My interview with author, poet, and publisher Larry Smith

When I first met Larry Smith in Ohio, he was sporting a Cleveland Browns cap–not an unusual fashion choice for a sports venue or bar, but we were at a literary conference. From this first impression, I could sense two things: the cap wasn’t ironical and Larry was my kind of literary people.

As it turns out, the Ohio-based author, poet, and director of Bottom Dog Press/Bird Dog Publishing and I have much more in common than rooting for the home team. There’s an abiding sense of creative responsibility, a promise to tell our own stories, that comes with hailing from a place like ours. I’m going to go out on a limb and say Larry and I try to make good on that promise. Larry has definitely made good on his.

This National Poetry Month of April, Larry was also gracious enough to take the time to answer over email my questions–about the writing life and what it means to publish poems and stories rooted in place. “There is always some blurring of identity here,” says Larry, “between Larry Smith and Bottom Dog Press.”

Though much of my life is Bottom Dog Press, my life extends beyond that, and Bottom Dog Press is more than I am, too, it’s over 210 books and about 500 authors.

Let’s learn more…

Larry, how did growing up in the Rust Belt, specifically an Ohio mill town, affect your writing sensibilities and choices?

Well, this goes to the heart of it and of myself. You can’t take out of me the Ohio Valley and the working-class world I grew up in. I was nurtured on that life and those values of hard work and character, of family and neighborhood, of just accepting and caring for each other. I write from who I am, and though I worked as a college professor and live in a middle class neighborhood now, I am still that kid getting up to deliver morning papers and watch my father pack his lunch for work on the railroad.

Your education had a major impact on your life’s direction. In your memoir, you recall that your 6th grade Friday Poetry Day, under the direction of your teacher, Mrs. Merzi, was when you discovered poets, such as Dickinson, Frost, and Whitman–and yourself as a writer. Who have been some of your poetic inspirations?

As a working-class kid, it was a delight and an affirmation to read and share poems at that early age. Mrs. Merzi not only handed us poems to read but had us write and share our own. I’m still doing that in creating my own work and publishing that of others at the press, but also at our monthly Coffeehouse Reading Series in this area of Ohio with featured poets and open-mic sessions. It’s been going on for over 20 years.

Probably like most of your readers, I have grown as a writer and a person through my reading of fine poets, fiction writers, essayists, and memoirists. When I dropped math and decided I was an English major in college, I couldn’t believe I could make a living doing what I loved.

As a teacher, my early bulletin board held the slogan “Literature is Life.” I still believe that.

The list of writers who inspired me would fill a small book. To name a few: early on it was Robert Frost, E. A. Robinson, Carl Sandburg, Emily Dickinson, then Kenneth Patchen and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (I’ve published biographies of both)–all of them poets of the people. From there, William Stafford, Denise Levertov (our peace poet), Paul Blackburn, James Wright (always), and Philip Levine, et. al., as well as great thinkers, like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

My own work appears in 8 books of poetry, most recent being Lake Winds: Poems and Thoreau’s Lost Journal, and Tu Fu Comes to America. In the latter, I write the hard and beautiful life of an immigrant poet struggling in Cleveland, Ohio. The working-class world never disappears, nor should we “escape” from it.

In your memoir, you talk about the time when you were newly married and starting a family as a busy time, but a time you weren’t writing. You say, “my life was writing me.” Can you offer any advice to young aspiring writers?

Oh, for me, all I can say is the writing comes in waves, and your job is to be on deck for the next poem or story. As a young parent, I wrote less, but there were always those early mornings or late hours when the lines would start coming and I could become a co-creator with the poem itself. Don’t fret, it cancels creativity, and write the next poem, not the next career. It takes a while learning that.

You lived through the Kent State massacre of 1970 and said the events “radicalized you in new and deeper ways.” Can you talk about how it affected your thinking and writing?

Ah, Kent State—I believe I write in my memoirs that it radicalized both my wife and me in deep ways. She was working at Robinson Memorial Hospital when the dead and wounded were taken there. We shared that and the frightful world of those days at Kent. While we had always been opposed to the Vietnam War, we renewed our commitment to resistance and peace.

When I was hired at Bowling Green State University’s Firelands College that same year, one of the first things I did in this rural community college was organize an outside peace demonstration. And at that point some of our speakers were veterans returning home and speaking out against the war. It was powerful and we were a clear part of it. My three year old daughter Laura was standing with us.

Can you tell us a little about your Bottom Dog Press/Bird Dog Publishing, why you started it, and what your mission is?

