Louisiana Poet Laureate John Warner Smith, an interview

Greg Fischer Editor-in-chief
Gonzales Weekly Citizen

"I'm a native of Louisiana. I was born in Morgan City," Louisiana Poet Laureate John Warner Smith said in a telephone interview back in August 2019 shortly after being named poet laureate by Governor John Bel Edwards.

Smith said he spent his early childhood in Morgan City, La. but around 2nd grade moved to Lake Charles and attended public schools.

"I went on to McNeese State University," he said in a pensive, welcoming tone. "I earned two undergraduate degrees in my years at McNeese. One in Psychology and another in Accounting.

"It gets even weirder," he said. "I went on to get an MBA at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette.

"Later in my life, I decided to get an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of New Orleans."

However, "later in my life" was actually much later. The 67-year-old poet laureate is proof that when it comes to embracing art and pursuing it passionately, there is no real time frame for doing so. The time is now.

"I guess it was in 2009. I was like 57 years old," he said. "I decided to begin to focus more formally and seriously on my writing and decided to go ahead and get my MFA with the idea of course of publishing and teaching, which is what I'm doing. So, it was a good decision. It worked out well for me."

Smith added that his life came full circle then because he had earned an English minor with his first degree, which was in Psychology at McNeese State. "I graduated with a teacher's certificate in English--believe it or not--which I never used in schools. I decided that I was going to go a different direction back to school to get a business degree and make some money." He laughed. "My love for writing and literature has never waned."

Smith began teaching at Southern University in his last year of the MFA program. Since 2011, he has been teaching composition courses and African American Literature courses.

"And I've done a lot of other work," he said. "For the last 11 years I've been directing this non-profit organization called 'Education's Next Horizon.' That's been my full-time work," Smith said. "We do research and policy advocacy work to improve public schools in Louisiana. It's been a labor of love for me."

Moreover, Smith has published four collections of poetry: "Muhammad's Mountain," "Spirits of the Gods," "Soul Be A Witness," and "A Mandala of Hands."

Muhammad's Mountain, published most recently in 2018 is a collection of over 40 poems that pay homage to the entire life of legendary boxer Muhammad Ali. "Ali was a multifaceted guy," Smith said.

"I've published four books," he said. "My fifth is scheduled to be released [soon]. I don't write poetry or publish poetry for the purpose [of making money]. Poets like me don't sit down to write a poem thinking about getting paid for the poem. So you end up with a body of work and a book. What you hope more than anything is that it gets read."

Moving on, Smith's poetic style is not rhyming. He said he is comfortable with the term "free verse."

"You can call it 'free verse,'" he said. "I'm very much a prose poet. So much of my poetry is story-telling. I'm as much of a prose writer. Although I don't write fiction, I dabbled in play-writing a little bit.

"It depends really on the poem and the theme of the book itself. In my third collection, 'Spirits of the Gods,' that was published by UL Press, the poems are more lyrical. That book was a collaboration with a visual artist named Dennis Paul Williams, so the book is both art and poetry. His art inspired me to write 32 poems. It's more unique. I think it's probably different from the other books in that sense."

Further, Smith has a wife who is retired. They have two daughters and a son. And they have ten grandchildren. He said that in the early 90's he began reading poetry, and when he started writing it he did not know exactly what he was doing.

"I didn't know that I was even writing poetry," he laughed. "I had no idea what the publishing world was all about. I didn't begin seriously thinking about being a poet until I started to attend workshops."

There were two workshops that were life-changing for Smith. He explained that for three years he attended Callaloo, which is based out of Texas A&M University. A few years later Smith received a fellowship to attend Cave Canem, based in Brooklyn, New York. He said that of the latter he applied twice and was rejected before finally breaking through.

"It's very competitive and highly prestigious to be accepted," he said. "It's a community of black poets, and they accept only 10 or 12 poets a year. Once you're in, you get to go for three summers. It was then that I began to develop my craft as a poet because I was being taught by some of the best poets in America."

Smith named two of his teachers at Callaloo and Cave Canem as 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States Tracy K. Smith and Terrance Hayes. He said it was the workshops that spawned the drive for him to not only publish his first collection but also to pursue the MFA.

"At that point I was dedicated to becoming the best poet I could be," he said. "I felt like I needed that experience, that education to do that."

A famous poet laureate once said that he spends most of his time explaining to people what the poet laureate actually does.

"I've had to do that a few times," Smith laughed. "Somebody texted me 'I don't know what it is but congratulations!'"

A poet laureate is a top leadership role in the literary arts in the State of Louisiana in the case of John Warner Smith.

"That's a good way to describe it," he said. "Your responsibility is essentially to be an ambassador for poetry. You travel across the state doing poetry readings, doing poetry workshops, and really with the purpose of broadening awareness for how poetry can enrich our lives.

"That's what you're trying to do. Young people these days especially need that genre to connect to, and there are very talented young folks out there. I've been a judge at poetry contests. Over the last four or five years I've discovered tremendous talent out there.

"That's all part of it. Trying to broaden the public's awareness and appreciation for the value of poetry in our lives."

One discussion on the topic of poetry is whether or not a divide exists between "barroom poetry" and "academic poetry." However, Smith would probably rebuke that notion. He said that you could potentially find him at a local poetry slam.

"When poetry was discovering me and I was discovering poetry, I stumbled upon those venues by a word-of-mouth accident, and I actually did some. I'm not a slammer. I'm not a performance poet. Although I really enjoy reading poetry, and I've been told I do it well.

"In those years that I was developing a craft, I did a lot of that. I did a lot of attending slams and bar readings, and I'll still do that today if I get invited. Some of my closest colleagues are slam poets like Donney Rose and performance poets like Chancellor Skidmore and those guys. I found them here in Baton Rouge when I started sneaking out and going to these venues to hear poetry.

"Every now and then I'd have the courage to read a poem. I love places like that. Wherever poetry is. Wherever the art is being expressed, I'll go. I've actually read in front of two or three people."

It is hard to guess that Smith was formerly a Vice President for Chase Bank, an Undersecretary of Labor for Governor Buddy Roemer in 1988-89, a CAO for Lafayette Parish, or even Louisiana Secretary of Labor under Governor Blanco during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Poetry was his hobby the whole time.

But those are perhaps good topics to bring up when he visits your city. Smith, the first African American American man to be appointed as Louisiana Poet Laureate, will be traveling to the Ascension Parish Library in Donaldsonville to read and discuss poetry on Wednesday, February 26 at 6 p.m.

The Louisiana Poet Laureates serve a two-year term. The position is appointed by the governor and coordinated by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities (LEH). But Smith helped to clarify the current process.

"My nomination was submitted by Patrice Melnick, who's the founder of the Festival of Words," he said. "It was earlier this year, either January or February that my nomination was submitted.

"And you can have any number of letters of support. All that goes to the Center for the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. They have their own committee comprised of other poets and poet laureates who screen the nominations and then submit three finalists to the governor [who] makes the appointment."

A press release from the LEH stated: "Under state law, the LEH is charged with overseeing the poet laureate nomination process.

"This year's panel included Bedell along with LEH President/Executive Director Miranda Restovic; Darrell Bourque, PhD, former poet laureate and professor emeritus at University of Louisiana at Lafayette; Jessica Faust, poetry editor of the Southern Review; Ava Leavell Haymon, former poet laureate and a published poet; Laura Mullen, the McElveen Professor in English at Louisiana State University;  Sheryl St. Germain, director of the Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at Chatham University and a published poet; and Erin Greenwald, vice-president of content at the LEH."