In his new book of poetry, "The Red Wolf: A Dream of Flannery O'Connor," (Louisiana Literature Press, Jan. 2013) R.T. Smith gives voice to, if not the actual O'Connor, then a possible O'Connor or even a probable O'Connor.
A cult literary celebrity who wrote in the Southern Gothic subgenre, O'Connor published only two novels (with a third uncompleted) and a collection of short stories, "A Good Man is Hard to Find," (1955). More of her work was published after her death from lupus at age 39.
Smith is writer-in-residence at Washington and Lee University, editor of W&L's literary journal "Shenandoah" and author of a dozen books of poetry. The "Georgia Review" has described him as "one of the most vital voices in contemporary American poetry."
"I've always been a devotee of O'Connor's short stories and the maimed, the bewildered and insane that appear in them," said Smith. "I immediately gravitated to them when I was in college."
The kinship Smith felt with O'Connor began with proximity, since he lived on a farm in Griffin, Ga. close to where O'Connor lived on a family farm in Milledgeville, Ga. The Smith family had no idea that the famous American writer lived close by. "So it was proximity, but also literary appetite, admiration, envy, curiosity—a whole kettle of fish," Smith wrote in the book's introduction.
When he discovered that the child O'Connor had rebelled at being forced to learn to play the accordion, Smith recalled his own childish rebellion against playing the clarinet and wrote a poem about it: "Accordion Days."
Smith wrote that he imagined the girl child in Savannah "wrestling an oversized squeezebox under the attentive eye and ear of a private music teacher. I heard the wheeze of the reeds as she fidgeted, and then the cry of a peacock, which would so steadily accompany her in later life. In that child I also detected the gifted and sassy contrarian of the rumors and biographies and found myself laughing out loud."
Four years ago "Shenandoah" was set to celebrate its 60th anniversary and Smith thought that Flannery O'Connor would be an interesting figure for a special issue. So he wrote two more poems and proposed teaching a seminar on the writer.
Smith discovered that besides re-reading all of O'Connor's short stories and essays, he had a new resource in the O'Connor biography by Brad Gooch, which had access to the O'Connor family's papers. He also visited Georgia College and State University where the O'Connor Collection and manuscripts are located.
"I met some people who had sat on O'Connor's front porch in a rocking chair and talked to her about literature and Catholicism and the South. And I wanted that conversation to continue, rather like carrying on a séance in a metaphorical way," he said. "A few projects in my life have come upon me like a compulsion, and this one did."
By writing poetry about O'Connor, Smith wanted to "bring her a little over into my own court. Having her think in 10 syllable lines gave me a feeling of authority, because I'm sure if I had talked with her I would immediately have withered in the presence of someone so smart and I would have just sat there listening."
According to Smith, O'Connor could be "really spiky" in her essays, and her letters were sometimes "puckish" and didn't necessarily say what she was thinking.
"She could pretend to a kind of off-putting brittleness, but at the same time she was a really serious go-to-mass-every morning Catholic who was also trained to be a southern belle," said Smith. "I thought that those different pieces didn't quite fit together. They needed some leavening, because she looks like three different women."
In some of the poems Smith wrote about things that O'Connor mentioned in passing in a letter. For example, she lived in a part of Georgia where there was a lot of Ku Klux Klan activity. She mentioned it two or three times but never explored how she felt about it. "I think you can see how she felt through her stories, but I wanted to create poems where I make it explicit what I think she was harboring," said Smith. "Most of the episodes I explore are fictitious and based on slight evidence, but credible just the same."
"I admire O'Connor a great deal," he added. "One of the basic ingredients of her personality was that she knew she had lupus and that it was destroying her immune system—her father had died of it. And the courage she showed in avoiding self-pity and wallowing and instead getting up every morning to go to Mass and then coming home to write for three hours every day."
O'Connor seldom wrote about Catholics, although she often wrote about the benighted side of Protestantism. "Her stories are full of Protestant preachers, wannabe preachers who are hypocrites and pay lip service to Christianity and are as venal and greedy as the people they are directing their sermons at," said Smith. "A lot of her characters who are great sources of humor for the reader are people striving for all the trappings of salvation but they don't really want to be saved because that would be a great inconvenience. They would have to stop doing the things they are doing and give up the things they have acquired."
In a review of "Red Wolf," Alice Friman wrote:
Raise the curtain. Here she is: R.T. Smith's Miss Flannery herself, stumping her crutches onto the stage to wrestle "the prophets and blessed dimwits" down to the mat and onto the page. Here she is, no nun, no saint, but flesh out funny in all her ambition and longing: "Did you reckon I was all thistle/inside?" Here she is pecking away at her Royal or "unsteady on her legs," but fierce as the "joyful mysteries, luminous and sorrowful." Smith has given us a book that's an act of love if ever there was one.
Smith has written four collections of stories and is the author of over 12 poetry collections, including "Outlaw Style: Poems," "The Hollow Log Lounge," "Brightwood" and "Messenger." He has received one fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, two Virginia Arts Commission fellowships, three Alabama Arts Council fellowships and the Alabama Governor's Award for Achievement by an Artist. He also received three fellowships for an individual artist from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
Smith's writings have won the Pushcart Prize three times, have been published five times in "New Stories from the South," and have also been published in "Best American Short Stories," "Best American Poetry," "Atlantic Monthly" and "Southern Review," among others. He won the Library of Virginia Poetry Book Award for "Messenger" and "Outlaw Style: Poems."
"The Red Wolf: A Dream of Flannery O'Connor" is available at the University Store or find it on their website at http://bookstore.wlu.edu