A Profile of Jessamyn Johnston Smyth, Tupelo Quarterly’s founding Editor-in-Chief
Jessamyn Johnston Smyth is a key figure in literature today — one whose name recognition will soon catch up with her manifest accomplishments.
For the past several months Smyth, an exceptionally gifted poet, prose writer and teacher, has been creating a new journal, Tupelo Quarterly, whose inaugural issue will launch online on October 15.
Initiated by Tupelo Press, Tupelo Quarterly is a collaborative effort of numerous poetry and prose editors, contributing writers and visual artists. But the character of the journal reflects Ms. Smyth’s ethos and sensibility, and an understanding of the function and role of literature that is — no other word will do — revolutionary. Distilled down, her approach is at once rigorous, discerning and profoundly freedom-centered.
No biographical sketch can do justice to a person’s evolution, but it is worth noting some landmarks along Ms. Smyth’s path toward her present occupation.
She attended The Bement School as a scholarship student, then became an emancipated minor at fifteen and entered college early, working full time throughout her undergraduate studies.
Pursuing a triple major/interdisciplinary track of Classics (Ancient Greek), Comparative Religion, and Holocaust Studies, she lived and studied in Thessaloniki, Greece for a year. During this time she researched and wrote an undergraduate Honors thesis on the history of the Jews of Salonika, whose gravestone paved the sidewalks of the city.
While still an undergraduate weaving together the strands of sacred story and history as cultural preservation, she worked as a volunteer at a rape crisis center community education program: this served as one of her several alternative paths of study-in-practice — in this case Paolo Freire’s popular education for multiculturalism and community organizing/community building. Freirian pedagogy remains integral to Smyth’s teaching and it underpins the openness and will-to-cultivation that characterize her approach to editing.
Smyth’s work in crisis counseling, domestic violence shelter work, and HIV counseling and testing served as a gateway to her eventual directorship of the public health community education program at Everywoman’s Center at UMass, Amherst. This work, paired with her background in storytelling as an integral feature of human survival, led her to recognize social justice as a central element of public health in the broadest cultural sense.
In 2002 Ms. Smyth entered the Goddard College MFA program in writing from which she graduated in 2004 with a degree in Poetry, Prose, and Playwriting. Since then she has taught at Middlebury College, The University of Massachusetts’s Commonwealth College, The University of Pennsylvania’s Writer’s Conference, and several other schools. She is 2013/2014 visiting faculty for Quest University in Canada, where she is teaching “Fate and Virtue” — an interdisciplinary class in philosophy, literature and ethics which uses ancient Greek texts as springboard for an examination of contemporary issues.
Her writing encompasses several genres. Ms. Smyth’s poetry, short stories, and prose appear in various print and electronic journals and anthologies, and her plays have been produced throughout New England. Her short story “A More Perfect Union” from American Letters and Commentary Issue 17 (November 2005) was selected as one of the “100 Distinguished Stories of 2005” by Best American Short Stories 2006, and she has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Most recently she is the author of Kitsune (New Women’s Voices Series of Finishing Line Press, 2013). She has received grants and fellowships from Welcome Hill, The Vermont Community Foundation, and the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference.
Reviewing this index of accomplishments, Ms. Smyth emerges as a bone-deep autodidact with serious credentials, a powerful self-weave of experience and formal knowledge streams. These streams inform the three essential aspects of her public work: editing, writing and teaching. But her practice is also grounded, in fact rooted, in a deeply generative lineage. Smyth’s mother, Anne, is a photographer who affirmed in her daughter a passionate love of animals and wilds. Her father, Paul, was a poet, prose writer and teacher, also deeply connected to woods and to the rehabilitation of abandoned houses, a habit Jessamyn inherited. Her paternal grandmother, Nona, came to the U.S. as an infant, her family escaping pogroms in the Pale, and eventually became a journalist in Boston.
