Rachel Nix: First of all, congrats on being named the Jack E. Reese writer-in-residence at the University of Tennessee, where you’re also a teacher. That must be incredibly exciting. What all does the residency entail?
Erin Elizabeth Smith: Thank you so much! I’m really excited about getting started! As the writer-in-residence, I will be running the University of Tennessee’s reading series, which includes booking writers, writing introductions, and preparing events with the visiting writers. I’m really excited because we have a particularly amazing line-up this year including Joy Harjo, Garrett Hongo, and Ocean Vuong!
RN: Going back to your teaching position – what made you want to teach English at the university level, as opposed to just being a writer and using your time on self-aimed endeavors?
ES: Probably my desire to pay my bills and eat. Just kidding. I’ve actually always wanted to teach. That whole joke about those who know do and those who don’t teach always seemed totally ridiculous to me. I think making certain that the department has working writers as part of their Creative Writing and Literature teams is incredibly important, partially so as to breakdown some of the assumptions about writers (they’re dead, for one, and likely just old white men). In my poetry classroom, I always try to Skype in writers that we’re reading in order for my students to see that we are real people who make strange decisions about our writing, which by the way, is not a muse whispering sexily into our ear while we translate the sublime.
RN: Speaking of your own personal endeavors, you’ve had three books published: The Fear of Being Found (Three Candles Press, 2008), The Chainsaw Bears (Dancing Girl Press, 2010), and The Naming of Strays (Gold Wake Press, 2011). Are you working on any upcoming collections you’d be willing to give us a sneak peek of, or are your current positions enough to curb that creative itch for a bit?
ES: I’m currently shopping a book of poetry that deals with divorce and Alice in Wonderland. At the moment, I’m working on a project about a woman named Dot who buys a farm in the Appalachias to find that it’s haunted by all of the animals that died there. It’s a collection about ideas of memory and sustainability, both of the land and of ourselves. I’m working with Meagan Cass on this to blend flash fiction and poetry that intertwine the stories of two women and how their lives diverge.
RN: For those who don’t know, you’re the managing editor of Sundress Publications, an umbrella collective for various journals, including cahoodaloodaling; the founder and former managing editor of Stirring: A Literary Collection, one of the longest-running journals on the internet; and the editor of The Best of the Net anthology since 2006. How did this all come about and just out of curiosity, when do you find time to sleep?
ES: Ha! I get asked that question a lot. As for the sleep part, I find this very important. I actually am an eight-hour-a-night woman. If I don’t get that, I’m actually useless. As for how it all gets done, there are almost 60 people who work with Sundress, our journals, our imprints, and our residency. While I might serve as the founder, we are a tightly-knit group of editors who are dedicated to promoting the arts through our individual organizations and promoting community and literary citizenship together.
It really all came about in 1999 when I was illicitly living in a dorm room at Brown with my then boyfriend. It was the 90s and everyone was going to get rich off of the internet. So I started an online journal (because poetry=$$$), and then realized I need to go ahead and purchase a domain and hosting. That was pricey, so I figured I would donate some of my extra space to journals that I admired that were hosted on places like Geocities and Angelfire. Thus Sundress Publications was born as an umbrella online literary community for journals who were focused on publishing women and LGBTQ voices.
RN: As if the above endeavors weren’t enough to keep you busy, in the winter of 2013 you also bought Firefly Farms, 45 acres of farmland which houses The Sundress Academy for the Arts – an artist residency program and workshop series co-founded by yourself and Joe Minarick. What brought that mission on and just how do the writers earn their keep in the program?
ES: I’ve always wanted to start a residency program. Back in the early 2000s when I was an undergrad at Binghamton University, my friend Meagan and I joked about how we were going to win the lottery and start up the world’s most epic writing academy. (I believe there was talk of a hockey arena.) That idea shifted more into a residency program when my partner, Joe, and I were discussing ways that we could stay in Knoxville. I’d been on the job market for several years, and ultimately I realized I just didn’t want to leave this city, which is sincerely one of the most beautiful, interesting, and inviting cities I’ve ever been in. We started looking for properties that we could build on and within a week, we were walking the land that is now our farm!
Residents at the farm help us to maintain the property since we do not live on site yet. They feed the animals, do small chores, and generally make sure things don’t catch on fire that aren’t supposed to. We add this into our residency contracts partially because of our mission of lifelong learning. Our motto at SAFTA is: “If you have to write what you know, you should probably know more.” We want to make sure that our residents come home with a new skillset as well.
RN: To get very serious for a second – do you have baby goats on the farm which random poets can come and love on? Asking for a friend. ;)
ES: We just have the one goat, but we do have lots of very snuggly lambs that will let you hold them until they learn better. Also many bunnies to snuggle and a most excellent cat who will definitely sit on your writing if you’re hanging on the porch.