In 1985, I was on the West Coast researching the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, going to the Bancroft Library at Berkley, perusing the diverse publications of that era in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I was also meeting some of the figures from then, including those writers around City Lights Books and Press. I began to see writing as not just literature but as immediate and relevant toward creating change. I came back with a determination to create a publication like that in Ohio. Poet David Shevin joined me in this venture, and I found support in fellow writers like Bob Fox, Joe Napora, Terry Hermsen, Jeanne Bryner, others.

We borrowed the term “Bottom Dog” from Edward Dahlberg’s novel about working-class and poverty in the Midwest. I had learned out West, not to pretend you were more than yourself. We were underdogs, and knowing that, we could keep our feet on the ground and find alternative ways of reaching others. We’ve focused on working-class, Appalachia, Laughing Buddha Series, but also just on deeply human voices in our Harmony Series. We serve the underserved.

Your press has survived for more than 34 years and 210 books. What’s next for Bottom Dog/Bird Dog? Any upcoming titles we should look out for?

Within the last year we published four very strong Ohio poets: Craig Paulenich’s Old Brown, Kathleen S. Burgess’s What Burden do Those Trains Bear Away, Charlene Fix’s Taking a Walk in My Animal Hat, and most recently, Jeff Gundy’s Without a Plea. It may be time for another book of my own, tentatively title “Pears.” The title comes from poet Charles Simic who once advised me, “When they ask for apples,/ give them pears.”

Writing as alternative, that has always inspired my life and work.

Thank you to Larry Smith for the insights and inspiration. May we all represent our places so well!

Find out more about Larry Smith…

Larry Smith grew up in the industrial Ohio River Valley and graduated from Muskingum College and Kent State University with a doctorate in literature. He taught at Bowling Green State University’s Firelands College for over 35 years and is the author of 8 books of poetry, 5 books of fiction, a book of memoirs, 2 literary biographies, and more. He’s written film scripts for “James Wright’s Ohio” and “Kenneth Patchen: An Art of Engagement” and is director of Bottom Dog Press/Bird Dog Publishing in Ohio. He reviews for New York Journal of Books.

Images are credited to Larry Smith

Readers, writers, now, it’s your turn: Where do you read or write from? How does the history–or now–of your place inform what you say? How are you celebrating National Poetry Month? I’d love to hear from you!

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Today’s Book-Love Triangle…

Photo credit: me, on my recent writers retreat with a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia

We know we must read–and “read enthusiastically and omnivorously”–to become better writers, and better everything else-ers, really.

Yet, for this reader, it sometimes feels like directionless reading. Oh, I have my reading piles: one to inform this blog, one to inform my completed historical MS; one to inform my new MS; one for pure pleasure, which typically dwarfs the others out of neglect.

And, so, to experience a moment of reading kismet, when one book I love references another book I love, is a thing of beauty: a book-love triangle, if you will. This particular book-love triangle also happens to connect my blog reading with my pleasure reading, making me feel on this cold and dreary “spring” day a little more whole.

Enough lead-up, here it is: In Anthony Doerr’s memoir, Four Seasons In Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World, he quotes a line from Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead:

There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.

There are as many reasons Doerr, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has long lived in Idaho, would quote the Pulitzer Prize-winning Robinson, who was born in and has set stories in Idaho. Doerr and Robinson share more than external landscape; they share a sensibility, an exploration of the internal landscape of the spirit, spirits accustomed to the miracle of the everyday.

Any parent of twin infants will tell you (if they’re being honest), one baby at a time would have been sufficient. Because I am a twin parent, myself, Doerr’s memoir was recommended to me, though it didn’t make the tough moments in the memoir easier to read from having gone through similar ones myself. Still, it always seemed, the fog of nursing, holding, walking, changing and bathing sleepless little people would eventually lift, if for only a fleeting moment.

In one such moment of sleep deprived twin-parent frustration, the fog lifts for Doerr by a baby’s “first,” one of those little everyday miracles in the life of a parent: the first finger-squeeze, first smile, first crawl. In this instance, one of Doerr’s boys says “Ciao” to a Roman man passing in the stairwell. His first “Ciao.”

One of “a thousand thousand” reasons… And we could spend time here talking about the meaning behind “sufficiency” and behind “thousand” for Doerr, who quotes Robinson, America’s most famous living religious author–who, no doubt, uses “thousand” as the Bible does, to signify a multitude, a vast abundance. You can read my thoughts on Robinson’s Gilead, which I read for the first time only recently, here. You can read my initial thoughts on Doerr’s memoir, which I tandem read with The Gondola Maker–for a centuries-spanning “trip” to Italy–here.

But here is where I stop, today, to return to reading, for the multitude of little miracles that happen when we make connections across the piles of tomes of words that are waiting for us.

