CENTER POST: A TRIBUTE TO SMITH KIRKPATRICK
Ashley Mace Havird
“God Almighty, that’s one big car for such a little girl!”
I don’t know how long he’d been standing there in the university parking lot, watching me maneuver the long boxy mustard-yellow Lincoln into a parking slot. But there he was, arms folded, laughing as though the car with me in it was the height of absurdity.
I didn’t see the humor. At 23, I was quite grown up and quite capable of handling the used car that my husband and I had gotten--even paid for--from my parents.
When Rick Barnett tracked me down, informed me of Smith’s death, and invited me to contribute to his online journal’s premier issue devoted to Smith, this was the first image that jumped into my head. It’s how I like to see him. Cutting through the bullshit--but gently. “Look at yourself through my eyes,” he might have been saying. “Step back and you just might see a character in a story. Let go!”
At the time, as we walked together to class, I was no doubt red-faced on the outside and pouting on the inside. I had a long way to go, in order to let go.
From Winter 1977 through Spring 1978, I drove the big yellow Lincoln to Gainesville from the small mill town of Palatka, where my new husband taught in a community college. An hour each way. Since I was commuting, and since most of my classes were late afternoons, I missed out on much of the college social life. I recall a few evenings--beer and apple pie with the other students at some little restaurant, the writers conference where I met Andrew Lytle, Peter Taylor, and John Ashbery, that great party for John Ciardi. . . . The host was a writer/body-builder who lived in an upstairs apartment. The night was miserably hot and humid. Ciardi settled himself on the screened porch swing, sweating profusely, drinking, and reciting limericks. (He and Isaac Asimov had collaborated on Limericks Too Gross.) My husband, the poet David Havird, and I couldn’t budge from that porch. We may have been the last to leave. Ciardi had driven up to Gainesville from Key West in a big Lincoln, as well.
It was privilege enough just to participate in Smith’s classes. Always kind and soft-spoken, he strove to teach us not to take ourselves too seriously but to take the craft of writing deadly seriously. What we were writing now, he said around the toothpick he was always working in his mouth, was apprentice-work. (Did we really believe that?) But if we kept writing and reading critically, kept wrestling with the craft, our work might mature into something fine. It would never be easy.
As a sometime teacher myself, having taught creative writing to college students, adult church groups, enthusiastic librarians, and children as young as 7, I can say from distance and experience that Smith was one natural teacher. A master of constructive criticism, he never used sarcasm or insults--and he never insulted us by coddling or lying to save our “feelings.” Like a strength-trainer, he pinpointed specific weaknesses and gave concrete direction towards strengthening them.
His example was contagious. I believe it never occurred to any of us in his classes to be snide or condescending. In workshopping each other’s fiction--as least as I remember it-- we remained respectful and thoughtful in our critiques. The atmosphere was balanced and serious and great fun.
As writers, we felt safe but at the same time pushed hard to develop our talent and skill--and to grow thick skins. He no doubt knew that if we kept writing, we’d meet with brutal criticism. And he was right. Biting comments from future teachers and editors, reams of rejection slips . . . the strength-training definitely has come in handy. Indeed, that early balance of praise and criticism prepared me (and, I assume, many of us) to welcome the harshest comments, particularly from other writers.
I don’t recall that Smith devoted even one class period to the world of publishing. As close as he came to discussing it was to advise us that when we thought we had a story finished, to “lock it in a drawer for 10 years. It takes that long to grow new eyes.” Pretty crazy talk to a 20-something. In retrospect, damn good advice.
He never gave us any illusions about publishing. He seemed to care little about it, himself. For Smith, all that really mattered was the craft--learning to write well, then learning to write better. His own publishing history was modest: one novel, The Sun’s Gold, and some stories (I have no idea how many) that appeared in top journals such as The Sewanee Review and The Southern Review.
Towards the end of the last class I had with Smith, he brought one of these stories to read aloud. For most of us, this was the first work of his we’d been exposed to. He read a 7-page story called “Silence,” which had appeared in The Southern Review.
“Silence” is a deceptively simple piece about a blind old man recalling his boyhood which revolved around a blind old grandmother, a story that pivots on his father’s premature death--and the grandmother’s natural one--which together shatter the world as he knows it. The economy of the narrative, the skillful use of retrospective point of view, the sophisticated structure, the inspired description--all this was eclipsed by the music of Smith’s phrasing, the honesty of the voice. I was moved to tears.
“She [the grandmother] could never understand that as long as she was sitting there I knew the house would never be empty. I guess I looked on that old woman like The First Man. I figured she had set in that rocker so long before even I was born that she was the center post holding the whole place up, and if she fell, nothing was safe.”
The little boy wants his grandmother to stay in her rocking chair forever. He does everything he can think of to keep her there, but he is powerless against fate and the force of aging.
The final sentences are these: “I wanted to yell up into the night, but I didn’t. I was as still and silent as the answer I knew would come ringing back to me.”
Soft-spoken yet honest, gentle yet unsentimental, marked by a depth of both feeling and intelligence--these words describe the writer as well as his lines.