An Interview with Dean Bartoli Smith

by Steve Berberich

Dean Bartoli Smith

Dean Bartoli Smith

The theme of the 2014 Maryland Writers’ Conference, on Saturday, April 26, 2014 at the Conference Center at the Maritime Institute in Linthicum Heights, is “Feed Your Writing Habit.” Some writers are poets, some novelists, and still others prefer the short story format. They all think about crossing over, to stretch their gifts into other writing genres, even different and media.

Dean Bartoli Smith will be speaking at the conference on the tools and mental approach to crossing over in his workshop, “Putting It All Together. ” Smith has published poetry, prose, and non-fiction books. Below, he tells in his own words how he does it. He recently published a book in August on the Baltimore Ravens football teams run to the winning the Super Bowl, which he calls “part an account of the 2012-13 season, part love letter to Baltimore. ”

Steve Berberich: What does your workshop title, “Putting It All Together, ” mean to you?

Dean Bartoli DBS: It refers to melding the genres together: poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. The first book I published was poetry in 2000. My poems are of a very narrative nature and can be easily turned into nonfiction or even fiction. In Never Easy, Never Pretty about the Baltimore Ravens, the foundation is poetry. Every section starts with a poem by American poets and it grew out of poems I had written about football. As for my writing habit, I need all the genres all the time.

SB: What can you tell authors about the mental process of making such a transition in genre?

DBS: Poetry opens all possibilities. From a poem, I will try to revise it into more accessible forms. I will write in between the lines of the poem. Here is an example from the book: I’ve spent my life running under a Johnny Unitas touchdown pass. To me that is a line of poetry. I’ve also had journal entries become poems. I start breaking apart the linkages and varying the syntax and something new arises. Memories drive poems and longer forms emerge. I wrote a poem called “Chow Mein” for my book of poetry American Boy. It was the last night my parents were together. I was seven and remember the plate of chow mein–the noodles and the chicken and the light from a bright chandelier. It stayed there until morning on a white tablecloth in front French doors. Mark Strand once told me that the success of any kind of writing is based on how well it evokes a shared sense of suffering.

SB: How did your love of a particular topic, football or perhaps the city of Baltimore, help you become a better writer through the years?

DBS: It’s about the imagination and for me sports are a kind of launching pad. It is one of the topics I like to write about from an imagination perspective. I am interested in the way motion and athleticism, especially when slowed down, approach art. For others, it may be a particular painting that inspires a poem. That’s happened to me too. Whatever that springboard is, that font or units of energy called psychic energy, that is what really cultivates the mind. That is what nibbled on the outskirts of poet Stanley Kunitz’ consciousness in his poem “The Wellfleet Whale,” for example after the townsfolk gathered around a whale that washed up on the beach.

SB: What’s new with Dean Smith these days?

DBS: I’ve become more interested in writing more long-form things after being forced by my publisher to produce the Ravens book in 90 days. And going back further, when I started doing journalism in 2008-9, those deadlines and word counts prepared me to write the nonfiction book. It gave me the necessary discipline. I’ve got a poetry manuscript entitled “My Father’s Gun” that’s ripening in its 15th year and a detective novel that needs a rewrite.

SB: My guess is that a lot of your subject matter and inspiration comes from your love of Baltimore. What can you offer others in terms of how they can find their Baltimores?

DBS: I know this place. It is an acquired taste like the mustard in the back fin of a [blue] crab. It is the muse in a lot of ways, for me. Those poems come easier. They seep into the consciousness like water into the cracks of a sidewalk. Write what you know and the rest will take care of itself.

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