CAROL HOUCK SMITH
Carol Houck Smith: Editor Extraordinaire
Gregory Donovan: Greetings to you all. I’m Gregory Donovan, I’m one of the senior editors at Blackbird: an online journal of literature and the arts. The other senior editor, Mary Flinn, is the person who originally had the idea for this event to honor Carol Houck Smith. We’ve gathered on this occasion in the metropolis, which is the historic homeplace of so much activity that has been central in American publishing, to honor an editor who has for many years provided a crucial service to us all by shepherding into being many of the works of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction which we have most enjoyed and ultimately treasured.
Carol Houck Smith has done so with generosity and warmth, matched by an incisive and demanding intelligence as well as unswerving good taste and judgment. Today’s event will essentially be a reading by a sampling of the remarkable writers who have had the pleasure of having Carol Houck Smith as their editor at Norton.
[“Signs,” Stephen Dunn, Everything Else in the World, Norton, 2006.]
I suspect that the “beware dog” in my poem was there because of Carol’s love of dogs. The poem is dedicated to her, and I wanted to please her, so I invented a dog. Perhaps the only creatures that Carol loves more than dogs are men. I knew from the first time I met her that here was a woman who truly liked men, especially those of us who are pretty good dogs. She likes woman too, don’t get me wrong, but her step has always quickened a little in the presence of certain men.
As she often says, I was her first poet. Before that, one can only imagine the relative dreariness of her life among those—among those who traffic only in prose. With me she discovered there could be some happy ways for a book not to make much money. Once the ice was broken she started to accumulate poets like the ones here today. And I’ll never forget that she offered Stanley Kunitz a three-book contract when he was ninety-one. That’s great editing.
We met at a writers’ conference in Utah in 1987 and things evolved from there. Cautiously at first—I had a first refusal clause in my contract with another publisher. The rest is sweet history. Carol and I have done nine books together and a tenth is in the works. And that seems extraordinary. I can’t tell you how important it’s been for me to have her in my life over these last twenty years as both editor and friend—well I can, and have, and I’ll say it to you—how lucky I am to have you.
I’ll tell you two stories that have nothing to do with poetry, but I think that they’ll illustrate what it means to have this unique mind that can take a thing and make it better and have this perfect kind of taste that allows the essence of something to come to the surface.
The first story takes place at Bread Loaf, when I was there as a fellow, several years ago. I was so happy that Carol was there too and we were at a party and all these writers were there and I was so proud that she was my editor. And as evening wore on she decided she’d go back to her room, and I asked her if I could walk her back. So I was walking her back and we saw a fox, trotting across the road, and it was the first fox I’d ever seen—that’s kind of an aside but seemed part of the magic of the moment. And I got her back to her room and I was just overcome with this feeling of gratitude and admiration for her, and I saw a bottle of perfume she had on her counter and I just burst out—and I said, “That’s your perfume—I’m going to wear that perfume—I want to wear that perfume—I want to smell like you.” And she looked at me and she said, “No Beth Ann, that’s not right for you; you’re too—nocturnal.” I thought it was so great because, you know, the perfume is Narcissus, and it’s really a lovely perfume, but it’s sweet, and I’m not very sweet, and she knew that instinctively—even editing the perfume.
So flash forward, you know, like eight years. This took place about two or three months ago. I met Carol at her office and we decided we’d have lunch and we’d walk over to the Iroquois Hotel right around here and have lunch in Triomphe. And when we got there the hostess said, “Oh, Miss Smith, I am so happy to see you, please come over here and sit at your table.” And then the very distinguished, handsome maître d’ came over, “Oh, Miss Smith, I’ll get you your usual, I’m so happy to have you here—please anything you want,” and on and on; everyone from the restaurant came over to pay obeisance and I said, “Wow Carol, you must really eat here a lot.” She said, “No, not all that much.” And I said, “Well, how do they know you that well?” And she said, “Well, when they first opened I came in and their menu was riddled with typos, so I corrected their grammar and gave it back to them.” And what I loved about that is that they were charmed by her. Anyone of us in this room would have done it and made enemies and people would be spitting in our soup. Her, they love. She corrected all their comma errors, no comma splices in the Triomphe Restaurant now, so, you can go there and eat and not be annoyed.
I’m going to read one poem before I sit down and this poem is from my new book, Unmentionables, that’s coming out in April and it was such an honor for me to be able to dedicate this book to Carol. It’s our third book together and I’ve just loved working with you—it’s been amazing.
I’m from Illinois although I live in Oxford, Mississippi now and this poem is about something we sometimes did growing up there.
I’ve had the pleasure of being surprised at times with things that she’s liked in my work and also surprised at the things that she didn’t like. But there haven’t been many poems that she’s asked me to take out of collections or anything like that but just lines here and there. And part of the pleasure of working with her is that she’s a very understated genius. And I don’t say that lightly. I mean that she’s also not just intellectual and generous, but she’s also very funny and laid back in the way that she works with her writers.
