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Interview with Emily L. Smith, May 7, 2008 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Emily L. Smith, May 7, 2008
May 7, 2008
Interview with Emily Smith, graduate of UNCW's MFA program and current Director of UNCW's Publishing Laboratory.
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Interviewee: Smith, Emily L. Interviewer: Rodrigues, Carmen Date of Interview: 5/7/2008 Series: SENC Writers Length 60 minutes

Rodrigues: This is Carmen Rodrigues, today is May 7th, 2008, I'm at Randall Library with Emily L. Smith, a 2006 graduate of UNCW's Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing and the director of UNCW's publishing laboratory. Emily has served as a writer in residence for the Hub City Writer's Project, and in Sister Arts Initiative Hubbub in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Her poems have appeared in journals and anthologies including Columbia Poetry Review, Front Porch, The Journal, Smartish Pace, and Tar River Poetry. She also wrote the introduction to Spartanburg Revisited, a second look at the photographs of Alfred and Bob Willis, which was published in 2007 by the Hub City Writers Project. Welcome Emily.

Smith: Thanks.

Rodrigues: So I was reading through your thesis and I noticed that a lot of the stories in it really have to do with the time that you spent in South Carolina growing up, so I wanted to just go back into your childhood and talk to you about when you first discovered your love for reading and writing.

Smith: I think we always had books in the house, and I remember both of my parents reading to me, I remember loving books and it's sort of been the theme of my life, not only writing, but also bookmaking and I was always making these books. My mom had given me very early on like a Fischer-Price printer's kit, and the letters were sort of rubber and you would set them on a bar, they sort of snapped into this little bar, and you would roll them in ink and then make stationery or books, and so I was making these little pamphlets and books really early in life, and of course, along with that meant writing stories, all sorts of things like my favorite thing in probably like the fourth and fifth grade were these writing assignments where they would say, "If you could go to Mars or the moon, what would you do there?" or, "If you had a million dollars, what would you do with it?" I mean, I'm sure they sort of bordered on science fiction a little bit, and just anything that I could make up, I actually remember talking to you not too long ago about Lois Duncan books, I really loved that series; actually, I just loved anything I could get my hands on, and sort of read everything, and then, in my grandparents old house, which I talk about in my poetry thesis, there was a library. So, how many kids grow up with a library in their house? It was this old house built in the 1920's by a cotton mill family, and it was like a mini version of the Biltmore House, it had lots of crazy things in it and so to grow up in a house and sit in a room and work on the floor and on the couch there in a room surrounded by these like old bound volumes, I mean, I think it, at a very early age, had an impact on me.

Rodrigues: You have a sister, right?

Smith: I have a sister, yeah.

Rodrigues: Do you also have a brother or is it just--

Smith: Just my sister and I.

Rodrigues: Did your sister also share in this love of making books and writing, or was this more of a solitary pursuit for you?

Smith: I think it was more solitary, I'm the elder sister, and so I think that part of it was she came along two-and-a-half years behind me and as most older siblings will tell you, you sort of learn at a certain time in there to play by yourself and then once your sibling catches up and gets old enough then you can play with them, but I remember a lot of time in there, especially when she was a baby, that I sort of learned to play, to make up entire worlds that were sort of me and the cabbage patch dolls and their personalities and that I was talking to them or writing books for them, they were my students. She's an attorney, so I think that she picked up other things, other traits from our family, but maybe not the love of books. She's certainly a storyteller in her own way, and there's probably something that we share. She's a trial lawyer, when she goes into court and argues on behalf of people and I think part of that is probably understanding their story.

Rodrigues: Do you come from a family of storytellers?

Smith: Definitely, definitely, yeah. My dad and then his brother, my uncle, both of whom were not necessarily writers, but storytellers, just great, you know, we come from a small town and that's part of the tradition and the way of life there is sort of handing these stories down through the generations. My mom's side is, you know, I always say that on my father's side I know every bunion and corn and ailment my great aunts and grandparents and their parents before them had, all these traits that have passed on through the generations, and yet my mom is adopted, and does not talk very much, she is an only child, doesn't talk very much about her family, and so while I have volumes of information, more than I could ever hope to use on my father's side, there's just a huge silence on my mom's side, and so I think part of that is, I don't know, like rectifying that discrepancy and how it plays out in my life; lots and lots of cataloging and information and storytelling versus feeling sort of this vacancy that I don't understand and need to write my life through to sort of create this history that isn't there.

Rodrigues: When you were rifling through your grandparents library, I guess this is your father's parents?

Smith: This is my father's parents, yes.

Rodrigues: Did you have free reign over the titles, were there any limitations to what you could or could not read?

