Interview with Aaron Smith on Primer—April 3, 2017
Aaron Smith is the author of Appetite, and Blue on Blue Ground, winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, as well as the chapbooks Men in Groups and What’s Required. His work has appeared in a number of literary magazines, including Ploughshares and Prairie Schooner, and The Best American Poetry 2013. He is assistant professor of creative writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Christopher Nelson: First let me say congratulations on a wonderful book. I was immediately taken in by your candid tone. Regarding the title, is this the primer of academics, “a basic book that introduces a subject,” or is it the primer of painting, “an under-layer that supports a permanent color or image”? Or maybe both meanings function here?
Aaron Smith: Thanks so much for your nice words about Primer and thanks for wanting to chat. The title of the book came after I thought the book was finished, or rather I wanted it to be finished. I had a version of the manuscript and a different title that I thought I was going to submit to my publisher, but one day I was riding bikes with my father (which is strange because that’s the first time in my life we’ve ever done that), and I was like: I want to call my book Primer. It had never even been a consideration. It came first as a word, and then I thought of it as instructional, like the books kids read in school. I thought it would be interesting because the book doesn’t really have answers, but it does, I hope, show a life, shows someone trying to stay alive. Around the same time I saw the painting on Instagram that ended up on the cover. I became pretty taken with it, and I started thinking about how the book is about foundations, too, the base coat. Primer is also related to guns, but I didn’t realize that until after publication, but, as you’ve seen in the book, that’s appropriate, too.
Nelson: I think that the cover art by Elly Smallwood is perfect for the mood of the book. The colorless face smeared into anonymity by the lively red. Why was it chosen, and how do you see it in relation to the poems?
Smith: As I mention above, I saw the painting online, and I reached out to Elly. At that point, the book hadn’t been officially accepted for publication, but I knew I had to have the painting as the cover if it did. I really wanted to own the painting, but I wasn’t sure if it was available, or if I would be able to afford the original. I ended up being pleasantly surprised. She made me a good deal, and I bought it. I’m not sure what I would have done if Pitt hadn’t liked it, or if Elly wouldn’t have let me use it on the cover. Fortunately, the designers at Pitt loved it immediately. Elly let me use it, and she only asked that I give her a copy of the book as payment for use.
I think I was so drawn to it because of the reasons you mention: I like the blue that is smeared by the pink/red. There is a sort of wanting-to-be-invisible quality about the image. I also see it as a man’s ruined face (maybe both the speaker’s and some other references in the book). It also evokes questions about cultural norms of gender for me (blue/pink). I think as a queer person I like seeing that blurred and made complicated.
Nelson: Me too. How do you see Primer blurring and complicating?
Smith: Well, I think queerness obviously blurs cultural norms of gender. One root of homophobia is sexism; it troubles the gender binary. I have moments in the book where the speaker is participating in or observing hegemonic masculinity, but he also transgresses it. The book opens with a fist fight between boys (“Ruined”), but in the same poem two men are fucking. I like that disconnect. In “Middle School Summer” the speaker wears his mother’s high heels. He also uses a gun as part of his drag costume and then fucks himself with it. I could make an argument that taking this phallic symbol for power and using it for anal pleasure is a rift in a neatly defined power structure that says men are this and must behave accordingly.
Nelson: The poem “Primer for Men” offers advice on how to be with one’s male lovers. It is pretty ruthless and suggests that it’s best to have low expectations. It’s one of several poems in the book that addresses romance without any romanticizing. Why that tone?
Smith: It’s funny, but I don’t see the tone as ruthless. It actually caught me off guard that you read it that way. I also wouldn’t categorize it as low expectations, though I find your reaction interesting. (This poem was written after I decided to call the book Primer. I’d never written a poem to go with a title, but I’d had an idea of an instructional poem for a while, so I tried it.) For me the poem is darkly (queerly) humorous at the beginning and then moves into some tenderness, maybe hesitant tenderness, and then moves to kind of seeing men for what or who (we) they are, the fact of their bodies and experiences in the world. I’m not a mushy poet, so I like to have a complex approach in tones because it somehow makes, for me, the “softer” moments more earned. I have to say, though, I’d much rather you think it ruthless than sappy.
Nelson: And I enjoy those humorous moments, the sniffed armpits and the advice to “never wear a speedo, / unless you’re someone who should always wear a speedo.” And I admire the multiple possibilities the poem presents and “the room” it makes for a reader’s own projections. I guess by “ruthless tone” I mean that, to me, the poem implies without pity that there’s little or no suggestion of sustained love in the various scenarios it presents of two men together.
