Twenty Questions with Aaron Smith

David Trinidad

Aaron Smith at Anne Sexton’s grave

Aaron Smith at Anne Sexton’s grave

What is your first memory?


I remember my first day of kindergarten, walking to the bus stop carrying my Disney school-bus lunchbox. I still have that lunchbox, and it made an appearance in my first book. I have an earlier memory of being in the car with my mom when I was around two years old. We were driving by the house my parents were building, and I remember how happy it made my mother. I’m not sure if that is a memory, or if my mom has just told me that story for years.



Can you describe your childhood landscape?


We lived in a tiny, hilly neighborhood with a curvy road running through it. There were woods behind my house where my friends and I played. Our house was brick on the bottom with white siding and black shutters on top. The same man built some of our neighbors’ houses, and I guess he lacked imagination because they all looked pretty much the same. I grew up a couple miles from my grandparents’, so the whole patch of road from my house to my grandparents’ felt like home. It was safer back then for kids than it is now: we rode our bikes, swam, and explored every wooded area until dark.



Your new of book of poems, The Book of Daniel, is coming out in the fall. Would you describe the process of writing the book?


It was the first book that I’ve written that was fun to write. The subject matter I’m drawn to requires me to live in uncomfortable spaces, so I often have to sink into, or past, maybe, a sort of dread to access the stuff that interests me. I still went to those spaces, but this time I was in an amazing dialogue with the poet Miguel Murphy. Instead of waiting for inspiration, I made myself write pretty much every night, sometimes four or five hours a night. I would then send the poems to Miguel, and he would give me thoughtful, smart feedback. He really got what I was doing and challenged me in ways I had not been challenged before. He could see strategies I relied on, maybe out of habit, maybe because they were a big part of how I’d always made poems, and he would push me to abandon them and follow what was most interesting in the poem. I felt like I learned a lot about my own writing while writing this book, which is a great feeling. I actually missed writing the book when it was finished. Usually, I feel relief. This time I wondered what I was going to do with my time.



How is The Book of Daniel different from your previous books?


This book is in dialogue with as many of my personal influences as possible. I’ve felt for a while that the poetry “community” is rather ahistorical, everyone reading the same ten books written in the last five years and declaring them earth-shattering works. I think certain books become contagious on social media in ways that don’t really serve writers, and they become the unofficial agreed-upon standard of what poetry should be. I felt this urge to ground myself. I wanted to write a book filled with my different histories: poetry, popular culture, art, and family. I wanted to remind myself there are many ways to write poems, and many different things can be put into poems. I needed to remember the long history of the art. It was the most intentional I’ve been with trying to bring into a book everything I love, everything that has shaped me. Some people have said it’s a dark book, but I think it’s darkly funny in many ways. I also hate pretention, so I poke a lot of fun at poetry while also showing, hopefully, a deep love of the art. This book is also different formally. Primer was such a sad book that when I finished it my relationship to enjambment and certain kinds of stanzas was sadness, so for this book I allowed myself to double space, take up a lot of room, rely on juxtaposition and big leaps, rather than shaping the poems into tight, neat objects.



Your last book, Primer, includes a beautiful elegy for the poet Irene McKinney. Can you say something about your friendship with her, and her work?


When I went to college, I thought I was going to major in advertising. I had never really been drawn to literature in any serious way. Since I went to a liberal arts college, I had to take courses in various disciplines. My adviser put me in a Short Fiction class to fulfill a requirement. I fell in love with the stories. Margaret Atwood’s “The Sin-Eater” is the story that made me want to write. I decided to enroll in a fiction course, which, oddly, was taught by Irene. She never said this, but I think she took aspiring fiction writers and turned them into poets (which I find myself doing now as a professor). She opened the class by reading her own poem “Devotional.” I was hooked. We kept in touch over the years after I graduated, and our friendship grew and deepened. We shared books that we were reading and showed each other poems. In 2008, I was invited back to my alma mater to teach, and we became colleagues. Her incurable cancer diagnosis was a real blow to the literary community of which she was the center. One memory I have that I will never forget was when she stopped me in the hall at AWP and said: “We both know I’m going to die sooner rather than later. Will you do what you can to keep my work alive.” Since then, and because her work is brilliant, I have tried to keep her in the conversation as much as possible. It made sense to celebrate her by writing about her since she gave me this art, this way of seeing the world. I helped her friend, the poet Maggie Anderson, edit and publish her posthumous collection Have You Had Enough Darkness Yet? It’s a great book that I hope people will find. She also has a selected poems called Unthinkable. She was a true artist and one of the most knowledgeable and well-read people I’ve ever known. I doubt I will ever meet anyone like her again.



Who are your favorite porn stars?


That’s always changing. My earliest two obsessions in the ‘90s were Dean Spencer and Aiden Shaw. Now that I’m older, I find the gay male body culture a bit exhausting, but back then I think those men challenged my shame and internalized homophobia, my notion that guys with muscles didn’t suck dick. So to see Dean Spencer (who is mentioned in the new book) allow himself to be totally submissive and humiliated by all these men in a military prison was a real turn on. 


There’s a new guy (or maybe I’ve just discovered him), Dylan James (his name sounds very literary), who has a lot of tattoos and is vocal and bossy. I like him a lot. I also like Ricky Sinz for reasons too complicated to explain in an interview.