Smith: You know, because we moved in, this is my grandparents house, and we moved into that home when they passed away, probably when my grandfather passed away, like around fifth or sixth grade maybe, and so my mom, that wasn't her library, it wasn't her house; it was a house that all these old fixtures and furniture, they belonged to my grandparents. It took her a long time to sort of establish her place in that house, so I don't think she even knows, like if you called her right now and said, "What books are in the library?" I'm not sure that she would know, so I say that as a way to tell you that I don't think she knew that there was anything to hide from me there. I remember her annuals from college did make their way into that library and they were all from like the early, I guess, late 1960's, or maybe the early 1970's, and so there's lots of like the heyday of like, I don't know, people lounging on the grass having like peace stuff and smoking pot, and it's all in the photographs there. And I remember sort like feeling like I could enter a decade through that and I was fascinated with them as a child, and I'm sure if she actually thought about was in them, it wasn't great for me to be reading those and pouring through them and trying to find her and what she looked like in college, but again it's that sort of reclaiming a past that she doesn't talk about.

Rodrigues: Were there any teachers that encouraged you to write during your childhood?

Smith: Yeah, definitely. I think, as I mentioned, I had teachers as early as like the second and third grade were giving us writing prompts and writing exercises. My second grade teacher had a reading mat as many do, you know, it was like a shag carpet square sort of, and whenever she'd say, "Alright, reading time," and everyone falls out of his desk unto the Indian style on the carpet, she read the Box Car Children is what she read to us in the second grade. And then as I got older, my probably freshman year humanities teacher, and humanities in my school district was like big GN and T or the Merit Program, and she was a writer; she had three books of poetry and so, you know, and she also was a painter and she drew, and so it was just, even at that very, I was probably 13, I guess, my freshman year of high school, and so I was fascinated with her and the idea of books and that she was not only writing poems but then they were in books and we could read them, and her name was on the cover. And then I guess probably my AP English teacher in high school was also a writer. She just published a book; she wrote a column in the Charlotte Observer, so many of my English teachers, even in high school, were also writers, and so I had a model very early. And then when I went to college, I studied English and Davidson doesn't have a separate creative writing department or even a minor, but I took all of the classes that I could there, and they actually have a McGee fellowship, and so they bring in a notable writer once a year to teach a class, and so I took classes, I think, with Maxine Kumin, she's a Pulitzer Prize winner, and also Robert Morgan, so a couple of opportunities to work with writers, like I said, at an early age when I really, probably it was a great opportunity.

Rodrigues: At what point did you think to yourself, oh, I mean, clearly I have a gift for this, a talent for this, I can do this for my life, this can become my career, at what point did you decide that or consider it?

Smith: I think in college, like I wanted to do it. I looked at someone like Maxine Kumin or Anthony Abbot; Tony Abbot was teaching there, and I thought oh, they can do it, but I think even then I sort of always knew that it would be tied into teaching, you know, I sort of loved the idea of their whole life, not just the idea of them sitting down at a desk and writing, but that the things that they brought to their classrooms and the things that they shared through, looks like you've got them as a teacher, but then you also got this whole other sub-world of them that they talked about sort of, but then you also got to take it home and put it on your nightstand and tote it around with you in your bag. So I knew that, but I also, because I grew up in a family that was all so very practical and determined for me to have a job that included health insurance and benefits, you know, that would take care of me, I didn't go into an MFA program; I knew of them and was interested in them in college, but I really wasn't sure. I also thought maybe I want to be in advertising, maybe I want to write copy, maybe I want to do journalism, so there are all these other things that were very much related, and I also was interested in development work and community relations, so I went to work for an advertising agency in Atlanta for two-and-a-half years after college and really just sort of got bored with it at a certain point and thought, all right, this is not really tapping into that part of me that wants to do something important, to feel like my life and my job made a difference, so I went back to Davidson to work in community relations there and it was sort of probably that was like when I was immersed in academic life, as someone who's working in the nuts and bolts of the University, but I had the opportunity then to go to readings again, so all these public readings and just being back in that environment reminded me, all right, now I really want to do this, and so that was the point when I started to apply to grad programs and came back, came to UNCW.

Rodrigues: What kind of college is Davidson? Is it a very small--

Smith: It is a very small liberal arts college, they currently have 1700 students; it was 1600 when I was there, so you can see they're not growing at a-- they don't want to grow, I mean, their purposely keeping it very small. I would say it's very academically rigorous but also through work hard, play hard. It was a great place to go to school. I'm so glad that I then went to a public university for my MFA, because I got sort of both experiences, just, you know, people talk about Davidson as a bubble, and it is to a certain extent, I mean, I realize how very cared for we were there. And that's a great thing; it was a phenomenal experience, but also you sort of need that kick in the pants, not that you would see it only as a kick in the pants by any means, but you know, people don't hold your hand in quite the same way. It was the difference between undergrad experience and a graduate experience and you realize you're going to get out of it what you want to get out of it, what you put into it, that if you want to be challenged, in some cases you'll have to challenge yourself, and I did.

Rodrigues: So you come from Davidson and you have this staff while you're working there in the business world, and then now you come back to, you come to UNCW and you began this MFA program, and from here you speak-- it seems like at Davidson, there wasn't a program specifically geared towards creative writing, really intensive program such as UNCW's MFA program. Talk to us a little bit about that experience of going into this intensive creative writing program and how that started to change your writing. At this point you had decided poetry, or did you come in as a creative nonfiction?