RN: You’ve been published pretty widely and are quite Google-able, but because we like to be up front about our stalking:
Where can we see more of your poetry? Any recent publications you’d like to link us to?
ES: My first book was just rereleased as an ebook from Zoetic Press and will be rereleased in print this year as well. I have work from my new ghost animal project forthcoming in Permafrost and Contrary as well!
RN: As proof of our stalking, I found out you’re from South Carolina, you earned a Ph.D in Literature and Creative Writing in Mississippi, and now you’re organizing a pretty solid literature scene in Tennessee. It’s my opinion, as a very biased Alabama-based individual, that the South is churning out some of the best work in poetry. What do you think it is about this corner of the country that creates such identifiable diversity in the literature community?
ES: I think part of that is how most writers are at odds with our Southern identities. I feel like I am not represented in the legislation or actions of the South. As someone who grew up openly bisexual and atheist in the 1990s, I was given an enormous amount of flack for my choices. When I left South Carolina, the NAACP was boycotting the state, and they were trying to keep women from being admitted at the Citadel. I felt like the whole world around me had gone crazy with hatred that seemed to come from nowhere.
Then, when I moved to upstate New York, I kept being treated like an outsider. I was asked if we wore shoes or had indoor plumbing. I was reminded often that “The North won the war,” as if my family wasn’t from Pennsylvania originally. It was only then that I found myself feeling like a Southerner, so I suppose that some element of being a Southerner, for me, is to be an outsider who is always at odds with their history and their place within that history. That makes for some good writing IMHO.
RN: Who are some of your favorite writers? Who’s work can you not get enough of lately?
ES: Oh man. So many! I’m really loving the work of Chen Chen, Mary Stone, Kaveh Akbar, Vandana Khanna, Ocean Vuong, Karyna McGlynn, Jasmine An, and so many others I can’t even have a place to put them all.
Many of my faves are in Sundress’s newest anthology on the politics of identity, Political Punch, which I think everyone should own. (:
RN: Which magazines, online or print, do you admire and follow regularly? We’re always on the hunt for publications to dig into and are curious where other poets’ attention goes. Given your involvement with so many stellar journals, I think we’re all pretty interested in what makes a publication stand out to you.
ES: Well obviously all of the Sundress journals, but besides those, I love Ecotone, Witness, Sixth Finch, Memorious, Boxcar Poetry, Muzzle, Thrush, etc. There’s so much good writing out there, it can be overwhelming at times, which is an excellent problem to have.
RN: We ask this in every interview because it seems like each editor has one book that’s defined them in some way. Any genre, and subject; what’s your favorite book? What book matters to you?
ES: My favorite book of all time is Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, but I’m not sure if that’s an influential book per se. I think Watership Down was an important one to me as a child; it’s still one of my favorite books, but it also defined my ideas of what storytelling can be. The way that it builds mythos without ever truly feeling fantastical is something that I strive for. For poetry, it was likely Robert Hass’s Praise, which was the first real book of contemporary poetry that I read in high school and it changed what I realized that poetry could do and sparked a major shift in my juvenile writing. That shift helped me to begin to understand my own voice and place in the poetry world.
RN: Got a question for us? About the publication, the staff, which New Kid on the Block member had the best hair?
ES: Did you ever think you’d get rich from a Beanie Baby collection? What would you do first when you eventually win the lottery? What house did the sorting hat put you in?
RN: Ha. Nah, I really didn’t get the appeal of Beanie Babies. I was a random kid and collected Elvis Presley memorabilia when I was little and traded random finds with my uncles. Maybe they were humoring me, or maybe we were all dorks – either way, Beanie Babies are probably more valuable than my Elvis man-Barbies.
Gambling is illegal in Alabama and super duper sinful unless you do it on the weekends in Tunica and are back in time for church on Sunday. But since I haven’t been to church since I quit collecting Elvis Barbies, I do gamble and when I win I’ll probably buy a house in Kentucky near a bourbon distillery and hire someone to make me fresh chocolate oatmeal cookies everyday.
Ravenclaw. Luna is my homegirl.
ES: I’m with you on the Beanie Babies. I never got their charm. But Elvis-man Barbies sound awesome!
PS. I’m a Gryffindor.
Erin Elizabeth Smith is the Creative Director at the Sundress Academy for the Arts and the Managing Editor of Sundress Publications and The Wardrobe. She is the author of two full-length collections and the editor of two anthologies, Political Punch: Contemporary Poems on the Politics of Identity and Not Somewhere Else But Here: Contemporary Poems on Women and Place. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Mid-American, Crab Orchard Review, Cimarron Review, and Willow Springs, among other. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi and teaches in the English Department at the University of Tennessee, where she is also the Jack E. Reese Writer in the Library.