A conversation with poet Mark
"Nuestras vidas son los ríos
Que van a dar en la mar,
Qu'es el morir - Jorge Manrique
If our lives are rivers, as the Spaniard
describes, than Mark Smith-Soto must be the
In his newest collection of poetry, Our Lives
Are Rivers (published by University Press of
Florida) Smith-Soto marvelously connects American
and Hispanic cultures. He was born in his father's
hometown, Washington, D.C., and reared in his
mother's native country, Costa Rica.
In this lyrical work, Smith-Soto combines the
rich complexities of his cultural heritage. His
poems are imbued with the sights, sounds, smells,
and textures of his family-rich childhood in Costa
"I wrote it as if a river flowing," began the
poet. "I sat down after one of my uncles (that I
was close to) died. It was flowing out of me like a
river to the sea; it was the pain of being mortal;
human; caught in time; a strange trap rushed along
to birth and death and all the loss that
Smith-Soto said the publisher asked him to
include more punctuation from his initial draft of
"I wrote them back and said the lack of
punctuation has to do with flow," he stated. "But
then I realized even a river hits a stone, so I put
a few boulders in the poem."
Our Lives Are Rivers represents an "inescapable
sorrow of being in the flow of time, everything
that we are, caught in that inevitable
"The whole book deals with time and
multiplicities of time," he added. "We live at
different levels of ourselves, inhabiting different
dimensions of time."
Smith-Soto's flowing river of images come in
Ayer, Hoy, Y Siempre -Yesterday, Today, And
Always. His words are also a meditation on time,
memory, and the fleeting nature of life.
His compelling language is not only a growing
contribution to America's Hispanic poetry, it is
also a passionate expression of the mysteries of
life and death.
Paraphrasing Manrique, all the rivers of life do
flow to the ocean, which is death itself.
In my conversation with Smith-Soto, a professor
of romance languages at the University of North
Carolina at Greensboro UNCG, he spoke of his first
He currently specializes in 19th and 20th
century Spanish American poetry. He also teaches
poetry workshops. Having attended one of
Smith-Soto's workshops, I was truly blessed to see,
first hand, how skillfully he facilitates a group
of aspiring poets. More particularly, this was a
circle of men who were encouraged to share their
innermost thoughts and feelings - too often rare in
this American culture.
"Teaching workshops is the most rewarding thing
I do," Smith-Soto commented. "I don't like to say I
teach workshops, I prefer to lead them."
The poet said the workshops are a place where he
brings his sense of "being split emotionally and
"Much of the work associated with me has been in
healing that false dichotomy between mind and
heart," he said.
Smith-Soto expressed his appreciation for the
men's mytho-poetic movement. His experiences
attending seminars with men like Michael Meade,
Coleman Barks, and Maledoma Some have dramatically
influenced his life, as well as his writing. He
attributes the inspiration for much of the poetry
in Our Lives Are Rivers, to these mytho-poetic
"I remember feeling a real connection to what he
[Malidoma Some] was saying to be straddling
two cultures and to be an ambassador for two
cultures," Smith-Soto acknowledged. "When Malidoma
goes to visit people of his tribe, he said he's
aware of bringing his Westerness to them. In
America he brings his indigenous culture."
Smith-Soto said he is not consciously choosing
cultures, rather it is simply what he is. He
"definitely felt confused" with his dual heritage.
Who wouldn't be? He was born in the states, moves
to Costa Rica, and returned again when he was
"When we were living back in America my father
told me 'you're not going to be Mark Smith-Soto,
you will be Mark Smith."
The distinction, along with a slight accent,
made the young Mark Smith self-conscious about
being Hispanic in America.
"It made me wonder if I wanted to be one," the
poet mused. "I have had to work hard to understand
myself in that context." (In his 30s, Smith-Soto
reclaimed his Spanish name.)
As a child in Costa Rica, Smith-Soto lived in a
large house with 15 family members.
"My sense of self as a child depended on the
extended family all living in the same house," he
explained. "I came to a consciousness that I was
never alone. I was always cared for by somebody. I
was never unguarded and felt very much netted with
them, protected by them, and held in a family
context. Obviously, anyone could be obnoxious or
boring at any given time, but as a group they
served as a protective host of spirits. I grew up
feeling pretty safe."
So, it was an understandable struggle when
Smith-Soto moved from this tight-knit family in
Costa Rica to a lonesome one-bedroom apartment in
"It was one of my great losses to be torn from
that context - from a spacious house full of people
to a tiny, tiny little place with just my family,"
he elaborated. "The expansion and contraction of my
world was quite a shock."
Smith-Soto grew up speaking Spanish at home and
English outside of the home.
"My father represented the English-Speaking
World," the poet said. "He brought us to his world,
but he was also uncommunicative by nature."
Smith-Soto said men's work has helped him to
understand the "masculine direction." He has met
regularly with a group of men since 1991 to
"explore what it means to be a man."
Among the many rivers that Smith-Soto bridges,
is the realm of the creative/psychological. His
wife, Beth Adamour, is a creative writer and
psychotherapist (trained in Hakomi - a body
centered psychotherapy, much like Jungian inspired
Authentic Movement.) A native New Yorker, she is a
clinical licensed social worker and has earned a
master's degree in Creative Writing from UNCG.
"It's a body-centered psychotherapy that gives a
sense of who we are," he explained. "If we just
listen to ourselves, what our bodies have to say,
it can help us become better writers.
