Mark Smith-Soto has been editor or associate editor of International Poetry Review at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro for over twenty years. Along with four prize-winning chapbooks he has published two full-length poetry collections, Our Lives Are Rivers (University Press of Florida, 2003), and Any Second Now (Main Street Rag Publishing Co., 2006). His work, which has appeared in Antioch Review, Kenyon Review, Literary Review, Nimrod, Rattle, The Sun and many other publications, has been nominated several times for a Pushcart Prize and was recognized in 2006 with an NEA Fellowship in Creative Writing. In 2010, Unicorn Press brought out his work of translation Fever Season, the selected poetry of Costa Rican writer Ana Istarú. His most recent publications are Berkeley Prelude: A Lyrical Memoir (Unicorn Press, 2012) and the chapbook Splices (Finishing Line Press, 2013).
Geosi Gyasi: Was there any writer whose work convinced you to become a writer?
Mark Smith-Soto: Growing up in Costa Rica, I had the good luck to have uncles and aunts who loved poetry and took every opportunity to recite it. Rubén Darío, Gabriela Mistral and José Martí were frequent guests at our dinner table whenever my extended family got together. My uncle Enrique, whose daughter Ana Istarú is now one of Costa Rica’s foremost poets, was particularly fond of Darío and knew many of his poems by heart. I think it was listening to him proclaiming the verses of that exquisite Nicaraguan poet that first made me want to be a writer myself.
Geosi Gyasi: Can you define your voice as a writer?
Mark Smith-Soto: My voice is many voices, really. One of the problems I’ve had in trying to publish my books of poetry has been that editors, and the judges of poetry competitions, often have felt that the collections are too heterogeneous, that they lack a consistency of tone or theme. Maybe I should follow Fernando Pessoa’s example and publish slim volumes under different names!
Geosi Gyasi: Berkeley Prelude is your memoir in verse and reflects your experiences as a university student in the early seventies. Which writers were mostly read at the time?
Mark Smith-Soto: Sylvia Plath, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Robert Bly, Philip Larkin, Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo. Those were the ones that interested me most at that time.
Geosi Gyasi: You were born in Washington D.C and raised in Costa Rica. What do you remember about growing up in Costa Rica?
Mark Smith-Soto: I remember above all a sense of freedom. When school was not in session, I would run out of the house to join my friends in the morning and come back to the house only for meals. Even in the rainy season, between sudden showers, the weather was perfect, sunny and mild with flowers of all kinds sweetening the air. A paradise for a child, really.
Geosi Gyasi: What took you to Costa Rica?
Mark Smith-Soto: My mother missed her family and her friends. Also, my father did not like the political climate being created at the time by Joe McCarthy and his supporters. Two years after I was born, my father decided to give life in Costa Rica a try. He loved it there, as it turned out, and we stayed eight years.
Geosi Gyasi: You were raised bilingually as you lived in different places. What languages do you speak?
Mark Smith-Soto: English and Spanish. I read French and Italian with relative ease, but I am far from a fluent speaker of either.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you write best in the English language?
Mark Smith-Soto: Yes, when it comes to poetry. Most of my scholarly articles and books I wrote in Spanish.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you think the language a writer writes in matters at all?
Mark Smith-Soto: I do, although I couldn’t really explain how that works. My good friends have often told me that I seem to be a different person when I speak in Spanish, that I am more animated and appear more playful and relaxed. So it follows that any poetry I might write in Spanish would be quite different from what the English muse whispers in my ear.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your poetry collection, “Our Lives Are Rivers”?
Mark Smith-Soto: The poems in the first and longer part of that book draw principally from memories of my Costa Rican childhood and my family there.
The rest of the collection is not so unified in theme. I wrote those poems over a ten-year period, so naturally they did not spring from any single inspiration.
Geosi Gyasi: And “Any Second Now” came out in 2006. How long did it take you to write the book?
Mark Smith-Soto: One poem in that book I worked on, off and on, for almost thirty years. Others I finished in the weeks immediately prior to its publication.
Geosi Gyasi: You’re a professor of romance languages. What actually is a romance language?
Mark Smith-Soto: The romance languages are the offspring of Latin: Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian and Portuguese. My own field was Latin-American literature—primarily poetry written in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I am now retired, and my only formal connection with the university is that I continue to work with the International Poetry Review, a magazine I directed for over twenty years.
Geosi Gyasi: You are the founding director of the Center for Creative Writing in Arts at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Has the purpose for which the center was set up been achieved?
Mark Smith-Soto: Unfortunately, the economic downturn of the last few years resulted in budget cuts so drastic that the Center’s ability to carry out its work has been much hindered. However, it has survived due to the support of an enlightened dean, and I trust it will flourish once more in the not too distant future.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you think of new writers coming out of America?
Mark Smith-Soto: I have just served as the judge for a first-book poetry contest held by Unicorn Press, and the general quality of the writing has delighted me– surprised me, in truth, with its inventiveness and power. If those manuscripts are a fair sample of what upcoming poets in America are doing these days, I would say that we are in very good shape.
Geosi Gyasi: How often do you return to Costa Rica?
Mark Smith-Soto: I return every four or five years. Not as often as I would like!
Geosi Gyasi: As an editor of the International Poetry Review, what do you ascertain as the main challenges editors face?
Mark Smith-Soto: My main challenge is to keep a fresh eye on the submissions that come in. It is difficult to read hundreds of poems a year without becoming jaded or cynical or dismissive of work that doesn’t fit one’s tidy notion of what poetry should be. I have for years now depended on the younger people who have volunteered themselves as associate editors of the magazine to keep me honest as far as giving each submission a fair chance, and to open me up to different approaches to the art.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you do lots of editing?
Mark Smith-Soto: If you mean do I rewrite much, the answer is absolutely yes. I am not one of those writers who get many “gifts,” as those poems are often called that seem to pour out of one’s mind heart and mind completely finished. It very often takes me years to find a poem’s definitive shape, and not even publishing a poem keeps it safe from my further tinkering.
Geosi Gyasi: How did the idea for “Night Watch” come to you?
Mark Smith-Soto: My dog fetched it for me! Seriously.
Geosi Gyasi: How? Could you explain?
Mark Smith-Soto: Sure. At the purely literal level, what the poem describes is exactly what happened: my dog’s barking led me to explore outside the house to see what might be disturbing him. Not finding anything amiss in the growing darkness, I felt at a loss, and his continuing alarm awakened in me a feeling of vulnerability–it sensitized me to the fact that the world is full of potential dangers for all living creatures. If not for Chico “fetching me” that realization, the poem would never have been written.
Chico whines, no reason why. Just now walked,
dinner gobbled, head and ears well scratched.
And yet he whines, looking up at me as if confused
at my just sitting here, typing away, while darkness
is stalking the back yard. How can I be so blind,
he wants to know, how sad, how tragic, how I
won’t listen before it is too late. His whines are
refugees from a brain where time and loss have
small dominion, but where the tyranny of now
is absolute. I get up and throw open the kitchen door,
and he disappears down the cement steps, barking
deeper and darker than I remember. I follow
to find him perfectly still in the empty yard—
the two of us in the twilight, standing guard.
Night Watch by Mark Smith-Soto first appeared in Poetry East.