This is one of an ongoing series of interviews with contributors to The 3288 Review.
Mike Smith of Albuquerque is also Michael Farrell Smith. He is against Fascism, neofascism, white supremacy, corporate greed, crimes against the Earth, inequality, injustice, and all war. Chapters/essays from his forthcoming memoir, Shadows of Clouds on the Mountains, have been published in many notable literary journals; he is represented by Nat Kimber, of The Rights Factory, of Toronto and New York.
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3288 Review: How did you get your start writing? Has it always been essays and creative nonfiction?
Mike Smith: I have an essay up at the New Delta Review right now that gets into this (“101 Jokes for Epileptic Children“), but I suppose for me it all began with reading. For me, reading widely and seeing the almost-infinite range of what can be done with writing just made me want to try it myself. I also grew up in a fairly repressive religion, that I have no fondness for today, that encouraged everyone to keep a journal.
As a kid I wrote books about my pets, as a teenager I wrote ridiculous things to make my friends laugh, and as a young adult I wrote long letters and personal accounts of my travels and adventures. It’s always been something I’ve gravitated toward. Personally, I believe free will is an illusion and that I myself had nothing to do with me ending up a writer. Probably my parents told me I should be a writer when I was really young and impressionable.
For a while, as an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico, I felt I was on track to write popular history books—I wanted to be like Hampton Sides or Sally Denton or Simon Winchester—I had books all planned out, a popular weekly history newspaper column, and regular articles in many Southwestern periodicals. Then the worst depression of my life attacked me out of nowhere, for maybe two years, and after that I basically had to restart my career and make all-new friends and completely reinvent myself as a human being, and as a writer.
Since then, and since grad school, I’ve focused more on memoir, writing the experimental memoir essays that will eventually be the chapters of my autobiography, Shadows of Clouds on the Mountains, a book I’ve been working on since 2010 and working on almost every day since early 2012. I think I still have two more years on it, which is horrible, but whatever, the time it takes is the time it takes. It can’t be rushed.
I honestly hope to make it a masterpiece, something I will be wholly satisfied with, and I am putting everything I am into it. Eleven of its chapters have already been published as standalone essays in literary journals, including in The 3288 Review and Booth and Tin House and Bacopa—three pieces received Pushcart nomination, and another got me a New York literary agent, as well as a Notable mention in Best American Essays 2015.
I want to create something that reads like a Bollywood movie—I love Bollywood—by which I mean changing tones and mediums and approaches as the stories demand. Like a really good mixtape of only good songs, with perfect transitions. I want to create a work that’s an extension of my ever-changing self. I want to destroy the lines between my life and my art.
I can think of no other way to approach the creation of great art than with deadly seriousness. Even when I’m joking in my art, I’m serious. Even when I’m joking, I am trying to say something, I am always trying to say something, and that something is just one stolen quote, a howl from The Void itself.
As for “Has it always been essays and creative nonfiction?,” no, not always, and even now it’s not, though nonfiction is my truest love. I think I’m becoming something of a nonfiction prose snob. Pretty sure. Like, I involuntarily look down on poets and their eighty-page books of mostly white space. Their books are like my chapters—and my book has over thirty chapters, some of them more-than-ten-thousand words long. Suck it, poets. You have it easy.
Anyway, I love the challenge of finding the story and the plot and the motifs and the themes of true events, and I find it fascinating and startling that it can always, always, be done. I think we are always unconsciously creating our experiences in the world, we are writing our lives according to our preferences and our obsessions, so it’s no wonder these elements can always be found and then placed into a compelling nonfiction narrative.
Real life is so messy and profuse—there are so many thousands of details that when we sit down to write about it, just through the simple processes of selection and omission, the whole world can be revealed as full of intricate connections and meaningful revelations. And that’s not false—it’s perceptive, it’s penetrating. Approaching my own life in search of its story and meaning feels to me a bit like how Sigmund Freud and his crowd approached dreams—there must be meaning there—there must—there must—and they were usually right. Or, at least, they often found what they were looking for—or found something—and usually something interesting.
Fiction is fun too, though, as is poetry. I actually love poetry, and I love screenwriting
The next few books I have planned though are all nonfiction, and again, the book I’m working on takes pretty much all of my available writing time—those exhausted hours at the end of the day when, honestly I would usually rather just sleep or watch a movie or contemplate suicide.