Smith: No, I came in as poetry, yeah, and part of that was just a function of, I mean, besides that I love poetry, I love the leaps that it takes and silences and all, you know, how in a very, very small space it says so much, but it was also because I was working full time so, finding the time to sit down and write, and I've never really written short stories, but like an entire essay versus finding the time to jot down a couple of lines and an image, it's no wonder that I developed toward poetry in that gap between college and coming back to grad school, but I was writing mostly poetry in college, too. So to be immersed in a creative writing program was just really exciting, to be around other people who are writers, other people who want to talk about writing all the time. Now, of course, by the end of three years you think, all right, can people please, please just stop talking about, I don't want to hear any more about writing, but it was a wonderland at the beginning that I could be around people who wanted to talk about it all the time. And the difference for me, too, was that in college, we're mostly talking about literature from a critical standpoint, so analyzing it, talking about theme and it's historical context and humanities in terms of what other sorts of arts and political movements were happening around the piece of literature, whereas now we were studying craft, you know, we're talking about, all right, so on page five we all cried, or we were all moved by that scene, but how did it happen? What structure was in place? What thread was, you know, it was much more practical advice for me as a writer, so really rewarding, and I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat.

Rodrigues: How did you see your work change in those three years?

Smith: I think I probably came in as a more traditional, and it makes sense coming out of Davidson, a more traditional narrative poet, and I certainly have not dropped those characteristics, but I learned through working with other poets who are more image based, or much more lyrical, or just especially working with poets like Sarah I think in particular, and poets, you know, colleague poets, so like Patrick Culliton and others, I mean, I loved the sort of leaps they were making in their work, and I think I learned from that, and so at least by the time that I finished my thesis, while some of those narrative poems were still there, they were balanced by things that were putting the emotional weight in the landscape or in an image, or something else besides just we start at A and end at B; they were definitely jumping around a little bit more. All things that I learned through studying other poetry movements and forms classes, and just challenging myself to tell the story in a different way, and see what would happen.

Rodrigues: How do other students challenge you when you're in an MFA program? What kind of challenges do you receive from the student body, and I've heard in poetry workshops in particular that they can become quite intense, that the poems are evaluated line by line, word by word, and that any work is up for argument.

Smith: It's true, and I think the interesting thing, sometimes it's not the word that you're talking, you know, the whole class is having this big discussion about this one word and you realize it's the word in front of it or the word behind it that actually needs to be changed, not the one under the knife, but it's hard to like enter it again now without the perspective of, you know, that distance offers me which is that sometimes those sort of word-and-line discussions, I'm not sure how helpful they are, I mean, my thesis I've taken apart, and when I say taken apart, I mean every page is spread out across the floor and I've moved it around and I've added things in and taken other things out and so, you know, mostly what I learned is if I can learn to craft this one poem, or if I can learn to bring these things that I've learned and other things that people have taught me, to this poem, then I can bring those things to future poems and grow from that, whether a poem that we work-shopped on April 15, 2004, whether that poem is actually going to make it into anything that I save or show to anyone else, I don't know, and so I think that the spirit of the poetry workshop should really be more one of encouragement and just teaching you how to develop your thundering own thunder and voice and develop craft more so than, so what you're workshopping is not the poem, it's sort of the poet, and how you go about it, how you approach it, and how you might change or see a new way of looking at it.

Rodrigues: Have you ever had a poem that you've worked on for years and maybe that perhaps you are still working on?

Smith: Absolutely. I mean, I think that a lot of the poems in the thesis, you know, some of them I am very proud of, and others I think I will continue to try to write over and over and over again, particularly about my family, and part of that is just the gaps that, the questions you had as a child and you can ask again and again, I can ask my parents, but I'm probably never going to get an answer that satisfies me, so I'm going to keep writing the poem that is the answer. And I think as your life changes and as your perspective changes, you'll want a different answer, so yeah, I think I'll keep writing those poems.

Rodrigues: After you left UNCW's MFA program, you ended up with a fellowship; is that correct?

Smith: I did.

Rodrigues: At the Hub City Writers Project in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and that's a place that's focused on literature of plays. Can you tell us more about Hub City Writer's Project and your time there?

