Poet and playwright Loueva Smith of Houston is the winner of the 2015 Robert Phillips Chapbook Prize, awarded by Texas Review Press, for Consequences of a Moonless Night. She is also the author of The Book Of Wool And Fur, a hand-made fur-covered collection of love poems. Her poems have been published in such journals as DoubleTake and the Louisiana Review, and anthologized in Goodbye, Mexico, Untamable City, The Weight Of Addition, and TimeSlice. Her poetry is spoken as narration in Shamed, a dance film by Frame Dance Production, choreographed by Lydia Hance, has been painted into nude watercolors by Cookie Wells for the artist’s 2015 show, Body Language, at Archway Gallery in Houston, Texas.Her work has also been presented in a dance performance by jhon stronks called Purging Honey at Rice University. Her play Tenderina was staged at Frenetic Theater in Houston, Texas.
CH: When did you first start thinking of yourself as a writer? What inspired you to become a writer?
LS: I’ve written since I was a teenager but I don’t think I ever knew, or really understood myself as a writer until I started reading my poems out loud to people. Once I felt that connection to other poets listening to me, my understanding of myself as a writer deepened. I first read out loud when I was forty, and I’m fifty six now.
My inspiration to be a writer comes from a sense that by writing things down in an intuitive and skillful way I can become more deeply aware. I want to say I love you in a way that has my breath and my easily teary eyes in it, or the troubling dream I had last night. I need language to use as a container for the tenderness and bitterness of memory. I sense the power of knowing how to name my terror, or my astonishment, or my urgent yearning. In some ways, writing helps me to make power out of my powerlessness.
CH: Your work includes plays as well as poetry. How would you describe your identity as a writer? Do you have writing interests beyond poetry and drama?
LS: I think of poems as little performances. I often see them on a stage with lighting and props, movements and costumes. Sometimes a poem starts with notes about how it could be acted out.
I’m very drawn to the need to tell stories. And I’m variously drawn to ways of telling stories. I love to explore the various ways of not just telling a story but of ritualizing one.
Words are so constantly with us and in us. Once I got curious about that and wrote a story/poem partly in a book and partly on my body. I was trying to find out which words belonged on my body and which belonged on the page…and where on my body did they belong…and once they were on the page, did they need a picture?
CH: Tell us a little about your path as a poet and playwright. How did you go about growing and expanding your skills?
LS: Working with an actor and a director is the best experience a writer can have because they mostly only want to know one thing; what’s the motivation? An actor cannot act a symbol. It has to be real, alive, have a motivation like hunger.
A director gets under the skin of the character and can ask a writer very penetrating questions about the backstory which is a kind of hidden text that isn’t spoken but is implied in the actor’s gestures and clothing and tone of voice.
I think poetry is greatly constructed around implication, or a kind of backstory. Poets call it connotation.
So…I love processes that teach me about the nuances of language and communication…but like all writers I’ve had to earn my identity as a writer by writing which takes so much solitude and sometimes it makes me sad to spend time doing that instead of being with friends and family.
CH: What is your relationship with the world of dance? Tell us a little about your experiences with having your work danced.
LS: I saw Lydia Hance do movement to a story by Diana Weeks, and it was so magical how she made the words into almost physical objects. It felt like she was putting the story into my hands…setting it on my lap. She made the words prick, or curve, or scurry away.
I sought her out and tried to learn from her. I collaborated with her and her dancers on a few dance films which she choreographed from writing prompts and texts. She’d watch us put our words into movement and then distill phrases of our movement into choreography. Sometimes, she’d sit watching us with tears streaming down her cheeks.
It is an enthralling art form to put poetry and movement together.
Lydia danced to an art opening for Cookie Wells at Archway Gallery. Cookie had painted a series of watercolor nudes with lines from my love poems written along the lines of the figures and in the background. Lydia did a dance interpretation with the watercolor images surrounding her and me sitting off to the side saying poems. That performance is something that still gives me goose bumps.
CH: What inspired The Book of Wool and Fur, with its hand-made fur cover? How did you go about having it produced?
LS: The Book of Wool and Fur came out of a doomed and impossible love affair. I presented it at the Houston Fringe Festival, and my performance can be seen on YouTube. It’s pretty dramatic storytelling with a poetic dialogue in the middle.