When I first came to Norton, and I first got the phone call from Carol, I was sitting in my office at work and I had just gotten an offer from another press to take the book, a smaller press. And I was not a winner of a contest but the press liked it enough that they said they’d still publish it even though I didn’t win. And when she called, I explained this to her, and she just paused for a second and she says, “Well, you know, we want the book.” And I said, “OK.” Well, you know, that—that says it all. But it’s one of those things that, you know, when I thought about it, I— having worked with another press that I really enjoyed working with before—I realized over time that the thing that has made this special for me, being with Norton, hasn’t been going from a smaller press to a larger press but going to a seasoned editor in another press that’s made all the difference for me working with you, so thank you.
I’m going to read a poem from M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A and this is in the voice of Richard Pryor. And it has a epigraph from The Book of the Samurai.
Carol and I go back a long way, maybe not quite as long as she and Stephen go, ’cause Stephen’s much older than us. I think, like many of us do, Ellen and Steve, and the others, of Carol as a dear friend. And, I remember so many things.
I remember being in a clothing store with Carol years ago at an AWP conference in Florida where she was urging me to buy some new clothes. I remember by accident meeting her on a train once. I’m remembering various festivals, Bread Loaf, Aspen, and so on, that I’ve been with her and she with me, the restaurants we’ve gone to, a special relationship we had, her close help to me when I was under the weather for a couple of years. Deeply under the weather. And I tried to pay a little bit in kind to Carol when she was under the weather for a little bit. We had the same illness; it was called darkness.
Alright, I’m going to read a short poem, so I could almost take any poem at all, but I want to read a recent one, if I may—this is called “Asphodel,” which was the flower of the dead in Greece, much as the poppy was our flower, and we saw veterans from time to time selling outside of banks, shopping centers, and such, to celebrate Memorial Day, or as they say in the South, Decoration Day. And I wrote the poem [in] memory of a veteran I met on a train in Washington D.C when they were changing engines, and suddenly there were three veterans together—this guy from Korea, me from the biggie, and another guy from Vietnam. “Asphodel.”
I think a lot of what Carol has done, certainly for me, and I know for a lot of other people in this room has been to be an enabler, and I can speak of that specifically about a book that I did with Carol, that came about because of Carol. I simply would not have written a whole book about what seemed to me a dreadful subject, which was the epidemic of 1918-1919, d people were coughing and dying or coughing and getting well. And I had written a little sequence of these poems, about eight of them, and read some of them at Bread Loaf. And Carol in her sneaky little way, every time we talked on the phone she would say, “How are those flu poems coming along? Why don’t you write some more of those flu poems?” And I kept saying, “I didn’t think it was possible.” She thought it was possible long before I did. So that book, Kyrie, really is a product of her imagination running ahead of mine and knowing when to encourage, knowing when to say “why not”?
So I thought I’d just read you a couple of the Kyrie sonnets; they’re all very short and essentially they’re imagined speakers who might have survived the epidemic.
I wanted to read just two little poems—one each by two wonderful poets who were Carol’s poets and are no longer on the planet and I think if they were on the planet they would be right up here with us. So the first one is Agha Shahid Ali and it’s a poem called “Stationary.”
And this is a short little poem by Stanley Kunitz, called “The Quarrel.”
And now I think we can all stand up and welcome Carol to the podium.
We ended up with Stanley Kunitz and, as you know, Stanley saw his hundredth birthday. I use to call him my Dalai Lama, because when I went to see him he was always present; he was so very, very present. You were the only person that he wanted to talk to at that time, and you tended to think that you were something very, very special. I remember one time, I used to sit on a little Victorian chair by his armchair, and we were talking and he had these great big brown eyes and he would lean toward me, and we held hands, and he would lean toward me and one time he said, “You’re cute.” And I thought he was going to say something, you know, poetic, and so I couldn’t think of anything to say and I said, “So are you.” So I wish he were here, but in a sense he is because of all the people who appreciated him.
And Shahid, of course, was as a blithe—a free spirit—and a wonderful dancer and he was a great cook and he was a wonderful, wonderful friend. And we went to a place called Chimayó together which, you know, where people would put their canes and crutches and things on the wall and then there was a little hole where the sacred soil was. And Shahid had had a little empty jar of Nescafé and he gave me a little coffee thing of the Chimayó soil and I think I still have it. I understand they replace the soil everyday and maybe they still do.
People have mentioned AWP and so many of these people we’ve met at various times at AWP and I was writing down something about the people who were here and Stephen said, “I’m doing them in the way they talked to you.” We met in Utah at the Writers at Work conference. I heard him read and then I was addressing a group of students after reading manuscripts and all, and then I was speaking to them and I said, you know he knows how to write about men and women and human relationships of that sort, so we’ve already covered that.
