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Open Thread - Blog

November 2nd, 2008
Adam Atkinson

For purposes of full disclosure, S.E. (or Sarah, as we know her) is a dear friend of Scott and I. But don’t worry; favoritism this is not. After reading about good old S.E. it’ll be clear that we’re lucky just to know her! Enjoy!

About S.E. Smith

After growing up along a country road on her parents’ farm in Greene County, PA (along the West Virginia border), S.E. studied Creative Writing and English at Carnegie Mellon University, where she immediately got busy being semi-famous and multi-talented. In her four years there, she was the winner of many awards (1st place Adamson Awards in both poetry and fiction, an Academy of American Poets Prize, Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets Fellowship); a jazz aficionado (minor in Jazz Performance, first chair trombone player - and only woman - in the CMU Jazz Ensemble); and a published poet (Find some of Smith’s undergraduate poetry at the Beloit Poetry Journal or Issue 2 of Swink.) ¬†Upon completion of her degree in 2005, she was named the first Artist in Residence for Creative Writing at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center, a charter partnership between LPPAC and CMU. During this time, she was also nominated for a Pushcart Prize .

Now in her third and final year repping Western PA at the University of Texas at Austin’s Michener Center for Writers, where she is focusing on poetry with a secondary focus in fiction, S.E.’s continuing her stunning run of success. After being named a finalist in Black Warrior Review’s 2006 poetry contest and taking over as Poetry Editor for the Bat City Review, S.E. has had a spectacular 2008, first being named a Runner-up in the Atlantic Monthly Student Writing Contest, then winning the Keene Prize for Literature, which rewarded a collection of her fiction with $18,000.

If you’re dying to read some of this much-honored work, fear not: her work is forthcoming in Caketrain, the Best New Poets 2008 anthology, and - yes, it’s true! - Vol. 1 of our Open Thread Regional Review. Isn’t that great? You can also find out more about Sarah and see her exciting new multimedia work here.

It’s really not fair to S.E. for us to list off these accomplishments under an “About S.E. Smith” heading, as though she’s some Tracy Flick type, out to build up a resume that makes all the rest of us wilt. What’s most striking about S.E. is her graciousness, humility, vulnerability and honesty when you, oh, ask her a standard interview question, or something like that. Oh, and she’s beautiful and a great dancer, too. Don’t believe us? Read on!


(Video Stills)

Straight from the Artist’s Mouth!

OT Blog: You grew up in Greene County, PA, which I’ve often heard (and experienced myself) to be just as West Virginia as it is Pennsylvania, culturally speaking. What kind of setting was it for your formative years? How has it informed your poetry? Your fiction?

S.E. Smith: Greene County is definitely Appalachian in a big way. In college, it did delight me to bring my urbane, sophisticated friends to Greene County for a weekend and watch you all freak out. I think it helped my city mouse friends understand me a lot better to see the kind of environment I grew up in and reacted to. It makes my own urbane sophistication all the more impressive! Seriously, though, I don’t want to trash Greene County because I love it there, and I love it more the more I grow up and shed my adolescent defense mechanisms, but I encountered a lot of anti-intellectual sentiment there. People were always telling me that I used big words and should cut that out if I wanted anybody to like me. Good thing that not being liked fit so well with my acerbic adolescent persona. When I was 14 half of my statements began with the rhetorical question, “Do you know what makes me really mad?” Anyway, like many parts of the south, the community is obsessed with local heritage going back generations upon generations; a lot of kids my age had their whole extended families nearby. I seemed like a transplant because my parents grew up in the midwest and moved to Greene County along with a pretty sizable influx of hippie-esque back-to-the-landers. So I grew up really feeling like an outsider, but also resenting that feeling, because I was born there like everybody else.