Then there is the towering figure of her maternal grandfather, Theodore Morrison, novelist, poet, editor and, for half a century, professor of English at Harvard. For twenty-five years, Morrison served as director of Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. In these dual capacities, he taught or otherwise engaged with nearly every famed literary figure of the 20th Century — from his student Adrienne Rich to May Sarton to Jessamyn West (for whom Ms. Smyth is named). Robert Frost, Morrison’s best friend and romantic rival, was an integral part of the family.
It is to her grandfather’s direct influence and exposure to his milieu that Smyth attributes her “inheritance” — a credo she consciously adopted from Morrison as a representative of intelligentsia at its best:
“Teaching matters, and is a sacred vocation, not a business. Ethics matter, and do not change even when they are inconvenient or painful.
“The appropriate response to even terrible writing, when teaching or in editorial conversation, is to find the one small thing that is real/new/visceral/unique to that writer and draw it forward: this will effect far greater change in the writer and their work than potshots at obvious weakness ever can (and potshots at weakness are only ever taken by the weak, with something to prove, not by anyone who truly cares for art or artists and knows their own skill or strength).
“Fame and talent have zero bearing on whether someone is a decent human being or not, and that latter is the only final relevance.”
One must aspire to “unfailing, unflinching honesty balanced by kind regard for the well-being of others.
“High expectations are a compliment. Intellectual laziness is a crime, incuriosity a sad and puzzling disease of some sort.”
She paraphrases a quote of Morrison’s thusly: “Talent is good, but what really makes the difference is the willingness to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”
She recalls with awe “the fact that for my sixth birthday, he — of his generation — gave me — a girl — a bag of nails, a stack of wood scraps, and a hammer (and even from younger than that — far before I had the muscle to really be of use — he had me ‘help’ build and maintain the drystone walls of the Homer Noble Farm in Ripton VT — which remains my psychic template for what home is/should be/can be/must be).”
Last but not least, she confesses of her grandfather’s legacies: “I will never look that good in a suit.” This will at least serve as a glimpse in the direction of the load-bearing ancestry that supports Jessamyn Smyth’s creative and ethical practice. There is one other family story which bears repeating: it is said that young Jessamyn took comfort in her crib not from a stuffed toy, but from a dictionary. And would not suffer it to be removed.
Now seems the right time — both in the larger play of cultural production, and, quite literally, in this profile — to bring Ms. Smyth’s voice to the fore. Not long after a recent conversation, during which we discussed our hopes for Tupelo Quarterly and the necessary task of producing a document that would be useful in explicating the guiding principles of her editorship, Ms. Smyth sent me the Editor’s Foreword for the launch issue. To my mind, the following words eloquently conjoin the literary and cultural concerns she holds integrally bound into one:
Jellyfish, it seems, are what our oceans are becoming: capitalizing on the warming temperatures, the acidification, the decreasing oxygen, they are reproducing so fast they clog shipping lanes, rudders, nuclear power plants; they are eating all the plankton and the eggs of their own predators, starving even the whales. What to do about this, an interviewer asks a marine biologist, and gets no simple answer; instead, a discussion of legacies, and choices, and responsibilities.
I’m not interested in facile answers to questions like these, though I know that’s what many seek: I’m interested in what will awaken us to care that we are hurtling through, not toward, catastrophe, and perhaps get us to take responsibility for ourselves in this world as surely as we take pleasure in what is left to us. To engage the stakes as they actually are, as fully vulnerable as we actually are.
To be an artist in this historic moment is to be a eulogist, whether it is one’s intention or not: it is too late, in more cases than we can count, and that is where we live now. But it is also, as it has always been, to be a creator. Word by word by experience by risk by urgency: we make.