So we happened to meet in a bookstore after that and he said he even been talking about me and so we talked a little more and then, I knew he was committed to another publisher but I think it was about six months later, something like that, he showed up in my office in a blue shirt and a suede jacket—I remember that—and we talked and he wanted to know if I wanted to publish his poetry. And at that time I wasn’t doing poetry so I went to John Benedict and I said, “What do you think of this?” And I—I was ready to hand it over to him and he said, “Carol, you can publish poetry as well as anybody else.” And so then he called Ellen Bryant Voigt, who gave him a vote of confidence—you see how these things are all incestuous. So we published Stephen. What he did for me was to give me the confidence to publish poetry and I found it a wonderful mix, along with fiction. I mean both these things nourished each other. So it’s a blended combination. And we’ve seen each other through these years and through his winning of the Pulitzer Prize, which was a great joy.
So, on to the next one. I really met Beth Ann Fennelly through her husband, Tom Franklin, who had been an admirer of my writer, Rick Bass. And then I met Beth Ann. You invited me to the Oxford Conference on the Book and I went to Oxford, Mississippi and Beth Ann read, first time I heard her read, and she read to a group that was as large as this; it was packed, and I swear you sat on a little bar stool and there was some music, there was a bluegrass band and something like that and it was stunning, and it was so natural and it was this kind of barn-like place. I said to myself, I really want to publish this poet; so it came to pass.
Her first book with Norton was called Tender Hooks, and it was largely about first-time motherhood. And, these poems were very frank and very noteworthy, and one of my colleagues, also a mother, said “She dares to write about things we don’t talk about.” And that was true, or perhaps it was and perhaps it wasn’t. But anyway her next book is called Unmentionables and it’s about things, being frank about things, but also the things that we care so much about that we don’t have the words for them.
Now Van, Van I met through Ellen. Ellen kept saying, “You’ve got to read his poetry.” My memory is that we officially met in the lobby of that New Orleans AWP, that miserable Radisson, I mean, everybody became so cohesive because the rooms leaked and it was just a perfectly dreadful place but I think that we met then. And then Ellen had said, “You’re going to like his poetry. He tells stories, it’s narrative.” And so then he came to Norton and both you and your book, M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, was greeted with the highest, highest enthusiasm. And what I loved was the combination of history, of film—his poetry is very cinematic—and of jazz, the blues. Then we came to Quantum Lyrics and I thought, oooh, I don’t know anything about physics, but as it turned out, you taught me a little about physics and you taught me a little more about superheroes too. And I remember you gave both me and my assistant a great big thing of stamps that had superheroes on them and that was a very nice thing to do. It seems to me that any time you called to tell Van he’s won something, he’s not sure whether that is good or not, you know, and I remember when I said you won a Whiting, and you kind of paused and you weren’t particularly enthusiastic and I said, “This is a very good thing to have.”
Gerry, you and I have been so many places. One that came to mind was the AWP in Miami. We went to eat Cuban food and then you drove me all around, and we went out all along South Beach. And you told me the stories from your childhood and about your mother and we had this whole history of those marvelous hotels, from the very beginning up to the modern ones. And we had a way of always just kind of strolling around the way you do in your poetry, you know—that it wasn’t necessary to get any place in a hurry. We were also at Aspen together—I think that’s where we actually met. And we’ve been to a number of AWPs. And we’ve been to Prague. One of my most exciting nights was when you won the National Book Award and everybody feted you.
Now, I guess the last thing in the collection that we’re going to do next, Save the Last Dance, there’s a long poem, it was thirty four pages in manuscript and it’s called “The Preacher” and it’s Gerry’s take on Ecclesiastes. Well this took me back to the Bible, I mean here’s another thing you learn from the writers, and I have begun delving more into the Bible and enjoying that. Telephone calls with Gerry are very interesting. Sometimes he sings to me “Red Sails in the Sunset,” was, was—anyway Gerry, save the last dance for me.
Ellen came to me through another editor who had left and I remember we were both on the board of AWP, and I don’t remember that you were at all diffident, but I do remember that the director of AWP at that time said, “Ellen has the mind of a Jesuit.” Ellen is someone you go to when you want advice and she listens, and her advice is always sage. I stayed at Ellen’s house in Vermont. When I look out the window I can see these cows that are – seem to have a very happy life but then I remember the poem about the farmer and his son coming and pushing them into the little trailer that is going to take them off to another place. I feel as if I know a lot of the places in your poems. About Kyrie, part of that came about because we were talking about fever and I said to you, I remember I had Scarlet Fever when I was in the fourth grade and the house had a quarantine sign on it and my mother brought me my meals upstairs—I did not go to the hospital, and my father came and stood in the doorway sometimes just to say hello to me and that was about six weeks. And I remember telling you that story and it went into one of the stanzas, somebody quarantined like that.
I’ve had a wonderful time with all these people and I see some other people I dearly love in the audience and thank you very much.