An Interview With Editor Dave Smith

Ethan Gilsdorf

Poet and editor Dave Smith will resign in July from The Southern Review, the literary journal based at Louisiana State University that he has been co-editing since 1990. Smith, who turns 60 in December, will leave Baton Rouge and the literary post of his hero, the poet Robert Penn Warren who started the journal, for a Chair in Poetry at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The move will allow him to remain in the South, his home and the inspiration for much of his work.

A Virginia native, Smith was educated at the University of Virginia (BA, 1965), Southern Illinois University (MA, 1969), and Ohio University (PhD, 1976). During the Vietnam War he was drafted and served in the Air Force from 1969 to 1972. Before arriving at LSU and The Southern Review, Smith taught in several MFA programs and English departments, including the University of Utah, the University of Florida, and Virginia Commonwealth University.

The author of 17 books-including two previous "new and selected" volumes-Smith's latest book is The Wick of Memory: New and Selected Poems, 1970-2000 (Louisiana State University Press, 2000). He is now at work on a new collection of essays entitled Hunting Men, a mix of personal memoir and critical inquiries into some of his landmark poets, including Poe, Whitman, Richard Hugo and Robert Penn Warren.

Poets & Writers Magazine asked Smith to characterize The Southern Review, particularly how it fits into the tradition of literary publishing.

Dave Smith: The Southern Review is a literary quarterly founded by Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks in 1936. It began as a vehicle for diverse statements in literary criticism, social studies, history, and creative work. One interesting feature was the editors' intention that single poems not be printed, only a group by single authors. Old correspondence shows they rejected good poems for this reason. The young editors drew on their teachers and contacts and were very hard in judgment and rejection but also passionate about what they liked. Allen Tate's famous essay "The Function of a Literary Quarterly" appeared in the first issue and is still a cogent statement of what this sort of magazine does. In 1941 the magazine was stopped, ostensibly because the war consumed university resources. In 1965 it was re-founded by professors Donald Stanford and Lewis P. Simpson. We publish four times annually, pay contributors a reasonable fee, and hope we are publishing the best work we can get.

P&W: Was The Southern Review initially about, first and foremost, the South?

DS: From the start The Southern Review has had an interest in the South and its literature because the editors were southern and because there was a new cultural movement in the region that wanted to bring national and international standards of accomplishment to southern readers. But the editors were equally committed to avoiding an apologist position in which the South and its writers might be held to any standards less demanding than those of the best in the world. That position has remained in force.

P&W: Has the magazine changed?

DS: Of course the magazine has changed with each editor. James Olney and Fred Hobson followed Stanford and Simpson. I replaced Fred Hobson. There have been only six editors in 64 years but each placed an individual's stamp on what has appeared, although I think most would agree that a continuous character has been maintained. I might say that today's issues are far more likely to publish fiction, poetry, and interviews than the more socio-historical essays of the first years.We also avidly seek literary criticism, but not the theoretical, jargon-ridden academic discourse we find so valueless.

P&W: What are the conflicts and confluences of being both an editor and poet?

DS: There is no real conflict between one's role as poet and as editor. This was evident with Warren, with Tate when he edited The Sewanee Review, with Howard Moss at The New Yorker, with Dan Halpern at Antaeus, with David Bottoms at Five Points, and many others. However, because one tends to know a good many of the working poets one sees a lot of their material. This can be awkward in the rejections but it makes for a rich source of work, more so than I have found for, say, fiction writers. I know fewer of them. Another benefit is that one has a real sense of what is going on in the nature of the art and its changes. This can be challenging because it is natural on one hand to stick to your aesthetic convictions in what you accept and on the other hand one wants to stay up to date, even ahead of date.

P&W: How have poetic tastes changed during your more than 40-year professional career?

DS: The poets who were really exciting to me as a young reader/writer are sometimes now forgotten or less than remembered: Richard Hugo, James Wright, James Dickey, Robert Penn Warren. The lesson? You think you are writing toward a moment of potential success with the words that lie somewhere off ahead and then it has passed and you are hardly aware, if at all, you had it. Unless, of course, you are the sort of writer who is good at marketing, as Robert Bly has always been, and then you adjust for the readership ahead of you. What I think is not original, only truer for me in feeling than ever: The joy is in the writing, in the present moment, not in what is on the horizon. And it is, it must be, entirely personal, writing to the self's sense of what matters, albeit with a healthy respect for good readers, or else you cannot achieve what is yours to do and you will drift out on time's tide as valueless as any piece of old plastic or wood.

P&W: As a poet and editor, do you change with the times, or remain steadfast in your beliefs about what a poem is or ought to be?

DS: I don't know about the changes that come to me as poet. It seems I have changed in some respects and not in others. I have written some books under the mandate of an idea that was different, formally, from my current of writing. Fate's Kite is a good example. But I suspect most of my poetry has elements that are continuous and common because they come out of deep compulsions and interests and responses which the poems attempt to enact. About this I have little choice. I want every poem to be clear, sonically charged, immediate, possessed of an interesting story, and resonant with some meaning available to the interested reader. Perhaps all poets would agree to those requirements, but the tuning done by each individual in each of those aspects makes all the difference. A student once asked me why Robert Frost wrote about birch trees so much. I answered that he lived among them. I didn't say what they had come to mean to Frost or how they became a certain symbol. Could I say Frost changed in his poems? In large measure, no. In subtle ways, yes. For some poets the change can be a dramatic leap forward. It was for Yeats. Not for Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. It was for Robert Penn Warren and James Wright. But perhaps not for most of us.

P&W: What are some of your current projects?

DS: I have never much liked to talk about what am trying to write. It may fail; it may be jinxed; I may be embarrassed by silly hubris. And I probably do not know what project will come to fruition until I hold it in my hand, complete, done. I have been writing a collection of essays for some years and think I am nearing completion. It is called Hunting Men. And I think I may have an almost completed collection of poems, some of which will be coming out in American Poetry Review and Poetry. I am calling that book "Joyland" but have no confidence in the title, which usually means I have no book yet.