Malden High School AP Literature
15 February 2011
Jessica Smith is undoubtedly one of the most innovative young poets to emerge onto the literary scene. Having the dual experience of growing up in the Southern United States (Alabama), and receiving various college degrees from educational institutions in the Northeast and Scandinavia, the environments in which Smith immerses herself can certainly be deemed contributors to her oeuvre, as can the literature and music that she came to enjoy.
Raised in Birmingham, Alabama (Kalayeh, par. 19), Jessica Smith’s Southern upbringing deviated far from the romanticized view that many outsiders have almost always haphazardly associated with the region. Coming far from the picture-perfect land of debutantes and southern sweet iced tea, Smith claimed to be a “good little Southern Christian girl” (Kalayeh, par. 10) by birth, various experiences in Smith’s youth caused her to reevaluate the ideals she had been surrounded by and taught to follow since birth. Smith’s spiritual faith was tested during this period, especially after her education on the Holocaust and after the death of her dog (Kalayeh, par. 10). But above all, it was the death of a loved one that affected Smith the most. Growing up, Smith had attended church regularly, with her beloved grandmother-“twice a week” (Kalayeh, par. 10)-until her death. Accompanied by grief, another immediate effect of the incident, Smith realized, was that no on else in her family was “willing to drive [her] to church [on] Sunday mornings” (Kalayeh, par. 10). As Smith became estranged from the religious world, she realized that her neighbors and classmates also began to distance themselves from her.
The hostile environment at school became so extreme that Smith would have to resort to walking down the hallways to the ever-appropriate chant of “devil girl”, as echoed by her classmates (Kalayeh, par. 10). Such an experience would surely serve as inspiration for a poet-in-the making, just as Smith was beginning to hone her craft in preparation for her professional career as a writer. Ironically enough, Smith’s attraction to the written word developed far earlier, before the resurgence of middle school angst. Such an experience was wafted in a much more positive light, beneath the comfort of her bedsheets. Stemming from the bedtime stories her mother would read to her, Smith admits to having heard various stories “every night”. These stories were “generally about fantastical creatures” (Kalayeh, par. 12), with such creative topics eventually influencing her perpetual imagination and her avant-garde range of work. The unorthodox Smith went on to dabble in various branches of literature, ranging from stories to plays to novels. Incidentally, by the “ripe old age of twelve”, Smith realized that poetry was the last peak in the literary world that she had left unconquered, and she immediately decided to focus on the genre (Kalayeh par. 12).
Following her time spent in the Deep South, Smith branched out to the Northeastern United States when it came time for her to attend college. Choosing to attend SUNY Buffalo, Smith went on to receive both her B.A. in English and Comparative Literature and her M.A. in Comparative Literature from the institution (Lowinger par. 1). Smith then opted to continue her M.A. education abroad in Sweden. Her experience in Sweden, particularly her exposure to the Swedish alphabet, carried on to her poetry, with the most obvious example being the poem, “Archipelago”, from her book, Organic Furniture Cellar (Gardner par. 6). The poem is just one of the various examples of Smith’s range in her poetry, with Swedish influence hanging most heavily. Visually, the poem is comprised entirely of the Swedish letter Ö, with her assumed intention of forming the shape of an archipelago.
As a writer, Jessica Smith has been influenced by the art, music, and literature that surrounded her as a female growing up in the United States. Perhaps most obvious in her work are the influences of jazz musicians such as John Coltrane and John Cage, as well as that of architectures Arakawa and Madeline Gins, though Homer's epic poem The Odyssey, specifically its depiction of exile, is clear in Smith's poetry as well. At some points, Smith seems to flat out reject the work of other poets, specifically that of Charles Olson and his geography of space.
Jazz music tends to be more organic than more traditional forms of music, boasting the use of varied instruments that all seem to come together into a unique musical experience for the listener in the end. Smith compared her music to poetry in an email interview, stating, “People often say that poetry is like music, and usually they mean that it flows melodically, like hymns or Chopin. But poetry is also like experimental music, jumpy jazz and songs you can't quite sing along with” (sec. 7). She cited certain musicians as being highly influential for her as a poet, specifically John Cage and John Coltrane.
Cage's music is vastly different from other instrumental music of his time, mostly because “the music he wanted to make was radically different from the music of his time” (“John Cage” par. 3). Cage's music is very high pitched and almost lighthearted at first, but gradually becomes more intense. There are often long silences between notes – much like the spaces between the words in Smith's poetry. Like Smith's poetry, Cage's music forces the listener to consider the spaces and all that they entail, as well as allowing the reader to start to anticipate the next note with an air of excitement that is directly echoed in the music.