Have you experienced a book-love triangle you’d like to share? A baby’s “first”? A fog lifted? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Tiny Water Bottles

If there’s one blog I read every day, it’s this one–BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog. Outside of writing for my blog, I mostly write fiction, but, boy, those CNF and memoir folks really do a good job of pondering their work and the writing life in general. Often, Brevity’s blog features guest posts, which are generally excellent, but when their Social Media Editor, Allison K. Williams, posts, I find myself nodding along. “This is it; this is just what I needed to read this morning.” So, while I plan blog posts downloading the highlights of my writers retreat, last weekend; and writing advice about reading and researching outside one’s usual genres, I’m re-blogging this gem today… I hope you find it as useful to your life–writing or otherwise–as I did. ~Rebecca

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Many people think I’m an overachiever with everything under control. If you’re also an overachiever, you probably understand the hollow laughter that inspires in me. So often, the symptoms of organization—paper planners, to-do apps, regular social media appearances—mask what feels from the inside like abject laziness.

But Allison, you reassure me, you do a lot. You blog! You edit! You write! You travel all over!

Thanks. That’s true, and I’m privileged to get to do those things. Paradoxically, I often feel the most lazy when I’ve gotten the most done. Sure, I checked six things off my list…but I know in my heart I did them because they were easy instead of working on a larger, more difficult goal. I vacuumed instead of working on my proposal. Ran errands instead of analyzing the structure of my novel. Read 100 pages for clients instead of writing one of my own.

Often…

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This week’s tandem read…

I spent the loveliest Sunday celebrating St. Patrick’s Day–my own way. After Mass and brunch at a Greek restaurant, I found the sunniest spot on my porch, enjoyed a Bailey’s, and started in on this week’s tandem read: Pulitzer-prize winning (Cleveland, OH, native) Anthony Doerr‘s memoir, Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World and art historian and travel writer Laura Morelli‘s debut novel, The Gondola Maker.

Do you do much tandem reading?

Tandem reading provides many such textual mirrors and prisms. I highly recommend it.

Writer and Book-seller Michael Berger

This book pairing is pretty obvious: both are set in Italy (the first in the 2000s Rome; the second in 16th-century Venice), with all the inherent romance an Italian setting prescribes–from fine literature, art, and architecture to finely-honed craft and familial trades passed down through the generations. And there will be your standard romance to come–more in Morelli’s tale, I’m afraid, than in Doerr’s memoir. (Like Doerr, I suffered from sleepless nights due to twin boys, only not in Rome.)

What’s 400 years between stories? I’m enjoying the tandem view of Italy spanning centuries, geography, and outlooks.

So far, I’d recommend both books.

With humor and his trademark attention to detail, Doerr chronicles his family’s year in Rome, where he begins work on his novel ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE–when he’s not distracted by the writing of Pliny, the Elder; struggling with his Italian phrasebook; or carting his twin babies around an ancient city not meant for hulking twin strollers.

My favorite excerpt so far:

Jet lag is a dryness in the eyes, a loose wire in the spine. Wake up in Boise, go to bed in Rome. The city is a field of shadows beyond the terrace railing. The bones of Keats and Raphael and St. Peter molder somewhere out there. The pope dreams a half mile away. Owen blinks up at me, mouth open, a crease in his forehead, as though his soul is still somewhere over the Atlantic, trying to catch up with the rest of him.

In The Gondola Maker, Morelli’s expert research makes Venice more than a vibrant backdrop but a fully-fleshed-out character among the cast of this historical coming-of-age novel. I find her description of the craft and trades surrounding gondolas fascinating. (I’m eager to read her latest novel, The Painter’s Apprentice.)

My favorite passage so far:

I begin to absorb the unspoken language of Venetian boatmen, a complex set of hand gestures this cadre of men has developed over generations to communicate silently to one another across the water. Some of the signals are easy to divine: twirling fingers for “Let’s met for a plate of pasta at the midday meal” or a left thumb over the right shoulder for “incoming tide.”

Communication–through language spoken and unspoken–is another bright thread that binds these two books and makes this tandem read interesting and relevant to my writing right now. Tomorrow, I head to a writers retreat where I will continue working on my latest project, a multi-generational novel, featuring, among other related characters, a young woman who is losing her hearing–and must gain the ability to communicate in new ways. (Best advice to bear the long wait after querying agents about the first novel? Work on the second!)

Quick shout-out to my new followers who found this blog by way of my second WordPress Discover feature, My interview with Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas. And thank you for getting me past the 1,000 follower mark!

