R.T. Smith, The Per Contra Interview by Miriam N. Kotzin
PC: How would you describe this project, a book length series of poems, The Red Wolf, about Flannery O'Connor?
RTS: Through a series of imagined letters and monologues, Flannery O’Connor in her late thirties and not far from death by disseminated lupus looks back at her girlhood, her career as a writer, her decade and a half with her mother on the Georgia farm called Andalusia. She is fascinated by birds, words, sin and grace, and she explores her experiences and beliefs with a series of friends, from novelist John Hawkes to Sally Fitzgerald to a fictional pen pal I call “B,” who is a little like Betty Hester, whom the published letters referred to simply as “A.” I don’t use very many of her actual statements from the stories or the essays, as I want to extrapolate from the known more than to rehearse it.
To borrow a phrase she borrowed from Henry James, the dynamic of “mystery and manners,” of the instinctive and the carefully patterned, which characterized her beliefs, her behavior and her language – these fascinate me and spur me to ask her to say more. And that other “m” word; she’s full of mischief, and always with serious intent.
PC: When did you start this project?
RTS: About two years ago I wrote a little poem in which O’Connor asserts that she is not without yearnings and desire down there with all the dewy hydrangeas and peafowl, the din of jar flies serenading in squads all summer. A month later I wrote a short companion poem in which she talks about taking accordion lessons. No lie. “The original tin ear” she called herself. I put them away and never gave a thought to submitting them anywhere. In February of 08 I was trying to remember something she said about incarnational art and started looking through her letters in The Habit of Being. I was stunned at how little I remembered from my reading of the book many years before. Persevering, I kept sensing swerves and silences, things she was holding back on or not telling at all, and the speculation commenced. Soon I was writing a series, thinking maybe “chapbook.” But I couldn’t stop.
PC: What attracts you to her work and to her life so much so that you've undertaken this book?
RTS: My family is from Griffin, Georgia, less than an hour from Milledgeville, so I can play that cracker mouth music myself and know it is not dismissable. Because the state asylum is located just outside O’Connor’s town, I was threatened with it, my grandmamma saying, “You don’t be-have, we gon send you to Milledgeville.” So when I learned about her storytelling, it seemed like local news, important to me in a personal way. But that’s all coincidental. Essentially, her sardonic voice and scrappiness, her personal and imaginative courage have long inspired me. She’s oracular and vernacular and frighteningly funny at the same time. I can just sit and say her stories for hours and be happy as a pig in mud. And there’s this notion, maybe somewhat quelled by Brad Gooch’s new biography of her, that she was some kind of isolated Dixie Dickinson. I wanted to put the knife to that notion.
R. T. Smith On O'Connor's Front Porch
PC: What are some of the connections between writing narrative poetry and writing short fiction?
RTS: Maybe this series is akin to a book of linked stories about the same person, ideally each one able to sing a solo, but the whole chorus working together toward something grander. Since these particular narratives are monologues, I have to work even harder to keep my voice as only an undercurrent to the sound of O’Connor-as-I-imagine-her. And there is the question of the line. I’m still trying to measure the musical units of delivery as in any poem and to keep the theorizing and exposition to a minimum. But both stories and narrative poems live or die on dramatic presentation, which involves accumulating imagery and suspense.
PC: How do the requirements of the two genres differ? Does that change in writing a book-length series of poems?
RTS: I suppose story and song are emphasized differently in the two genres. Readers expect more character dimension and development in fiction. They’re more fully rendered. In the poems I also have to downplay O’Connor’s serious and eloquent theological and aesthetic speculations. I want poems that inhabit a place in a physical way. Further, her knowledge of Catholic doctrine and exegesis leaves me at the starting gate, so I have felt some relief that the poems won’t reveal my ignorance as thoroughly as a story inhabiting her mind would. And then there’s the rhyme and frequency of other echoing sounds, which I’m not likely to eliminate from any poem.
PC: Add into the mix you’re writing about a real person. How much freedom do you feel you have in writing about her?
RTS: My vacillation on this matter is why the book has taken me so long. Some days I think, “This is a fool’s errand,” and other days just divining around for fresh water I think, “This is pretty exciting, trying to fathom where the thresholds of privacy and invasion fall.” Back in mid-summer I decided I had to supply a subtitle, so now it’s The Red Wolf: A Dream of Flannery O’Connor. Soon as I thought of that I grew more confident, more convinced that readers will know what they’re getting into from the start.
PC: Do you skip around in chronology as you write? Will the book be chronological in its presentation?
RTS: I imagine the poems as being spoken (or written, as some are epistolary) in the last 2-3 years of her life, but she holds forth on things from the distant past – the accordion, writing workshops in Iowa, Yaddo, one sort of tryst, literary raids to colleges, the death of her father – and the recent news from the dining table and the field, scrapes with Mama Regina. And as the poems progress, her health deteriorates, the lupus gains ground, fevers abound, cortisone assists but damages her, the red wolf (after the rash on the face of a lupus patient) howls. She and the reader know the end is near, and she feels the relevance of that old hymn “Work for the Night Is Coming.” And throughout it all she keeps her faith, writes daily and never succumbs to self pity or loses her sass.
