Feb. 7, 2006
Writers of consequence
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When Elizabeth Seydel “Buffy” Morgan and Ron Smith enrolled in the brand new M.F.A. program in poetry at Virginia Commonwealth University in 1983, neither fit the profile of the green college student. Morgan was in her 40s and Smith safely into his 30s; each had a child of high school age and Morgan had one in college. Both were also published poets with years of teaching experience in Richmond schools. Other writers with similar credentials might have assumed they had little left to learn in the classroom.
However, Morgan and Smith saw potential for growth through the nascent VCU program, particularly in light of the presence of Dave Smith, a professor and poet whose work both admired. They saw an opportunity to improve as writers and as teachers. And, for the first time, they could chase those goals in an M.F.A. setting without uprooting their respective families and leaving Richmond.
“It was a special opportunity,” Morgan said.
Dave Smith said his former pupils have accomplished a great deal in the ensuing two decades, raising their profiles and taking steady strides as artists.
“Ron and Buffy have become important writers,” said Smith, who is now at Johns Hopkins University. “They are not just important local writers. They are real writers of consequence when you look at the entire region of the South and beyond.”
Smith and Morgan are linked in many ways beyond their degrees from VCU. Both are Georgia natives with an unmistakable Southern manner. Smith has taught at St. Christopher’s School, a boys-only private school in the West End of Richmond, for 34 years, and Morgan was a teacher at St. Catherine’s School, a girls-only private school located a mere half-mile away, for 32 years until her retirement in 1994. Their residences rest a short walk from the schools and from each other. They were colleagues and friends before they were ever classmates.
Each has taught extensively at the college level: Morgan at The University of Richmond, Washington and Lee University and Randolph-Macon Women’s College, and Smith at VCU, Richmond and Mary Washington University. In addition to poetry, each has published short fiction, essays and reviews.
In October, Morgan and Smith were named co-winners of the first Carole Weinstein Prize in Poetry, a robust new award created to reward a Central Virginia poet annually for his or her contribution to the art of poetry. The $10,000 reward dwarfs the financial payoff of most local literary prizes.
Furthermore, Weinstein installed Smith and Morgan, along with Donald E. Selby, Jr., president of the Daily Poetry Association and co-editor of Poetry Daily, as curators for the prize.
Although the prize was designed for just a single prize-winner annually, Weinstein decided to make an exception for the first year. Simply put, she could not decide between Smith and Morgan. In weighing their attributes, Weinstein found the scale did not budge -- both were deserving for their artistry and their advocacy.
“What I admire about them both, beyond their obvious talent as poets, is their dedication to the craft,” Weinstein said. “Both have given their creative energy to teaching literature, to mentoring writers and to advocating for the art of poetry everywhere they go.
“They have taught in high schools, in colleges, and in workshops; they have served on panels to discuss poetry and fiction; they have been judges for poetry contests and volunteered their time to read their work in public forums and support the readings of their peers.”
In an interview in December, Smith and Morgan expressed humble gratitude for Weinstein’s new prize. The interview occurred appropriately in the Poetry Center at St. Christopher’s, a modest, well-appointed room lined with volumes upon volumes of poetry and selected student art work. The room does not feel stuffy or stifling – stigmas poetry is forever absorbing – but comforting and vaguely exciting, as though the shelves contained great rewards.
The Poetry Center, which was Smith’s brainchild, serves as a stark example of the devotion with which Smith and Morgan have worked to promote poetry, which Dave Smith said has been “commercially devalued below most everything.” Morgan and Ron Smith each speak passionately on the subject.
“More and more I realize that poetry means so much to me that I feel like I’ve got to fight for it all the time in the culture I live in,” Ron Smith said.
Morgan said she believes Weinstein wanted to help restore poetry in the public eye when she developed her award.
“I think that Carole feels that protecting poetry is as important as the work itself,” Morgan said. “This is not a book prize.”
Still, the poems Smith and Morgan have produced are worthy of the recognition. Smith has authored one book, “Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery,” and a second, “Moon Road,” is forthcoming in LSU Press. Morgan has published four books – “Language,” “Parties,” “The Governor of Desire” and “On Long Mountain” – and a fifth, “Without a Philosophy,” is forthcoming from LSU Press.