What I would really love would be to get well-established as a writer and then alternate writing books with making movies. There is so much that film can do that books can’t, and vice versa. Someday. I’ve already shot a documentary, just recently, with my girlfriend Mauro Woody, who makes music as Lady Uranium. We just need to edit it into shape. She’s a musician, I’m a writer, and we filmed each other talking or performing or just living, a few minutes a day, just using our phones, for an entire year. In it, our stories as struggling writer and musician will intertwine; whichever of us is not on screen is the cameraperson; and I think it’s going to be really cool and innovative. We haven’t even begun to edit it though. We have a lot of footage. Some great stuff too—getting tear-gassed at a protest against police lethality; the excavation of the Atari landfill down in Alamogordo (look it up); and some of Mauro’s witchiest, wildest, best performances. We’re calling it This Will Be Our Year, after the Zombies’ song, and wow, did that title get ironic fast. So much went wrong during that year. We barely survived it. I won’t go into that now.
I just want to get at The Real. I just want to explore that, whatever that is. I want to recognize and explore how it is to be. What it feels like, and how it can be meaningful and beautiful and worthwhile. Someday, and I’m being serious and literal here when I say this, I may quit writing altogether and just devote my life to stacking rocks up in a big pile in some remote someplace somewhere. Once my kids are grown, of course. I think it could be a meditative, revealing experience, those years of rock stacking, and I think I would get a lot out of it. That may be my final work.
3288 Review: What is the story behind “The World Greening Wildly”? What led you to Alaska?
Mike Smith: I’d say the events described in “The World Greening Wildly” really are the story behind “The World Greening Wildly.” But I know what you mean, I think.
I wrote the piece while working at this bizarre late-night job I had until recently—staying awake all night in a suburban home in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico, staying awake while three mentally disabled young men slept in adjacent rooms. My job was basically to make sure they were safe and took their medicine, et cetera. All night long, they would emerge from shadows and surprise me, startling me every time, as I typed in the dining room/kitchen.
When I wrote it “The World Greening Wildly” and its still-unpublished 10,000-word follow-up, “Pentagram,” about leaving Alaska and hitchhiking south across Canada, I was pretty unhappy and off-kilter and both pieces were a bit of escapism for me. They filled me with yearning for simpler, freer times, even though those times were themselves pretty complicated and often-dark. Like floating in open water and being nostalgic for being able to stand on semisolid tidal flats. There was never really any dry land to be nostalgic for. Still—hitchhiking Alaska, being young, living by a waterfall, living in the woods, reading by a campfire, being open to almost anything—these are beautiful things that I’m grateful to have experienced.
I probably sound really dire, like I’m always depressed and unhappy and backward-looking, but that’s not the case. I find the world beautiful and amazing, and I live wholeheartedly. Still, my brain sits steeped in a skull-full of chemicals, and inequality is real, and poverty is real, and climate change is real, and neoliberalism is finally giving way to neofascism, and my kids are so often in distress and struggling, and it really does feel anyway as if everything is coming to an end, and I just cannot be all cheerful about everything.
What led me to Alaska…was…let’s see…a report I gave in fifth grade, an article I saved from a dentist’s office when I was a teenager, and then, more than anything, Into the Wild. I read that book at seventeen, and it just electrified me. It was my On the Road. It made me drop out of college after one year, save a little money, and head north. It was the first alternate life script I had really encountered. It made me realize, Oh wait, there are other Ways of Being!
I still love Chris McCandless, that book’s protagonist. I just love him. I think of him as an older brother. When people hate on him because his travels ultimately led him to the Alaskan wilderness where he died, I involuntarily judge those people to be heartless jerks. News flash, haters: we’re all going to die. Every one of us, No matter what choices you make. No matter where you go. So you might as well go inside the long black branches, already. Or get down in the goddamn rainwater beside the white chickens and the stupid red wheelbarrow and whatever.
Still, I want to write another piece about Alaska, about how clichéd and predictable going there is as an act of rebellion. (The writer Annie Olson has a great essay about this already, “A New and Different Sun,” in The American Literary Review. It’s well-worth looking up.) Running away to Alaska is like running away to join the circus. It’s like going off to travel Europe by rail. It’s free, it’s wild, it’s all about discovery—but it’s also one of about maybe five approved paths of rebellion for the young American male. You try and try to go against how you were raised and what you were being led into, and try to establish yourself as yourself, and even that rebellion becomes part of something so expected and clichéd.
