May 15, 2024

The Endless Play of Words and Images: An Interview with Michael Smith

Robert Enright
Border Crossings Magazine
Volume 42, Number 3, Issue N.164, 2024

As Michael Smith tells us in the following interview, his interest in poetry began in earnest when he entered the Bachelor program at the Falmouth School of Art in the early 1970s. He had the good luck to have Peter Redgrove, a poet and aesthetic polymath, as his professor, and under his influence began writing poetry himself. His interest was piqued by the word games that were part of the painting seminar and through them he began to appreciate the playful capacities of language. The poems Smith wrote at the time were good and he had some success in publishing them in literary magazines in Britain, but a combination of his essential attraction to painting and the recognition that becoming an even better poet was a huge endeavour persuaded him to concentrate on painting. But what he never lost was a sense that there was a connection between poetics and visual aesthetics. What also stayed with him was the puzzling and indirect nature of that relationship.

Smith’s language, as he talks about it in this interview, is, to use his own fine word, laminated. One of the layers is that he thinks of poems as things; they have presence and material properties, and in that condition, “they also conjure images in surprising ways.” The thingness of a poem is a move into the languagescape of William Carlos Williams and his famous declaration in “Paterson” that there are “no ideas but in things.” The syllogism that follows from this idea is:

no ideas but in things
poems are things
therefore no ideas but in poems

Poems for Michael Smith, then, are things that provoke painterly ideas. Exactly how that happens is not clear, but what is clear is that it does happen and frequently. “When I’m irresistibly drawn to a poem, I often speak it out on my own,” he says in the following interview. “I want to hear it in the world; I want to hear it in space.” He decided to put as much pressure as he could on the generative connection between words and images in a 2023 exhibition at the Michael Gibson Gallery in London, Ontario, called “A Part of Speech.” While the exhibition took its name from a poem by Joseph Brodsky, Smith used a cluster of poems as inspiration for the paintings he included in the exhibition.

That is what happened with Denise Levertov’s poem “Above the Cave.” “Something about reading it prompted my imagination to go on,” Smith says. The painting generated out of that name is a celebration of greenness, in which his marks and gestures circulate around a radiant white centre. Losing Track, an acrylic on canvas that also takes its name from a Levertov poem, is all gain and no losing. It is a lavender tumult, a painting in which the eye is buffeted about, like a ship on a turbulent sea. The painting has a formidable energy.

To read the entire interview, please open the pdf attached below.

Image Credit:

Laminate (Break of Weather), 2019
Acrylic on canvas
193.04 × 238.76 centimetres