Smith: Sure. It was a natural fit for me. Barbara Brannon, who was my teacher in the in the publishing laboratory and actually my predecessor in the job that I hold now, knew about that program. She had heard mention of the Hub City Writer's Project, which, just to tell you a little bit about it, I think it's probably about ten years, maybe like twelve years old now, and it was founded by Betsy Teeter and John Lane, who are now husband and wife, but were not when they started the project, and a third person, a journalist named Gary Henderson, and they had the idea that all these like literary talents had come out of Spartanburg, South Carolina, and then also there are five colleges in Spartanburg, so it's the most amount of universities and colleges per capita in the U.S., and so they had creative writing faculty at all these schools, and so it was creating this really dynamic literary community in a place where, you know, that wouldn't necessarily have had that many publishing writers. So they thought, one of the ways that we can reclaim, also some of the background of Spartanburg is that was a big mill town. A lot of wealth but a huge disparity between the wealthy and those who have and those who do not, and so as the mills sort of closed down, you're left with the same disparity, a lot of sort of old money and then decaying mill towns, and rust, and junk, and ramshackle and clutter, and that's part of the town, and so they thought how do we sort of reinvest our town with a sense of pride, like reinvest our town with history and literature and the arts, and so they started Hub City Writer's Project. I think they probably started with like a book or two a year, and now publish more around four a year, and so Betsy is now their full time executive director, and I'm not sure of exactly the timeline, but I know that they also had this sort of young vibrant group of 20-year-olds who had moved back to Spartanburg and said, and were moving there from more active arts communities and thought how come we don't have this in our town? It was one of the things that this city government, luckily enough, really wanted to work on and invest in, so they came to Hub City as a successful model and said, "What can you do to help us with this?" So they created this spin-off hub-bub and decided to start a one-year residency program, got funding, private funding, so four different families were sponsoring these four residencies, three individual arts, and because Hub City was so heavily involved, they said one of them has to be a writer. So three visual artists, one writer, come together in an old, what used to be a Nash car dealership, but like dealerships in the old days, so like not a huge sprawling suburban lot, but a tall brick building where there's a showroom downstairs and you have two cars in front and you have a huge car elevator that takes them up to the second floor where they do painting and repairs and stuff like that, so in the time between when it was a Nash dealership and it was a residency program, the house had been like a shoe warehouse, like lots of people in Spartanburg remember going there to pick out their shoes and how they were never matched, that you would find that one that fit and then had to find its mate like on a different floor. But so they got into this building, kept the beautiful old exposed brick and hardwoods, it has giant windows, the whole top floor is four studio apartments, the second level is the main offices for the Hub City Writer's Project and the Hubbub Arts Initiative, a gallery space where they have concerts and shows, they have a film series, they have just tons of events. They do community lectures there, environmental talks, all sorts of, anything you can imagine. In the lower level, the street level has a restaurant. So yeah, they created this great art space and for me coming as a writer, it was just, like you said, a really natural place for me to go because my writing is very heavily based in place. I was from a town about an hour from Spartanburg so I was very familiar with that landscape, it was like coming home in a way, and also I just really had a background because I had been a TA in the publishing lab, then matched up with what Hub City wanted in terms of someone that could help them with editing, that could help them a little bit with publicity and book design and I ended up doing hundreds of flyers and brochures and posters and then since then have designed two books for Hub City and edited at least two or three others, and also doing some writing for Hub City. So I've been involved with them at all different levels in their publication program.

Rodrigues: What was it like to live in a building with three other visual artists, I mean, although you didn't technically come in as a visual artist, you are a visual artist, with your book design, what was it like to live in this close-knit community of artists?

Smith: Really exciting, but it took me awhile to adjust to it, and I think any one of the three of them would tell you that maybe I was one of the ones that had the toughest adjustment, I had lived by myself for three years in Wilmington and was used to, although it's a very, as you know, like a community atmosphere, there's lots of long stretches, too, and I just was in my office and didn't talk to anyone except for my computer screen for, you know, eight and ten hours, and so, to be in a place where I heard Brian working in the studio next door, I heard his music, I heard paint splattering, I heard the nailing and the banging, and the sculptor worked across the hall, and, you know, there was always the noises of art and creating, and so at first it was sort of like, wait, there in my space, I need silence, I need this sort of reverie around what I'm doing, I write poetry, but it was the best thing that ever happened because I felt like that, the collaborative process was spilled, sort of spilled out, you know, like it was a great opportunity to realize, to think of myself as an artist, too. Yeah. And I'm like getting choked up because I also met my boyfriend there.

Rodrigues: So love bloomed.

Smith: Yes. And part of that was learning, like I said, to think of myself as an artist. I think I came, oh, in fact, all four of us came in thinking, "I'm Emily the poet;" "I am Brian the mixed media painter;" "I am Justin the filmmaker;" "I'm Leah, the sculptor;" and because of the media in part, we had sort of compartmentalized ourselves, the media in Spartanburg needed to present us and its program to their community, and so it helped them to be able to do it that way, whereas for us, like we didn't want to be pigeonholed like that, you know, but yeah, it just took some time to like get comfortable with myself as a visual artist and trust myself in that way as opposed to, I think even in MFA programs, we're very quick to say, "I'm a fiction writer;" "I'm a nonfiction writer;" "I'm a poet;" whereas like shouldn't we all sort of see ourselves as artists?

Rodrigues: Do you think there is safety in the categorization? Do you think that people cling to be categorized because they know what that means, the definition of that?

Smith: Yeah, probably so, and exactly, safety, I mean, I know that part of one of the reasons I was fearful of, you know, calling myself, I didn't feel like I deserved to be called an artist. I hadn't gone to an MFA program in painting, I wasn't, you know, I didn't count sort of the Fischer-Price printing set and the little books that I made as an art and so part of that year was going from what I was doing as a desktop publisher, everything on the computer to working with my hands again, you know, learning to cut linoleum blocks and learning to do hand bindings and different stitching methods, you know, that made me feel like I was getting back to the art of bookmaking.

Rodrigues: Sounds like a life changing experience on so many levels.

Smith: Definitely, definitely.