3288 Review: In at least two of your essays, “The World Greening Wildly,” and “A Brightness in Everything” (Wildness, issue 1, December 2015), you apply very specific structural constraints to your writing, outside of the narrative content of the work. You use precise word counts in the one and precise line counts in the other, thereby creating a sort of symmetry. What is your purpose behind this additional level of complexity in the writing?
Mike Smith: For me, what excites me most about writing—really what excites me about all art, in any medium—is form. Form. Form! The book-length memoir I’m working on is largely about form, really, and it’s just been a really big, fun playground for me, getting to experiment with different forms in every chapter. It is always exciting to me; every new chapter, to me, is the most exciting thing I’ve yet to work on, because every chapter is a new challenge with new rules and new structural demands. Examples of what Art Spiegelman calls “architectonic rigor.” One chapter is liner notes to an album, one is a place names guide to a house, one is a joke book, one is a book of scripture, and so on, all forms suggested by the subject matters of the text, and they’re all memoir, they’re all about my life, and about life.
As for precise word counts and lines, last January I wrote a chapter (“Along the Edge of Everything,” still unpublished) about a time when I hadn’t been married long and it seemed as if everyone I knew was suffering from some mental illness or another and I had a writing group that only wrote one-hundred-word-long short stories. And so I wrote that chapter (chapter/essay, all of my chapters stand alone as essays) as a collection of one hundred one-hundred-word-long stories, and there was something about dealing with precise word counts that I found so helpful organizationally, and so challenging in a good way, and so neat-and-orderly-looking on the page that I’ve worked with word counts on almost everything I’ve written since. I love working with that kind of precision—knowing that if I add five words to a precisely worded piece then I have to edit out five words to even it out again. Science shows that our brains think symmetry equals beauty—it’s why we like Mozart, and certain faces, and “well-composed” photographs; why not work such symmetries into writing?
I also really like how modern working within word counts is—it’s something that directly benefits from computer technology, something I couldn’t have done easily even twenty years ago. In my mind, I often revisit a paraphrase of a Salvador Dalí quote—All a person can be is modern—and I really think there’s something to that. How can we express the experience of being alive right now if we’re unwilling to accept and use all that right now offers? I have a wonderful friend who I love who will only write on a typewriter, and personally I think this is deranged. Why stop there? Why not go farther back? Why not scrimshaw your work into polished whalebone? Why not peck it with two rocks—using one as a hammer and the other as a chisel—into a sunburnt rock outcropping? Get with the times, Dakota. Personally, I love writing on a laptop, even though it’s absolutely destroying my wrists. And I think F. Scott Fitzgerald and Virginia Woolf would have loved it. To hell with typing and retyping. To hell with arranging index cards. We don’t need to still be doing that.
Another thing: I used to work in film, on the production side of things, and sometimes it could be so cripplingly, obnoxiously collaborative. I love that writing is not that. I love that when it comes to building my own work, I can be the architect, builder, landscaper, interior designer, and finicky inhabitant—me—just me. I can make it as exact and precise and particular as I want to be. I have total control, at least before I sit down with editors and polish what I wrote for publication. Even then, I would be out of there if I felt like the work was being taken away from me. I’ve pulled pieces from impending publication before, and I’ve threatened to many times.
I want to create work that survives a hundred re-readings. I want it to be immediately appealing and then endlessly rewarding. Superficially fun or interesting, and then excitingly deep. I put hundreds of hours into every essay/chapter I write, and after a while I almost forget all that I’ve hidden away in each one. I know it can sound neurotic, but I think this is what great creators are supposed to do. Anyway, it’s what my creative heroes would do. It’s what Brian Wilson did with Pet Sounds, and what Annie Dillard did with Holy the Firm.
Ultimately, I consider every act of creation a collaboration with my unconscious mind, and I think that part of my job as a writer is to pay attention to what my unconscious mind does and then develop that, and then do that again and again, infinitely layering my every text with polyphony and meaning. I have a newish method that I really love, that’s really helped me improve my prose, that I would say was inspired by Lady Uranium, my aforementioned musician girlfriend, and it’s basically just this: whatever I’m working on, whenever I have a clean draft of it, I read it into a recording app on my phone, and then, when I’m driving, or cleaning, or obsessively brushing my teeth because the plaque, man, the plaque, I listen to it, and take notes, and then, that night, I sit down and incorporate those notes. It’s a terrific means of polishing prose, and it almost doubles the amount of time I can work on a piece within a given time. I call it the Playback Method, and I recommend the hell out of it.
