In the daily grind of university life, each lecture you attend starts to meld into the next in the same wave of droning voices chanting facts in your direction, all blurring into white noise. Being in a classroom with Professor Dale Smith, however, is an experience onto itself. Soft spoken but energetic, his classrooms always provide the most comfortable space to engage with what you’re learning. It’s easier to be charmed by Chaucer when the person who’s teaching you is so passionate about making sure you’re enjoying yourself.
Something I’ve found myself thinking over the past few years is that teachers should always be someone that you aspire to be like, someone that inspires confidence and a motivation to make a mark upon the world. There are very few teachers who do this for students and who, when remembered years later, amount to more than just faint echoes of lectures past. Professor Smith may just be one of those professors for me, a teacher and inspiration who gave me the tools with which I see the world as poetry.
For the past six years, Professor Smith has been an English professor at Ryerson, teaching rhetoric, poetry and non-fiction. Outside of Ryerson, he is poet, writer and critic. Last week, I had the honour of interviewing him about his career as both a writer and a professor, his teaching philosophies and his advice to young writers and students.
Was being a professor your long-term career plan? Or was it something that just happened?
Just out of naiveté, or desire, maybe, I finished a Masters in San Francisco in the nineties with my wife, Hoa Nguyen. We moved back to Austin, where I’m originally from, and we published magazines, journals and books. I worked odd jobs! I delivered flowers, I worked as an editor for a digital start-up company in Austin. I had a radio column that I used to write in the newspaper. I pieced things together and found myself teaching at a local community college after my children were born. I was in my thirties at this point, but I figured I’d earn the same living in a PhD program. I was also a poet and a critic, and I thought that while I had to write about poetry, being in a PhD program would give me a deeper and broader understanding of the history that was at stake. So, I was led into a bit late, but I got the PhD, and got the job! I mean, I applied for many jobs… but this one is the one that actually hired me.
How have your views on students and professors shaped over the years since you started your own education?
When I teach, I think of when I was a student, and how I was taught. I mean, it was different, I didn’t have the Internet, I was scared to death of my professors and I wouldn’t go talk to them. I did have this one professor, with whom I took a few classes when I was in the University of Texas, and the first course I took with him was one entirely on the work of John Milton. He only taught five short poems, even though Milton has written some of the greatest works in English, but I think I’ve learnt more in that one semester from this professor than I think I’ve ever done. Mostly because he gave us permission to explore language and philosophy and the theories of language that were current then and how that all correlated with the work he was asking us to look at. I always think of that when I teach, particularly since I teach different things at Ryerson, and with poetry, I think about the particulars of the text but with rhetorical theory, I think of the larger context of the history of writing and speech. In those different classes, I take different approaches but my main goal is always that to have fun. I hate being bored, and I want to share the enthusiasm for learning. I think the texts that we look at give us an opportunity for these conversations about who we are.
What would you say to students who actually fear pursuing BA’s because of the struggle for employment that we’re told comes with getting an Arts degree?
I think it usually works out, one way or another. Traditionally, BA’s end up in law schools, medicine or graduate programs, but you know, in recent years places like Silicon Valley, Facebook, Google and other major tech companies have been very interested in people with liberal arts backgrounds because we can provide content. Engineers, program designers and software engineers can provide structure, but they need people to create content! Businesses also look for people who are critical thinkers and can analyze data and environments that they find themselves in. It’s not as grim as people think of it, it’s really a case of Ryerson teaching students how to make a case for their BA’s in every situation, to show companies what they’ve learnt in History, English or Arts and Contemporary Studies, and how that translates into the business world.
Can you tell us more about your writing?
My writing? -laughter- Well, I do a lot of different types of writing. I write poetry, scholarly books and essays and I just recently edited a book of letters of Robert Duncan and Charles Olson, two mid-century American poets. I started off thinking, “okay, I’m going to write poetry!” and my first book was a book of poems and prose about Cabeza DeVaca, a Spanish explorer who came to America in the 16th century. I found poetry to be a way to discover the world, to understand my environment and the ecologies that I live in. Poetry, for me, has never been about creating something this beautiful product that people are going to enjoy, it’s been a way for me to understand my relationship with history and geological and geographical spaces. A lot of my poetry deals with domestic things, the very human dilemmas and relationships of having a wife and children and trying to understand the world where we very often are held hostage by politics, economics, capitalism, and all the other pressures of being forced into certain situations. All of this is inspired by the people I write about, these mid-century English poets who didn’t just see poetry as something that took place within an English department but translated into a larger world-view.
So, what poet would you say has most affected your work?
So, Black Mountain is a tradition of writing that was founded in Black Mountain College in the 1950’s under Charles Olson, Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan. That movement of poets also inspired by the Black Arts movement, people like Amiri Baraka and Lorenzo Thomas, this vibrant scene of wonderful Black writers and their energy and political focus has always inspired me. These two groups, as well as some West Coast writers who are associated with this. I had the pleasure of meeting a lot of these people when I was living in San Francisco in the nineties and early 2000’s, and was lucky enough to get into direct contact with them. They also came out of a very marginal social and cultural spaces, whether through race, gender, or sexuality. These were people who were working from the outside of mainstream American culture and I really liked that because there is a lot to critique in American culture.
What would you say to someone who is starting out as a writer? What advice would you give them about finding their voice and things to write about?
The first thing is to establish community, who are the people around you that inspire you? What do you talk about with your friends? What are you guys reading? Who are the established writers around you? Send them emails, write them letters! I just wrote to people I loved. When I came back from Yemen, I wanted to be a writer I was living in Portland, Oregon, and I forced myself to write. I spent hours in a bookstore just looking at all these beautiful books and I learned how to make my own, through Xeroxing and I sent one to Robert Creeley, who passed away, but was at the time teaching at the University of Buffalo. I told myself that he was busy and probably wouldn’t answer, but a week or two later, I get this over-sized postcard typed up all the way to the back, telling me what he thinks I could do, why the poems work. It was just a super important moment for me, that generosity of his. All the poets I worked with taught us to have conversations. Just expand the conversations, draw people in, and learn to speak to each other.