Rodrigues: My next question was going to be why are fellowships like this important to emerging artists, but I feel as if you've answered that very well, so I'm going to move on to how this relationship that you have with Hub City has really led to all these opportunities. In particular, you wrote the introduction to their lead title for 2007, "Spartanburg Revisited: A Second Look at the Photographs of Alfred and Bob Willis." I just wondered if you could tell us a little bit about this title and then your part in that collaboration.

Smith: Sure. That actually started during the residency, sort of at and maybe midway through, it was a book that Hub City had signed on, you know, they had agreed to do, it with two local photographers wanted to sort of go back through Spartanburg and re-photograph sort of a then and now look at Spartanburg. What made it a little bit different from your average just like tourist then and now book was that they wanted to trace two photographers in particular, a father/son photography team. And they were really eccentric and sort of well known, legendary I should say, in the upstate and also some of the very first photo journalists in upstate South Carolina, so at a time when photography equipment was not only very expensive, but also hard to get, there were these two men documenting, in a way creating a history for a town that many other towns of its size and location don't have archival photos like Spartanburg does. And so part of the process for that was that they wanted to bring a writer on board, and I think because I was there as part of the residency program and I think Betsy was really invested in making sure that I had a role in the books that they work on, and so I interviewed, did mostly oral interviews. I would spend a lot of time in the Kennedy room at Spartanburg library which is their archives going back through old yearbooks from the high schools and elementary schools. These two photographers were the portrait photographers for pretty much all of the schools in the area, so even going back and looking in the back of the ads, like they had an ad for their studio there, and then the son photographer had worked for Duke Power Company, and so they sent him out all over the Southeast, they're building these sites, these nuclear sites, and he photographed a lot of it, sometimes like 50 feet underground, you know, and he would always be like dangling from a bucket somewhere taking photographs, or own in a hole taking photographs, and so I needed to learn them, I needed to learn Spartanburg through them and so I did a lot of interviews. There's a daughter still living, so I interviewed her; I interviewed a granddaughter; I interviewed the sons sort of best friend, they lived in houses side by side for 50 years, so I interviewed him; just did lots of research, and wrote what was a 20-page introduction and just getting longer and longer as we learned more about these two men. I mean, it really was just sort of a biographical introduction to the photographers, a little bit about Spartanburg and how it has changed, and how it's important, sort of like, "Look at what happens when you demolish all your old buildings and you take down the factories and put up condos, how you lose your sense of identity." Also Spartanburg has, smack in the middle of this historic downtown, one high-rise, just one. It was built, I think in the 1980's and it's been used as an example in other architecture books about what not to do, and people say it looks like a big middle finger in the middle of downtown. But so we talked about that a little bit in the book too, and like I said, it really is a look at these two men and what they did to preserve this town, but also like responsible development.

Rodrigues: Also, as part of your fellowship you taught a weekly poetry class at Pine Street Elementary and you had been a TA before, that's before you left, and so what's the difference between being a TA in a university setting and then teaching children in an elementary school?

Smith: I sort of always supplemented my teaching at the college level with teaching kids. Even when I was in the MFA program, I did Writers in Action and went out and worked with, I think they were fifth graders. So working at Pine Street Elementary was very similar to the type of students I had worked with here in Wilmington, and they see poetry in a totally different way, I mean, they're excited, they say, "All right, get ready for creative writing," and you hear, "Yeah!" I mean, so to go into a classroom where students are really excited to be there and excited that writing time is like recess is invigorating and inspiring and rewarding. I also worked with kids at Dreams last summer, which is a program in Wilmington for students who have been identified as either family problems or disciplinary, they just need some help and some focus and good role models, and they all do that through the arts, sort of helping them build good self-esteem through their participation in the arts. So I taught a creative writing class there, and again, that was one of the more rewarding creative writing opportunities to teach that I've had. This is nice, sort of to build this, to sort of stack layers of different experiences in writing and they all bring something different. I'm equally excited to work with graduate students who are doing really exciting things and sort of on the cusp of a career, but it's also nice to work with a fourth grader.

Rodrigues: Let's talk about the publishing laboratory. So you were just announced the new director this year, you had been serving as the intern director, and the publishing laboratory is kind of unique in a university setting. I want you tell us a little bit about the development, you've kind of given us some background about the publishing library, but if you could further provide us with information on that, and then also how you came to be involved, how did you come back to UNCW to be the intern director?