I want to talk specifically about your last question though, quickly: when I use structural constraints, which is often, I’m not like Robbe-Grillet, or Lars Van Trier, positing sets of rules that must be used for all future works—there’s no one way—I’m playin’, man. I’m experimenting. In every piece, I’m trying something different.
In “The World Greening Wildly,” I started with an eleven-word section; and then I doubled that, twenty-two words; and then I doubled that, forty-four words; and then I doubled that again, ending up at last with a 2,816-word section, in the center of the essay; and then halving, and the halving again, and then halving again, all the way back down to eleven words again—focusing in the first half, the expansion, on this time I lived in the woods, and the—focusing in the second half, the contraction, on the time I traveled around with a hippie girlfriend in Alaska—every section beginning with the same line (“I lived in the woods”) and ending with the same line (“and then left to go traveling.”) I wouldn’t write every piece like this, of course, but in this one, two of the major themes were expansion and contraction, so the structure and themes worked as echoes of each other.
In “A Brightness in Everything,” I tried something else. That essay is a visually formatted lyric essay, with every single-spaced page made to look like a window, each page divided into six panes, like the window that the essay describes. And then, when the window closes, toward the end of the essay—literally, if you read that essay, it’s about looking out a window from a soul-killing office job—until the visual formatting changes and the last two pages appear as just a single, two-page-long, single-spaced sentence, once the window has closed.
I have another recent piece—“—the Speed of Grass—the Speed of Us,” just out in Bacopa, a journal out of Gainesville, Florida—an essay that’s a single, six-page-long sentence fragment about 1/60th of one second, the amount of time a certain digital camera takes to take a picture, punctuated only by dashes and hyphens—a six-page description of the events of that short time, of events captured in a single photo from a moment in August of 2008—a photo of a picture of my family sitting on a concrete slab—and that’s the piece’s form—a sentence fragment about a fragment of a life sentence, if you will—but when writing that I saw another opportunity to play with word count. The piece was about 2,000 words long, so since the essay was about a moment in the eighth month of 2008, I made the title be eight words long and the text 2,008 words long.
You might ask, “What’s the point of that? No one will ever pick up on that,” and to that, I say, You are right. But in this instance, I did it for me. I like knowing that these little constraints are built into a piece, knowing that the piece has an architecture that only I really know the extent of. And it does show in little ways. And it’s just fun. With life as chaotic and unpredictable and unfeelingly cruel as it often is, it’s nice to have real control over something. Also, it’s generative—give yourself specific rules when you write something, and you will inevitably discover that those rules generate writing you would never otherwise have written.
I…just don’t want my writing to be boring. I don’t want it to bore my readers, and I don’t want it to bore me, during the process. I want to always be doing something new. I want to always be testing limits, and branching out, and asking deeper questions, and growing. I want to show that there are almost-infinite ways to tell a true story in a true way. Because I believe that. And I believe that everyone has a story to tell. And unique ways in which to tell it.
3288 Review: Contrasting the tight constraints you impose on your writing, there seems to be a strong element of counterculture—or even “punk”—ethics and aesthetic in your work. For instance, your involvement in the “zine” scene in Albuquerque. Can you speak to that?
Thanks, John—I like this question. And I’m flattered and happy that you noticed this. To quote a favorite Billy Bragg song, “Here comes the future, and you can’t run from it, / if you’ve got a blacklist, I want to be on it!” In a world as self-destructive and willfully doomed as this one, we should all be punk. And I don’t mean musically—although punk and garage-rock are probably my favorite genres to see live—I mean we should all refuse to continue to be so casually complicit in the continuing racism and sexism and classism and bigotry of this world, and we should all refuse to consider the total destruction of our planet as an acceptable consequence of our just being alive, and we should all question everything that’s just been handed to us from our previous generations—the money-worship, the religious idiocy, the conflation of soul-destroying labor and virtue—before we just lazily, unquestioningly pass it on. I mean this politically, of course, but I also mean it personally, and I definitely mean it artistically.
