Monday, March 08, 2004

Frederick Smock - Louisville, KY

Frederick Smock's writing room is spartan and perfect. A tiny wooden desk sits in one corner next to a large wood-framed window (a dozen panes easy). Out the window is the small street in front of Smock's apartment (in a 2 story home from 20s or so). Past Smock's street, but straight out the 2nd floor window, is Cave Hill cemetery, a sweeping and gigantic mid 19th century graveyard where Smock's grandparents rest.

In front of the desk is a rolling wooden chair with two overstuffed pillows. It's the kind of chair one could sit at for a while. The small writing surface is lit by a 9 inch lamp. A few small volumes crowd one side; in the middle is a stack of stapled pages.

The adjoining right hand wall has a single 48 inch tall bookshelf. It's full, but not overfull. The back wall, facing the window, facing the desk, features a tiny end table and a big red futon. I sit on the futon and face Smock in his chair and I notice for the first time a dark and large unframed oil nude against the room's fourth wall.

Smock paints, and later we will go through a doorway to see his painting studio. I ask him about the connectors between painting and poetry and he talks a bit about that.

I ask him about his long tenure as the editor for The American Voice, a splendid literary magazine - featuring work from U.S., Canada, and Latin America - that ceased publication in the late 90s. He tells me about some of the poets whose work graced those fine pages and then pulls out and gives me the terrific end of publication anthology - available through University of Kentucky Press.

I ask my favorite question, the one about a poet's "obligation" to capture something of his/her place in the world. He rejects "obligation," but confesses the job of writing about his part of the world is something that interests him all the same.

The room is quiet and still, and the peaceful space has taken me in. Smock's voice is even, and his motions are muted, tiny. He sips occasionally from a coffee cup. Sometimes his hands clasp. After we finish talking about his poetry and Louisville - and those two things are clearly at the heart of Smock's life. On one wall are about a dozen canvases (for a gallery show, his second ever). He admits freely he's an amateur, but his passion for it is pretty clear. The canvases are all landscapes, each packed with color, most with heavy, dark skies, far-off buildings, the occasional tree in the foreground. They are like a dozen versions of one image, each slightly different. He's working it out, placing and replacing the elements. I'd like to stick around and see the final canvas, where he gets everything where he wants it.

And I'm struck right then by the memory of a poem of his that I'm fond of, one from a literary magazine somewhere. "On the Fields of France" is nine lines long, just a whisper of a poem in some way. But - like most great poetry, and like most of Smock's - it's spare, minus all the things that might hold it down or puff it up. Each line a revelation. Each line a new opening, a new space in the poem, a new idea so unlikely and surprising that there's a breathless little turn down to the next line.

At the ultimate line - a revealing sort of filmic ending with just the moon pouring down - the poem disappears quietly. Its construction is so sure, that the removal of a single image would strip something. The movement of one word would render the mystery unsolvable.

I wonder how many drafts. How many sketches. How many canvases before it became whole.

We shoot some shots by the window, and then go down the stairs into the morning coolness. Smock has on a coat. As I get the camera focused, he looks away from me, across and down the street.