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Creation Story: Ron Smith, poet

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Where he teaches: Smith is writer-in-residence at St. Christopher's School where he holds the George Squires Chair of Distinguished Teaching. He also teaches creative writing and Edgar Allan Poe at the University of Richmond's School of Continuing Studies. This summer, he will teach creative writing: prose and poetry to high school students and adults at St. Christopher's Writer's Institute.

Why he is a poet: He can't help himself. He considers himself to be a writer, only "everything seems to turn into poems. I just try to write the most interesting stuff I can, and if it turns into verse, fine — 90 percent of it does. Nearly every short story I've done has crumbled into verse somewhere along the way."

What he likes about poetry: Smith delights in the English language, in finding just the right word, in the way words sound. "Every syllable counts in a poem," he says. "Even in a long poem. Even in the Iliad. With prose, you can get away with whole paragraphs of slackness." Smith loves the challenge of making every syllable count, the challenge of "getting it right."

Smith also likes that a poem is a visual experience. "The look of a poem on a page matters to me," he says. "…I'm always working with two poems, the way it looks on the page and the way it sounds. [Poems] are an auditory experience, but also a visual one. [A poem] can look like a tree growing wildly, or like machine parts scattered across the page. I can say a poem to you and you will have a different experience from reading it."

How he writes a poem: Everywhere he goes, Smith carries a small memo pad that he uses to jot down everything from inspiring thoughts and lines of poetry to phone numbers and messages. He uses his notebooks as points of departure for many of his poems. Smith also loves to travel and keeps detailed travel journals, which have also inspired some of his poems, including "To Ithaca," an 18-part poem that will be published in the Georgia Review.

He started writing "To Ithaca" after making a trip to Ithaca, Greece, in summer 2000, fulfilling a longtime dream. "During the trip I filled up three notebooks and I knew I had something good," he says. "I stayed in our hotel room in Rome for three days working on the poem. That was hard. I felt very virtuous. I did quick drafts of poems on yellow legal sheets, and when I got back to the states, I started typing them in."

He didn't finish the poems until January 2001, which for him, is quick work. "It takes me years to write a complex poem," he says. For every hour he spends writing, he spends at least another hour rereading what he has written, then another hour revising that.

"I have never found a formula for cranking anything out," he says, "because then it would be work, not creation. Not art so much as manufacture."

Smith never knows where he is going when he starts a poem. One of his best-known poems, "Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery," started out as a parody of Southern poetry then turned into a serious poem. "Nine times out of 10, when I think I know what I'm writing about I mess it up," he says. "The subconscious has got to do most of the work. Every poem is an experiment."

On teaching creative writing and poetry: Smith remembers being scornful of creative writing classes when he was an undergraduate because, "Hemingway and Shakespeare never took a creative writing class."

He admits that he can't teach his students how to become Shakespeare but that he can teach them how to be better writers, how to think about their work in a different way and how to understand the choices artists make.

"In America, I think we're kind of clueless about the arts," he says. "If someone says, 'I'm a sculptor' then the typical reaction is to compare them to Michelangelo. They think if you're not Ted Hughes, then you're not a real poet. You just have to create one thing for the sheer fun of it, and you realize that this is what people are supposed to do: Eat, breathe and create." — Jessica Ronky Haddad

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