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An Interview with Michael V. Smith, author of Queers Like Me
Poet, writer, and professor, Michael V. Smith talks to us about why he’s not a private person, what brings him hope these days, and his newest poetry collection Queers Like Me (Book*hug Press).
Photo credit: Jessica Zais Photography
All Lit Up: Congratulations on your latest collection, Queers Like Me. Can you tell our readers a little about your book? What can readers expect from the poems?
Michael V. Smith: This is talky set of poems—the driving force in them is voice, I think. I made some in a very traditional way, trying to capture ideas from the air and getting them down on paper best I can. But I also have a long poem that starts the collection, “Grandma Cooper’s Corpse,” which I made by transcribing verbatim two storytelling episodes I performed on my YouTube show Have I Told You The One About. These are all improvised stories which I told every day for about two months during the pandemic. So instead of the usual method of crafting the poem and then performing it, I performed the poem into existence, and then crafted it, trying to get my tone of voice and emphasis down on the page, as a kind of visual scoring. I’ve another poem in there that is made from a performance piece I did, so most of the language comes from the audience. And there’s a second long poem, “Facebook,” which sources status updates from me and my father both, juxtaposing them, in the months leading up to his death. There is a very clear disconnect between what I’m reporting and what my father isn’t, which speaks to trauma, maybe, and to generational masculinity. I also think the language speaks to class too. So the whole book is a look at family, and class, from my very specific queer perspective, which is embodied in the book’s performative voice.
ALU: Given that your collection is confessional and personal, what was the revision process like for you?
MVS: Oh, pretty easy, I think. I’m not that shy about confessional or personal work, so the content didn’t really factor into it. I was also working on the revisions with Ben Ladouceur, a friend whose work I admire, so that helped. I could trust Ben’s judgment.
ALU: Let’s talk about your memoir My Body Is Yours, which, for our readers who don’t know, is a deeply personal piece about the complicated relationships with your father, addiction, and your own body. What was the experience like of writing about the kinds of topics people keep private?
MVS: I guess I’m not a private person, because secrets have never been that healthy for me. Addiction often thrives in silence, for one. So secrets help to keep the poison of addiction alive and well in your life. When I stopped drinking, it was way easier to stay sober by telling people. That’s a matter of accountability, but also a tool for finding other sober folks, to trade strategies and commiserate.
Talking things out is also one of my core strategies for simply being a better queer citizen. I grew up during the AIDS crisis where many people were still in the closet, so I took to heart the slogan “Silence = Death” which was distributed widely at the time by ACT UP. It’s been a motto of mine for thirty years. I also teach my students to “write from silence,” meaning make work that addresses the things in their lives that they care about, which have as of yet gone unspoken in our culture. One way to make work that is relevant and new is to simply speak what hasn’t been spoken, and which you care about, what you want to give voice to. So much of our queer experiences demonstrate a greater nuance in what it means to be human than the mainstream stereotypes we’re fed. Binary gender, for example, is a cliché that lies about what it means to be a boy or girl. Those categories are deeply reductive. Language is reductive. I think one of the chief aims of writing or art-making is to add nuance to the reductive categories that language inscribes in our thinking. Art says, we are more than this.
That’s all a bit theoretical maybe, so let me also add that writing about addiction and my father’s death was a bit challenging, because it’s hard on the ego to admit to my vulnerable places. But, it’s a big but, I’m very aware that it’s only in talking about my vulnerabilities that I grow, that I learn how to adapt and protect myself, to nurture myself. Writing about the hard stuff brings other people to you, who’ve experienced similar or comparable things, so you get this richness learning from them. I strongly believe that art might give us some answers, but mostly its function is to ask us questions. When we talk about art with others, we find better and better answers, more depth and insight. Every time I share a book with the world, I get all this richness back, from readers who have thoughts. I love that part. I love the exchange from other people willing to share some of their depths and insight.
ALU: In an interview with the 49th Shelf, you said growing up gay in a small town was lonely — that you found friends in books, that poetry gave you hope. How has your relationship to poetry evolved since those days? What gives you hope now?
MVS: I love this question. My students and younger poets give me hope. The work of younger queer writers like Joshua Whitehead, Billy-Ray Belcourt, and Jordan Abel give me enormous amounts of hope, because they are definitely writing to correct cultural silencing, and they’re doing so with such grace and wisdom. I always read their stuff and think, Oh, here is the kind of queer culture-jamming I’ve been trying to accomplish my whole life. I can see some of the magic of growing up with less queer shame, or with more awareness of what and how that shame works on us, so they sidestep it better than I have. Here is what is possible for us all, if we can take these steps forward that their books invite us to imagine. And I find great joy and satisfaction and hope in the work of my students, who teach me so much. You can’t be a good teacher unless you’re also learning. Teaching is at its best when it’s a dialectic. So I find great joy and hope in that.
ALU: What do you hope readers take away from your poetry?
MVS: I hope readers find some of their own story, and also find something new, either a perspective or a productive thought, maybe an attitude even, that might serve them. I like to think of my work as means to describe my very specific experience or perspective on the world, which helps other people place themselves in relation to that, like a point on a 3D map, which helps you to orient your own position.
ALU: What are you working on now?
MVS: Currently I’m spending quite a lot of time shopping around my feature film, The Floating Man, which is a documentary about being genderqueer. And I’m finishing up a lyrical memoir—a poetry book—about growing up queer in the ‘80s and ‘90s, through the AIDS crisis.
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Michael V. Smith has published six previous books, which include three collections of poetry, a memoir, and two novels. Also an award-winning filmmaker, drag queen, and professor, Smith teaches at UBC Okanagan, in Kelowna, BC, where he lives with his brilliant husband.