A Spectator to the Wild: In Conversation with Carolyn Smart

Carolyn Smart introducing the Bronwen Wallace Award in Toronto, May 2014
A garden, a shade tree, a summer afternoon, a great bookshop, food and wine, music and poetry ... that's Tamworth, where I recently met up with Carolyn Smart as she read from her forthcoming book Careen.
SUSAN GILLIS: What brought you to poetry?

CAROLYN SMART: I grew up in a highly competitive literary family: my father was a Commonwealth Scholar who studied with Robert Frost at Harvard; my mother’s tutor for her “Reading and Writing” program at Sarah Lawrence College was Joseph Campbell. She read ee cummings aloud to me when I was a young girl and I fell in love with the power of language very early on. I found myself writing Harlequin Romance-type short stories while in a freezing cold boarding school on the Sussex coast of England. It wasn’t until I discovered the poetry of Leonard Cohen when I was 16 that I turned my hand to poetry, and have rarely looked back. I owe so much to a superb high school teacher named Elizabeth Stimpson who literally changed my life by encouraging my writing and submitting my poems to an anthology of student work. My first publication hooked me forever.

SG: Your work is often dramatic; characters come to life through voice, especially in Hooked (Brick, 2009) and Careen (Brick, 2015), and in fact Hooked has been adapted for the stage. How does the “power of language” you describe falling in love with play out on the stage of your poetry?

CS: I think I wore out my need for “witnessing” through my memoir, At the End of the Day (Penumbra Press, 2001) so what I have written since then has been less personal, but certainly geared towards the sound of the written word, the effect that the words have aurally as well as visually. Hooked took on a life of its own through the wonderful character actor Nicky Guadagni who I trust implicitly with the understanding of what it is I was trying to project with the seven women in the book. And my new collection, Careen, is an attempt at a conversation between the characters and the reader or audience. It consists of poems that tell a story ranging over a period of four years, sometimes more, involving several people who didn’t get the chance for formal schooling but had a serious education elsewhere.

SG: What's inspiring you these days?

CS: Nowadays I am trying not to think of a specific project but have returned to a more personal look at a time in my childhood when things changed on a radical scale. I’m writing about the year 1963, in which much of Western society was on the cusp of a shift that at the age of 11 I took personally. That’s what I’m thinking and writing about, loosely.

I take great solace in the natural world around me: I live in the midst of 93 wooded acres and feel honoured to be a spectator to the wild world, most recently, the tattered luna moth I watched last night drifting among the Queen Anne’s Lace, looking for a place to take its final rest. I’ve been reading non-fiction, notably The Seachers- The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel, and Clearing the Plains by James Daschuk, and the major poetry anthologies Poetry of Witness edited by Carolyn Forché and Duncan Wu, and Great American Prose Poems edited by David Lehman. I read fiction constantly, like filler, so can’t even start on where that’s going, but it’s been a great year for reading.

Carolyn Smart has published five collections of poetry, most recently Hooked - Seven Poems (Brick, 2009), and a memoir, At the End of the Day (Penumbra Press, 2001). Founder of the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, she has taught poetry at the Banff Centre and since 1989 has been Professor of Creative Writing at Queen's University. Her forthcoming collection Careen (Brick, 2015) tells the story of the Barrow Gang. Read her poem "Shelter" here.