I mean: to hell with familiar art! To hell with essays that look and read like other essays I can’t fucking believe how goddamn boring so many modern writers are—how conservative in their approach, how afraid of doing anything different, how afraid of opining, offending, taking a side, being funny, being serious, being irreverent, being reverent, asking harder questions, exploring deeper meanings, exploring new forms and points-of-view and tenses and styles and approaches.
There are places for conventional forms, of course—topical articles that exist solely to relay information, for instance; and there are stories best-served by direct, linear presentations—but creative nonfiction isn’t journalism. It can be creative! We can do anything within it, so long as we respect the facts it contains and maintain a truthful intent.
Also in response to your question, I think voice is such an important element in writing. If your story doesn’t have a convincing storyteller, you have a real problem. So I try to always make sure that my voice can be heard through my work. It has to sound “natural” to me, even if I am working within specific constraints, and so I try to always preserve some version of myself, of my voice, within my writing, and the truth is, my voice is a pretty informal one. So some of that punk vibe you mention is just me intentionally not polishing away the rougher edges of my speaking or thinking or writing voice. I like pop culture, casual conversation, low art, stand-up, memes, yelling at my neighbor’s dogs that never quit barking, disagreeing with myself, zines, blockbusters, late-night TV—among much snobbier fare—and so all that’s going to be part of it.
3288 Review: Do you find it difficult to navigate the space between the technical precision of your writing art and the need to connect with readers? Do you come to a point where you say of a piece “This is good as it is,” or do you continue to refine after releasing it to the public?
Mike Smith: First part of this question first: sometimes. Sometimes I’m like, Why did I impose these restraints on this piece?! If I didn’t care about word counts, or specific forms, or structural limitations, or not using certain types of words, or writing in whatever tense, or whatever, I could just say whatever I want to right here and it would be so much easier! I could put in all this stuff I’m leaving out! I could be more lyrical! I could say anything!
Sometimes I wonder if all rules are just gimmicks and if, as I grow older, those will fall away and I’ll just write direct things in a plain style. But then, I think: YAWN. And MEGA-YAWN. Like anyone needs more work like that. And all artists doubt themselves and their processes. Doubt is a part of the process, but also, when warranted, so is moving past it. Having that vision, that very specific vision, and then making that vision real.
For the record, I am anti-gimmicks-and-novelties. I don’t like it when writers (or artists in any medium) impose artificial forms onto their work for no good reason. What I do like is when a work suggests its form in an organic way, and then that form and the content of the work synthesize and inform each other symbiotically.
I remember reading a recent-ish essay in some allegedly good literary journal, an essay that was arranged into alphabetic units for no apparent reason whatsoever, just because the writer wanted to, a form that had no connection to the piece’s themes or subject matter and that added nothing to the piece except for the involuntary disrespect that I found myself feeling for its writer. That sort of thing I am not interested in at all.
However, if a piece’s form reflects and informs its content, then I think whatever technical limitations had to be observed to create the piece may be completely worthwhile. And again, such limitations in the service of “technical precision” can be so generative. It’s almost cheating, it helps the process so much. I mean, you never know what you’ll write when you’re creating work to fit a structure. When you set out to tell a linear story—you’ll probably end up with what you thought you would. But when I’ve set out to write that children’s joke book about six specific topics that’s also a nonfiction memoir essay about growing up with epilepsy, or a place names guide to house that’s also an essay about a failing marriage’s final years, or that collection of one-hundred one-hundred-word-long short stories telling the story of a compartmentalized and contained life, the memories that have come to the surface and the sentences that have resulted and the insights and details that have emerged have taken me by surprise every time.
Just being forced by myself to ask myself different questions about a subject I thought I knew well, or to tell a story in a different way than I always tell it—these things wake me up. They make the process exciting. Changing my approach from “What happened—and then what happened?” To “How do I feel about all the named features in this house?” Or “How did each of the songs on this certain album tie in thematically with this certain time in my life?” When a writer is bored by the writing, it’s so obvious on the page. The work radiates it. But if a writer is having fun with the process, if the progressions are nimble and startling, then that’s obvious too. This is not a new insight, I know. But I think a lot of writers forget.
As for maintaining the balance between technical aspects and the need to connect, I think that’s as easy as remembering that the technical aspects aren’t the only things that count. Voice is just as important. Clarity is important. Engaging the senses. Being interesting. Presenting vivid characters and enfolding settings and big ideas. But I think it’s okay to have both a skeleton and a nervous system and skin. Et cetera. All these different aspects can work together.
