Clint Smith: “What Does it Mean to Carry Wonder and Despair in Your Body at the Same Time?”
In Conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on the First Draft Podcast
First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.
In this episode, Mitzi talks to Clint Smith about his new poetry collection, Above Ground.
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From the episode:
Mitzi Rapkins: What I got out of this collection, Above Ground, was this holiness, this succulence about life and the awe but also alongside the pain and the possibility of annihilation, all kind of happening together at once. I got this sense that maybe you even had a moment, like a sublime transcendent moment, watching cicadas. And I don’t know if that’s what brought this all together, but I am just curious about your reaction to my read.
Clint Smith: I appreciate it so much. I mean, it’s interesting, you know, you work in publishing, and there’s marketing and sales, and there’s a certain way that the book is presented to the world. And, you know, this book is presented, and this book is a collection that is, in many ways, centered on fatherhood, and centered on the way that becoming a parent has animated the way that I understand the world and the way that I move into the world.
But within that, is this idea that I think you were exactly right on, is this idea of the sort of duality of the human experience and the way that interpersonal moments of wonder, and awe, and gratitude can often and do often exists amid a larger personal or political backdrop of devastation, of annihilation, of catastrophe. And the question that I ask in this collection, and I think the kind of overarching question in so much of my work, is what does it mean to hold all of that at once? What does it mean to carry wonder and despair in your body at the same time?
What does it mean to feel a sort of ineffable joy watching your child discover a part of the world for the first time, while someone else in your family has been diagnosed with a terminal illness? For me, that is, you know, even just through the lens of parenthood itself, parenthood is the most remarkable awe-inspiring beautiful experience in so many ways that I’ve ever had, and it is the most fear inducing, it is the most humbling, it is the most difficult, the most exhausting thing that I’ve ever done.
And I am interested in how we lean into, rather than step away from or evade, that complexity. Both within the context of our family lives and the way that what’s happening in our personal lives, this sort of dialectic between the personal joy and the larger sort of geopolitical threat, the sort of larger ecological threat that we all live with.
Clint Smith is a staff writer at The Atlantic. He is the author of the narrative nonfiction book, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America, which was a #1 New York Times bestseller, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, the Hillman Prize for Book Journalism, the Stowe Prize, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and selected by the New York Times as one of the 10 Best Books of 2021. He is also the author of the poetry collection Counting Descent, which 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. His new poetry collection is called Above Ground.