A Man




A conversation with poet Mark Smith-Soto

"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 bridge.

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 Rica.

"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 brings."

Smith-Soto said the publisher asked him to include more punctuation from his initial draft of the book.

"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 washing."

"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 three sections:

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 love literature.

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 intellectually" together.

"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 authors.

"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 11-years-old.

"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 Washington, D.C.

"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 week.

"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 www.amanoverboard.net

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 bedroom shadow."

"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 Shakespeare.

At the seminar I attended, Smith-Soto amazed the group of men with numerous passages memorized verbatim.

"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 A Man 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 artwork.)

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 pulling
pigtails in the shadow of Thursday afternoon,

and continents away, fire and metal in free fall
over Kandahar. Where should an easel stand
before these scenes, before dry winds that raise
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 level
where things as they are are all they need to be.

© 2003 Mark Smith-Soto

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

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The fame you earn has a different taste from the fame that is forced upon you. - Gloria Vanderbilt

Reid Baer, an award-winning playwright for “A Lyon’s 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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