Austin Smith on the Death App and Not Taking a Pea

An interview with Austin Smith, from The Write Stuff series over at SF Weekly:

Austin Smith grew up on a family dairy farm in Illinois. He has published four chapbooks of poetry, and his first full-length collection of poems,Almanac, was published by Princeton University Press in September. He is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford University.

When people ask what do you do, you tell them… ?

I say I’m a poet. If they ask, “How are you going to make any money writing poems?” I ask them, “How are you going to make any poems writing money?” It usually confuses them so much they leave me alone.

What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?

Money has always been a big struggle for me. I look around and wonder how anyone affords to buy anything, much less a house. Money is a source of almost constant anxiety. But more importantly, I struggle with the fear that my writing will mean nothing to the world, that it will fail to make anyone’s life better, to comfort them or help them in some way. I worry that I’ll spend my life in solitude and poverty for no reason at all. This fear manifests itself in strange ways. Recently I received a letter totally out of the blue from a man in Virginia who wanted to tell me how much he liked a story I just had published in Kenyon Review. He might be surprised by how effusively I thanked him in my return letter: it’s just so rare for us to hear from someone that something we’ve written has touched them. We writers are like fishermen fishing with bare hooks: it’s pretty rare that we get a bite.

If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?

Write everyday, take walks, write all the time, try not to drink until after 5, write a lot, make good friends and be good to them, write, read, don’t drink too much, write by hand, write letters by hand, dress like a peasant, take your pens out of your pants before you launder your pants, launder your pants, write a lot, eat something sometime.

Do you consider yourself successful? Why?

No. I’ll consider myself successful when I’m living the life I want to live, which seems somewhat impossible to attain right now. I would like to fall in love, have kids, live in an old farmhouse surrounded by acres of fields and woods, and write for a living. Currently I’m single, childless, live in a cabin surrounded by acres of redwoods, and write for what is sort of a living. If the whole falling in love and living in a farmhouse thing doesn’t work out, I’ll settle for sitting on a tailgate drinking beer in the woods with a kind old dog.

When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?

Well, this video is actually kind of sad, but there’s a moment in it (at about 6:00) that reminds me what art is supposed to do. I watch it when I’m despairing about why I’m even trying:

Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?

One ancestor I love, who I never knew, was a man everyone simply calls Uncle Frank. I get a little confused about whose uncle he was. I think he was my grandpa’s uncle. My dad was just a boy I guess when he knew Uncle Frank. He always tells the story of this story that Frank would tell about when my family ran a cannery. Apparently it was a really hard year, dry weather, and they hadn’t had a good harvest. Uncle Frank would lean forward and say earnestly, “Forty day, never took a pea.” Of course, as my dad and his siblings heard it, it sounded like Uncle Frank was saying, “Forty day, never took a pee.”

Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?

Growing up I was the world’s biggest Green Bay Packers fan (and that’s saying something). It actually became sort of a problem. I’d cry when they lost (up until like a few years ago). So I admired all the players, and even wrote them letters. I told my mom I wanted a haircut like Reggie White had. She told me this was impossible.

But I was also strangely obsessed with the Civil War. The town I grew up in, Freeport, Illinois, was the site of one of the Lincoln-Douglass debates, so there was a lot of Lincoln stuff in town. In fact, a good friend of mine, George Buss, is one of the world’s foremost Lincoln impersonators. He does these unbelievable impersonations of Lincoln, top hat, chin beard, the whole deal. So I was really obsessed with Lincoln, too, and still am. I wouldn’t say I wanted to be him. I just found him fascinating. Terrible answer, sorry.

Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.

I used to force myself to go out into the wilderness for days at a time. I spent a few nights alone in Denali National Park, freaking out about bears. I guess for me these days my ideal week in the wilderness is a cabin, a woodstove, some friends, some beer. I hope that counts.

Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.

No, it’s very difficult to unbutton flannel under pressure.

What’s wrong with society today?