In his five-week writing workshops, Smith-Soto
emphasizes a different one of the senses each
"The first week may be with the sense of
hearing, and I would encourage you to find a quiet
place to listen and perceive what's coming through
your ears," he said, "and be with it; see what
kinds of associations come; and then write a stream
of consciousness piece. At that point, you can see
if there's anything there that would generate a
poem. It's a very natural process."
Smith-Soto's work is highlighted in A Man
Overboard's March Issue at
In the poem, Timex, the father gives his son a
watch "without ceremony" with "no other word of
explanation." The watch is a "banded numberless
face, almost impossible to read, especially in the
"The poem is a symbol of all the mystery that
occurs between father and son as they both get
older - the father aging toward death and the son
toward life," the poet explained. "There's a
connection between us, but not one that is spoken
or paraphrased. That's why the poem exists. There's
a whole inheritance that is so complex to be put in
language outside of a poem."
As a well-read child, Smith-Soto fills his
poetry with eclectic references to writers the
likes of Pablo Neruda, Rumi, Ruben Dario, and
At the seminar I attended, Smith-Soto amazed the
group of men with numerous passages memorized
"My mother and grandfather recited to me whole
sections of literary works," he recalled. "I would
hear poetry in Spanish and did not know who wrote
it until I was older. I knew Ruben Dario's works at
an early age, but didn't know it was him until
later on. He had a profound influence on me."
Smith-Soto has the enviable heritage of having
learned English by memorizing Shakespeare.
"It's almost banal to claim Shakespeare as a
hero," he demurred. "But for me it was true. I
still know 14 of his sonnets. I have really
internalized his words."
Right about here, I want to say that Smith-Soto
is one of my heroes. I lived a two years in
Venezuela and I cut my literary teeth in theatre
with Shakespeare. Smith-Soto is one very cultured
and refined man.
Listen to more from him in our conversation:
"Writing poetry is not putting embroidery on
things, it's not prettifying," he said to me, "it
is a cry from the heart, a prayer, a song, a human
yearning to express the inexpressible."
Damn, he's good.
Even still, he defers his brilliance to others,
including his wife.
"She was turned toward the realities of our
inner world more than I," Smith-Soto said. "I was
in denial about the importance of looking deeper
into my life. It helps to have someone ask 'where
does that come from? what do you mean by that?' Oh,
and I said 'nothing, I mean nothing by that.' She
forced me to look at it over and over again. I
fought a good fight against insight, but I
ultimately lost and got involved with the
mytho-poetic men's movement."
At one conference with Michael Meade, the men
made masks, painting and decorating them.
"A man helped me create a mask and it looked to
me almost like an admonition to be real," he
recalled. "Creating that mask helped me to take off
other masks I have. Working with masks helps to
take care of internal processes that we want to
deny as good functioning drones. Beth encouraged me
to get involved in this process. Some women respond
negatively but she had an intuition that I needed
to pursue men's work. If she had opposed it, I
might not have gone on this adventure. I'm lucky
she supported me because I have to admit, the long
and the short of it, that I was afraid. I have to
give my wife an awful lot of credit."
According to Smith-Soto, his wife has been
influenced by author Dick Schwartz, a therapist
specializing in internal family systems.
"He takes Jungian theory and works with ideas of
part, internal parts, like you do with your
poetry," Smith-Soto said. [See Nov/Dec issue of
Overboard.] "Various parts, if not
acknowledged, can lead us to real harm, but once
you really own that it is a part of your complexity
as a human being, it sometimes gives you enough
courage to put it in its place without destroying
it. It isn't in your best interest to destroy it
allow it to be brought into the family system - the
inner self. The idea is to love all the parts of us
that are trying to do us good."
Smith-Soto covers all the bases. I like this
guy, a lot. Even his poem Watercolor of a
Spanish Wall brings in elements I see from the
French Impressionists. (My personal favorite
Watercolor of a Spanish Wall
Outside the frame the sun beats on the world
artfully remaindered, a dog and a five-year-old
struggling over a bit of trash, a priest
pigtails in the shadow of Thursday afternoon,
and continents away, fire and metal in free
over Kandahar. Where should an easel stand
before these scenes, before dry winds that
dust into the wash of innocent color running
down a wall? Maybe right here, right now,
where light surprises the eye and the heart
in shapes that matter beyond meaning,
when meanings would take away all place
to stand, to hold life for a moment to a
where things as they are are all they need to
© 2003 Mark
Smith-Soto said that he was responding to the
beauty of a watercolor painting, "very much struck
by how narrow and focused the piece was, and how
much was left out."
"The Impressionists knew how to deal with shadow
moving into light," he continued. "This poem is a
meditation, and yet I want to ask the question:
should art make a social comment? Art seems so
often to leave out the pain and sorrow and many
different shadows that still exist in the world. Is
it enough that it's beautiful?"
It is for me.
© 2005 Reid Baer
* * *
The fame you earn has a different taste from the
fame that is forced upon you. - Gloria
Reid Baer, an
award-winning playwright for A Lyons
Tale is also a newspaper journalist, a poet
with more than 100 poems in magazines world wide,
and a novelist with his first book released this
month entitled Kill
The Story. Baer has been
a member of The ManKind Project since 1995 and
currently edits The New Warrior Journal for
The ManKind Project www.mkp.org
He resides in Reidsville, N.C. with his wife
Patricia. He can be reached at E-Mail.
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