Young Smith

A Bit about Me

I grew up in the tiny college town of Clemson, South Carolina, but I’ve lived all over the American South: in Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and, finally, in the green and gentle Commonwealth of Kentucky. Though I’m “still only” in my early 50s, I am (ahem, ahem) very much the Old Timer on the Bluegrass Writers Studio faculty. I’ve been at EKU for over a decade now, and I served as the founding  Director of the BGWS in its early stages. I taught its very first workshop, in fact, back in 2008—when we had just seven students in the program!  Since those first lean and uncertain days, I have been thrilled, and often genuinely astonished, as I’ve watched this program grow and begin to flourish in just a few short years.

A Bit about How I Got Here

During the early 1980s,  I was an English major at the University of Georgia, where creative writing didn’t yet exist as a discipline, and where any question about a course in which students might write their own stories or poems was met with a mild frown and sad little tisks of disapproval by my solemn and stiff-lipped professors. “One doesn’t study ‘creative writing,’ Mr. Smith,” I was told again and again. “If one is a writer, one will simply… write.” Of course, these fine old scholars (and they were fine old scholars) didn’t all discourage me with precisely these words, but the spirit of their advice was nearly always the same…

Still, late in my senior year at Georgia, I did manage to take a single course in fiction writing offered by a visiting professor, and this class, as they say, changed my life. Which was a bit surprising, because it wasn’t a very good class at all. Though he was a masterful writer, this fellow’s teaching method consisted almost entirely of reading aloud to us his favorite stories by Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty, lifting his eyes from these texts only to say, from time to time, “See? See? You see what she’s doing there?” Occasionally, he fell asleep in the middle of our seminars… But he liked my stories, this visiting writer, and he eventually offered to write me a letter of recommendation if I ever decided to apply to something called an “MFA Program.”

A what, now? An MFA program? I had never heard of such a creature before… At that time, I was still telling concerned family members that I planned to go to law school after graduation—a familiar ploy used by generations of English majors to deflect that most vexing of questions: “English? What on earth you gonna do with English?”—though, to tell the truth, I didn’t have the first idea of what would become of me once my studies at Georgia were complete. As soon as the old writer began to describe the sort of things that went on in these MFA programs, however, I knew that I would go to one. And go I soon did, to the University of Arkansas, deep in the Ozark Mountains, where I earned my MFA in fiction writing, presenting a collection of short stories as my thesis.

Soon afterwards, I took a job as an Instructor at the University of New Orleans, where I would teach for the next seven years. Once my contract at UNO was finished, I began to feel the strong pull of graduate school yet again, which is how I ended up in the PhD program in creative writing at the University of Houston… I had applied and been accepted to the UH program as a fiction writer, but within just two semesters at Houston, I decided, after much trembling and gnashing of teeth, to switch genres, finally admitting to myself that I was actually a poet at heart, rather than a story writer or a novelist. This discovery was both terrifying and deeply liberating at once, and I have never once regretted the decision. In fact, I have come to embrace and celebrate the role of the multi-genre writer. I am now primarily a poet—and a champion of poetry—but I have also written plays, and I have collaborated with writing partners on screenplays and works of musical theatre.

A Bit about the Past and the Future of the BGWS

In the days when the Bluegrass Writers Studio did not yet exist at Eastern, when the BGWS was, in fact, still little more than a vague proposal described in loose terms on various university forms, I was able to have some considerable influence in determining the kind of program it would become…   This was not because I was in a position of great administrative power, or because I had proven myself a wise and trusted decision maker. Far from it. It was—to be quite blunt— simply and entirely because, at that time, I was the only full-time, tenure-track professor of creative writing in the Department of English at Eastern. All of my other colleagues in the field had either recently retired or left the department for jobs at other places. It was a lonely and uncertain time. But it was also a time of exciting new beginnings. And so, however humbly, we began… 

I firmly believe that my own rather confused and crooked path as a writer—described above—helped to shape my convictions about just what sort of MFA program I would urge my colleagues to create at EKU. What we wanted, I argued, was a program where students would be encouraged to work in multiple genres, where they would be urged to search out and to discover for themselves exactly what sort of writers they hoped to become (rather than the sort of writers we would instruct them to become), and where all of these students’ various ambitions as artists might be equally nurtured. Since I had learned first hand myself all that the method could offer, I argued that our program should employ the round-table workshop discussion approach within its core classes (an option largely unavailable to students in other low-residency MFA programs). And though I wanted these workshops to be rigorous and challenging, I also felt it vital that they be conducted in an atmosphere of genuine collegiality and mutual respect, an intellectual climate in which each student would feel herself to be part of a vital writing community, a place where she would be as invested in her classmates’ progress and achievements as in her own.

