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!