I just love what the poet Diane Thiel said about how, for a poem to really work for her, it has to hit her viscerally, emotionally, and intellectually. I feel that way about all art. And I try never to get so wrapped up in technicalities that I ignore whatever feelings I’m trying to convey.
But I don’t really think the great masters made any significant compromises when they put their art on rectangular canvases enclosed in frames. They still painted what they wanted to. Whatever feelings they wanted to convey still made it onto the canvas. I mean, yes, I do feel limited sometimes by whatever forms I use, but I don’t feel that working within them has ever forced me to abandon my voice or disconnect from my readers. If I did, I would change my approach.
As for the second part of this question, I do get to a point where I’m mostly satisfied with a piece, but then I’ll revisit it and tinker with it almost indefinitely. Even after a piece appears in a journal, I still do minor edits to it afterward, and I will probably continue to edit my essays/chapters up until the day my book goes to press.
As I said much earlier, I’ve been working on the same book since 2010—six years!—and I think during that time I think I have really grown as a writer—mostly just from writing for hours every day—and already some of those first chapters/essays I wrote look pretty basic to me. I plan to revisit them and polish them before I put them into the book. I suppose it’s a good thing to always be growing as a writer, but it sucks to always be looking at what you thought was your best work so far with new and dissatisfied eyes. I’m sure two-or-three years from now, when my book is finally done—if books are still being published, and we still have a country—I’ll look at what I’ve written just this week and want to revise it, too.
3288 Review: What is the literary “scene” like in Albuquerque, and to what extent are you involved with the larger literary community?
Mike Smith: Albuquerque has a great arts scene—music, visual art, writing, every kind of performance, all sorts of things. Cool, weird things happen here—real events like a concert in a concrete arroyo beneath a freeway, with the last band refusing to stop playing even while cops were dismantling the drum set; or completely wordless shows in the dark in abandoned houses; or rad intermedia projects that synthesize land art and music and film. I am so inspired by The Scene here—by our community of ambitious, driven, vision-oriented creators. Again and again, it renews me.
One leading provocateur here, Derek Caterwaul, a.k.a. DCat, signs all his emails, “Small things grow tuff in the desert,” and that really is how we are: weird, prickly, struggling just to survive, content to grow as part of something bigger, beautiful and strange.
As for the writing community, that’s a little different because writing is such a solitary undertaking, and because there are so many different kinds of writing. There are some very good writers here, and a lot of very good writers from here who have moved on, but most of the attempts I’ve seen to turn it into something really social—the ones I’ve taken part in, anyway—have lasted just a little while and then stalled.
Even so, there’s always something literary and worthwhile going on. We have an excellent independent bookstore, Bookworks, whose Events & Marketing Manager, Amanda Sutton, is better at her job that anyone else is at any job, and who is always booking terrific events with famous writers and local writers. We have a little venue, The Tannex, whose owner, Marya Errin Jones, puts on an annual international zine festival and hosts tons of other readings. And there’s a great monthly reading series right now, Bad Mouth, hosted by poets Rebecca Aronson and Erin Adair Hodges, that just started but that I try never to miss.
Something I’ve really enjoyed is reading my essays as an opening act for local bands. My friend Jazmyn Crosby, a.k.a. Glitter Vomit, had me open for her for her album-release party, and I read an essay before she played, and I’ve just never had my work be so well-received. Since then, I’ve done that for a few other pieces, and it’s just so much fun. The atmosphere is charged. People have been drinking or smoking and they are ready for an experience, and it’s very different than, say, reading at a coffee shop, between other writers, over the grind of espresso machines.
There’s a lot of stuff I’m not into, also, of course. A lot of boring, samey, facile stuff. But that’s everywhere. And I’m a snob, with snobby opinions about what I think can and should be done with the medium. Especially about Creative Nonfiction.
I just think: why create art if it’s just like other art that’s already been created? What’s the point? Here in the U.S., Fascists are taking over our government, and that is not hyperbole. We are going to see our friends deported, our rights stripped away, our Earth violated, our climate destroyed. We are in a new time, with new challenges, to put it mildly, and we need new art—new truths expressed in new ways. If our work doesn’t evolve to respond to the world as it actually is, then what good is it to anyone? If our work isn’t firmly rooted in The Now, if it isn’t a response and an urging in some way, then all it is is a pointless relic of another time.
