Interview: Carmen Giménez Smith

Interview Conducted by Kathy M. Bates

Transcribed by Kathy M. Bates and Stephanie Meincke

Following her keynote speech and poetry reading at the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference, Carmen Giménez Smith sat down with Arkana editor, Kathy M. Bates, to discuss identity, poetry, and writing. 

Kathy M. Bates: Thank you again for taking the time to chat with us! Milk and Filth celebrated and explored the female body and spirit, and your current collection, Be Recorder, continues that conversation by exploring race, identity, and ideas of normality. In a way, it feels even more rebellious. Can you talk about your motivations and how they changed between these two projects?

Carmen Giménez Smith: Milk and Filth feels personal to me, even though it engages in a lot of allegories and mythologies. But also, the lyric voice is very private, very singular, and individual. When I was working on Be Recorder, I was figuring out how you could deploy that same intimate lyric energy but have it be more public, or maybe integrate some of that lyric interiority with the performative qualities of slam poetry and spoken word. Be Recorder was definitely a move in that direction. I think you’re right, it is a little rebellious. I think I just felt looser. Milk and Filth, I loved making it. I loved what I did with it, and I learned a lot from it. It’s a very compressed, tight book. But with Be Recorder, I lost the punctuation and it changed what I was doing with poetry. My lines got longer and had more range. 

Between Milk and Filth and Be Recorder, I had a book published by City Light called Cruel Futures. It was a little step-ladder book. Cruel Futures got accepted after I already had a contract with Be Recorder, but before I had an actual complete book. I had never written that way before: small book, on spec, definitely not ten years working on the poems that were in it. Then the election happened in 2016, so that completely recalibrated what I was going to do. Cruel Futures helped me get that rebellion. I tapped into San Francisco, Allen Ginsberg, that kind of history. I wrote poems that I didn’t labor over as much, and I think that was important. 

The way books get published in the world doesn’t necessarily reflect how they come into the world. Be Recorder is older, much older than almost all of the poems in Cruel Futures. This is all to say that each book presents an interesting ethical and aesthetic question, and the circumstances offer you some interesting possibilities. What is the color palette? What is the sentence? What am I doing? Cruel Futures gave me a taste of writing a political book, and then Be Recorder asked what does that really look like and how can I push that to the next level?

KMB: During the keynote discussion last night, you touched on risk. Considering that shift from private to public, how have the levels of risk you take developed over the years, and how has that changed the direction of your writing?

CGS: I have developed proficiency and familiarity with the sentence and the music of my poetic line. I’m almost fifty years old, so there are things that are going to be set, like my baseline and how far I can go in a poem. I think I’m very honest with myself about my limitations and where I always end up–because with poems, we make them and we make them again and again in books. It’s not like we can totally reinvent them, but we can reinvent how we experience making them. That’s where the risk comes in. When I’m reading as a writer, or as an editor, I’m always looking for the bomb that hasn’t been set off. Where’s the thing that I haven’t seen myself do before? And seven books in, I’ve done this and done that, so, what else can I do? Writing a poem with no punctuation after holding on to punctuation for so long was an important transformative risk for me. 

As a book editor, I’ve seen how enough books have started and what they’ve become to report to you that risk is always the best medicine for making a book. Of course, you have to balance risk with skill and be able to identify what skills you require to take the risk. For example, when writing Be Recorder, I was looking at a lot of poets who didn’t use punctuation, and I found this Peruvian American poet who didn’t use punctuation, and what he did clicked for me. I found the teacher I needed in order to take the risk. 

Identifying what skills you need to take the risk is a big part of it. But absolutely don’t ever stop taking risks. There’s no reason to stop. Nobody is ever so good at writing that they can just sit on their laurels. 

KMB: Writers often look back on their work, particular moments where their voice and intent are the strongest. Would you say you are drawn to any of your pieces beyond the others, and if so, why? 

CGS: Your works are like your kids. You say, “You’re not as cute as the baby, but I like these things about you.” They all have different things. It’s interesting. I really like my book Goodbye Flicker because it was the first long book I wrote. I had it in me to write a long sequence of poetry. When I look at that book, I see the kernels, the seeds, the puffs of so many things that ended up being a part of my aesthetic. I don’t think the others do that as much. 

Be Recorder, the sequence, the poem itself was so hard to make. It was so fabricated and calibrated and moved around. There’s a lot of sweat equity in that house. I read it now, and it seems like a different person. I think, “What is the next thing?” The ineffability of that next thing preoccupies me more than anything else. What can I do now? I can do it without punctuation. I can do it with punctuation. I don’t know. I think that fixation makes it hard for me to even look back because I don’t want to get pulled back into something. It would be easy for me to write Milk and Filth, Part 2 but not call it Milk and Filth, Part 2. I could do that, but I don’t want to do that. There’s a way in which I have to have a wall to move forward. 

KMB: On moving forward, I like the analogy of the seeds and kernels, branching out and developing into something more. It reminds me that there are often two ways to look at the process of writing: the emotional journey, and the physical one where you are sitting down to get the words on the page and then revising. Describe a little bit about your process. The final result is a tight (or voluptuous), specific, vivid use of language. What are some of the difficulties faced when getting to that point?

