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School, by Sam Kashner.

OBT:

What advice do you have for writers who are trying to get published?

JS:

Keep writing. Make it new. Read widely. Develop obsessive interests. Start a small mag or a press.

OBT:

What is your next project?

JS:

Well right now I’m trying to promote Back Off, Assassin! New and Selected Poems. A spinoff project is the trip to Chile to try and hand a copy to one of my heroes, Nicanor Parra. That may generate an article or a book.

Along the way, I’m just writing new stuff. Attracted a lot to further mistranslations, and moving beyond Spanish. And still doing work on the Spanish Civil War. Don’t know where that will go.

Someone asked recently if I thought any of my half dozen or more 3-day novels from the ‘80s might merit a re-look. So I’m looking at them. At least one seems to.

Generally, just trying to look in new places and do new work that surprises me.


Jim Smith is the author of a number of books and chapbooks, including One Hundred Most Frightening Things (blewointmentpress, 1985), Convincing Americans (Proper Tales Press, 1986), The Schwarzenegger Poems (Surrealist Poets Gardening Association, 1988), Translating Sleep (Wolsak & Wynn, 1989) and Leonel/Roque (Coteau Books, 1998). His newest book, Back Off, Assassin! New and Selected Poems, was just published by Mansfield Press in November, 2009. At 43, he went to law school and for the last dozen years has practiced civil litigation, primarily trials and tribunal work.

Victor Coleman on Jim Smith in 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.” [Open Letter, Eighth Series, Number 9: Summer 1994, p. 36]

For more information about Back Off, Assassin! please visit the Mansfield Press website.


Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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