R. T. Smith is Writer-in-residence at Washington and Lee University, where he edits Shenandoah. His most recent collection is Outlaw Style (Arkansas, 2007). He has twice received the Library of Virginia Poetry Book of the Year Award and is the recipient of fellowships from the NEA, the Virginia Commission for the Arts and the Alabama State Arts Council. Smith was raised in Georgia and North Carolina but taught in Alabama for nineteen years before moving to Virginia in 1995. His work has appeared in Best American Poetry, Best American Short Stories, three editions of The Pushcart Prize and five volumes of New Stories from the South. In 2011 Stephen F. Austin University Press will publish his fourth collection of short stories, Sherburne.
When I am the lone listener to the antiphony of crickets
and the two wild tribes of cicadas and let my mind
wander to its bogs, its sloughs where no endorphins fire,
I will think on occasion how all memory is longing
for the lost energies of innocence, and then one night –
whiskey and the Pleiades, itch from a wasp sting –
I realize it is nearly half a century since that nightmare
in Money, Mississippi, when Emmett Till was dragged
from his uncle Mose Wright’s cabin by two strangers
because he might have wolf-whistled at Carolyn Bryant,
a white woman from whom he had bought candy,
or maybe he just whispered “Bye,” as the testimony
was confused and jangled by fear. The boy was not local,
and Chicago had taught him minor mischief, but what
he said hardly matters, as he never got to testify,
for the trial was for murder after his remains were dredged
from the Tallahatchie River, his smashed body with one
eye gouged out and a bullet in the brain and lashed
with barbed wire to a cotton gin fan whose vanes
might have to him seemed petals of some metal flower,
had Bobo – as friends called him – ever seen it. And why
this might matter to me tonight is that I was not yet eight
when the news hit and can remember my parents at dinner –
maybe glazed ham, probably hand-whipped potatoes,
iced tea sweeter than candy, as it was high summer –
shaking their heads in passing and saying it was a shame,
but the boy should have been smarter and known never
to step out of his place, especially that far South. Did I
even guess, did I ask how a word or stray note could give birth
to murder? He was fourteen, and on our flickering new TV,
sober anchormen from Atlanta registered their shock,
while we ate our fine dinner and listened to details
from the trial in Sumner, though later everyone learned
the crime occurred in Sunflower County, and snoopy
reporters from up north had also discovered that missing
witnesses – Too Tight Collins among them – could
finger the husband Roy Bryant and his step-brother
named Milam as the men in the truck who asked, “Where
the boy done the talking?” and dragged Emmett Till
into the darkness. His mother Mamie, without whom
it would have all passed in the usual secrecy, requested
an open-casket funeral, so the mourners saw the body
maimed beyond recognition – his uncle had known
the boy only by a signet ring – and Jet magazine
then showed photos, working up the general rage
and indignation, so the trial was speedy, five days
with a white jury, which acquitted, the foreman
reporting that the state had not adequately established
the identity of the victim, and I don’t know how
my father the cop or his petite wife the Den Mother
took it all, though in their eighties they have no love
for any race darker than a tanned Caucasian. I need
a revelation to lift me from the misery of remembering,
as I get the stigma of such personal history twisted
into the itch of that wasp sting. Milam later told Life
he and Bryant were “guilty as sin,” and there is some
relief in knowing their town shunned them and drove
Bryant out of business, but what keeps haunting me –
glass empty, the insect chorus fiercer, more shrill –
is the drama played out in my mind like a scene
from some reverse To Kill a Mockingbird – or worse,
a courtroom fiasco from a Faulkner novel – when
the prosecutor asked Mr. Wright if he could find
in the room the intruder who snatched his nephew
out of bed that night, and the old man – a great uncle,
really – fought back his sobs and pointed at the accused,
his finger like a pistol aimed for the heart. “Dar he,”
he said, and the syllables yet echo into this raw night
like a poem that won’t be silenced, like the choir
of seventeen-year insects, their voices riddling strange
as sleigh bells through the summer air, the horrors
of injustice still simmering, and I now wonder what
that innocence I miss might have been made of –
smoke? rhinestones? gravied potatoes followed
by yellow cake and milk? Back then we called
the insect infestation ferros, thinking of Hebrew
captivity in Egypt and believing they were chanting
free us, instead of the come hither new science
insists on, but who can dismiss the thought
that some fifty years back their ancestors dinned
a river of sound all night extending lament
to lamentation, and I am shaken by the thought