Well, I’m really going to try to not go on a big rant here. My main concern is that we aren’t really seeing anymore. We don’t look at one another enough, we look at our phones. We see things through our phones, but we don’t see things as they are, in a mysterious, mystical sense. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I was on the N-Judah the other day and you know I’m not exaggerating when I say that everyone was looking at their phones, including me. But there was a beautiful child sitting there just looking at everything, at the light on the Victorians, etc. A very luminous child. And I was wondering what the child thought of all of us looking at our phones. The child’s father was looking at his phone. I was looking at my phone.

I just worry that we’re going to be on our deathbeds and all of a sudden we’re going to say, “Shit! Why did I spend all that time staring at my phone? I’m about to die.” There’s no app for death.

Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?

I was prescribed medication once for depression, but I only took the stuff for a few days and then quit. I guess it made me feel “better” but it also seemed to take the shine out of everything. I suffer from bouts of crippling depression and anxiety, but I’m able to crawl through them into states that I guess I would describe as gladness. I lie down in the ashes for a few weeks and then something picks me up out of them and I feel like it was worth it. For me the most moving phrase from the Gospels is when Jesus says to his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane: “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me.” I don’t know, I’m somehow heartened by that admission of sorrow. The best way I’ve found to deal with depression is to just say, “Man, I’m really fucking sad.” I used to deny it and it would get worse.

What is your fondest memory?

Well, it’s not a single memory, it’s all balled up into a general memory of the family farm I grew up on. I remember it very vividly. I can close my eyes anytime and take a walk there.

How many times do you fall in love each day?


What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?

Hmm. I want to see drones outlawed. And I want to see Bush, Cheney, Rice, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, that whole crew, in jail.

What is art? Is it necessary? Why?

James Salter (one of my heroes): “Everything is a dream; only those things that have been written down have any possibility of being real. That’s all that exists in the end, what has been written down.”

When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?

I don’t remember.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on what’s turning out to be a very long novel about a family of dairy farmers named The Albrights. I work on it everyday and there’s really no end in sight. I hope to finish it sometime. It means a lot to me that I do so, but everyday I struggle with it. I’m also working on poems sporadically, but I’m much more focused on fiction. I also write songs and play guitar most every day.

What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?

My favorite book is Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee. I’m absolutely haunted by it. I want to write a book like that.

If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?

Well, I don’t know about the Bay Area as a whole, but living in San Francisco, I’d say I wish the city were affordable enough so that interesting, artistic people who don’t make a lot of money could still live here. The whole myth of the starving artist is great and all, but what happens when the starving artist can’t afford a studio for $2500/month?

A night on the town: what does that mean to you?

Well this is a little depressing to admit but I get the greatest joy out of reading in bars. It doesn’t embarrass me at all to sit at Fly on Divisadero, hovering one of those little electric candles over the pages of Keats’s letters while a Kid Cudi song is playing and the OkCupid dates are starting to disintegrate.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?

So when I was a graduate student at the University of Virginia I was writing at a coffee shop one day and I saw this English graduate student I knew from the hallways of the English department acting really strangely by the train tracks that ran behind the coffee shop. I went out to make sure he wasn’t thinking of hurtling himself in front of a train and saw what he was looking at: a possum that had been beheaded by a train. The possum’s body was lying on the tracks but her head was a few feet away, looking back at its body. The possum’s babies were still alive, in the pouch. Using a plastic bag for a glove we took turns plucking the babies from the pouch before the next train could swing through. We called an animal clinic and a lady came and picked them up. I think seven of the nine lived. It was actually unbelievable. I think the English graduate student is doing fine, but I can’t say for sure.

What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?

I can write 50 words and spend 50 dollars.

What are some of your favorite smells?

I happened to have a $28 glass of single-malt scotch last year. It smelled like the old granary on the farm. A good smell.

If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?

I would live in this Venetian bedroom and lie in bed all day smoking opium, reading Proust, putting the book down from time to time to stare at the ceiling. Then in the evening I would rouse myself and go out and wander around Venice until meeting my friends in the cafes around the Piazza San Marco. Then I’d go back to the Venetian bedroom and sleep.

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