Smith: The pub lab was sort of the brain child of Stanley Colvert, who retired in Wilmington and was an assistant professor here, he is the former CEO of Harper-Collins Canada and probably his biggest claim to fame is that he sold on the road, he was Jack Kerouac's agent. And he had the idea that the MFA program was doing a great job of teaching writing and the craft of writing, but sort of that leap between writing your book and then actually getting it out in the world was, you know, no one was talking about the business part of it, and so he came up with these nuts and bolts classes that were how to write a query letter and how to find an agent and also part of that class was that students would make a chap book by the end of the semester. So, I think he probably got the funding for one or two graduate students to work with him, and I worked with him just a little bit in my first year in the MFA program, he was leaving UNCW, but he had this class that I worked with him for a couple of weeks doing these chap books and it was the kind of thing we didn't have the equipment or the printers to print and leave them out, they were on these computers that were sort of like a hodge-podge of MAC's that I think people have donated to the school and we sent them to Kinko's to be staple bound. They were all the exact same size; they all had a big thick white border around the outside. And, so, the pub lab has come a long way from that until now. Between that time Barbara Brannon was the second director of the publishing laboratory and she brought experiences from the university of South Carolina press, she had worked there, she also has a PhD in the history of the book, so I think she really is responsible for sort of creating the curriculum behind the publishing laboratory, that there is a series of classes that you take, starting with introduction to publishing, and then an editing class, a copy editing and developmental editing, and a book building class so you learn the design and the construction and mechanics of putting a book together, so she's really responsible for that as well as the certificate in publishing which is something that we offer BFA's in the program. I think that the next step is to grow that, you know, to keep growing, and I should mention also that that first publishing lab was in a science, it was in Friday Hall, which was one of the earth and marine science buildings, and so we were physically in an old appliance lab, I mean, there were gas valves and a fume hood, which we put our paper trimmer in and our binder was suspended over, there were some sinks, and then they put like a wood platform and then put the binder on top of it, so you know, we moved from that and got relocated during Friday's renovation and the renovation at Kenan Hall to a trailer, and that's where I worked for my first semester back at UNCW, and then we moved into a state of the art, 17-station IMAC computer lab, it really is beautiful and it a testament to the fact that the university and the department are behind the pub lab, it is not an idea that, oh, we'll try it out and see if it works anymore, it's working, it's happening. So it's exciting to sort of come in on the heels of Stan, and then Barbara and see where we can go from here. I think you will see both the curriculum grow hopefully over the next couple of years as we bring other faculty in or hire folks and David Gesner's role in Ecotone has been really important to the publishing lab, and then also in terms of the imprint, so the micro press, that's part of the publishing lab, a student run imprint, all the books edited, both developmental and copy edited, designed, and produced for the most part in the publishing lab by students. So that's really exciting that the next step is that the book imprint for Ecotone, and I think that's the next place we'll go, you'll start to see literary books, poetry fiction and creative nonfiction chosen by, edited by, designed by students published under the imprint Ecotone Books that will come out of the publishing lab. So it's a really exciting time to be working there.

Rodrigues: Do you think you could ever see your life without-- that building has become your new passion in addition to poetry.

Smith: It has become a new passion, absolutely. Actually, at AWP, there was a panel about, and it was actually a feminist press panel, and so it wasn't necessarily exactly what I do, but you realize the importance of publishing, that you have the ability to shape the dissemination of literature and how important it is to get the right voices, or voices that aren't necessarily going to be a fit for a Random House or like one of the big presses and what role university and small presses play in that in the business of publishing, and also the art of the book, and I love, as much as I love a glistening trade paperback that's really elegantly designed, I also love the texture of a small chap book and a limited edition and the thread binding. I love all that stuff just as much as I love, like I said, the big shiny ones. So, no, I don't think that that will ever, I don't think I'll ever be able stay out of publishing, it sort of marries in this really wonderful way, like my business sense, the part of me that wanted to take off for Atlanta and work in this fast paced business world, but also this part of me that likes eight to ten hours alone in a room with my computer screen, so hopefully it's a nice combination of both and anytime the scales tip too far in one direction, I want to go back to the other one.

Rodrigues: Can you tell us about a recent project that's come out of the pub lab?

Smith: Sure. The Bottle Chapel at Airlie Gardens, which is our first full color book, it's 32 pages, so it's a little thing, but a huge community collaboration. Eight artists were involved in that project, two authors, a main author and then a separate author who wrote the introduction and the epilogue, Airlie Gardens of course, which is a public garden in Wilmington, Minnie Evans, who was a visionary artist, she was the gatekeeper at Airlie and made, in fact, we're sitting in a room that has one of her pieces in it right now, but she did these like very colorful crayon, anything she could get her hands on, because she was not professionally trained, she used crayons, she used chalk, she used, you know, like I said, house paint, anything she could find. To the Bottle Chapel is a tribute to her, so another facet was working with her family to get permission to reprint her images, and so it's probably the most complicated book project I've ever been involved in for a 32-page book, there were just a lot of people involved, but in this really wonderful way. We released the book last week to about 150 people at a private event at Airlie, and it was really exciting to see all the different, everyone from the Chancellor of UNCW to the director of Airlie Gardens, the family of Minnie Evans, the artists, their families, students who had worked on the book, so it really sort of like all those different facets coming together.

Rodrigues: How long did the project take from start to finish?

