Martin Corless-Smith was born and raised in Worcestershire, England. He studied as a painter and a poet. His books include Odious Horizons: Some Versions of Horace (Miami University Press, 2019), The Fool & The Bee (Shearsman, UK, 2019), and a novel This Fatal Looking Glass (SplitLevel Texts). A collection of essays, The Poet's Tomb is forthcoming from Parlor Press in 2020. He lives and teaches in Boise, Idaho.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book was a bit of a fluke (Of Piscator, U of Georgia Press). I sent it off very quickly after pulling together recent things. It had a certain whimsy about it. I suppose it got me the job I still have, so in that way it made me employable. I was of course pleased to get a book out, enjoyed the object, liked being able to give it to friends, family and poets. Actually I think what struck me most when I saw the book was that it takes some distance to read one’s own work. I think my most recent collection of poems, The Fool & The Bee (Shearsman) is more like it than anything in between, a gap of 20 years or more. It seems part of the same journey. Maybe I like Of Piscator most in some ways, because it never expected an audience.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I think poetry seemed more capable of directly engaging with emotions and thoughts: vague shapes and colours that needed some kind of immediate evocation. I never particularly worried about what genre it was. It was surrogate for painting.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
How long is a piece of string? My novel, which died many times on the table, took 7 years to put in a nearly satisfactory shape. Some books have taken only a year. My first efforts are almost always finished drafts. If they are not what I need then I don’t use them, but I tend to write the poem out in one go, even if it is a very long one. I will change places where I can’t follow my own initial attempts, but I don’t just get rid of weird and awkward moments. I very rarely make big edits. I write them by hand, which maybe gives me time to feel the poem happening the way I want it to. And if I feel they have hit on something then they shape the book they are in. I’d say 35% of my poems don’t survive to a public viewing, even if I like them as poems. It just depends what they are doing and if I feel I need that in the book. Sometimes poems find a purpose decades later.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I’m always writing, or making notes or letting my mind wander towards a phrase or an idea or a galvanizing feeling. Books are the most common arrival point, a way of putting together and moving on (though often I don’t go very far).
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I am almost always happy to read, though I prefer to keep it short and sweet. I’ve been at too many readings where the poet ruins any sense of connection by simply going on too long. Once in a blue moon I’m sad and there seems no point in it, or in anything, but thankfully that is rare.
I will say I nearly always feel the audience isn’t there for my work in particular, more to support poetry or taking a class or being good citizens, so I often feel, especially in America, that my work is hard for them to hear. My language can be dense and the ideas difficult or opaque, so there isn’t always that easy payoff some readings give the “ahhing” and “sighing” audience. I also don’t want to explain or anecdotalise, so it isn’t always the love fest! I’m not interested in selling myself or my work to anyone, so I suppose I just hope they like it, but people very rarely come up to me after a reading and say anything, so who knows what they are thinking. They are probably thinking about getting a drink or catching a bus! I do sometimes wonder why I do it. It’s not for any obvious gratification.
That said, I write with sound as an important engine, a central element in my poems, so it is good to have to perform that.
Honestly it feels like I’m a chef and I put my heart and soul into preparing the food and I want it to be loved and consumed, and even if sometimes going out into the dining area is kind of fun and exciting, in the end it’s not really my business. No one wants a chef breathing down their neck when they are trying to taste a dish.
I would be fine never to read again, or to read more than I do. I have thought, when reading from The Fool and the Bee of dressing up in clown make-up, but I suspect I’d never want to take it off!
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I don’t separate theoretical concerns from emotional ones, or formal or spiritual ones. To me, the fact of being cuts through everything, and so my work wants to be as much about philosophy as it is about sex or sparrows. I’m very much interested in poetics and in thinking about how poems are part of the way of shaping thought and being.
Right now I want poetry to offer an alternative to capitalism! I feel poetry has a wonderful ambivalent place where it both ignored/ridiculed and somewhat held in esteem (probably this is a residual cultural effect). The fact that there is really little direct financial gain is part of that ambivalence as well.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Writing is an essential part of culture/history/society/selfhood. We wouldn’t have a sense of culture without it. Nor who we are, and what love is, what loss is, what being is. Culture today (in the bits I mostly attend) has crawled into a terrible corner where materialism and blind accumulation, even with the truth of the emptiness of that accumulation spelled large in our faces, has replaced almost even the possibility of any alternative. It’s not just that we are shallow money grabbing assholes, it’s that we can’t really think of another way to be. Writers have to be able to write new ways of being alive to remind us of our humanity, of love, of the free gifts of being.