of how easy it is for me to sit here under sharp
stars which could mark in heaven the graves
of tortured boys and inhale the dregs of expensive
whiskey the color of a fox, how convenient
to admit where no light shows my safe face
that I have been less than innocent this entire
life and never gave a second thought to this:
even the window fan cooling my bedroom
stirs the air with blades, and how could anyone
in a civilized nation ever be condemned for
narrowing breath to melody between the teeth,
and if this is an exercise in sham shame I am
feeling, some wish for absolution, then I have to
understand the wave of nausea crossing me,
this conviction that it is not simple irony
making the whir of voices from the pine trees
now seem to say Dar he, Dar he, Dar he.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I think it was the spring and summer of 2005. I had twice before tried to write poems about the wolf whistle episode and aftermath, abandoning the first because Lewis Nordan published a novel based on it, the second because I began to have doubts about the whole enterprise. I was working in quatrains of simple pentatonic lines, seeing the actual murder scene with an omniscient eye, filling in from the historical record concerning the murder of Emmitt Till, and I began to wonder if it was my business to be meddling here, invading to invent and interpret just to satisfy my need to speak out on the righteous side. I wanted to write a poem of witness against racial atrocity, but I was not really a legitimate or significant witness. Then on that Sunday afternoon—my wife off traveling, me on the sofa watching the news alone—I learned it was the anniversary of something, the killing, the verdict, something, and my memory lurched back to where it had not dared go before. Where I was when I first heard about the killing, and who I was with, how we ate our nice dinner anyway, tsk, tsk. I knew I had to try again and that I needed to work it out for myself and face full-on a fact about myself and my family that I have long tried to get shed of. The cicadas or jarflies appeared out there as soon as it went twilight. I scribbled and they seemed to urge me on. I didn’t start off with a glass of whiskey, but it got involved later. I was going through the whole lower case register of shame, trying to decide to what degree I was complicit or permissive, and to what degree indicted. It was a hard night all around, but I felt something pushing me, a wind, a whisper, an insistence.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I wrote fast that evening, not pausing to check facts or dates, a reeling off of layers, lending little attention to line length or rational connection. By bedtime I had the rough draft, and it was prose with a few salvageably intense and lyric moments that must be recognized as gifts. With the second draft, I went from notebook to computer, and then it all goes murky, as I just changed and rearranged, trying for an iambic line but giving up. The thing wanted a longer reach, a harder utterance, class four rapids. You make big changes one day and small ones the next, and the history of composition disappears into the hard drive. It’s impossible to count drafts or sessions unless you use the computer with more expertise and fluency than I do.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
If there’s such a thing as valuable inspiration, it has to do with full attention and energy. The muse involves “use,” and I was using all my resources in that first session. The whole process was so compelling and scary that I seldom had trouble in subsequent sessions receiving that faint whispering radio signal that dares us to fine tune to it. It’s an inconvenient and demanding kind of consciousness, and even those of us who say we live for it probably don’t want it all that often, as it wrings you dry. A lot of this poem was received, as was a lot of what couldn’t be part of the poem. And I had to go back and read the historical documents. I know Picasso’s comment that art is a lie that tells a truth, but the lie has to be that imaginative spin you put on the ball, not the ball itself. Just the desperate lying of extrapolation where you nearly remember. When I write a historical poem, I want it to stand up to both imaginative and documentary scrutiny. There’s pleasure in working toward that, but it’s sweat pleasure.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I decided pretty early on how many lines per stanza, but I only slowly came to an understanding of how I wanted to interweave the re-enactment of the killing, the courtroom testimony, the narrator’s dinnertable discovery of the crime on TV and the narrator’s position as he unscrolls this story. I didn’t want it to be so much neat and intellectual as associational, psychological. Haunted, I suppose. The gangly, enjambed sentences are intentional, as are the internal rhymes and assonance. I wanted it a kind of driven exhortation, an exhausting poem to read aloud, and if nothing else, it is that.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