Smith: The project started, I think maybe two years before I even got to UNCW. It started when Fred Wharton was working as a volunteer at Airlie and thought someone should document sort of the process of building it; it took over a year for Virginia Wright-Frierson to coordinate with all these other artists and to actually construct the 17-foot Bottle Chapel. And so he started calling those artists and doing interviews with them. From there, I'm not sure exactly how it came to the publishing lab, I think Barbara Brannon either talked to him or found out about the project somewhere along the way, students in the MFA program were very involved in doing some developmental and copy editing, Susan Taylor-Block came on board because she knew the family of Minnie Evans and was also the Airlie historian so she was able to contribute the biographical piece about Minnie and also the epilogue and then Virginia Wright-Frierson came on board because she was the lead artist and she acted as the liaison with all the artists that they could actually see the transcript of the interviews, provide other biographical information, get feedback, so it took, and then the contractual part, which is making sure you have the permission to reproduce copyrighted work, Minnie Evans work, eight artist's work, two author's work, and the paintings of Minnie's that are in the book are owned by the Cameron Museum, so also obtaining permission from the Cameron museum. So, you know, I have a stack of contracts about three inches deep in correspondence that are all printed out and I will keep for posterity, but yeah, it took a long time to sort of navigate, you know, just because the manuscript was written, it took a long time for it to actually emerge in the world as a book. It also was printed in Hong Kong, so it had to travel across the ocean to make it back to us.

Rodrigues: You're right, that does sound like a complicated project.

Smith: It makes you appreciate that tiny little 32 pages.

Rodrigues: Students are coming out of UNCW with their publishing laboratory certificate, what kind of jobs does that make them open to, what kind of opportunities will that give them?

Smith: I think one of the places it's going to be most important is for students who are pursuing jobs, just communication skills. It is so important that students know how to, you know, proper grammar, that they know mechanics, that they know where to place commas and apostrophes and, you know, I think we take it for granted until you sometimes see the work, the correspondence, whether it's letters or advertising, you see copy in a magazine and your realize like it's sort of a dying skill it feels like sometimes. You have authors writing books like "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" just to try to remind that we have grammar rules for a reason so we can understand one another and communicate, so I think in that place it's really important. I think also for students who are interested in pursuing careers and publishing, this is going to get their foot in the door, the fact that they know how to work with state of the art software programs, layout programs, that's going to apply any magazine, any newspaper, any publishing house big or small is using the exact same software that we do, so knowing that I think is a huge plus for anyone no matter what field you go into. And I think for writers, it's really important that you understand how to work with a publisher, how to work with an editor, what to expect of that person, what your role is, I mean, I think so many times writers are going into that process completely blind and they don't know, how is this supposed to go, and maybe in some small way having worked in a publishing lab, worked with one of our authors, you at least understand the steps that are involved and a little bit about that process and that you can have a say in terms of the final product, what your book looks like. I truly believe that the book is the tangible thing, I mean, it's like holding the intimacy between a writer and a reader and so you need for that book to actually say and present itself, I mean, they are judging a book by its cover, you know, to actually serve the work, you know sort of serve the writing.

Rodrigues: Let's get into the subject of your craft, the way you approach craft. You write poetry and creative nonfiction, you've spoken a little bit about what appeals to you in regards to poetry, but I'm wondering why creative nonfiction appeals to you as well.

Smith: I think that there are some that things I can't say, poetry holds so much silence for me, there's so much sort of not just what's on the page but what's around it and between stanzas and the leaps and the movement of poetry. In terms of creative nonfiction, sometimes I'm trying to catch the cadences of speech, of people, and I can't, particularly as my poetry becomes less narrative, I then need a different container for the things that I have to say that are a narrative, and so I think that's where creative nonfiction comes in. For me, my creative nonfiction is probably more kin to the lyric essay than it is the standard essay form. If anything I'm just playing with that form, and I'm still pretty new to it, you know, I mean I've written that one introduction, I'm going to have written a couple of essays, but now actually in the last probably couple of weeks, I've been sitting down and thinking, okay, the small town that I grew up in, some of these things are disappearing and I want to capture them while my parents are still alive and I can still ask them questions and I didn't think of this in an oral interview with one of my great aunts a couple years ago and she since passed away but I have it on tape. So, I don't know, I just think while some of those things are still semi-fresh in my mind and I'm still able to get back there and close enough, it's five hours away to visit, and I want to start to put in some of that into prose.

Rodrigues: Let's talk about that, your sense of your Southern roots and your sense of place, and also the sense of personal in your writing. Why is that so important to you?

Smith: I think it's the only way I know of elegizing that place. To tell you it's York, South Carolina, and it is sort of like a farming community, I mean, peach farms, and very much family run farms, not like commercial big box farms, and Charlotte is about an hour away. So as Charlotte, North Carolina, has grown as a city, it's also grown out, and so suburbs are slowly but surely, now things that used to be cows for me are condos, lots and lots of condos, and also what I call every town America, so Target, Old Navy, Chic Filet, Michael's, you could go anywhere from here to California and see these like, it look exactly the same, so I think along with that, you know, we're losing, the small towns in particular, are losing their sense of identity. I think in some way cities have held on better to their sense of self because they're not letting the big box stores come in and develop their downtowns, whereas the small towns are sort of forced economically to do so, so it's disappearing physically, and along with it, this way of life, the farms can't afford, you know, they sell out. There's now a Starbucks less than 11 minutes from the town center of York, South Carolina. Like, it just, something about it doesn't fit to me, it's incongruous and I want very much just, like I said, to elegize the place first of all, but to capture this thing that for me was so informative and is slowly but surely disappearing.

Rodrigues: It sounds as if-- you mentioned identity in the towns, losing their identity, but do you think as a writer your ties to describing this place, to elegizing this place, is also about maintaining your identity?

