It’s a pleasure to be back in conversation with Michael V. Smith, author of a brand spanking new collection of poems, Bad Ideas (Nightwood Editions).
According to The Province, Bad Ideas “deals heavily in themes of family, sexuality, spirituality, life and death. Smith’s poetry is moving, beautifully written and heartfelt.”
Michael V. Smith is a writer, comedian, filmmaker, performance artist, and occasional clown. He is the author of several books including What You Can’t Have (Signature Editions, 2006), which was short-listed for the ReLit Award, and My Body Is Yours (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2015), which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is also the winner of the inaugural Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT Emerging Writers and was nominated for the Journey Prize. Smith currently teaches creative writing at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus in Kelowna.
THE CHAT WITH MICHAEL V. SMITH
Trevor Corkum: As someone who’s had more than a few bad ideas myself, I love and appreciate the title of the collection. How did it all come together?
Michael V. Smith: I had this romantic title for the book for a long time, For the Hour of Our Impatience. And Silas at Nightwood asked for something else, which was a bit of a relief, I guess. Because the book wanted to be more smart-ass than that title allowed. So I just did that weird thing where I scrolled through the titles of the poems randomly and within three seconds saw Bad Ideas and said, “That’s it.” Sometimes things really do write themselves.
TC: In the book’s dedication you thank your grade ten English teacher. You write that she read some of your first poems, and likely saved your life. In what ways is poetry a lifeline, both literally and metaphorically?
MVS: As a gay guy in a small town in the 70s and 80s, I was one of the loneliest people alive. I didn’t know what I was. Everybody else seemed to know—meaning they had some fucked up version of what gay was—but I was topsy-turvy within myself. My life really did feel like the ugly duckling. I was such an outsider, even in my own body. Reading gave me company. I found friends in books. I found people who would have understood me, if they were real. I found people who I understood, who I shared an intimacy with. Books were permissive places, for ideas, for tenderness, for vulnerability, for weirdness, for critique. I thought, these writers know me. So in a very real sense, poetry gave me a new kind of hope, because it welcomed me into a world larger than the one built around me.
In a very real sense, poetry gave me a new kind of hope, because it welcomed me into a world larger than the one built around me."
When I started writing poems in high school—like, really writing, doing it regularly—it was two parts clawing my way to a future I was desperate to have and one part joy. The joy was simple, that I could make a thing. And that I could join in a conversation with those people whose books I’d read. Having my grade ten English teacher read my poetry—and ask for more—was one of the greatest thrills of my life. Someone wanted to listen. Someone took me seriously. Someone thought I had value. I wasn’t a stupid faggot. I was a smart faggot, thank you very much.
Someone thought I had value. I wasn’t a stupid faggot. I was a smart faggot, thank you very much."
The answer to the last part of your question is that writing also welcomed me back into my body. It wasn’t just ideas and dreaming, not just head stuff. The best tools of writing come to us through our bodies. Our bodies are the conduit between the world and the page, right? So poetry gave me my first sense of an embodied self. It gave me permission to feel.
TC: I know you’re also a superstar teacher and mentor in your own right. How important have mentors been in your career, and now that the tables are turned, what qualities are important for you in your own role as a teacher?'
MVS: I’ve always had mentors. My best friend says it’s my magic power: finding people to look out for me. In the past they were mostly my teachers, but sometimes the parents of my friends. Then I met Lorna Crozier when I was nineteen, and she helped me many times in my career, with advice, or editing an early draft of my first poetry book. And just believing in me. Believing I was a writer.
Then I met Lorna Crozier when I was nineteen, and she helped me many times in my career, with advice, or editing an early draft of my first poetry book. And just believing in me."
As a teacher, I’m trying to do a lot of things. At its base, I’m trying to give students permission to be what they want. Sometimes that means I’m the biggest freak in the room, so they have more room to be freaky too. Sometimes it’s giving permission to tell their stories. I try to be clear that we are evaluating only the tools of the work, not the writer who made it. Sometimes it is reminding students that we are not our stories. We’re more than our stories. We’re the people who observe those stories, who know more than the stories, who can learn from the things we build without those things necessarily being one with us.
I teach my students to separate their ego from their work, so their value is not tied to the success or failures in their attempts. I try to teach that there is success in their failures, because they’ve tried something risky. Things that don’t work, do work. I try to expose students to a variety of voices, to wake them up to their own voice, in relationship with these others.
