Aumaine Rose Smith, a poet based in Cleveland, is currently living onsite as Allerton’s Fall 2021 Artist In-Residence. Prior to her residency, we interviewed Aumaine to learn more about her life, profession, and expectations for her time at Allerton.
What is your background as an artist and what sparked your creative journey?
“My interest in writing was likely sparked by growing up around many books. My mom was able to teach me to read when I was fairly young, and my grandma gave me a first journal shortly after. During my undergraduate years, I met Kathy Fagan, my first poet mentor, who ushered me into the world of poetry workshops. Since then, libraries, classmates, community leaders, journal editors, professors, and my family have provided the support and resources I’ve needed to continue reading, writing, and publishing poems both inside and outside institutions like colleges and residencies.”
Can you tell us a little about your experience with poetry?
“I remember making up nonsense rhymes and delighting in their rhythms as a young child. Through middle and high school, I sought out poetry where I could find it, at the local library or Barnes and Noble. Workshops during undergrad gave me the necessary experience of writing toward an audience that spoke back, and in my first season trying to write seriously outside academia, poets in the Bay Area modeled poetry as connected to science, economics, and politics with implications for relationships and transformative justice. During my MFA, I felt grateful to have access to an endless library and time to read enough to find my own stylistic place in the world of poetry. There, I also began editing for the program’s literary journal, which provided a platform to connect many threads of poetry discovered over the years.”
Who or what is your biggest inspiration?
“I am inspired first by my closest relationships—with family, my husband, neighbors, and the community in which I live (right now, Cleveland, Ohio). Much of my first manuscript was written to and for my siblings. Interpersonal relationships tend to spark the most tension, curiosity, upset, and devotion—the energies from which my poems often arise. Inspiration to continue working comes from younger poets (students, mentees) who seem newly taken by the possibilities of poetry and whose enthusiasm is invigorating. It also comes from other working poets who amaze me with new poems in journals or collections I want to study, read aloud, share with others. The work of established poets regularly makes me that eager, first-time poetry discoverer all over again and confirms my inclination to remain open to poetry for a long time.”
Who are a few of your favorite artists?
“As far as poetry goes, Adrienne Rich, Rachel Zucker, Louise Glück, Charles Wright, Lucie Brock-Broido, Dickinson, and Hopkins have really shaped my impulses. I’ve also been inspired by Joanna Klink, Layli Long Soldier, Sandra Lim, and Marcus Wicker. Beyond poetry, the films of Chloe Zhao and Terrence Malick, Alice Water’s work with food, many of Max Richter’s compositions, and Eula Biss’ essays have made me glad to be alive.”
How would you describe your artist technique?
“It changes every year, which I suppose is natural for an early-career writer. Right now, I’m interested in immediacy and clarity in poetry, which can come through surprising uses of form such as in Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas or crystalline images, like in Jenny Xie’s Eye Level. The clarity I’m seeking also arrives by playing with tonal spareness or overexertion, which Li Young Lee does in exciting ways.”
What are your ambitions for your art?
“I want to continue reading and writing and talking about poetry with others. I hope to publish books, and to work as an editor for others’ books. All these acts involve contributing to and being fed by the long and wide tradition of people for whom writing has provided a way of life despite the many forces—internally, structurally, cosmically—that would have us not seek, not speak, not connect.”
How has your poetry evolved over time?
“I think, like probably most people working in a discipline, I’ve begun to learn about my impulses, which to trust (and how often, how much) and which to resist (and when and to what extent). For me, that tends to mean allowing my primary interests in ideas and sound (and closely related, form) to drive a poem’s craft. I’ve learned that other aspects of poetic craft (image or diction, for example) are usually in service of ideas and sound in my poems. Writers such as Sandra Lim and Jean Valentine, and also, newly, Maggie Millner, have shown me how prioritization of these primary impulses can work, and sometimes quite powerfully.”
What do you hope your audience takes away from your work?
“I hope my poems offer an experience of close attention, an attending-to—to the complications below surfaces and to the possibility for moments of freedom, or connection, or ecstasy and the source(s) from which these moments arise. I would be grateful if my poems made others want to pay closer attention to their own interiority, history, relationships, and the worlds around them.”
What does this Artist-In-Residence mean to you?
“Most concretely, the residency is a time and space to revise my finished manuscript to send out for publication (and funding to pay for manuscript submissions). It is also an opportunity to let the Allerton landscapes and history provide occasion to dig deeper into questions informing my new work, questions about ownership, relationships, order, and freedom. The residency is a chance to organize a collaborative project to commemorate my time there, which I am excited to do through a partnership with Ninth Letter magazine. And, wonderfully, the residency will allow me to return to central Illinois, where I completed my MFA in 2020, to see friends and advisors who were instrumental in the development of the manuscript I’m now working to get published.”
What do you hope to achieve during your residency?
“I hope to be present on the grounds—to really see the landscape, and to see it more deeply through reading about its history. I hope to spend a majority of the residency revising my completed manuscript, for which the quiet and new location may provide a fresh lens, as well as to take notes for or work on new poems. I also hope to tie together ideas for a folio that will be published in Ninth Letter’s spring 2022 issue regarding some of the themes from my time at Allerton. Lastly, I am excited to plan and host a reading either on these similar themes—the wild and constructed—or with other local poets.”
Can you tell us a little about your experience with Allerton?
“Allerton was first suggested to me by my UIUC poetry professor Michael Madonick shortly after I began my MFA program there. The poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly (to whom he was married) often spent time on and was inspired by Allerton’s grounds. Hoping to have a similar experience, I began taking books of poetry to Allerton and reading poems aloud to myself while walking the gardens. I don’t think I began any significant drafts after those walks, but the idea of reading aloud while walking in a memorable landscape has stuck with me. Other Allerton memories include a raucous birthday hike through the forest with poets and friends from Champaign in fall 2019 and enjoying the autumnal Hogshoot Opry just off Allerton’s grounds during my years in Illinois (2017-2020).”
How do you believe the Allerton story/landscape will contribute to you as an artist, your art and/or your process?
“I am eager to learn more about the history of Allerton as well as the land it occupies during my time there. I see Allerton as a place of constructed beauty, with its gardens, sculptures, and walking paths. It is also a place where attempts have been made to preserve the wild, as with its forests and meadows. While I think about tension between the “wild” and “constructed” in my own work, as well as the powers which often make such distinctions, I hope immersion in these aspects of Allerton’s landscape will expand my understanding of their constructs as well as provoke questions about the implications of such distinctions.”
Allerton’s In-Residence program offers artists and naturalists the opportunity to immerse themselves in their work and find inspiration from the Park. The program aims to support and highlight the meaningful work of creators and researchers, making their professions more accessible to the public, while bringing awareness to unique characteristics of Allerton. Learn more here.