[The following interview and introductory remarks were originally published in Cold Mountain Review in 2006.]
Mark Smith-Soto is difficult to classify. He is a professor of Spanish and Latin American literature, a playwright, a poet, a translator, the editor of the International Poetry Review—and he fills each of these roles with style to burn. It would certainly be a lapse not to mention his Latino roots, but it would be an even greater one to define him by them. His work appears in Nimrod, Carolina Quarterly, The Sun, Poetry East, Quarterly West, Callaloo, Chattahoochee Review, Literary Review, Kenyon Review, among others. His books include the chapbooks Green Mango Collage and Shafts, and the full-length collections Our Lives Are Rivers (Florida University Press, 2003) and Any Second Now (MSR Press, 2006). His short plays have been published and produced locally in North Carolina and nationally.
The following interview took place in Greensboro, NC, early October, 2005.
Okla Elliott: You’ve taken an unorthodox path to becoming a poet—you earned a PhD in comparative literature at UC-Berkeley and went on to become a Spanish professor. It was only later in life that you focused more on your creative writing. What were the reasons for this choice, or was it even a conscious choice at all?
Mark Smith-Soto: I’ve thought of myself as a poet since I was a boy. In the Costa Rica of my childhood, poetry was an important part of any educated person’s life whether you were a lawyer or a doctor or an engineer. In my mother’s family, poetry was always highly regarded, and some of my earliest memories are of my mother or my uncle or my grandfather quoting a poem by Ruben Dario or Sor Juana during after dinner conversations or while on a drive to the beach. But if from my mother’s side of the family I inherited a love for literature, from my father the lawyer I inherited a strong practical streak, and very early on I realized that I was not the sort to starve for the sake of my art. By the time I entered as a freshman at the University of Maryland, I had made up my mind to become a teacher, very consciously having decided that it was a profession both congenial to my temperament and more likely than most to give me ample time to write. As it turned out, I was only partially right. Scholarly endeavors ended up requiring much more of my creative energy than I anticipated, and while I never stopped writing poetry altogether, it definitely took a back seat to the business of getting my academic career on its way. I should add that from early on I found it a lot easier to publish articles and books on other people’s writing than to discover anyone willing to print my own poetry. Had it been otherwise, I might have gathered the courage to dedicate myself more fully to my vocation as a poet. Of course, it may have been for the best that my early poetry did not get accepted for publication. Looking at it now, I feel that most of it was imitative and immature, and I am glad I was not encouraged to continue in that same vein.
OE: How has having studied Latin American literature changed your creative sensibilities?
MS: The first poetry I learned to love and to recite as a child in Costa Rica was in Spanish, of course, writers such as Jorge Manrique, Sor Juana, Ruben Dario and Gabriela Mistral who were often quoted at family reunions, parties, and at dinner-time conversations. But there was no formal study involved, I just absorbed the rhythms and music of poems I found beautiful often without fully understanding them. I could not begin to say how profoundly this early experience shaped my creative sensibilities. I would not be surprised if everything I write or even think might not be traceable back somehow to that primal apprenticeship. When it comes to the actual study of poetry and its influence of my work, I should say that although I continued to write for a while in Spanish when I first came to the U.S., I very quickly fell in love with the English language, which I learned in part by memorizing poems by Poe, Frost, Wordsworth, Yeats and many others. In high school and then as an English major at the University of Maryland, it was primarily through the reading and analysis of English-language writers that I fully began to understand what poetry was about. Later, as a graduate student, I came to know and love Neruda, Lorca, Storni, and many other Spanish-language poets who I can only hope have left their mark on my work—as they no doubt have on my soul.