Smith: Absolutely. Absolutely, yeah. I think that I've known probably for a long time that I wouldn't, probably since I was 11 or 12, that I would not live in that place. Everything about that small town life was involving getting out of it, finding a way out of it, going to a good college so that you could get a good education and so you could get a good job, and while it hasn't taken me all that far, Atlanta is probably the farthest away and London, I went there for 6 months, is the farthest, it's not like it took me to L.A. or New York or even to live in another country, and yet there was something like instilled in us as kids about getting out of it, about doing something better or something more, so yeah, it may be part of it is tackling or saving, keeping that part of myself that I don't want to lose just because I don't live there and maybe I feel it's slipping out of me.

Rodrigues: You're pretty busy with your commitment to the creative writing program, and in particular the time you spend in the publishing laboratory, I see you working all the time. I'm wondering how this affects your writing schedule. Is it hard to make time for your writing?

Smith: Very much so. A lot of people, I mean, I've had good advisors and mentors this year as a teacher, and many of them had shared with me that in their first years out of, you know, in full time faculty jobs, you know, I think Michael White said he didn't write at all his whole first year. And they say that as, I think encouragement and a reminder that that first year is just really tough, you know, you're creating lesson plans and creating all these things from scratch that once you've done them, hopefully, although you'll continue to make them better and become a better teacher, that you won't always be creating a new class all the time, but yeah, it's been really tough, and part of, I was an interim director, as you know, until March, so a lot of this year was sort of not only proving myself, but also applying for a job, so the whole teaching demonstration and my vision for the laboratory and all of those things were part of preparation for this year, so I have made a commitment to myself that I'll get up really early before I have to be at work this summer and just spend, I think that's one of the things, too, is just learning how you fit that writing time in and, for me, if I try to go a full day and I come home and sit down, I am mentally and emotionally exhausted and I can't do it, whereas I would rather get up really early and devote that time when I'm fresh and creative to writing then, so we'll see what happens, but that's the goal for the summer, and hopefully, you know, once I've done that for a couple of months, it will just lead right into the school year.

Rodrigues: Now that you're out of the MFA program and you don't have that group of peers to collaborate with as far as workshopping your pieces, do you think that you're going to look for an outside writing group?

Smith: Actually, I guess, probably in the last two months I've been going to a writing group and it is five women, all of whom have an MFA and are living in and around the Wilmington and are working on books. And so the exciting thing we were talking about, actually we met last night, and one of these things we were talking about was how the MFA program prepared us really well for like workshopping individual pieces and we talked a lot about craft and style and voice within those classes, but we felt like there was a gap sort of between workshopping those individual pieces and then the structure of a book. How that's an art in and of itself and there isn't as much focus on that within the program, and so we were talking last night about someone's memoir and the writing is beautiful and we all love it and agree, you know, we hope it gets published, but what she's really struggling with is structure, and so we're saying how boring our workshop group is because we talk so often about structure and ordering and how you like lead your reader through the series of events, and yet it's the thing that we all need help with, and so I feel like even though I'm just starting this new nonfiction project that I'll probably be in a very similar place where I can get it down on the page and I can work with the line very well and have other peers who can help me work with the line, but it's the structure piece of it that I feel like maybe that's one of the reasons, in addition to the business side, that people work with agents, is because the agent really helps create structure.

Rodrigues: Aren't you guys, also in this group, reading various books to kind of support the work that you're producing?

Smith: Books come up all the time. We don't say "All right, we're going to read this book for this class," it's really more just that, and last night, as we were talking about her project, five or six different books came up, you know, someone said you should read "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight" and someone else said you should read Nick Flynn's Memoir, and so throughout the entire conversation people are suggesting books that we can look to as models, or saying, "Oh, I saw this article in Writer's Chronicle that you should read that's about structure right now," so, yeah, it's nice to be around other people who have absorbed writing as part of their real life but they're also working as PR directors or adjunct professors or moms or whatever else, and, you know, it's nice to have a group of people who are all struggling to make it all fit.

Rodrigues: We are going to come to a close now, we are running out of time, but before we go, I wanted to ask you if you had any advice for young writers. I thought that your career has taken maybe a less traditional path becoming the director of the publishing laboratory, learning to see yourself as both a writer and a visual artist, or to uncover the truth behind being an artist throughout the entire space of your life. Do you have any advice for young writers who are looking to earn a living in the field of creative writing?

Smith: I mean, I think just not to box yourself in, not to decide too early a set of rules for yourself. Yeah, I mean, I think, like I didn't even know when I came to the MFA program, the publishing; I just sort of stumbled into it. I had, because of my background in advertising and public relations, somehow or another my CV got plucked out of the pile and they said let's put her in the pub lab. The next thing I know I'm learning how to use quark and end design and making posters and books, and came out of that going to a residency program that was also part of a small press and then coming back to UNCW, so I couldn't have even predicted it and yet it's a very natural fit for my talents and interests, so I guess the most important thing is just not to decide a path for yourself, but let it be open to other ideas.

Rodrigues: I want to thank you for your time; this has been a great conversation. Thank you Emily.

Smith: Thank you.

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