Most of all, however, I argued for a program staffed with faculty members who would define  themselves just as much as teachers as writers, people who were engaged in important and innovative creative work of their own, but who would never let their own preoccupations and ambitions as writers get in the way of their commitment to their students (something I had seen happen more than once in the course of my own education). The people we would bring to EKU would not be simply famous folks who chose to teach as a relatively painless way to supplement their writing incomes. The people we would bring to EKU would be deeply committed to their students’ growth and success, both as writers and as students of writing. For this reason, I can say honestly that my proudest achievement so far at Eastern is the small role I played in helping to search out, recruit, and hire the other four members of our core faculty in the Bluegrass Writers Studio. They are, one and all, excellent teachers, excellent writers, and excellent people. You should meet them. I would be happy to make the introductions.

Fellowships and Awards

·      Poetry Fellowship, Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, 2012

·      Writing Fellowships, Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts and Science, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2012

·      National Semifinalist, “Discovery”/The Nation Poetry Contest, 1998, 1999, 2000,

2001, 2004, 2006

·      Poetry Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts, 2005

·      Finalist, Walt Whitman Award Book Prize, Academy of American Poets, 2005

·      Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship for Poetry, Kentucky Arts Council, 2005

·      Writing Fellowship, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, 2003

·      Featured Poet, Poetry Magazine Web Site, 2003

·      Krakow, Poland Seminar Poetry Fellowship, University of Houston, 2002

·      James A. Michener Fellowship in Honor of Donald Barthelme for Excellence in

Poetry,University of Houston, 2002

·      Pushcart Prize Nominationfor Poetry, 1999

·      Pushcart Prize Nominationfor Fiction, 1992

Publications

Book (Poetry)

In A City You Will Never Visit. Black Zinnias Press, California Institute for Arts and

Letters, San Francisco, 2008

Poems

“October Burial,” “Drowned Man’s Cross: Grande Isle, Louisiana,” and “Here There Was a

Stool with a Crippled Leg.” Chautauqua Review, 2012

“She Considers the Dimensions of Her Soul.” Strange Attractors: A Collection of

Mathematical Love Poems, 2008

“On One of the Disappointments of Getting Well.” Tampa Review, 2009

“Just Go on Now and Give Me a Reason” and “Antiquarian.”  The Fiddlehead, 2008

“The Beauty of the Light,” “Cadaver,” “Eighteen Small Realist Studies,” “In the Suicide’s

Top Drawer,” “The Light in D Minor,” “The Light as Silky Motion in the Constellation

of Centaurus,” “Moment Above a Swimming Pool,” “Suggestions for New Collective

Nouns,” “Those Dreaming of the Dawn Will Go On Dreaming in the Dark,” “A Twist of

Brass, a Bright Word,” “What of These New Mountains?” and “What Does the Ottoman

Long For?” Left Facing Bird, 2008

“Description of a Pear on a Pewter Dish.” Poetry Daily. 2007

“She Disagrees with the Psychiatrist’s Diagnosis.” Grain, 2007

“Description of a Pear on a Pewter Dish,” “Squamata,” and “Poem Attempting to Deny the

Body.” Beloit Poetry Journal, 2006

“C.” Green Mountains Review, 2006

“Small Couplets on One Passion of the Dead.” Arts & Letters, 2006.