All epochs shift and crumble, all world-views are in flux, and poems are one thing that tells us where we are in the process.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I did a few books with Fence, and Rebecca Wolff was really a great person to interact with. She’s very smart, and a terrific poet herself, and we’ve known each other for years, but most of all she is honest, and cannot not be, it seems. So she’s an ideal reader. She never badgered but had great questions. I don’t recall if she ever convinced me to change anything. Mostly she just wanted to know what I thought was going on. Keith Tuma was a microscopic editor to my recent Horace collection. Very handy! But in general my work is not a collaboration until it gets out of my hands and into the hands of an unknown reader. And then who knows…
I’ve had one or two good friends over the years who have read things: Cathy Wagner, Alan Halsey (also a publisher of my work), Dan Beachy-Quick, but again, did I ever change anything because they felt I should…maybe I did? I had some good teachers who read my work and took it seriously which was really important to me: Jorie Graham, Marvin Bell, Donald Revell…without their input I don’t know where I’d be, even if I fought against direct influence and suggestions, the support was vital.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I wish I could remember.
When I was a student at Iowa, my work was getting very dark and Marvin Bell told me I had a choice to change my direction, which I did. He didn’t want me to conflate creativity with darkness, and risk unearthing some of the potential dangers that that might. It was kind and true.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I read too much shitty news. So I try to get away to my studio where I don’t have the internet. I teach, so reading is around what I am teaching. I’m lucky, very lucky, because I make up classes, and am allowed to, around topics I want to think about. So I might theme a class on Beauty, or the Soul and read a range of books about that. My writing and painting and teaching are all of a piece.
I write all the time. I have a notebook or two on the go all the time (some pocket notebooks in various jackets). Then, when they are full or I feel I have gone on a while I type them into the computer. I wait to see if a book is happening.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I don’t worry about not writing. If I don’t write for a while then so much the better for everyone else!
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Roast chicken. Fresh line-dried laundry. The leafy mulchy earth in old deciduous woods.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Comes from anywhere you are paying attention.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I’d never have thought to write without reading other writers of course. So many of them are dear companions. Of our contemporaries I always wait excitedly to see what Alice Notley has just made, or Lisa Robertson, or Alan Halsey, a few others. But there are always new surprises. There are wonderful presses like Canarium, Ugly Duckling and The Song Cave that keep bringing great things into the world.
Of poets from the past, Petrarch, Leopardi, Keats, Wordsworth, Herrick, Donne …makes me sound like a stuffy old white dude…huh. Virginia Woolf, Clarice Lispector, Aime Cesaire, W.G. Sebald, Vallejo, Pessoa, Trakl, Beckett …I read lots of other genres, and am always excited when Giorgio Agamben has another book translated, though they mostly prove the same points over again through a slightly different metaphors or subjects, they are brilliant reminders and filled with lovely moments and helpful formulations.
I read fiction because I don’t like TV very much very often. I feel annoyed by the silliness of much TV. Some is great of course, but not enough to keep me busy. And I can’t watch TV during daylight hours. I also never listen to podcasts, I just don’t want a voice talking at me during the day. I seem to read a lot of great fiction by young women these days.
Relationships and Nature (birds especially) are always very present in my life and in my work.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
So much. Live by the sea for an extended period. Live in another country. See India. See my son happily through college, out into the world. Maybe get rid of all of my things. Paint the interior of an atheist chapel. Die well.
If you mean as a writer, probably a short book of philosophy.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I’d have been a painter. I still might, I have a studio and I paint 3 or 4 days a week. I don’t like to sell them which is an issue. I might have to start. I was a gardener during my summers when an undergraduate, I could have stood doing that.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I finished a graduate degree in painting in the States and moved back to London with no money and no materials. I had no studio…poetry was the closest thing I could do to painting without a studio.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Well I’m teaching the last two chapters of The Prelude tonight, but I suspect you mean which great book did I last read for the first time…
Fiction: Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing
Recent WTF in translation: Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street
Recent Poetry in new translation: Surrender to Night: Collected poems of Georg Trakl
Contemporary Poetry: Timothy Donnelly’s The Problem of the Many
Contemporary Fiction: Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes on the Form of a Mortal Girl
Contemporary Art Theory: Cesar Aira’s On Contemporary Art
Contemporary Philosophy/Theory: Giorgio Agamben’s Creation and Anarchy
It could have been an entirely different list. These are just very recent. Last two months?
19 - What are you currently working on?
A book of prose pieces about the disintegration of selfhood. I have a book of essays coming out soon, The Poet’s Tomb (Parlor Press), so I am picking out the weeds. A large oil painting of what appears to be a Victorian factory.