And so, for me—as writer, editor, teacher, human being—few words resonate more than onomatopoeia. Ask most teenagers about this word and the auto-response is comic-born: biff! splat! pow! they cry, and laugh, and turn Joker on you. Break open the etymology, though, and the nature of the conversation changes: now Joker becomes a primal archetype, a trickster god we can instinctually recognize. Poïesis (ποίησις), to make, to create. Onoma (ὄνομα), name. To create by naming. To summon forth: to call into being by the magical principle, or pointed power, or conscious risk, of calling something what it actually is. Now our conversation is taking place in the cave of Lascaux, in which the wall paintings carried real, literal, survival-based catharsis, one of the other most-resonant words for me: visceral change actually effected in actual ways in this actual world.
It doesn’t get more concrete than this, or more salient. Catharsis is as essential to us as oxygen, survivable temperatures, food, water we can use. We are not jellyfish, whose new multitudes exist simply because we have created a space in which they can thrive (and nothing else can): we are human beings whose sense of our own vulnerability and impact has become severely impaired in this urban, industrial moment. Catharsis is something we have never been able to live without. It is as surely what we seek as food, mates, betterment of our individual or collective conditions. Sometimes, we even do it truthfully. Sometimes, we recognize that naming our worlds and what is happening in them—and calling forth something better—is not politics: it is biology, chemistry, ethics, responsibility, reality. Sometimes, we even do it generously, with openly passionate love of this world and our vulnerability in it.
Onomatopoeia is also a fundamental expression of the human condition. Every one of us calls things into being; we summon them forth. We are responsible for them. Stories. Lies. Beauty. Jellyfish. Artists do this intentionally, or the ones I’m interested in do, anyway: they bring into being something that was not, and set it loose to effect catharsis in communication with their audience. When this is conscious, and consciously risked, and skillfully executed, the person on the receiving end is gripped by the viscera and confronted, in a life-transforming moment, with their own soul-key by words on a page. Or they are shifted so slightly and incrementally by the composition of an image that they aren’t even consciously aware that they will never again see the same way.
People hunger for this necessary sustenance and transformation.
Often, an editor or curator or publisher decides what to share with a wider audience than the artist alone could reach.
Many years ago, someone talked with me about how at certain moments in our lives, all of us will find ourselves with a hand on a gate, and that is a privileged position. A moment of power. We choose, in that moment, how we’re going to use it. Do we hold it open to only those like us, or our friends, for exploitation or advantage, for power over, to get over on those we feel got over on us and prove something we’ve got to prove, for lateral competition and fighting for scraps? Or do we intentionally, carefully, consciously hold it open for those against whom it is usually shut, with generosity, curiosity, celebration of risk?
Editors in general are gatekeepers. We decide what you read in our journals. You can find other stuff other places, so in that sense, the stakes are low. In another, they don’t get any higher: art is life or death stuff, sez me, and language—creation—is a live animal, playful and dangerous.
Here in Tupelo Quarterly, that live animal of language and creation is ravening and beautiful, ferocious and well-muscled, curled into your side asleep and stalking you from behind those trees. Here, we presume abundance. We look for catharsis created by artists brave enough to remain unguarded as they summon what they name. Here, we hold that gate open for the work that is standing skinless in this historic moment, saying something necessary and true.
In this launch issue, we bring you powerfully empathic photographs from the civil rights movement, poems ranging across oceans of tone and style and creating persuasive wakes to pull you in and move you miles from shore, collage marrying word and image in ways that circumvent the conscious and speak quickly and urgently to what is underneath, prose that opens doors to new possibilities for prose, and Editor’s Features that give you a sense of who we are, what we love, and why it matters.
Come inside. We want you here with us.
During our prior conversation I had jotted down bits of what she said, all of which were swept away on the tide of her words above. All but one: “We bear responsibility for what we make.”
Two generations ago, James Baldwin wrote that “writers are obliged, at some point, to realize that they are involved in a language which they must change.”
As a writer and teacher, Jessamyn Johnston Smyth has, and continues to, answer that call. And now she does so, too, as the guiding mind behind this promising new quarterly.
—Eric Darton, October 3, 2013