Dean Spencer in  Code of Conduct

Dean Spencer in Code of Conduct


In his poem “After Lake Leman,” Robinson Jeffers says, “What is it that kills the power of a poet? He writes too much.” Reaction?


My first thought is that publishing too much kills the power. I think it’s important to live with poems and not give them away so quickly. I tell my students not to publish their poems on Twitter the day after they write them. First, they’re not finished. Second, it’s okay for something to exist just for you, or for a small community of readers offline. I don’t see how the current culture of affirmation on social media by people we don’t know can help an artist maintain their voice and singular vision.



What do you say to people who think poetry shouldn’t be autobiographical?


Autobiography is inevitable. What you say or don’t say is information to a reader about you as a person. Your obsessions show up, and that is autobiography. I understand wanting some room to stray from the exact details which are required for nonfiction, but I think it’s silly when poets freak out if someone thinks the “speaker” in the poem is them. Who cares?



Which living poet is your polar opposite?


It’s hard to answer this without sounding shady, but I don’t mean it that way. I think someone like A.E. Stallings would probably be my polar opposite, BUT I like that she writes because I believe poetry can and should be many things. There is room for what everyone wants to do. I know she is talented, etc. Her work just isn’t my thing, and I would imagine she would feel the same about me.


It’s funny: now I’m Googling A.E. Stallings, and I like her poems better than I thought. So maybe my answer is Kay Ryan.



Which actors, living or dead, would you pick to play your parents in a movie about your life?


If I’m thinking about this stage of my life, I would pick Paul Giamatti to play my dad and Margo Martindale to play my mom. I love both of them as actors, and I would be curious to see what aspects of my parents they would bring to life.



Who would play you?


I knew you were going to ask that! Peter Sarsgaard, I guess. I think he has a weird mind like mine, and he could eat a lot of carbs to prepare for the role.



What would the title of this movie be?


Tortured by a Small-Town God: A Love Story.



What do you collect, and why?


I collect books as most writers do. I also collect Tokidoki Unicorno vinyl figurines. They are little pieces of art. I have every figure from all seven series so far. I think it’s a Warholian thing: I like several of the same thing in different colors, etc.



Can you talk about your erotic Instagram collages?


When I joined Instagram, I wanted to do something other than take pictures of food or share poems. It actually became a space very much NOT about poetry. I was drawn to the squares of Instagram, so I found an app that would give me nine squares to play with. Those nine squares fill one Instagram square. For me, it’s about juxtaposition, one image’s proximity to another. The religious stuff intersects with the erotic which intersects with something “beautiful.” I had such a bad experience with religion as a child that I’m fascinated by how pictures of Jesus look when placed next to two men kissing (things I was taught that do not fit together). Maybe I’m just being disrespectful, which is fine. Maybe I’m thinking about how all these things exist in the same space at the same time and the lines we draw between them are arbitrary. Also, I like the limitation of the nine squares. I think the collages—I’ve done over a thousand at this point—helped me write the new book. It’s fun to throw so many things together and see how they collide and dialogue. The project might be finished. I’m not sure. I have some prints now that I’m considering selling.



What was the last dream you remembered?


Last night I dreamed my blood pressure medicine was $500. I was totally freaked out.



How important are the New York School poets to your work?


I love them. When I found them, they made sense to me. The poet’s movement through the world is in real-time in the poems, especially O’Hara. He is probably the most original voice of the second half of the twentieth century. I love how those poets banish hierarchies, refuse to privilege one thing over another when it comes to material for poems. I’m carrying around Schuyler’s selected poems this summer, and he is a master of diction and writes with such a generous view of the world.


I got to spend some time at the Fales Library at NYU looking at the papers of the poet Tim Dlugos (a second generation New York School Poet, as you know), and somewhere in his papers he says something like: poems are time capsules, and you can put things in them that people will look back on and learn from. That’s why I love popular culture in poetry. I hate when people say putting those things in poems will keep the poem from standing the test of time. First, it’s presumptuous that anyone will stand the test of time. Second, how limiting to ignore the world in which you live for some grand notion of your possible, future greatness.



Robert Creeley encouraged you when you were starting out. What advice, if any, did he give you?


I met him at Vermont Studio Center in 1998. I had just finished graduate school. I think I turned 24 while I was there. We were walking across a little bridge. He stopped, took me by the shoulders and said: “You can do this [be a writer] if you want.” It was such a generous moment that I keep with me. We saw each other a few times after that, and we had an email friendship up until the time of his death.



Can you put together a playlist of 10 favorite songs?


“Manic Monday” by The Bangles

“Sorry” by Beyoncé

“Stranger Strange” by Fischerspooner

“Tony” by Patty Griffin

“Language or the Kiss” by Indigo Girls

“Why” by Annie Lennox

“Sunset Strip” by Courtney Love

“It’s a Sin” by The Pet Shop Boys

“Dang A Lang” by Trina, Lady Saw and Nicki Minaj

“Love Interruption” by Jack White



Can you tell me something you’ve never told anyone else?


I have a secret collection of 12’’ male celebrity action figures/dolls: Brad Pitt, Daniel Craig, Tom Hardy, Jeremy Renner, Jason Statham, and Hugh Jackman. I have my eye on a couple others. I almost told you about this in the collecting question, but I erased it. Why I keep this a secret is probably something I should work on in therapy. They’re all packed away. Maybe I should do a gay Instagram soap opera with them.



Is there anything you wish I would ask you?


Something about Daniel Craig or Tom Hardy, or who is the most overrated poet writing today.