“My Achilles.” Arts & Letters, 2006

“The Story of Watching”and “Canticle with Migratory Birds.” Harvard Divinity Bulletin,

2006

“Beneath the Waves,” AGNI, 2006

“Brief Discussion on His Body, Its Hands, and the Sun “and “In a City You Will Never

Visit.” Crazyhorse, 2005

“Lunar Isocolon (While Holding Her Breath).” 11th Annual Juried Reading Chapbook, The

Poetry Center of Chicago, 2005

“Radiation in the Visible Spectrum: The Collapse of the Wave Function,” “Radiation in the

Visible Spectrum: Iridial,” “Radiation in the Visible Spectrum: Illuminance.” Beloit

Poetry Journal, 2005

“Radiation in the Visible Spectrum: V,” “Radiation in the Visible Spectrum: VIII,” and

“Radiation in the Visible Spectrum: XIX.” The Iowa Review, 2005

“What It Made Him Think of Was the Sea.” Pleiades, 2005

“Poem Censored from the Soldier’s Manual of Common Tasks.” DIAGRAM,2004

“Woman Leaving the Land of Shinar.” American Literary Review, 2004

“She Considers the Dimensions of Her Soul.” Poetry, 2003

“New Orleans.” The Atlanta Review, 2003

“Dark Blossoms.” Plainsongs, 2003

“There Were No Other Houses There for Miles.” The Midwest Quarterly, 2003

“Statue.” Ekphrasis, 2003

“I Am Here to Say This.” Crab Creek Review, 2002

“Flower Fire.” Chaffin Journal, 2001

“Rorqual” and “Jefferson, From His Nickel.” Luna Negra, 2000

"Under the Powerline" and “God's Instructions, Before His Visit." New Orleans Review,

1999

“Big Bald Man.” Ekphrasis, 1999 (Pushcart Prize Nomination)

Inenarrablis.Limestone, 1999

Short Stories

“A Stranger to Atlanta.” Louisiana Literature,1992 (Pushcart Prize Nomination)

“Midway.” The Luxury of Tears:Winning Stories from the National Society of Arts and

 Letters Competition. August House Press, 1988

 

Performances of Works for the Stage

Better Being Bad. Jeffrey Lerner (Composer), Young Smith (Bookwriter/ Lyricist).  A musical play adapted from Niccolo Machiavelli’s Mandragola. Equity Showcase Premiere, Music Box Theatre, Minneapolis, 2007

Better Being Bad. Jeffrey Lerner (Composer), Young Smith (Bookwriter/Lyricist).  A musical play adapted from Niccolo Machiavelli’s Mandragola. Minneapolis Fringe Festival production, 2003

The Three Cornered Hat.Bob Beare (Composer/Lyricist), Young Smith (Bookwriter). Main Street Theatre, Houston, Texas. World Actors’ Equity Premiere of a new musical play, 2002.

 

Major Influences (& Just Plain Stuff I Like)

My 25 Books (as of this moment, and in no particular order…)

• The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson • Harmonium by Wallace Stevens • Mr. Cogito by Zbignew Herbert • TheCollected Poems of Elizabeth Bishop • The Lost Son and Other Poems by Theodore Roethke  • All Day Permanent Red by Christopher Logue • The Collected Poems of Czeslaw Milosz • Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates • 2666 by Roberto Bolaño  • The Prologue by William Wordsworth • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami  • Journeyman by Erskine Caldwell  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville  • Glass, Irony and God by Anne Carson •  The Sacraments of Desire by Linda Gregg •  The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace  •  Fire to Fire by Mark Doty •  The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor • Child of God by Cormac McCarthy  • The Great Enigma by Tomas Transtromer • Fat City by Leonard Gardner• The Incognito Lounge by Denis Johnson •  The Collected Poems of Russell Edson  • Mysteries of the Invisible World by Cotton Mather  •

 

Contemporary Poets about Whom I’m Especially Excited

Al Maginnis • Wayne Miller • Nicky Beer • Eduardo Corral • Beth Ann Fennelly • Nick Flynn • A. Van Jordan • Ilya Kaminsky • Sarah Manguso • Charles Rafferty • A.E. Stallings • Susan Stewart • Brian Turner • Brian Barker • Natasha Tretheway • Tracy K. Smith • Camille Dungee • Jericho Brown • Kim Addonizio• Adrian Blevins• Jennifer L. Knox • Mary Ruefle • You?

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