PC: What relationship, if any, do you see between a project like this and creative non-fiction?
RTS: I haven’t written much in that category, unless interviews qualify, but in that somewhat newly understood genre I imagine a lot of writers are using the Self as the filter, maybe standing in front of the actual facts and events, gesturing toward them like Vanna White pointing at a vowel but really signaling, “Don’t this blue gown look good on me!” In my project, I’m trying to hide myself behind the measurable information, but I’m also exploring myself, my own sense of place and faith and discipline. Sub rosa, I hope, as I’m finishing a distant second.
I’ve attempted to learn as much about her works and habits and haunts as I can in order to create a magnetic field around them with my own agenda. To bend the light and hope it doesn’t dim. But I hope the subtitle announces: this is not the biography. I hope the admission gives me permission to fib. As my granddaddy said, “You ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.”
PC: You've described the process as "channeling". Would you say more about how that channeling manifests itself as you work and in the completed poems?
RTS: I keep reading her work (I’m teaching a seminar in the fiction right now.), especially the letters, to refresh her syntax, diction and rhetorical strategies in my mind, to get her song in me. The result is that, when I’m actively at the work, rather than letting it simmer, I’m wondering what she would think about what I’m reading or seeing on TV or painting (walls, not canvases). Tonight my wife read me an amazing sentence from one of her student papers – “The star where Jesus was born was silver.” After about one minute of wondering what the girl was talking about, I started wondering what Flannery (I’ve gotten familiar, you see.) would think about it. But I do know from the available history what she thought about Pascal, NASCAR, peppermint pie, dogs, Tennessee Williams (“Not much.”), evangelists and a myriad other things. The result is not that she tells me, “Order the pork chop” or “Turn left here,” but that I’m having a regular dialogue with the few parts of my mind that are like hers and the many that aren’t. My wife and I visited Milledgeville in June so I could see the O’Connor manuscripts in the GCSU library, gaze into the penmanship like a seer looking at bird innards, but if I don’t finish this project soon, they’re going to send me back for other reasons.
PC: You raised the question of "appropriation/possession/purloining other people’s voices in poetry" and I wonder how you would relate that to issues raised by appropriation in the visual arts? I'm thinking here of a range of appropriation in art from incorporation of material in a collage to use of an altered image.
RTS: Because I’ve written historical fiction and many historically-based dramatic monologues, I’m accustomed to asking myself, “Are we stealing yet? Are we distorting, misappropriating, lying? And if so, is the lie telling an important truth? Am I giving it a new spin and whistle that makes this worthwhile?” As long as I can be surprising but not contradictory of the essential truths of O’Connor – from her cunning to her purity of purpose to her lightning wit, her dignity – I’m willing to dance on the quicksand and see if I can keep from sinking. One thing’s certain, her originality, power and precision are in no danger from me. You know, she said about Faulkner that “nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.” Being less wise, I do seem determined to perch on the rails the Peacock Express is running on. I didn’t plan this, but here I am. Maybe it’s not the most mannerly project, but as one of her characters says, “I done the needful.”
PC: What would you feel would be helpful for readers to know about the two poems we have here, "Blaze" and "Juba"?
RTS: “Juba,” like many of the poems, features one of the resident farm workers at Andalusia, Shot, whose last name I have changed. The sequence is about 40 poems, and more than a tenth deal directly with race, this one a little more obliquely than the ones about the Klan or Gone with the Wind. Wholly made up, but I imagine Shot a little whisky-smitten (as the letters testify to), dressed dandified and going through the hambone-style juba and buck dancing associated with minstrels, while Mary Flannery speculates on the sources of this ritual, pangs that go far back as slavery but are as fresh as the lynching of Shot’s uncle (my invention). She recognizes that Shot is the liveliest being on the landscape, and that his danse macabre may have some conjuring power. Some of the juba moves, in which one slaps and smacks the body for music (a kind of self-mortification, if given too much energy), are real and some my contrivance. If you don’t know the hambone and juba art, go to You Tube and be amazed.
This poem is more singy and folk rhythmy than anything else in the series, the jauntiness meant to offset the camouflaged grief.
“Blaze”? The friends of Mary Flannery’s mother Regina come and go in the series, often in the form of a book club, and I imagine her frustration when these well-meaning but shallow-reading folks come to discuss a major text in her pantheon. I let her mind wander to the weather, Pascal’s work with geometry, the personalities of the guests – she’s acerbic but restrained – their trust in Good Works for the heaven ticket and Pascal’s capacity for solitude, as well as the startling nature of his conversion. This was a hard poem for me, as I’m nowhere near as conversant with Pascal as O’Connor was, but I studied up some and hope it works. I’ve bet two years of my life on it.
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