In the end, I’m a cheerleader for them. I celebrate them. That’s the easy part. Students are amazing. Even the ones I struggle to connect with, or who test my patience, or who I fear can’t stand me, even those who interfere with the other students’ learning, I love them, because clearly they need more love.
TC: The ghost of your father looms large in these poems. You explore your relationship with your dad in detail in your incredible memoir, My Body Is Yours. How has your relationship to his death (and life) evolved, in the years since the memoir came out?
MVS: Oh, that’s a big question. The biggest surprise is that my father’s death isn’t finite. I thought it would be. But he dies a little all the time. Just for example, it took me a year to delete his text history. One day, it seemed necessary to let that go. It’s been four years now, and the other day I came across his driver’s license in a box, and I still couldn’t throw it out. And he returns in memories. In foods. In stories I tell. He’s more here now than when he was alive, because the mind, I guess, fills the absence of him with memories. When he was alive, I’d have tried to not think about him. And in his death, I return to him more and more. Maybe because it’s safe to do so? His alcoholic problems are gone. Those are finite. So now I can have a relationship with who he was, rather than a complicated, difficult one with who he is.
The biggest surprise is that my father’s death isn’t finite. I thought it would be. But he dies a little all the time."
The weirdest part about writing this book is that I had given myself last summer to (a) write a third more poems and (b) to write more about my father’s death. So at the start of the summer, I printed up what I had so far, to see what else I needed to write, you know. And there it was, the book was mostly done. And I had lots of poems about my father. Way more than I’d thought. It gob-smacked me. I’d pre-written what I’d intended to write. Dad had crept in everywhere, without me noticing. It was a weird kind of gift, because, well, my father felt alive in these pages. Here was a small collection of fresh insight I’d had into him, which I hadn’t realized I was writing.
TC: The ‘Prayer’ poems, in the first section of the collection, are among my favourites. In ‘Prayer for Hatred,’ you write:
Has hatred not liberated
more people than those who have done
I’m intrigued by these lines. Can you talk more about the poem, and the ways in which hatred (and love) operate as sources of power in your own art?
MVS: Jeez, you ask the kind of questions that break my heart. Those lines mean two main things for me. One is an acknowledgment that we rise up, we resist the hierarchies, the injustices, the systems of oppression. Some of that resistance is a hatred for those systems, and their perpetrators. And I believe we outnumber them. The hatred of injustice is a powerful force for change. So is love, of course, but we shouldn’t overlook rage as a tool, especially when it is driving us to make a better world. “Never again.” That’s more rage than love, by my measure.
The hatred of injustice is a powerful force for change. So is love, of course, but we shouldn’t overlook rage as a tool, especially when it is driving us to make a better world."
The other half of those lines are doing what much of the book does, I think. They’re an ironic look at what we think we know, asking us to see the underside of things. See the idea slant. We think of oppression as people, and their systems of power, generating hate towards one group for their own benefit. That’s a simplified version, obviously. But more or less, oppressors hate us, then diminish us, so they can use us. In that dynamic, the oppressing haters never get to know us, not as well as we see them. That’s a kind of ironic power, you know?
And then for every ignorant despot, there are legions of people opposed to them. Look at Trump, and how millions of people are rising up. More women marched on Washington than ever gathered in American history before. The tautological irony is that oppression wakes people up to oppression. I’m not saying you need to break a thing to see how it can break, that’s ludicrous. But if some asshole inevitably does break a precious thing, our conviction will drive us to see how to repair it. Or how to build it better the next time. It’s an optimist’s look at history, I guess. And at hatred. It’s asking us to see that quality other than one half of a love-hate binary. Hatred has its complexities. It’s not going anywhere, so put hatred to good use.
I guess I’m also hoping a third thing in those lines… that readers will also reject the irony. I hope someone will go, “Fuck you, Michael. Fuck irony, fuck complicit notions of oppression, fuck those systems. Fuck hatred and complexity.” Which is itself ironic. That, too, is hatred in action.
Prayer for Paternal Love
All eight fingers on his right hand refuse
to be a blessing
so that even at the dinner table
he cannot pinch salt from the crowding
of his digits.
Days after he was born,
his father had said,
could ignore them.
Eight splayed fingers on the back
yard stump, knuckles
around the wrist,
Hold still, his dad says.
The boy prays the octopus
of his hand contains
like silt that can storm
then settle, given time.
He has loved his father
less than either of them
Now give it here,
his father says, and the boy
to prove the point
reaches for their axe.