Laurie Smith talks to Sharon Berg

1. This book, suck & spit (2020), is your 5th full poetry collection, and like your earlier work, it is filled with both some serious historic details and naturalistic observations which are all wrapped in a mask of dark humour. The entire theme of the book is dark as it focuses on poisoning. So first, I have to wonder how much research you did? And second, do you have comprehensive life insurance plans for your loved ones? I am just thinking that if the Police were ever to check the search history on your computer they might begin to ponder the nature of your motives. Of course, given your prior history, producing books like Said the Cannibal (Urban Farmhouse Press, 2017), your friends will all attest to your being a perfectly sane woman with a creepy curiosity.

LS: Hah! You assume I still have friends! Mmmmm…LOL! (Yes, I love research.)

2. I remember selecting ‘hives = organ failure’ and ‘watermelon snow’ for publication in Big Pond Rumours E-Zine back in 2017. Your writing impressed me then with its spark of irreverence and your skill in using unexpected twists and turns of phrase. This book, in its compilation, reaches even deeper to inspire ‘thinking outside of the box’. I am aware that you conduct poetry workshops at your home, and I wonder if you can comment on how much (or how little) working to inspire other writers has helped you to explore your own thinking outside of the box in these poems.

LS: In general, I can be quite lazy about writing. Not one to be the 6-8 am scheduled poet type, I’ve always found I work best by responding to the moment; (that particular discipline is most problematic while driving.) But to the point, yes, working with other poets inspires me, makes me attend to language, stimulates conversation and ideas; I’m always jotting down notes to follow up on, turns of phrase, etc. I wouldn’t say that habit is particular to this collection; I’ve always thrived in the company of other creative people.

3. How intentional was it, that your poems about the various ways to poison someone or cause death, about the existence of various substances that are lethal in our world, would actually teach? I am thinking of ‘birds swallowing crumbs on a wet porch’ now, a poem that instructs “that bread crumbs are bad for birds/ swell in the crop or gullet,/ suffocate them./ this could be lethal charity.” You have titled your book as if its focus was on poisoning and causing death, when in fact it might be argued that this is a book about saving lives.

LS: There IS actually a disclaimer at the end of the funny side of cyanide, on page 42. But no, I don’t presume to have set out to save lives by putting together this collection. First, do no harm? Oh, that’s not poets. See next question.

4. What was your intention in writing this book?  

LS: Content. Subject matter. I guess after Said the Cannibal I was still in a mood…unfinished business, a segue, exploration of a side topic. Not that there’s a dormant horror writer in me, actually that’s never been a genre I’ve enjoyed particularly. But there ARE horrors in real life, and “Why don’t you write about NICE things?’ just never worked for me. Doesn’t seem honest. So somebody has to be the baddie.

5. How did you arrive at the title? What was your intention for the title to do?

LS: Oh, this may be my favorite question! Funny story. On my original list of topics to explore was of course “rattlesnake bite” which became the poem citing the cowboy flick cliché scene where one person is compelled to save his companion’s life…hence “suck and spit”. I knew right away I wanted this for the title. Marty (Gervais, publisher) was amused but apprehensive, you know…what will people think? I, of course, don’t mind a good, cheerful controversy. Provocative is my middle name. And hey, if it sells books…Anyway, the publishing practicum class, but for one holdout, unanimously approved, but it still had to be tested. So at Windsor’s premier poetry event, Poetry at the Manor, the students set out a voting mechanism survey involving beans, and three jars representing three potential titles. (I don’t even remember the alternate suggestions.) And let’s just say that some people had more beans in their pockets than others. No regrets.

6. If this book was to be translated in another language, what would your advice to the translator be, what aspect of the original work would you most care to consciously preserve?

LS: Interesting question. My first reaction is, please, don’t even try! On some level, I may be philosophically opposed to translating poetry. Not a popular opinion, no doubt, as the notion of being a world-famous influencer has merit, but I believe good poetry is a celebration, expression, manipulation of the specific language of an individual’s own psyche/soul, whatever. Is there a difference between “lost in translation” and a rewrite, or  “inspired by” — I just think the twisted mind, the wit, and the wordplay is personal and language-dependent.

7. Are any aspects of the book that is autobiographical? How did you consciously deal with your intimate material (i.e., experiences – emotional and physical) in a way that avoids the dangers of straight autobiography? 

LS: Any poem that has the words “I” or “my” will certainly include a degree of autobiography. Life/experience/observation is the root of art. “Avoid the dangers”? No doubt some pieces may come across as precious, self-indulgent, but I generally find that when I put out something like “Asparagus Pee” (poetically, of course!) it makes people laugh, and say, “Yah, me too!” Everybody poops, right? Physical (and emotional) aspects of being are universal, and so we don’t feel isolated it’s the poet’s task to start the conversation, either through humour as in that particular example or in a more provocative, empathetic manner.

8. Are there poems/ideas that were originally intended by ultimately not included in the collection? How did you determine what to keep and what not to keep in the collection?

LS: Yes, there were perhaps half a dozen poems that did not make the final cut. As I was working with the Publishing Practicum at the University of Windsor, the students had a lot of input as to what worked thematically, and what flowed to make the collection.

9. Other than finding the most effective way of reaching a version of ‘truth’, were you conscious of any particular literary ambitions e.g., developing a distinctive voice or a narrative style or disrupting standard reader expectations of the genre?

LS: No, I don’t think my conscious literary ambitions inform my actual writing at this stage in my career. Pretty sure my voice is already distinctive. I really am doing this for myself, to have a good time, to research whatever strikes me as interesting at the moment, to muddle it around in my head, to play with the assumptions and the language, and put out something that can be informative and/or entertaining. Something that I’ll look at three years from now and say, “Damn! That was a good one!”

10. Are there any aspects of the book you would like to change /tinker with?

LS: One always finds mistakes after publication. And one usually has friends who (too late!) suggest topics/characters etc. you’ve missed in your research, plus the ongoing nature of life has a bad habit of handing you fresh ideas with every news cycle. That’s why we have sequels. (Nope! Moving on!)

11. How would you like this book to be taught – as a historical document, socio-political document or as a document about a certain kind of taste in writing or particular aesthetic, genre, literary style or something else?

LS: As my intent was never to create a historical or socio-political document, it seems the best approach would be to use this collection as a tool to teach the assemblage of a theme or aesthetic. It’s difficult to not come across as self-promoting while suggesting that one’s own taste or aesthetic has any degree of originality or wit, but I would like my example to be one of courage (guts!), humour, and the willingness to look past one’s own navel for sources of inspiration. Serious subjects (even oneself) need not be taken too seriously to become poetry, as in the dark humour noted, yet dark [historical] subjects provide an opportunity to research, examine, and make relevant to a contemporary audience the small details of others’ lives lived, within a unifying concept. 

Windsor-based poet Laurie Smith was co-founder of Cranberry Tree Press. In addition to publication in literary magazines in Canada and the U.S., her poetry collections include menagerie (LAWLLP, 2004) The Truth About Roller Skating (CTP, 2011) smack in the middle of spotlit obvious (Urban Farmhouse Press, 2016), Said the Cannibal (Urban Farmhouse Press, 2017), and Suck & Spit (Black Moss Press, 2020). A freelance editor and writing tutor/coach, she is currently developing (at least) four more manuscripts and exploring her inclination to play with acrylic paint.