Coltrane's music, meanwhile, is more intense than Cage's, and uses a greater variety of musical instruments. Coltrane's music reflects harmonies that are more typical of jazz and are almost expected, but boast an air of uniqueness that more derivative jazz music does not. Coltrane has been described as “the most revolutionary and widely imitated saxophonist in jazz” (“PBS – JAZZ” par. 1). Coltrane found himself famous as a result of being a member of Miles Davis's quintet in the mid 1950s, though his career was disrupted by “drugs and alcoholism” until he left the group. Soon after, he released the album, A Love Supreme, which “celebrated this victory [over drug addiction and alcoholism] and the profound religious experience associated with it” (“PBS – JAZZ” par. 2). Later, Coltrane “turned to increasingly radical musical styles in the mid-1960s. These controversial experiments attracted large audiences” – so large that Coltrane found a level of affluence unknown to most jazz musicians, as well as an audience that would listen to his message (“PBS – JAZZ” par. 4).
Smith's work reflects the movement evident in Coltrane's music, as well as the controversy associated with it, though Smith is controversial for fairly different reasons than Coltrane was. Like Coltrane, however, Smith creates art in an increasingly dynamic time for American society (he in the 1960s, she in the 21st century), art that, while not necessarily a direct reflection of political beliefs, certainly reflects the emotions associated with them. Additionally, the many different structures and languages that Smith uses in her poetry reflect the variation of instruments and themes in Coltrane's music, allowing for a varied experience when the reader reads Organic Furniture Cellar in the same way that Coltrane's albums create a varied experience for a listener.
As a writer who “received her B.A. summa cum laude in English and Comparative Literature: Language Theory and her M.A. in Comparative Literature from SUNY Buffalo, where she participated in the Poetics Program and started the poetry magazine name” (“Jessica Smith [Author...]”), Smith has clearly been influenced by the literature she studied, both in college and elsewhere.
Smith's work seems to reject the beliefs of such influential poets as Charles Olson, whose “Projective Verse” speaks to the spatial geometry of poetry and the triumph of message over form. In “Projective Verse,” Olson discusses “energy transferred from where the poet got it...by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader” (par. 5). He stresses the idea that “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT” (par. 7), going so far as to capitalize the words, emphasizing his belief in their truthfulness.
For Smith, however, this belief is not at all true. Rather, Smith uses form as a different type of content – as, in fact, the most important type of content, because form allows the reader to travel in her own path throughout any given poem. This allows the reader to form her own meaning based on the words in whatever direction she has read them – meaning that the transition of energy from poet to poem to reader becomes muddled and changed along the way.
Similarly, Smith seems to reject Olson's belief that “it is by their syllables that words juxtapose in beauty” (Olson par. 13), believing instead that the juxtaposition of certain words itself creates beauty rather than the sound of specific syllables.
One of the few Olsonian ideas to which Smith seems to subscribe is that which states, “it would do no harm...if both rime and meter...were less in the forefront of the mind” (par. 14), a belief clearly emphasized by Smith's utter rejection of traditional meter or rhyme in her poetry; instead, Smith chooses to take the reader on one of any given amount of paths based on whichever seemingly random letters or words the reader chooses.
Ultimately, however, Smith's work seems to be a rejection of Olson's ideas about projective verse. She stresses form, using it to her advantage in order to create a variety of meanings in her poetry, meanings that are dependent only partially on actual syllabic content. Olson's essay, in fact, provides a direct counterpoint to Smith's style of poetry, though perhaps not as direct as an essay stressing the necessity of rhyme and meter to poetry might.
More notably, Smith's Organic Furniture Cellar boasts clear influence by Homer's The Odyssey, which is an epic poem about the exile and triumphant return of Odysseus. Essentially, after the Trojan War, Odysseus is held captive away from his homeland in Ithaka, where his wife is being “swarmed by suitors” (“The Odyssey Summary” par. 1). Eventually, Odysseus's son, Telemachos, decides to save his father, and, with the help of the Greek goddess Athene, frees Odysseus from Kalypso. As a classic Greek hero, Odysseus must naturally face various perils, such as sirens and angry suitors, to return to his wife, using only his strength and wit.
Interestingly, Odysseus and Greek literature in general tends to have a lack of moral compass – or at least a very skewed one – that relates to the version of morality to which one of Smith's greatest influences, the architect Arakawa, subscribes. Like most Greek heroes, Odysseus shows “philosophical self-restraint” only until he succumbs to the “temptation of tyrannical license” (Montiglio par. 16) and slays all of his wife's suitors. This lack of morality is interesting, mainly because it is so often reflected in Greek literature despite its impracticality – and, in some cases (and especially Odysseus's), unbelievability. Though Smith's poetry does not seem to stress morality, it does reflect a sense of unbelievability in its surrealism at times, and even a sense of impracticality in its strangest moments. Furthermore, though Smith never really stresses morality in her poetry, she does at times express the same sense of exile that Odysseus clearly faced when trapped in Kalypso's island. In fact, isolation seems to be a major theme for Smith, and though Odysseus had his men with him, he too must have felt a sense of isolation among them, not only at Kalypso's island but also as the only one to hear the sirens and the only surviving suitor of his wife.