CGS: I feel there are three competing impulses: purpose vs clarity vs discovery. What I want to do is never going to be enough for somebody else because I am always going to just go to the surface of it. If you think of the great poems that really affected you, they weren’t telling you the things you could find out if you sat with yourself for ten minutes, like, “We are all connected. Death is painful. I am going to be sad when my mom dies.” Part of what art does is say, “I’m going to be sad when my mom dies, let me show you an exquisitely rendered physical manifestation of that with all of those complexities.” That takes time to get at. 

As an artist, the labor really is in the making. Let’s say you approach a subject like, “I am going to write about my mom,” or “I really miss my mom.” We all miss our mom; we all have complicated feelings about our mom. But what does it feel like to be in my body? I feel like I am a translator of that. 

When it’s out of my body and I put it on the page, then I’ve got this raw material that I have to navigate on two levels. One is audience, and the second is my reckoning. That’s the process. Getting as much good, solid, rhetorically complex raw material and then refining the language, looking at each word, thinking about little details such as tense. It’s like a checklist.

There is this interesting level of self-awareness that I think you have to develop as a writer to call yourself out, because you do have to call yourself out. There is a part of you that has to step in and say, “Okay, that’s cute, but are you really going to say pain,” or whatever it is. 

Revision sounds like something you do by yourself all of the time, but to me, revision is really when I get it into other people’s hands, and I’m able to have a conversation back and forth where they say, “Cut this, cut this, cut this, cut this.” Even if you don’t cut all of those things, they’ve said something to you about what those things are, and you’ve begun to translate that for yourself. That’s what I think building a poetics is. It’s about being able to articulate who you are as an artist and why you value the things you value. 

KMB: Last night you mentioned what it might have been like to be in a workshop with Kafka.

CGS: That’s right! Can you imagine what everyone would be like? “There goes Franz with his crazy stories again.” You know what I mean? 

Here’s the thing to keep in mind: workshop is important because we don’t, as a culture, have artistic communities that you can just enter. We instead have to create these artistic communities. It’s just a matter of capitalism that we silo things that way. Workshops have their purpose, but they by no means say anything about who you are, what you know, whether people like it or not. You just have to be a good writer. You have to be a good craftsperson. The advantage then is that you can use craft to do anything. Even if your novel never gets published, if you’re a good writer, you can do anything. 

I was a secretary after graduate school for a satellite company. It was my first job and the Vice President asked, “Do you know why I hired you? Because you’re a writer.” He said, “Do you know the difference between an engineer and the Vice President of Engineering? Being a good writer.” 

Being a good writer is already such a vital tool. Being a good writer is also being a good thinker, and all of those things will pay off in ways that are not necessarily immediately quantifiable. But that’s why you have to really love art to do it, because otherwise, you’ll just be bitter. [laughs] If you’re bitter then you’re not doing it for the right reasons. 

KMB: For creative writers at various levels in their journey, what advice do you have?

CGS: There are a few basic things. Don’t worry about what everybody else is doing. That’s not only not going to get you anywhere, but it’s also going to set you back. The minute you’re able to just sit and not worry about that noise, you’re going to be infinitely happier as an artist. 

I think the second thing is to read widely, and not just poetry. Read stuff that you’re not going to necessarily like. I’ve always been surprised at things that I don’t like, at first, and then I find are phenomenal teachers. Read in every genre, because the poet has an interesting place, culturally (though not necessarily in this moment in culture). We’re kind of these processing centers. We synthesize different aspects and political conversations as well as moods and rhetorical approaches. We make them into these artifacts that can’t really exist in any other manifestation except as a poem. 

I read all kinds of stuff. I watch all kinds of stuff, too, because television is folklore. Film is folklore. People will look back and say, “Oh, look at American folklore at the end of its age. Isn’t that interesting that they had zombie shows for 10 years, and then they had this crazy political thing?” But I wouldn’t have really been able to know that or understand that if I hadn’t spent a lot of time reading about folklore, and reading folklorists and critical works on my favorite fairy tales. 

KMB: Most writers have new projects in mind or some they are already working on. What’s next? 

CGS: Right now I’m gathering notes for a book on revision. I love talking and thinking about revision. I want to have, like, an auto manual. I feel there are times we can be artsy, but an adjective is an adjective. At the end of the day, it basically does adjective stuff in a memo or in a poem. 

The more I’ve been able to mechanize how a poem works and to see it as an object, the easier it’s been for me to not get my ego and my feelings caught up in it. I can see it as, “Oh, if you move the screw, and you put it right here, it makes the sound that it’s supposed to make.” That’s not all that poetry is, but being able to approach it that way has opened it up for me. 

I’m also doing some translation of Peruvian poets. 

KMB: Thank you so much again for meeting and speaking with us, and I look forward to your book on revision! 

Carmen Giménez Smith is a Professor of English at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and the co-director for CantoMundo. She is the co-editor of The Nation’s poetry section as well as the publisher of Noemi Press. Her latest book of poetry, Be Recorder, was published by Graywolf Press in the Fall of 2019. More information about Carmen Giménez Smith can be found by visiting her website.

Image Credit: “Writer’s Block” by Carley Anderson

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