Smith: For me “sniff the armpits” is an erotic moment, a hungry moment. I’m also not really sure what love has to do with the poem. I think this poem is about intimacy and the complexities of seeing a man for who he really is (without pity). Love is not the only way people experience intimacy. Some people experience intimacy through hate. I also think there is a difference between a one-night stand and a one-night intimacy (intimacy between strangers during a hookup): strangers can have pillow talk and hold hands. Is this speaker jaded, possibly, but I also think he’s moving forward in the poem with a vulnerable, stringent hopefulness, reminding himself that it’s important to see a lover (and oneself) for who he is. Does he exaggerate, make fun and make sad, sure, but this speaker detests sentimentality, so to have tender moments (“He’s being tender when he kisses you”) he has to earn them in the middle of the extremes of the poem. When he says: “Don’t be cautious: it’s just a body,” I think that’s opening up to the actual fact of the man a person might be with. The poem also says not to ask a man to change, which for me implies not accepting cultural ideals for relationships. The men of my generation grew up without the possibility of marriage, and some of us defined lives for ourselves that didn’t involve marriage, lives that still excite us because we wrote our own rules. So even when marriage was given to us, we didn’t necessarily want it. This speaker has written and continues to write his own rules. I guess also I don’t even read this poem as exclusively about queer men. I think it’s about relationships with men regardless of who’s having them. As for love, I think long-term love between men is as sustainable (or not sustainable) as long-term love between anyone. I also think long-term love via committed relationships is a cultural ideal that everyone is free to reject without anyone feeling sorry for them.
Nelson: This may be an unfair question because it picks on a single line: In “Ars Poetica” you write, “Poetry is such a small dream.” The idea is presented as a musing, but it might also be a rumination or a fact. Could you elaborate on that?
Smith: It’s funny, but of all the things I say in this book, more people have asked me about that line than anything else. For me, it’s a line that rails against pretentiousness. I love poetry. I love reading it and writing it. It has been wildly important to me as a person, but I’m sick of the self-importance of poets. At the end of the day, I think most of us will be forgotten (even the most popular poets). I deliberately put that line in the list of things I was thinking to neutralize it, to give some perspective. I am a person who has to decide whether to walk the dog and a person who writes poems. That’s a much more interesting and realistic way for poetry to fit into my life than for me to perpetuate some melodramatic notion of “poet.” I miss the days before social media when poetry didn’t have curated personalities driving it to captive audiences. My favorite experience with poetry will always be me alone in silence with the poem. In that sense it’s small, too, and probably more meaningful.
Nelson: I like that, and I understand the power of that private, intimate experience of poetry. It’s as if, at times, public poetry is a violation of some essential quality of it. When you are alone in silence with poems, whose voices speak profoundly to you?
Smith: There are several books I go back to often: Furious Cooking by Maureen Seaton; The Good Thief by Marie Howe; The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance by Audre Lorde; Burnt Offerings by Timothy Liu; Girl Soldier by Denise Duhamel; The Dream Police by Dennis Cooper; A Fast Life by Tim Dlugos; Tender by Toi Derricotte; The Late Show by David Trinidad; The Essential Etheridge Knight; and anything by Joe Brainard. I’m also really taken with Safe Space by Jos Charles: it’s their first book, and I think it’s at the blistering edge of the possibilities for poetry in the 21st century.
Nelson: A frequent subject of the book is suicide. I found those poems at once deeply sad and refreshing; you pop the bubble of suicide being a taboo subject. Do you agree with Camus that the most urgent question is Why should I live?
Smith: Ha! My therapist actually quotes that to me. Yeah, I guess I do. It was important for me to talk honestly about suicidal ideation, but I also wasn’t sure how to do it. It seemed to make sense to approach the topic from various angles. If I was going to include a poem as direct as “Blue Exits,” then I needed to include a poem like “This Exact Sky” that deals with a moment when the speaker wants to live and doesn’t even understand how he had ever been so sad. It was also important for me not to end the book with that poem. It would be too tidy. I dislike the triumph narrative. Depression is an ongoing thing that one has to manage, so I chose to end with “Driving North on Interstate 99 the Poet Considers His Life at Forty.” This poem has more understanding in my head, but not resolution. My friend, the poet David Trinidad, said he thinks the speaker in Primer is in a stalemate with life. I’m okay with that, and I think it’s true. So, I guess I am asking Why should I live? I don’t have the answer, but I’m trying to be open about the conversation.
Nelson: I love “Driving North on Interstate 99 the Poet Considers His Life at Forty,” and the unresolved problem it concludes with is an evocative terminus for the book—the persistent discontentment despite all the speaker has experienced and come to know. It’s more of that crushing honesty I admire in these poems. The book is recently published, so this question may be too soon to ask: Is your newest work pushing against that discontentment?
Smith: The new work is probably in dialogue with discontentment, not so much pushing against it. I think for me as a writer (and maybe as a depressive), discontentment is an ongoing condition. I don’t see a solution to that, and solutions don’t interest me as much (at least as far as writing is concerned).
Nelson: You mentioned guns earlier; it’s a powerful motif in the book. Two of my favorite poems are “Middle School Summer” and “When You Told Me Your Father Was Dying,” both of which are haunted by suicide or the beckoning of it. Can you talk about the gun as a symbol and maybe bring us back to how it has a place in the title too?
Smith: Primer in relation to gun was really an accident. I’m the last person to educate someone about guns, but basically a primer is a device for igniting the powder charge in the cartridge. Again, I had to look that up when someone pointed it out to me in regard to the title. As far as guns in the book, I grew up with guns, people hunting, my parents having them to protect themselves, so in some ways they are an everyday object in the context of my childhood. As an adult, I’m uncomfortable when I see guns and mostly see the potential for accident and violence. I think having them show up in the book is a way to destabilize any easy solutions. They help not to let the reader relax. The speaker’s ongoing proximity to guns adds continual unease. Even when he has moments of calm (“This Exact Sky”), the reader (and speaker) knows there’s a gun on the next page, tucked under the bed, with a potential to harm.