I urge writers in Albuquerque and everywhere to keep this in mind, and I urge writers and artists everywhere to keep this in mind. This is a bad time to be apolitical. This is a time to be engaged. This is a time to remember our humanity, to speak out against injustice, and to step it up as artists and people.
3288 Review: What do you have coming out in the upcoming year that we should look for?
Mike Smith: I’ve written nineteen polished chapters, so far, of my book, and eleven, as I’ve said, have been published in literary journals, in-print and/or online. But that also means I have eight experimental-but-accessible literary essays that have yet to find a home. And it means that I check Submittable, the only literary journal submissions database, an unhealthy amount of times: let’s see, right now I’ve got five different essays out to ten different journals, three marked “in-progress”…If anyone out there reads this and happens to run or work at a quality literary journal of their own, hit me up, please. I’ve got a essay of travel writing about hitchhiking across Canada, an experimental short-story collection, a review of a terrible play that’s actually about watching a sibling’s battle with alcohol, a real-time essay written about April 2016 during April 2016, a comically/poetically revised-and-re-written portion of my childhood journal, a book of scripture about both my family’s religious history and my childhood spent living in a mansion with dozens of proselytizing missionaries. Et cetera.
So, anyway, let’s talk, Literary World! My agent is Nat Kimber of The Rights Factory, of Toronto and New York. She’s easy to look up.
My next publication is a reprint—Booth will be republishing my essay “Origins” for a special best-of issue, Issue 10—a five-page prose-poem of descriptions of home-movie footage, with meditations on the Big Bang, human origins, and television static. It was Pushcart-nominated, which is cool, but a lot of essays and poems and stories get nominated. Thousands. What I want is a win. I want to taste that sweet, sweet Pushcart gold. I want to roll around on those Pushcart millions. I want to be in their best-of-the-small-presses anthology. And I want to be in Best American Essays, which, as I said, I had a Notable mention in as just “Mike Smith,” for the essay I had in Tin House, “Place Names of 501 Filomeno.” Really though, I’d just settle for not dying alongside my family right away in the first years or months of these New Dark Ages. I am just feeling so anxious and without answers right now. I feel helpless in the face of a neofascist tidal wave. Thank Existence we still have art. I feel like I am just racing against history to complete this one great work and that I will be lucky to survive to do so, and, damn, do I wish I was only speaking metaphorically. I genuinely feel that all our lives are at risk right now, more so than they even were before, and that we are all racing against the final seconds of our Doomsday Clock. I hope we still have a publishing industry in two years. I hope people are still writing books. I hope anyone still has electricity. I hope it’s not illegal to write books at all critical of the status quo. I do not know what to expect to world to be like by the time this book is done.
If anyone actually read this interview all the way to the end—it’s pretty damn wordy, forgive me—then maybe you would enjoy my podcast too, City on the Edge, available on most podcast-listening apps. Its theme is the city of Albuquerque, but almost anyone could listen to it, theoretically, I keep telling myself, I hope, I’m not sure. My friends author Ty Bannerman and poet Nora Hickey cohost it with me. Almost every episode begins with a somewhat polished production of something we wrote, and then we semi-formally discuss the relevant stories or topics with each other. Past topics have included the 1936 murder of a journalist writing about the Penitentes (a then-unofficial subsect of the Catholic Church whose members wore robes in secret rituals, and whipped themselves, and hung themselves on crosses); the first monkeys in space and their connection to a certain UFO sighting; and the hippie commune murders of nearby Placitas, murders committed by a commune leader who believed himself the reincarnation of Ulysses S. Grant. Anyway, check it out. Nora’s hilarious. Ty’s funny too.
“The World Greening Wildly” may end up being one of the last two essays I publish as “Mike Smith of Albuquerque.” I think I’ll just be Michael Farrell Smith, from now on, my full name. There’s another “Mike Smith” writing literary nonfiction (and winning awards) so I can’t use that. “Mike Smith of Albuquerque” has been messed-up in some way by five different editors—it’s too confusing, I guess. So, dammit, my actual name, Michael Farrell Smith, it is.
I’ve enjoyed this interview immensely, John. Thanks so much for the opportunity.
These days, I spend a lot of time imagining the future and shuddering. But picturing such a future without art? That sounds unbearable, even worse, unthinkable, forget it.
Let’s keep creating. Let’s never stop.