Poet Eric Smith visits campus for Single Voice Reading

Surrounded by decoratively laid tables and a hushed audience, Allegheny College’s visiting author Eric Smith remarked on the plush grandeur that surrounded him in the Tippie Alumni Center’s event hall. Comparing the splendor of the space to another place he performed his poems in Florida, he said he was similarly humbled.

“I feel undeserving of this space,” Smith said. “When I read at a chapel in Tampa, I asked ‘can I say the F-word in here?’ And the dean of the college was like ‘it’s fine, it’s fine. [The chapel] isn’t consecrated.’”

With a joking, self-deprecating and charismatic personality, Allegheny College’s visiting author Eric Smith sat in to answer questions by Allegheny English students during classes, and read a collection of his poems at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 20, in the Tippie Alumni Center.

The subject of the poems were wide ranging, and  featured subjects from  crashing trains to snowy owls and shotguns. Smith has been working on  his award-winning book “Black Hole Factory” for over a decade. Including some of the earliest works of his poetic career, with poems such as “Tyrannosaurus Sex” and “A Show of Hands,” Smith wields diction and syntax in a true homage to the expressive power of lyricism and verse.

Smith’s book won the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry in 2017, and since he’s done book tours across the country. Delivering him far from his home in Tennessee, a number of Smith’s poems deal with his own upbringing in Georgia, and tackle the idiosyncratic relationships he saw there. From football to fatherhood to plumbing, Smith held nothing back in tearing himself apart. 

“I love this space, and I feel undeserving of this space because I write poems about dinosaurs and… farting,” Smith said. “Empty hotels in Miami, and this (Tippie Alumni Center) seems far too nice for that.”

Counting Smith’s earliest poems, he has been working on the book from his teenage years, for the poems to be teenagers now themselves. As an undergraduate student at West Georgia University, Smith actually met Allegheny’s own resident poet Christopher Bakken at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs  in 2007. 

“Everyone (at AWP) comes together for three days of bad behavior and literary mayhem,” Bakken told the audience before the reading began. “They had a dance party at AWP, and you typically don’t go to the dance party, but for some reason this year we did. … We wore ‘Cat-in-the-Hat’ hats on the dance floor so the earliest memory I have of (Smith) is him dancing in a ‘Cat-in-the-Hat’ hat.”

Bakken kicked off the event with his and Smith’s history, sparking laughter among the audience. 

Sarah Halprin, ’21,  came to the podium to commence the reading with a brief overview and synopsis of “Black Hole Factory,” with insights into Smith’s use of poetic forms and rhythmic composition and their effects on the tone of the overall piece. 

“Smith’s poems seem to emerge from the things we all think about in the middle of the night,” Halprin said. “Tackling the inexplicable in this world and beyond, Smith writes about hoping for continuum tears (black holes) in the infinite but also creates them with his poetry.”

Smith thanked Halprin for her introduction before jumping into his book chronologically with the first poem, “A Show of Hands,” followed by his other earliest work “Tyrannosaurus Sex.” An accomplished orator, Smith interspersed his readings with anecdotal stories about the origins of his poems, and how they developed over the course of their composition. 

“I read this news article about snowy owls setting up nests along flight paths at LaGuardia Airport,” Smith said. “And instead of, you know, moving the nests or taking care of the birds they were like ‘why don’t we just shoot them?’ So I wrote this poem.” 

The poem in question was “Of a Feather,” the source of the previously mentioned snowy owls.

As thanks for Allegheny’s hospitality, Smith also read a smaller selection of his poems destined for his future book “Cashtown”. The future book has no current time-frame for it’s publication, but based on the technical skill of its poems it reads as a worthy successor to “Black Hole Factory”.