There is one aspect of my work which no doubt bears the mark of poets such as Neruda and Vallejo who were unabashedly political in their writings. With occasional exceptions, modern poets in English have pretty much shied away from the expression of social and political concerns, as if, in the fashion of Oscar Wilde’s butler in The Importance of Being Earnest, they did not think it polite to listen to the sounds of sorrow all around. While it is not typical of my work in general, I have written through the years a number of poems with a specifically socio-political intention, and I might well have written more had I not found it nearly impossible to publish them in literary journals. Luckily, I discovered an outlet for some of those pieces in The Sun, a thoughtful rather than academic magazine which does not consider an ethical sympathy in a writer to be, and this is Wilde once again, an unpardonable mannerism of style.
OE: Some of your poetry seems very informed by your Latin American heritage, but much of it shows none of that influence at all. Your work doesn’t seem defined by your ethnicity. In what ways does your personal heritage enter into your work?
MS: It took me a long time to realize I was a Latino writer. Although in Costa Rica people use both the father’s and mother’s family name, when we came to the U.S. in 1958 my American father simply dropped the Soto from his children’s surname. Because my skin is not particularly dark and because I spoke English without much of an accent, I soon became accustomed to being seen, and seeing myself, as just another Smith.
My family’s economic position was relatively comfortable, and I did not have to grow up suffering the kind of privations, oppression and prejudice that informs the work of many Hispanic poets in this country. Unlike Luis Rodriguez, I don’t bear the scars of inner city gang life, and unlike Gary Soto or Tino Villanueva, I am not a product of the Southwest that often has oppressed and exploited its Chicano and Mexican populations. The Nuyorican experience is as foreign and exotic to me as any other aspect of Manhattan.
Still, as an American kid who lived with a Spanish speaking mother in the house and who felt close ties to the family I left behind in Costa Rica, I was never in danger of losing sight of my Hispanic background even if that awareness never became politicized for me. In fact, with one or two exceptions, all the poetry I have written with a Hispanic theme is not so much “Latino” as it is familial, that is, it is personal rather than intentionally political. I do believe, of course, as the cliché goes, that the personal is political, and in so far as the poetry I’ve published inspired by my Costa Rican experience might bring to the consciousness of my readers the fact that they are holding in their hands the work of a hyphenated American of the Hispanic sort, in that sense, I am pleased to be perfectly political.
OE: You have also recently begun writing short plays. What is the connection between verse and short dramatic pieces?
MS: The language of poets, to borrow a phrase from Yeats, is a dialogue between self and soul, and their poetry offers us a chance to eavesdrop on this vital, essential conversation. But there is an aspect of myself as a human being that only comes into its own when I am in the company of others, when I am in conversation, in dance, in laughter with other people. Writing plays satisfies a need I feel to delve into the dynamics that human interaction. I love the way we humans give ourselves away every time we open our mouths, the way our choice of words, the way we scratch our heads, the long or short steps we take across a living room all can signal the state and nature of our souls, which we imagine we keep deeply hidden. Of course, poetry and playwriting can go hand in hand, and when they merge seamlessly as they do in Shakespeare, the most obvious example, they can attain heights of expressivity that can only be called sublime. It is commonplace to say that plays in verse are now anachronistic and have no chance of being produced, but I have written one short verse play which won a prize in a national contest and will soon be published. This has been very encouraging, and I expect to try it again before too long.
OE: What specifically about the 10-minute play excites you?
MS: It has been a good way for a beginner like myself to break into writing for the theatre because the initial investment of time and energy and soul are not so great as to be daunting. Similar to trying your teeth on a few short stories before committing to taking on a novel. It brings home to you how brevity really is the soul of wit. “Less is more” can be a difficult lesson for writers who are accustomed to lean heavily on language to carry our meaning. A mere ten minutes of stage time to work with teaches you quickly that what can be well expressed is often less important than what can be left unsaid, and that a well-placed gesture can suggest a story beyond words.
One important advantage to the very short play– your chances of actually getting your work produced are much greater than with a full-length piece. I have had six put on locally myself. More and more community theatres have found that an offering of six or seven ten-minute plays can be very appealing, especially to younger audiences with ever shorter attention spans. Here in Greensboro, the Playwrights’ Forum presents two such evenings each year, always to very respectable houses.