With other interviews, as well as book reviews, story excerpts, essays, and other musings on reading and writing the Rust Belt (and beyond), I hope you’ll stick around. See my categories above for more.

Now, it’s your turn. Are you a serial monogamist when it comes to reading books? Or, are you a tandem- or poly-reader? If so, what’s been your favorite tandem read so far? Comment away! I always respond.

Aloud: Off the Page, Into the World

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

In my next life, I will be an opera singer. This is not the first time I’ve made this declaration and it won’t be the last. (Mind you, the next-life gods need to suit me up with a better voice and the ability to read music, at the very least.) It’s not that I believe in next lives, but such a dream–belting out “o mio babbino caro” a la Maria Callas–is more of a this-life mantra. The hot stage lights, the costumes, the adulation–none of this is what appeals. It’s the voice. Our first instrument. When I tilt to strains of a violin, it’s because it reminds me of singing or crying, even keening. Same for the clarinet played in a minor key, like a folk singer’s lament.

Still, my voice is generally reserved for the rote songs of Mass, a little shower-singing, and belting out Whitney’s “I Wanna Dance…” with one of my boys. Fairly private venues; certainly not performance-grade.

As a young adult, I went from one silent art form–ballet–to the next–creative writing. We college-age fiction writers kept fairly quiet–our work was there on the page–until our monthly reading series held at a local art gallery, called Movable Feast (after Hemingway’s memoir and the relocatable series, which featured brie-and-crackers and grocery store sushi, when my friend and I were in charge of said feast).

My friend did–and does–write poetry, an art form more suited to recitation. Mic-ed, there were those poets at our Movable Feast, whose words took flight on the strains of their voices, some breathy and soft, some staccato and sharp, some exotically-accented. Sometimes, the words all but disappeared in the song of those poets’ voices.

Tone. Mood. Interesting language and turns of phrase. Even a surprise rhyme scheme. Moments. These are the elements that shine in recitation and are perhaps more dense and readily-found in poetry than fiction.

How to recite fiction? It’s not an easy task: Plotlines and plot points. Character names and descriptions. Landscapes. These details are easily lost to the ear when recited and best read on the page, in the quiet.

I know now that my success and failure (I don’t remember what I read aloud in grad school, and I’ll bet no one else does, either) when it comes to readings is less about my actual voice than choice.

My actual voice is not breathy and light; I cannot master the soothing monotone of an NPR announcer. My accent might grate on some more gentile listeners. Still, to read our work aloud is an exercise in performance we writers should seize–and so I do.

It’s been a year or so of finding my reading voice. There was the audio feature I recorded of my short story “Recruit,” for Flock literary journal. Then, I read a piece of flash fiction at a literary festival near where I grew up, where I felt at home, where everyone’s voices sounded something like mine. Most recently, I read at Little Patuxent Review‘s issue launch event from my short story, “While Our Grown Men Played.”

I had five minutes. Five minutes–to a fiction writer who trades in thousands of words on the page, sometimes daily. Five minutes for time and place and character and mood and theme and… voice.

As it was when I was a dancer on the stage, the during part is a blur. But I remember the after-the-reading discussions with several fellow readers at that issue launch, including local author and poet, Alan King. Thinking on it further, I have a few takeaways. Here are five ways to deliver a good reading:

  1. Forget the frame of a story; keep it short and tight.
  2. Pick a pivotal scene.
  3. Sensory description lets the audience in.
  4. Humor helps, when appropriate.
  5. Use your own voice (accent be damned).

I’m coming a little late to spoken word, poetry meant to be read aloud– performed really, rather than simply recited. But I think it has a lot to offer, not only in and of itself, but as inspiration for writing–and reading aloud–works of fiction or anything else. Check out spoken word artist “little pi,” who I met at the LPR issue launch event. And many thanks to Miami University Press in Oxford, Ohio, for introducing me to Janice A. Lowe, poet and composer of musical theater and opera(!), whose collection Leaving CLE: poems of nomadic dispersal, I’m currently devouring. People, I dare you to “unhear” such compelling voices, even if you only get to read them to yourself on the page.

Do you attend poetry, spoken word, or fiction readings? Listen to podcasts? Is there a poet or author whose voice speaks volumes to you? Have you read your own stories or poems aloud?


From Architectural Afterlife: “This Cleveland Church has Sat Abandoned for 27 Years”

Interior of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic Church in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo and story credit: Johnny Joo, architecturalafterlife.com

Maybe old buildings are in my blood. For forty years, my dad worked as a draftsman and designer for structural engineering firms, drawing up plans by hand. On trips into Cleveland for the art museum or bagels, Dad would point out the buildings he’d had a hand in. His job: ensuring they would stay standing.