That outsider feeling is probably the biggest influence on my writing, but I don’t think it surfaces in any obvious way. It’s tempting to psychologize myself and say, “Well, probably feeling like an outsider made it easier for me to take the stance of an observer, and through observation end up at writing,” but I don’t think it’s ever that simple. More likely the outsider feeling left me with a gulf of sadness, a sense of the abyss, which I am forever trying to fill in with slapstick and dance moves. In a recent poetry workshop here at UT, Dean Young said that there’s a theory that humor is self-defense, and there’s some truth to that for me. I think I’ve only been able to write about Greene County since moving to Texas, which is so different, it allows me to sift through all of the stuff I remember, and to decide what’s actually interesting or usable in that material. And by “material” I mean “angst” obviously. And cornbread recipes.

OT: What has it been like to leave the region after 18 years in Greene County and five years in Pittsburgh? How do you feel about the prospect of returning?

SES: Let me say that people in Texas are extremely puzzled by the northeast. (I don’t necessarily consider Western PA a part of “the northeast,” but for Texans anything above the Mason Dixon line within reasonable proximity of the Atlantic counts.) They’re always surprised to find that Pennsylvania is actually a pretty big state. And they always mix up Philly and Pittsburgh, which angers me to no end. Lately, with the World Series, all of my sports-inclined friends assume that I’m rooting for the Phillies; they don’t understand how I can be all “Eh, good for them” and “STEELER NATION FOR LIFE” simultaneously. The upside, though, is that everybody here has a potent mental image of Pittsburghers as tough bitches, so yeah, that’s fine because I’m full of true grit.

It took me four or five months to adjust to the move, though. When I left Pittsburgh I felt like I was dying, which sounds kind of extreme, but what can I say? Western PA was the world that I understood. It was the world to which I had been calibrated. And I still feel this really overwhelming pride for the region, all angst aside. I’m always telling people that Sammy Nestico is from Pittsburgh, that the lady who played Agent 99 on “Get Smart” went to CMU. I dragged one of my friends out to see “Smart People” just for the ample Pittsburgh/CMU shots. I’m such a regional booster, I don’t know how my friends and acquaintances put up with me. Especially the ones who agree to watch Steelers games with me and then have to deal with the alarming spectacle of yours truly decked out in a Polamalu jersey, Terrible Towel in hand, making frequent/panicked phone calls to my father when the running game isn’t working out.

Texas has been good for me, especially climate-wise. I thought I was a depressed and inherently cranky person, but no, it was just the weather! Also, I love the Michener Center, my MFA program. And plenty of bands/plays/whatever are always passing through Austin. But I kind of think Austin has it too easy. Sometimes it feels like everybody here is sauntering around humming “Girl From Ipanema,” eating their organic foods, drinking their kombucha. It gets old. And I am thinking about moving back to Pittsburgh next year. In my extremely hazy life-plan, I end up back in Pittsburgh eventually. I think it’s the most beautiful city in the world. Every time I come back and drive through the Fort Pitt tunnel again, I cry, for serious.

OT: You recently won the Keene Prize for Literature, a pretty big-time award at UT-Austin. What were your winning stories about? How does it feel to win for your fiction in an MFA program where your focus is poetry? What is the most frivolous/fabulous/preposterous thing you plan to spend [even a little of] the prize money on?

SES: For the contest, I submitted a small collection of stories titled “The Wild Girl of Western Pennsylvania.” The title story is based on a news item from a few years ago about a feral teenage girl appearing in Java. She fascinated me because she was so weirdly socialized; she could use a spoon but not a fork, she could sing a few traditional songs but couldn’t speak. Translating that idea into small-town Appalachia came easily for me, and also engaged some of those outsider tropes noted above. The other two stories in my entry also take place in Western PA. “The Bigtime” is about the organizer of a baby pageant who wishes she had moved away from the small town where she was raised and still lives–she’s a mirror version of myself if I had never left Greene County, so it follows that she’s mad as all get-out. And “Night Shift at the Don Knotts Memorial Hospital” follows a group of badass night nurses at an imagined hospital in Pittsburgh. Well, the city isn’t identified in the story, but it’s clear for me that the no man’s land between three hospitals is in Bloomfield. When I brought these stories to workshop, usually somebody would point out a quintessential Western PA detail and say, “This, here, this just isn’t realistic. This belongs to some other time and place.” And I would think, nope, that’s just where I grew up.