Perhaps most influential for Smith, however, is the plastic architecture of Arakawa, along with his wife, Gins. Born Japanese, Arakawa moved to the United States and went on to become a “conceptual artist and designer, who...explored ideas about mortality by creating buildings meant to stop aging and preclude death” (Bernstein, “Arakawa” par. 1). Prior to his death in May of 2010, Arakawa's life philosophy revolved around the belief “that mortal life is inherently immoral, and that to be ethical, one has to at the same time pursue immortality” (Smith, “Hiroshima” par. 2). Arakawa's work is supposed to “[lead] its users into a perpetually ‘tentative’ relationship with their surroundings, and thereby [keep] them young” (Bernstein, “Arakawa” par. 5). Smith, though highly influenced by Arakawa's architecture, finds this specific part of his artwork dubious, going so far as to vehemently disagree. In fact, Smith believes that “architecture creates neither morality nor immortality, because at the end of the day, bodies and architecture are extricable and one lasts longer than the other. Bodies are mortal; they wear out” (Smith, “Hiroshima” par. 4).
Despite this, Smith remains a firm subscriber to the plasticity of Arakawa's work, especially when it comes to the work's relationship with its user and the idea that it “makes people think through what they wouldn't normally think through” (Bernstein, “A House” par. 3) – an idea directly echoed by Smith's essay, “Plastic Poetry,” which demands “that the subject change her use of the her environment” (Organic Furniture Cellar 11) in order to interpret her surroundings – and, in Smith's case, in order to interpret her poetry. Arakawa's architecture also “makes people use their bodies in unexpected ways to maintain equilibrium, and that...will stimulate their immune systems” (Bernstein, “A House” par. 3), which ultimately turns a building from “a dwelling-space” to “a site of reciprocal becoming” (Smith, Organic Furniture Cellar 11). Hence, in the same way that Arakawa and Gins' architecture is meant to take its user on varied paths throughout a building, “plastic art...[introduces] a dimension of temporal succession along with that of spatial simultaneity” – in other words, rather than rebelling from structure, which she states causes one to “simply [fall] into another structure” (Smith, E-mail interview sec. 7), Smith employs the same use of space and movement in her poetry that Arakawa used in his architecture in order to allow each individual reader to form her own beliefs regarding life and poetry in general.
As an artist in the 21st century, Smith has clearly been influenced by the art, both contemporary and otherwise, that surrounds her not only because of her major in Literature but also because of her travels throughout Europe and her prominence in the online poetic scene. This influence is evident in her diction as well as in her use of structure to supplement content, a stylistic choice that is a clearly rejection of Olsonian ideas about projective verse.
In the poetic community, Smith’s poetry has sparked conversations among reviewers and readers alike. Smith’s blogs and Twitter accounts generate an increasing amount of attention to Smith’s writing. She continues to compose poetry and utilize her social networks.
During interviews, Jessica Smith comments about her utilization of technology and avid use of online networking. For her social outlets, she uses both Twitter and blogging websites. Smith uses multiple Twitter accounts in order to cater to the different segments of her followers. Expanding her virtual following, Smith has participated in numerous interviews about the publishing of her first book, Organic Furniture Cellar. Many of these interviews can be found online and are available for much of her audience. A contemporary poet, Smith’s usage of technology only enhances her unorthodox style of writing.
Smith’s Tweeting and blogging activities have become well known to her followers. Her blog, titled Looktouch, often focuses on the publication of her book Organic Furniture Cellar. Using the website Wordpress, Smith writes about numerous topics through a series of blog entries. As in several interviews, Smith also discusses why she uses technology and other social outlets for modern communication. Ideally, her blogging patterns provide an insight to Smith’s mind and how, as a writer, she changes as time continues. Conveniently so, the nature of blogging implies how freedom of expression can influence writing and furthermore enhance our understanding of a person. Smith’s blogging habits, from the topics she addresses to her online following, indulge her audience as to how her thought process evolves. Blogging is a crucial glimpse to Smith’s thought process and ideas.