Both have collected a slew of prizes and grants and been published in a number of the country’s top literary journals and magazines, as well as in various anthologies. Their work has inspired admiring notes from such literary luminaries as Henry Taylor, who said Smith’s “honest, apparently straightforward poems are constantly working with difficult paradoxes we too often evade,” and Dabney Stuart, who said Morgan’s work contained “rue and wit, and an occasional hint that whatever comes next might well bring with it an undreamt reconciliation.”
Smith and Morgan agree their education at VCU played a vital role in their achievements over the past 20 years. The demands to produce poems accelerated their development, and the unusual makeup of the original M.F.A. classes, which featured several other experienced and published writers, gave classroom discussions a particular weight and spirit.
“We were all fully adult writers who already had our own aesthetics at that time,” Ron Smith said. “There were some great arguments.”
“The other people in those classes were of such a high caliber because there had never been a program like that in the city before,” Morgan said. “The program attracted all kinds of people.”
Because they were members of the original class, Morgan and Smith have felt a particular pride watching the M.F.A. poetry program develop at VCU. Both have maintained their ties to the school. Smith read a poem at the Sept. 11 candlelight vigil at VCU this past September, and Morgan participated last year in an exhibit called “Pivot Points” that featured painters and poets with VCU affiliations.
“The VCU department has just continued to be excellent,” Morgan said. “We’ve gotten to associate with all of those people – the people who’ve been there all along and the visiting poets they bring in.”
Both point to Dave Smith when reminiscing about their VCU experience. Each eagerly signed up for his classes and even followed him to a workshop in Bennington, Vt., where he was an instructor in the summer. Highly regarded teachers themselves, Smith and Morgan speak with admiration of the way their demanding former mentor approached the topic at hand.
“He took the whole enterprise of being a poet with such seriousness,” Morgan said. “In my culture, growing up as a woman in the South, I was never encouraged to take it seriously. I had a great motherhood of fiction writers among southern women, but no poets. I had just never felt it was that important. But once I started really reading it and learning from Dave, I did.”
However, Dave Smith disputes having much of an effect on Smith and Morgan when they were his charges – though, he said with a laugh, he might claim something different in private – because he believes they already possessed the necessary discipline, talent and desire to be excellent poets.
“It was really just a matter of time for both of them,” Dave Smith said.
In terms of style, Smith and Morgan agree their respective poems share a particular similarity: clarity – not to be mistaken for simplicity. Their work reflects a deep interest in the words themselves. In “Pivot Points,” Morgan described her love for the sound, appearance and myriad meanings and associations of words. For his part, Smith said, his primary motivation for writing poetry is the pleasure he finds in language.
“Writing history or philosophy or biography does not require the intensity or level of love of language, pure language, that poetry does,” Smith said. “Of course, writing anything really well does require considerable sensitivity to words’ connotations, sounds, to the rhythm of sentences, the aptness of metaphor, et cetera. Those who want to write but who don't love playing with words will never be fine poets.”
Dave Smith notes similarities in the poetry of Morgan and Smith are few – their voices and methods are distinct and their subject matter reflective of their own, very different personal experiences. Dave Smith compares Morgan’s work to classical music and Smith’s to jazz. Morgan’s poems, he said, are lyrical and seductive with a sometimes sneaky power; Smith’s work approaches topics with an intellectual, discursive remove “that trades in a kind of hum and geniality.”
Both writers are tough and unflinching and have demonstrated an insistence on challenging themselves over the years.
“You want to hear musicians change over time and you would like to see writers do the same thing,” Dave Smith said. “If you don’t see that, you’re dealing with a very narrow kind of writer. Ron and Buffy have both changed as poets. It’s a sign of intelligence, and I’m sure they will continue to change as long as they are writers.”
Morgan and Smith agree they still have writing to do. Although teaching literature and creative writing has produced substantial rewards for both – each views teaching not as a source of income but as an important task -- they say practicing the work – arranging the words until they feel right – brings a particular satisfaction not found elsewhere.
“I’m finding writing nowadays almost 100 percent satisfying, even when it’s driving me nuts,” Smith said. “When I’m going around the house cursing and saying, ‘This is the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do in my life. I’ll never get this done.’ … even then I’m glad.”
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