The poet Abe Smith is an otherworldly and uncontainable presence. He thinks the label “hick” suits him just fine. For Smith, hick is a term of endearment, motivated by rural slang; he embodies and relishes the designation, wearing it like well-loved overalls.
When you ask Smith a question, his body rocks back and forth as if to keep the words from crawling out of his throat all at once. His performances have been likened to a display of demonic possession, which you can understand once you’ve met him. The tremoring, vibrato of his delivery is motivated by his rural background. His poetry performances are percussive and unpretty, a dirty Pentecostal revival, paired with spouting and spitting.
Smith doesn’t skirt the tragedies of rural America. His poetry and music bare all, without beautification. He speaks plainly about parts of the country dying at record rates from opioids, meth and suicide, “It’s a rough time for rural America.”
Raised between Wisconsin and Texas, Smith has a deep connection to the land of his youth, returning as often as he can to recharge the spirit. “Revisiting the sites of home and listening to the sounds and phrases of overheard conversations, then letting it ferment in my mind, percolate and then release in the kind of delirious way only poetry can do at some later day.”
Smith describes writers as “sweetly haunted people.” Though he now has a deep community responsible for healing much of his past sorrow, there’s a lingering melancholy from the isolation he experienced in his youth, living in the country without many kids nearby.
“All those feelings are places we often go back to, that place where trauma remains, writing from everly-afraid haunted places, bringing some pizazz to some older rusty times. A beautiful conundrum about life is that we’re alone, and we miss. Then we get into the hubbub of life; sometimes, we yearn for that older, pining, aching place.”
Smith has an impressive gallery of accomplices to both his poetry and music. His most recent book, Destruction of Man, was edited by Chet Weise and published by Jack White’s Third Man Books. He sees Weise as an incredible poet and a musician, who Jack White used to open for, but, he states, that people don’t seem to like to talk about that any longer. One fateful night, Smith was invited to Third Man Records literary deathmatch and Weise was in the audience. The two would reunite at a Tuskaloosa party, reminisce and swap stories, eventually leading to a publication.
In the last few years, Smith has transposed his poetic skills to his other love, music, with his band, The Snarlin’ Yarns, alongside other musicians, several of whom are also Weber State professors. “Sure, there’s been ups and downs; a band is a family, creating a beautiful opportunity for empathy, listening and compromise. It’s been a great thing.” The band is getting ready to record their second album, heading back to Mississippi to Matt Patton’s (of the Drive-By Truckers) recording studio.
When Smith isn’t traveling back to his rural home or practicing with his band, one is likely to find him conducting a poetry class in a tree. His classes at Weber State University approach poetry from a place of play and irreverence. He’s always been someone to encourage poets, particularly his students, to get outside and “catch the poetry.” “We’d stare at the tree and write a poem as an attempt to remind us that poetry doesn’t have to always come from our wounds or joys. Now, our wounds and joys might infiltrate the tree and be a part of the poem they created, but it’s fun to get out and use your eye, taking what is and learning about your community.”
As Ogden’s poet laureate, Smith helps create a community for poets to share their work at Water Witch’s poetry nights in Salt Lake, where you can also see him perform.
Destruction of Man by Abraham Smith (Third Man Books, 2018) available for purchase on Amazon. The Snarlin’ Yarns’ debut LP Break Your Heart is available in vinyl, CD and digital download on their website. Subscribe to Salt Lake magazine.