As to your second question, well, it feels great! Only current students at UT-Austin can apply to the Keene Prize, but there are so many outrageously talented writers here and the competition is strong. At CMU we were encouraged to write in more than one genre, and I don’t think any of us students thought of ourselves merely as poets, fiction writers, or anything else exclusively. The Michener Center asks all of its students to take classes in two genres, which was one of its greatest selling points for me. I came here ready to devote a lot of time and energy to fiction as well as poetry. Ultimately my decision to submit a group of stories was pragmatic; contemporary poetry is, for better or worse, best understood by contemporary poets, and the Keene committee did not include any poets. My stories and poems share plenty of weirdness, but narrative makes weirdness more palatable.

It’s not glamorous, but plenty of the prize money will go directly to American Education Services to clear me of student loans. But I did use a little of it to finance my first tattoo, which is an image borrowed from a Margaret Kilgallen painting. I’m not going to explain the “symbolism” of the tattoo because it’s always kind of reductive to do so, but it definitely represents for me the fact that I’ll never be a banker, and maybe alludes to the possibility that I’ll be able to live my life on my own terms. Aside from that, I’m saving the rest, but who am I kidding? I have inexpensive tastes, and I usually spend my money on cigarettes, bar tabs, and tacky clothing.

OT: Do you find anything essential in the voice of writers from the tri-state area? Writers of your “generation”?

SES: I have a theory about working class writers, especially working class writers from the tri-state area, and it might be bullshit, but here it goes: for working class writers, the act of writing is always a decision, a sacrifice. It’s not something you just end up doing because hey whatever, it’s kind of fun. It’s a choice that you make in full awareness of the choices your parents had to make to send you to college (for “choice” read “sacrifice”), and that sense of proportion makes it kind of difficult to fuck around. At the end of the day, I don’t think poems deserve to be read just because they’re poems. I think poems have to work hard to snag and keep their readers. This doesn’t mean that we have to write what we think an audience (audience being a gauzy term) wants to hear, or to only deliver scrappy working class narratives or whatever, but it does mean that we can’t just spray some of our consciousness onto the page and expect everybody to care about it.

I don’t want to sound despotic and evil, so I should probably modify that statement slightly: I’m a fan of the fact that anybody writes poetry anywhere, and for whatever purpose. All poems deserve to sit down at the grown-ups table at the Poetry Feast. But there is a difference between poetry that only engages with the selfhood of the person writing it and poetry that engages with craft and the massive preceding tradition entire. I get the sense that working class writers are sensitive to this distinction and, as a result, try to engage with a broad range of influences. I don’t want to exclude other writers from that designation, of course, but it seems to be a prevalent ambition among writers of a certain regional/socio-economic disposition.

Fiction doesn’t play into this dynamic as much because our culture embraces narrative; short stories and novels don’t have to fight as hard to be read by somebody, and that’s great. But it doesn’t really lend itself to polemics. Sadly.

Writers of my generation seem less interested in maintaining genre boundaries; I don’t think anybody’s really waving the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E or narrative or formalist flag right now. We’d rather borrow generously from all of the traditions than swear our allegiance to one. This may change, of course, once we try to get tenure. But I think we’ve come to writing from so many points of entry, many of which are not explicitly literary, that the previous distinctions cease to hold our devotion. That is to say, I’m excited to see what we’ll do.

OT: What can OT Blog readers expect to hear from you in the coming months?

SES: Well, blog readers, you can find my poem “Bedroom Community” in the upcoming Best New Poets 2008 anthology (along with poems from Anne Marie Rooney and Karen Rigby, both of whom are recent CMU graduates), which is exciting because it was guest-edited by Mark Strand, whose work I adore, and is distributed nationally. Also, I have a poem forthcoming in Caketrain, which I’m particularly delighted about because it’s a Pittsburgh-based journal. Otherwise, you can expect to hear the sound of my over-worked printer churning out copies of my first manuscript for all of the first book contests I’m entering, the sound of my checkbook depleting as I draw up entry fees for said contests, and the sound of innumerable late night bedroom dance parties, because that’s just what I do.

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