In a blog post, titled “Why I Use Twitter” Smith uses a tactful approach in regards to this often sought out question. Smith compares her fondness for using either Tumblr or Twitter. The website she decides to use depends on the style of writing she will eventually use and the overall message she wishes to convey. She writes that Tumblr “…is like a tumbled heap of media and words…” while Twitter “…is like a conversation and mostly text-based…” (par. 1) In the same post, Smith addresses her overall Twitter usage through the rhetorical question, “Why wouldn’t you use Twitter? There are so many ways to use it!” (par. 1) Rhetorical question aside, Smith’s blog shows freely expressed opinions on Tweeting and other forms of online communication. She globally broadcasts her thoughts and beliefs for both her followers and anyone who happens to stumble upon her website. Her blog is not private to a small group of followers, it is publicized for the world to see and comment on. Looktouch is one of Smith’s online portals; it allows access to her other publications and updated works.
Due to her online activity, including the publishing of her books and chapbook, Smith’s audience contains varying amounts of spectators. Reviewer Susana Gardner composed a review for Organic Furniture Cellar on her blogging website. Gardner writes in “Plasticity of Poetry, -a Most Transitory House,” that Smith’s originality and audience “…will certainly impact on what she will find…and…which paths in reading she will choose.” (par. 1) Michael Peverett, an author as well as a critic wrote about Smith in his blog, Intercapillary Space, where he reviewed Smith’s poetry. Unlike Gardner’s comments on Smith’s poetic syntax, he writes, “In these poems Smith is riding an unstable equilibrium between something that can be more or less read (though not necessarily top-down, left-to-right)…” (par. 5). In the same post, he writes how Smith’s poetry is “…something we can…examine, but our examination doesn't have a particular start or finish to it” (par. 5). Peverett’s review provides the basic instruction to Smith’s poetic arrangement; it can be read in any manner, depending solely on the person.
Alas, Smith seems fully intent on bridging her own path, breaking far from the cookie-cutter mold to which many idealistic, fresh-faced poets seem to fall prey. With her avante-garde take on poetic forms, Smith has enjoyed her fair share of praise from literary critics and audiences alike. In particular, blogger Susana Gardner also praises Smith’s brave first attempt captured in Organic Furniture Cellar, as well as the unconventional thinking of its author. Gardner advises her readers that they can “choose multiple paths” while reading OFC, allowing them to accumulate varying experiences from the text (par. 2). Ultimately, she reasons that the reader is left “responsible” for the pace that the text takes (par. 3). Another positive review comes from Aaron Lowinger, of House Press. Lowinger compliments Smith on the “nomenclatural twist” she takes in order to meet her poetry objective of “infusing language” with as much meaning as she can (par. 1). Lowinger notes that her “meticulous” attention to detail serve as a major proponent in her poetry (par. 1). Following the publication of her book, Smith defined herself as being “happy” with the critical response it received (kickingwind.com, par. 20). While the poetry collection has not been without its detractors, Smith has realized that since the “visual narrative” of the text is “interesting” (“5 SEPT 06”, par. 21), it would not take long for her poetry to find a faithful audience.
One of the centralized posts on Looktouch focuses on a positive response to her poetry by Ron Silliman. The review, however, provided negative feedback within the comment stream of the article, not by Silliman himself. Smith writes that “…Silliman’s blog is not, in and of itself, the problem.” (“The Silenced Generation” par. 2) She feels that his review has brought publicity to her book, and “…was probably single-handedly responsible for selling about 200 copies of the book in a short period after the review came out.” (par. 4) Smith goes on to describe Silliman’s review as “double-edged” due to the increase in “…web traffic and sales.” (par. 4) But, his review also created a “...furious backlash, both in comments box and other venues...” (par. 4) describing the outrage some followers of Silliman commented on. Despite the negative attention reviewers have brought to her book, Smith still wrote a lengthy blog post about it and the effect it had on her website. At one point in the post, Smith wrote “...overall, Silliman’s blog is undeniably a major and constant source of information about experimental poetry.” (par. 2) In defiance of the negative responses Silliman’s review may have caused her website, Smith drew attention to the review and continued to analyze it.
As a young artist, Smith faces a powerful challenge in entering the poetic community. Unlike famed poets, Smith is relatively new to the writing sphere. To add, she is employing an entirely new type of writing based on her poetry. Smith is breaching the traditional structure of poetry and employing others to this new approach of freedom of expression. She remains persistent in her blogging and poetry. Her following remains strong and her social networking continues to expand. Virtually connected to most of her audience, Smith’s communication habits enable her to be widely in contact with much of her following and critics.
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---- "Arakawa, Whose Art Tried to Halt Aging, Dies at 73." The New York Times 20 May 2010. Web. 13 Jan. 2011.
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---- "Projective Verse." The Poetry Foundation. 1950. Web. 13 Feb. 2011.
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