Nearly two years, I think. I kept delaying any attempt to get it published, asking myself questions about my rights to this testimony, worrying that some folks might say I had, like many white writers, tried to usurp the victims’ voices, to make them my sensitivity badge. But I knew this was a poem I had to write, and that my refracted experience and the way the story occupied my imagination wouldn’t be denied. It was quickly rejected by a couple of magazines, but Ploughshares took it and then awarded it their annual prize. It’s been Pushcarted and anthologized since, but the Ploughshares people have been very kindly sponsors of it, nominating here and there, which I appreciate. Then it appeared in Outlaw Style from Arkansas in 2007, if I recall correctly.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I don’t have any rules or very much continuity of method. Sometimes my job makes writing very difficult and pobiz as impossible as it is unpleasant, so I lie quiet for long spells, then gather up the work from half a year and send it out. The production line at my desk is about as reliable as a snake.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
Maybe I’ve already answered this, but I should add that I moved the family back to Georgia in the poem, but I can’t recall if we were in Griffin or Charlotte when I heard the story. My visual memory says Griffin, but my reason responds, “Did we have a TV in Georgia?” If the scenes of remembering – twilight, evening drink, insects – and the dinnertable are milky in my mind, I have invested extensive research and meditation in trying the summon fact from the results.
Is this a narrative poem?
I’d say this is a story within a report within a narrative. Man with whisky remembers boy at dinner who hears of atrocity and tries to place it in his understanding of the world. Time passes, histories get written, facts fade, memory monkeys with things, the world spins. Narrative is always a relative question, but I don’t think this is borderline.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
This is reaching back a spell, but I think I was reading Cormac McCarthy. Maybe listening to endless disks of Moby-Dick in the car. When I’m writing poetry, I try to read fiction, and the reverse. It’s easier to quarantine my work from the big winds that way, and I like to read those big winds.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
At some point, I was convinced this one was just for the home team. It’s long and convoluted and maybe not appropriate, certainly not “pleasing.” Poetry as catharsis, though. I thought it might be too ungainly and associative and maybe too politically incorrect to find much of an audience.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
I don’t believe I did. My wife Sarah Kennedy is the most likely person to see my work when it’s raw. She probably saw it in that stage when I’m confident I’ve done the best I can, but a couple of snags still trouble me. She always makes my poems at least a little better. In a more finished state I’m likely to send a few things to Claudia Emerson, too, but when I’m writing, I mostly do it in secret, the old readers having fallen away long ago.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I’ve revealed here a less idealized, more historical version of my family, and I’ve appropriated without permission voices I might have preferred to consult with, though that wasn’t possible. I suppose this is a poem of witness, but a cautious one, seeking to speak truly and clearly, when I’m not sure I’ve earned the podium. I also think its twining of past and present, personal and public is more bold than I’m accustomed to. It may be trespassing, and in that sense, I guess it’s right at the center of what seems to be my imaginative project. It does wear its literary allusions on its sleeve, which I’m not normally inclined toward. I hope it requires a reader to get a second wind, which I’m usually cautious of.
What is American about this poem?
“Only in America?” as they say. Not exactly, as racist atrocities abound, but we have our special brand, and the monkeyshines that follow as the perpetrators puppet the system to protect themselves, well, we’ve nearly perfected this. I think about William Christenberry’s paintings and constructions, and I’m tempted to say it’s as American as the Klan.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Neither, I think. I still look at it and say, well, why not cut this, shift that, correct this? I fiddle with it, fret with it. It seems a poem not to have gotten wrong, so I keep doing random tests on it, midnight surprises, to make sure it’s not shamming, but there it is in the book, no way to get in and change all those copies. If the possibility of a Selected Poems ever arises, I believe it will be slightly different there.
[Author's Note: Although most historians now concur that Mose Wright said not “Dar he,” but “There he is,” the former is the way his testimony was universally reported in the media, and it has remained so in the public mind.]