And, finally, well, it’s liberating to write in a form that’s new, whose parameters, requirements and limitations are still in the process of being discovered. I mean, the ten-minute play as a subgenre has only been around for a few years, so, in a sense, those of us practicing it now are in on the ground floor, shaping it, determining what its nature will be. It’s a relief for a poet and would-be playwright not to have to labor under Shakespeare’s shadow for a change!
OE: Do you think you’ll ever write fiction?
MS: As for fiction, well, I have been an insatiable reader of fiction since my childhood, and am seldom without a novel in my hand, whether it be a P.D. James or an Elizabeth George, or a Dickens novel I finally have gotten to, or the latest by Kazuo Ishiguro. But much as I regret to say so, I have no talent for narrative whatsoever. My few attempts have taught me that to create a fictional world—to evoke the minutiae of every day life in an exciting and engaging way so as to provide the necessary context in which character can be explored and understood—requires a kind of creative patience which has been denied me. So no, I think the world is pretty safe from any attempts at fiction from my pen.
OE: Your newest collection of poetry, Any Second Now, due out in spring 2006, contains many political poems. Would you discuss the new collection and your choice to include so many political poems?
MS: Publishing my first full-length book of poetry took me some thirty years, and I had almost despaired of getting a second collection accepted when Main Street Rag Publishers fished me out from among the finalists in their annual poetry competition and offered me a contract this year. In preparing that manuscript, I got together every poem I had ever published in literary magazines and every poem I felt deserved to have been published by someone somewhere and then looked to see if I could find a way of giving the collection a sense of overarching unity. I couldn’t. The problem was that I have many voices in my head, almost distinct poetical personalities, if you will, in the fashion of Fernando Pessoa, the great Portuguese modernist who went so far as to publish his work under several different aliases. There was no way, ultimately, that I could impose some artificial thematic superstructure on those poems. So what I decided to do was to divide the manuscript into four sections, each one representing one of the principal “voices” in which my poetry tends to come to me, and hope that my readers will intuit how these disparate parts conspire in the creation of a coherent whole. The title, Any Second Now, suggested itself as possibly the one preoccupation that underlies almost everything I write, and that is a sense of urgency about the element of time in which our mortal selves unwind.
As for the overtly political themes in the section I titled “President In My Heart” I can only say that if, as the saying goes, the personal is political, then what interests me above all in these poems is rather how the political is personal—that is, how am I, how is my own humanity—complicit in the political and social realities which I decry? Of course, I have often through the years enjoyed writing direct political attacks in limericks on figures like George W. Bush and his ilk, but I do not consider them serious poetry because writing them did not teach me anything about myself.
OE: With Nation Books’ 2003 publication of Poets Against the War, which included such luminaries as Marvin Bell, Rita Dove, and W.S. Merwin, and which met with great success, do you feel that there may be a place again for the political in the literary?
MS: Yes, of course, there always has been and always will be a place for the political in the literary. That fact has not always been recognized, but it is undeniable. Even in the U.S., where we so often hear the complaint that poets live at a remove from the sorrows of the everyday life around them, writers through the years from Whitman to Edna St. Vincent Millay to Robert Bly to Carolyn Forché, among many others, have penned powerful work with socio-political concerns.
But I am not bothered that in this country we have few poets of the first rank who have written overtly political poetry. You have to consider how the pragmatic, mercantile and utilitarian forces here oppose a crushing weight against the pursuit of spiritual values that writing poetry represents. For a person in the United States to embrace the identity of a poet—which miraculously still happens!—rather than that of a football player or an Exxon executive or a lawyer or a Bible salesman is to take a political stand. In such a context as ours, to write a few lines of poetry about a rose should be understood as an intrinsically subversive act.
OE: You recently received an NEA grant. What plans do you have for the near future?
MS: Only one: I want to write!