When he was a “squirmy, shouty” grade school student, Abraham Smith entered an environmental speech contest.
“I’ve always been a performative person,” Smith said. “I think I frightened some of the older farmers who thought I was possessed.”
After completing his undergraduate program in archaeology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Smith would later move to Austin, Texas, to “pursue the ghost of (singer-songwriter) John Townes Van Zandt,” his “patron saint.”
It was there that he encountered the open mic and poetry slam scene — and the idea that “one should read a poem with all manner of decorum … as if I was running for mayor in a suburb.”
But Smith wanted his slam performance to mirror the “riotness” and excitement he felt writing a poem; he wanted to move his body like his favorite musicians — to let loose a “coyote of a person.”
“I have been shouting and hopping and bellyaching ever since,” Smith said.
A poet and musician, Smith is the author of five poetry collections, most recently Destruction of Man, a book about a small-scale farming family from Third Man Books, the publishing imprint of Jack White’s Third Man Records.
The Week Five poet-in-residence at the Chautauqua Writers’ Center brings his passion for nature and music to his Brown Bag lecture, “Poeming is Farming,” at 12:15 p.m. Tuesday, July 23 on the porch of the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall. Smith described his talk as “elegiac … a bucolic or pastoral meditation upon what farming does to the Earth and what farming does to the human body.”
“At the end of the day, farmers complain that they’re landlocked and have no vacation, that they’re welded to the land and to the animals that one stewards,” he said. “Poets speak of a feeling of failure if they’re not sitting down to write every day, or engaging in the creative act of making poems in every day.
Instead of focusing on the “numbing sense of rote duty,” Smith hopes to engage “the beautiful and dynamic ritual at play in both (farming and writing poems).”
He’s intimately familiar with both acts. Raised by public school teachers in the rural counties of Rusk and Taylor, Wisconsin, Smith grew up surrounded by farms. He then worked on his family’s farm, returning from school during winter and summer breaks to chop wood or clear orchards. Over the years, he’s watched farms, including his own, fade and die away.
“I identify foremost as a rural person and someone who identifies strongly with the around-the-year farmer,” he said.
Immersed, and often alone, in the natural world as a self-proclaimed “wildly unpopular human being,” Smith grew up “deeply touched” and “haunted” by the sounds of wind and crows. Now, as a published poet, Smith holds with him the “romantic notion that the miraculous is found in common things” within a sometimes dismal world — a hawk on top of a bike pole in Nashville, or the “feral” greenness of the South “inchworming up everything.”
“I see something that shakes me up a bit and I’m back to the keyboard,” he said. “I let it percolate around in my imagination. I’m moved by the world every day. I’m moved to write it down in a sonically nuanced way.”
Devoted to the oral poetic tradition and the song qualities of a poem, Smith writes poems that lend themselves to “loud and rhythmical performances.”
“Poems don’t necessarily cohere to a narrative thread,” he said. “I pledge allegiance to where the sound will take me.”
His next project is a poetic manuscript about cranes, the long-legged and long-necked birds. Nature will always find a way to sneak into his work.
“I want to write so carelessly that everything that is not green dies,” he said.