Poet and essayist Clint Smith '10 served as both a judge and an exemplar of the literary life at an inaugural gala for writing awards at Davidson. Smith, a writer, teacher and Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University, gave a reading of his own work and judged the longstanding R. Windley Hall Writing Award for first-year students, one of three college writing awards presented. (See award winners listing at bottom of story.) Here, he reads "The New York Times reports that 200 Iraqi civilians have been killed by U.S. military airstrikes."
Smith is a 2017 recipient of the Jerome J. Shestack Prize from the American Poetry Review, and has received fellowships from Cave Canem and the National Science Foundation. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Paris Review and The New Republic and he has delivered two popular TED Talks, "The Danger of Silence" & "How to Raise a Black Son in America."
His debut collection of poems, Counting Descent, was published in 2016 by Write Bloody Publishing. It won the 2017 Literary Award for Best Poetry Book from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award.
During Smith's campus visit, he answered a few questions about the literary life, his ancestors' wildest dreams and his dreams for his infant son. Answers have been lightly edited for clarity.
What compels you, what inspires you, to dig deep and sometimes painfully into the topics of the day–racism, immigration issues, social injustice?
When I think about this T-shirt [‘I am my ancestors' wildest dreams.'], I very much see myself as a part of a lineage of people who have overcome things that are beyond anything that I could've ever fathomed or imagined... people who fought back, who worked, who pushed against a world that told them they were nothing and did so even when it meant that they weren't going to see the fruits of their labor.
Whether it's fighting against mass incarceration or talking about the conditions of undocumented folks or anything that I think is aligned with the political vision I have of a better world, I don't do those things because I hope to see them myself. I do them because I hope my son can see them, or that his son or daughter can see them. This work often takes a long time. You do it even if it means that you're not going to see it.
You're a new father. Has that role changed your perspective on your public work?
My mom always said being a parent is like watching your heart walk around outside of your body. And I was like, oh, that's cute, that's a nice line. But it really is. It is really the most singular humbling, wondrous experience that I've ever had.
I think for 29 years of my life I sort of operated with an incessant urgency, this sort of unceasing need to be productive. Having a kid has pushed me away from that and has helped me recognize that sitting with my son as he learns to roll a ball back and forth is as productive or more productive use of my time than anything I would ever write or any book I've ever read. I've had to let myself sort of learn that for the first time. It's those quiet moments that ground me in a way that I've not had before.
It makes the work that I do in an effort to build a better world feel more urgent than ever. But at the same time, it makes you sort of say, "Some of this is just noise...."
What has been the relationship of education and activism in your life?
I have a lot of friends in the activism world, I have a lot of friends in the journalistic world, I have a lot of friends in the literary and poetry world, and in the scholarly and academic world, and I think I sit at the middle of all of those. I think on my best days I feel like an interdisciplinary thinker. And on my worst days I feel like I'm constantly moving my feet between several different places and never am settled in one. I see education and action in tandem. I don't think of them as being mutually exclusive.
I've been in grad school for four years now. The most important thing that I've done over the course of graduate school was my work in prisons. I worked in a prison in Massachusetts and taught creative writing there. When you're in graduate school, you can kind of be in your little cube in the library and be staring down for 16 hours a day, and if you're not careful, you can sort of lose touch with or forget the very real implications and the very real concrete, material lives that are at stake in the work that you're thinking about.
This year's English Department writing awards gala united three longstanding awards into a single celebration, said Alan Michael Parker, poet, novelist and Douglas Houchens Professor of English.
The event focused attention on good writing in a world that sorely needs it, he said:
"Whether working in creative nonfiction, fiction, poetry, or scholarship, faculty and students at Davidson are committed to the written word and its lessons–how we learn to pay attention, to think ethically, to argue and to prove, and to express our ideas, all through writing."
The R. Windley Hall Writing Award
Presented to the member of the first-year class who submits the best work of fiction, poetry or nonfiction. The award is given by the family and friends of R. Windley Hall, a graduate of the class of 1963 whose life was cut short on Jan. 18, 1967, while he was a graduate student at Vanderbilt University. Clint Smith '10 judged this year's Hall Award.
Vereen Bell Memorial Award
Vereen Bell '32, wrote and photographed for magazines such as Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post. His novel, Swamp Water, became a film and was remade as another film called Two of a Kind. Bell gave his life for his country in World War II's Second Battle of the Philippine Sea in 1944. His college roommate, D. Grier Martin '32, later president of the college, established the award. Charles Wright '57, Pulitzer Prize-winner and Poet Laureate Emeritus of the United States, also has won the award. Poet Erika Meitner, who directs the M.F.A. program at Virginia Tech, judged this year's awards.
The Charles E. Lloyd Award
For non-fiction writing both scholarly and creative, this award was established in 1987 in memory of English Professor Charles E. Lloyd. Nonfiction writer Jocelyn Bartkevicius, who directs the M.F.A. program at the University of Central Florida and edits The Florida Review, judged this year's Lloyd Award competition.