My friends and I cut out fake-fur and glued it to three hundred hand-made copies of stapled text. I gave them away for free and billed it as a book of Lesbian love poetry. I also made an audio recording of the book and will give away those CDs at BookWoman on Thursday the 13th.
CH: Some of the publicity for “Tenderina” describes it as “the surreal story of a stripper/ballerina and her journey to self-revelation.” What role does surrealism play in your work as a whole? How was this protagonist developed?
LS: I love surrealism because it surprises me. It feels like a surrealist moment has the power to jog my memory all the way down to its roots.
“Tenderina” is a dance/play about the trial of Tenderina. She is on trial for having a dead kitten for a heart. She is carrying around a huge pink egg which is the focus of the interrogation because she can’t set it down, doesn’t know where it came from, or if it is saying something. It seems to be haunted somehow.
She can’t give an accurate account of this huge egg except she knows it can be easily broken. The prosecutor gets so angry he jerks it away from her and a dead kitten falls out. (Not a real one. No animals were harmed in the production.)
I play a one-eyed voyeur. I live under the stage platform at the strip club. I watch Tenderina and when she discovers me our hair becomes entangled. We walk around tied together by our hair. I’ve seen her practicing ballet moves. She has so perfected her ballet that does a fire-walking act on stilettos with military-grade bullets for heels. When the bullets get almost hot enough to explode she does spectacular high kicks out into audience. Thus, she is empowered, and as her mentor my character counsels her to give up stripping for ballet.
CH: I understand that “Tenderina” was a collaboration involving film and dance, in addition to the script. What role does collaboration play for you as an author? How has your own work evolved in response to working in collaboration?
LS: I love collaboration because it stretches me. I’m endlessly curious about the intersections between artists. Of course, all such intersections are on the outskirts of town, but it is there that magic is made. I mean, both “Tenderina” and Lydia’s dance performance at Archway gallery were so unique, and had within them a fleeting incandescence…or…a shimmering that lasted for a moment signaling possibilities. Collaborations have at times filled me with a rush of joy. Collaborations can be difficult. They are made of listening and responding from your real self.
CH: How were the poems of Consequences of a Moonless Night selected? How did you decide on sending the manuscript to the Robert Phillips Chapbook Contest at Texas Review Press?
LS: Of course, Robert Phillips is an incredible poet and scholar of confessional poetry. Who isn’t captured by Sylvia Plath? Who doesn’t remember the first time they met up with her book Ariel? But confessional poetry doesn’t have much to do with why I chose the contest.
I selected the poems with the intention of telling the story of my family and of showing at the end who I grew up to be. There is a falling off a cliff moment in the book where things turn from memory to more urgent matters. I wrote it while I was grieving the death of my brother. I was very aware of my family because of his passing.
I sent the book to the Robert Phillips Chapbook Contest because I graduated from Sam Houston State University. I wanted to give part of myself back to the university, and I have great respect for the Texas Review Press.
CH: What are you working on now?
LS: I’m working on a book called “What The Music Wants.” It is set in Houston. The speaker’s name is Zoe. She works at the Jung Center. She is fifty years old and is giving an account of her life’s journey by recalling all of her lovers and recipes.
CH: Whose poetry inspires and delights you? What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?
LS: I most recently read Vanessa Zimmer-Powell’s manuscript called “Girl Eating Bird.” It is a series of poems based on responses to paintings which she hopes to find a publisher for. She came over for a swim in my above-ground pool and we talked about the poems in it.
I love poetry so much. I love to go to readings. I love that there are a lot of readings going on in Houston. I will buy books of poetry whether I know the poet or not. Poets are just such interesting people with gorgeous souls.
The poet who first bewitched me was Emily Dickinson. The one who helped me find the voice for Consequences of a Moonless Night was Charles Simic. He is so incredibly imaginative.
The one who taught me how to write poetry was Paul Ruffin. There is always something dark hidden under the layers, or the waters of his poems.
The one who made me go temporarily insane was Coleman Barks with those recording he did of his translations of Rumi.
The one who most changed my understanding of poetry was Alicia Ostriker and her book of scholarship on women’s poetry called Stealing the Language.
The one I always come back to is Elizabeth Bishop.