So, it feels like a personal affront to watch buildings–especially beautiful historic places–go to ruin, abandoned.

I’ve talked on the blog before about “Ruin Porn,” a type of photography that glorifies falling-down structures, often in post-industrial places, like my native Cleveland. I’ve said before, that to me Ruin Porn looks like the American Dream on its knees with no dreamer in the scene. (I wrote a three-part essay you can read here, here, and here.) So, what do we do? How to salvage falling-down places?

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ALL THE WAY HOME and the back- and heart-breaking art of the DIY

I’m re-posting this review-lite of David Giffels’s first memoir, _All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House_ in response to a writing prompt–Dream House–over at Lorna’s site, Gin & Lemonade. As my house is still recovering (slowly) from the excitement of a burst pipe, I thought a bit of house reno humor was in order. To respond to Lorna’s prompt, yourself, go here: https://ginlemonade.com/2019/02/13/house-hunting-as-a-wheelchair-user-other-stories/ Happy Friday! ~ Rebecca

Rust Belt Girl

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I was sixteen before I knew a dad who didn’t drive a pickup truck.

Of course, this speaks as much to my limited teenage powers of observation as it does to my rural Ohio upbringing. Still…

My dad’s life was–and is–in his truck. A dad without a truck? How else would one: haul his 84 Lumber finds to turn the attic into proper living quarters;  bring home fresh-split logs–and the log-splitter–to stoke the wood stove in winter; tow a rotted shell of a boat to be restored from the ribs up–in the workshop designed and built yourself.

In my eyes, my dad was the original DIY-er, before that catchy name was put to skillful industriousness, craftsmanship, and thrift.

As such…reading award-winning Akron, Ohio, author David Giffels’ memoir All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House felt like going home. Cursory jacket copy summary:

With their infant son…

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All One Big Happy Hustle

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Thanks to a couple of my favorite bloggers*, I’ve been thinking about the “side hustle” lately. Seems the popular term for side job has shifted from “gig” to “hustle,” and with it, comes a more pejorative connotation.

Let’s start here: once upon a time, when graduating with my MFA in Creative Writing, I learned of an opportunity to do part-time contract work in internal communications—for the credit card company headquartered nearby. Not for a hip advertising firm. Not even for a nonprofit with a compelling cause. Nope, this job would require clocking in and out for the Fortune 500 company sometimes referred to around town as “the devil.”

Internal communications for the devil meant digesting leadership meeting notes on risk management and summarizing and synthesizing said notes into digestible PowerPoint presentations. (Oh, the myriad PowerPoint presentations!) And then came the fun of organizing the presentation highlights into multi-colored graphs on oversized Excel spreadsheets that required a special printer. This job was the opposite of every vision I’d had of my post-school self, teaching creative this and creative that.

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Name your bliss

I’m feeling deep blog love on this Valentine’s Day. Really, I am. I only wish I had the time to devote to crafting a post about the many positive connections–and even a free book or two (now that’s love!)–I’ve made through this site. Work calls–and so I’m relying on the ol’ reblog. Happy Day, whatever kind of love you’re celebrating. More soon. ~Rebecca

Rust Belt Girl

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Is it weird to mourn your mom on Valentine’s Day—with the holiday’s declarations of love, its overtures and SWAKs? This is love stuff, yes, but this is also word stuff.

In the dozen years since my mom left this life, I’ve become more fluent in the language of loss—and of life. Do not pity this post. I happily speak for me and her now, tell her stories to my kids who never knew her, keep her voice alive in mine.

This is mother-love, reborn, but it’s also language-love. Foreign at first and then familiar—even taken for granted—and all the more cherished when it’s gone.

Who among us writers doesn’t ascribe to “show don’t tell?” We illustrate and demonstrate; we craft a tactile scene. But let’s not forget to tell, while we have a voice to do it.

Did you see this coming?

Call your mom. (Or dad or kid…

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When a journal editor says no more death stories* **

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I submitted “Scooter Kid,” a story about conception (of a couple different kinds)–of creation, chaos, and control. (Spot the nod to Stockard Channing’s character in the 1993 movie, Six Degrees of Separation? Yeah, I’m still a little obsessed.)

Many thanks to Elizabeth Varel, Editor in Chief and Fiction Editor, and all the editors of Parhelion Literary Review for publishing my story in your lovely journal. Alongside my fiction, you’ll find a trove of thought-provoking prose, poetry, and art: right here.

Happy weekend. Happy reading. What’s on tap for you?

Thanks for stopping by!

~Rebecca

*Seriously though, submitting to literary journals? Check those submissions guidelines.

**OK, OK, all stories are death stories.