Ron Smith: “Poetry & Reasonable Doubt” … A Truth Teller Spotlight

Self-portrait by Ron Smith.

“I say: Tell the truth and make it sing ... Every time you write, do it flat out. Don’t try to be perfect. Try to be significant. Try to whack (or seduce) your reader with the truth in every line.”

As you may be aware (and if you aren’t, consider yourself put on notice), Broad Street runs a series of brief interviews with contributors and other noteworthy purveyors of truth in the world.

In connection with our latest issue, “Maps & Legends,” former Virginia poet laureate Ron Smith was at the top of our list. We love his poem “Suitor,” about the courtship of George and Martha Washington. And when we asked him about writing the truth, what he said was so interesting, so true, that we had to expand the feature and bring it all to the Web.

So here are the facts, as Ron sees them, about truth, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and the great world at large.

BROAD STREET: How do you define “truth,” and what role does it play in your writing?

RON SMITH: I believe that the first job of the writer is to tell the truth. Fiction writers should feel this even more urgently, I think, than nonfiction writers. I say: Tell the truth and make it sing.

When people start shouting about fact and opinion and bias and “spin,” I like to remind myself that jury duty is an American citizen’s sacred obligation, and that jurors even in a first-degree murder trial have to decide guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Not, we sometimes forget, beyond a shadow of a doubt.

In the physical world there is always at least a shadow of a doubt. Or there should be.

I remind myself that I — as a writer, as a citizen, as a human being — am almost never called upon to decide that something is true absolutely, indisputably. That absolute certainty can be acquired only in mathematics or in fantasy, never in the messy, contingent world. So many people claim to know what some “God” knows or what that “God” wants. They terrify me.

But people who claim that there is no truth often scare me even more. If there is no truth, how can I serve on a jury or choose a doctor or decide to wear my seat belt? How can I write my poems? My prose? How can I give advice to my grandson?

Books by Ron Smith; photo by VCU news.

I try to keep this truth thing as simple as I can.

I see truth as a property of declarative sentences, assertions I accept as true beyond a reasonable doubt. I have to define my terms in context and consider the evidence in favor of the assertion. I have to put sentences together in logical structures to produce a conclusion. I don’t ask whether something is a fact or an opinion. As far as I can tell, those terms are usually used to stop us from thinking altogether.

So how do you evaluate truthfulness?

I ask: Given what I know, should I accept this assertion as true? Does the evidence convince me beyond a reasonable doubt? Am I being fair to the data and the context? Am I willing to change my mind if contrary evidence shows up?

Like a woodworker with his tools, I try to hold my truths lightly but firmly.

What’s the difference, as you see it, between fiction and nonfiction?

The difference is not essentially the writer’s method or whether or not the events/characters/settings are drawn from so-called “real life” — or even how closely the details conform to the facts of the world. Some fiction transcribes precisely what happened to the writer. And some of that fiction is, well, extremely boring. And, often, uninformative.

I’ve come to realize that what distinguishes fiction from nonfiction is the implied contract between the writer and the reader. In fiction, the writer does not promise to deliver pure (or mere) fact; in nonfiction, the writer does. The writer of nonfiction promises not to invent.

Good fiction invents in order to deliver truths — truths about what it means to be a human being. Good nonfiction is artful, of course, and the best nonfiction also delivers truth. But the nonfiction writer is bound by fact. Sometimes we say, “This biography (or memoir or history) is well-written and is crammed with facts, but I didn’t really learn anything significant.” Fair enough. If we say that about fiction, though, we’re probably dismissing it. We’re saying either that it was mere entertainment (not “serious fiction”) or that it didn’t really do its job.

Making it up in nonfiction is called lying. Period. Making it up in serious fiction should be considered adjusting the facts to allow the truth to shine through.

Nearly all poetry adjusts facts to allow truth to shine through. I never read a powerful poem as journalism, but as art delivering felt truth.

How does honesty in storytelling translate to your voice as a poet, whether you’re working with narrative or a lyric form?

So: a poet has to tell the truth and (try to) make it sing, even if the song is necessarily harsh or discordant or painful. But: The truth in question may be generated by literal fact or by invented detail. A poet who can’t invent is like a swimmer with no arms. (Sure, you can move through the water by kicking alone, but you’ll never win an Olympic medal.) As a writer, I try to do something to my reader, to create effects. I try always to be aware of an ideal reader — a reader who lives in the world and respects the truth. If the reader feels I’m being false to experience or psychology, I’ve lost him. This is true whether I’m writing narrative or lyric.

How do you know you have an idea worth writing about?

I never know at the beginning. I keep writing and then keep rewriting until I can begin to glimpse the worth. Sometimes merely changing the linebreaks lets me know I’m on to something. I start a lot of unworthy poems. I have files and hard drives full of unworthy verse.

“Like a woodworker with his tools, I try to hold my truths lightly but firmly.”

What do you find most challenging about writing the truth?

Everything. Description is hard because it’s hard to learn how to notice, how to see. And it’s hard because there’s always a gap between the words and the things they refer to. Emotion is hard for the same reasons — but also because we humans have a tendency to lie to ourselves. Memoir is, I believe, the most suspect of the genres. It is, for me, the least satisfying. So much fudging! So much outright lying! At a lunch in [Richmond’s landmark] Hotel Jefferson, the great poet Phil Levine delivered the most devastating judgment I’ve ever heard about a memoir. I asked him how he liked a pretty famous recent memoir, a best-seller that was getting a lot of critical praise. He said simply, “You don’t believe the guy.”

What advice do you give to aspiring writers, whether poets or people trying to find their way in some other genre — and where did you learn it?

D. H. Lawrence taught me that there are two kinds of knowledge, what he called Head Knowledge and Blood Knowledge. Head Knowledge is a mere abstraction in the head. Blood Knowledge is visceral; it’s knowledge that you feel is true. Head Knowledge is for philosophers. Literature, though, aims to deliver Blood Knowledge, felt knowledge.

We understand before we know we do, feel the truth before we know how to formulate it. In art, the unconscious is more important than the conscious. The unconscious is the energy source. T.S . Eliot taught me that a reader can “get” a poem long before she knows how to say what it’s “about.” Listening to Eliot read The Waste Land taught me that good writing is like music. Relax. Just listen. Out of mindful listening comes deep pleasure. And out of such pleasure comes knowledge — knowledge about psychology, about the world, about literature, about language itself.

I once heard the poet Bill Matthews say, “Poems don’t want to be understood. They want to be loved.” I try never to forget that. And out of love can come Blood Knowledge.

To aspiring writers I always say: Believe in the truth — but never give up your skepticism.

And I say: Every time you write do it flat out. Don’t try to be perfect. Try to be significant. Go for broke. Try to whack (or seduce) your reader with the truth in every line.

True Stories. Honestly.

Ron Smith recently served as the Poet Laureate of Virginia, and he is the Writer-in-Residence at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond. His books are Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery, Moon Road, and Its Ghostly Workshop.