An interview with Vermont writer Spencer Smith

Spencer Smith will be reading her poetry at the upcoming Best of 2016 book tour event in Shelburne
Spencer Smith will be reading her poetry at the upcoming Best of 2016 book tour event in Shelburne

Our poetry editor, Michelle Watters, recently had this exchange with Spencer Smith, who will be reading her poetry at the upcoming The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 book tour event at Shelburne Vineyard. Here’s what Spencer had to say about her poetry and fiction writing and the inspirations behind her work.

How long have you been a BWW member?

About three years.

Do you think it has helped you grow as a writer?

I have been writing since 1977 so I don’t know about growing, but I like it. It has been helpful to me as a writer.

When did you start writing poetry?

I was living in NYC, working as a freelance writer. A friend of mine who wrote promos at ABC told me about a Haiku group she’d heard of called The Haiku Society of America. They met once a month at Columbia University.

I never felt like I could write poetry. I had never studied poetry and was very insecure about it, but I thought maybe I could do Haiku because it was a shorter form. We went, I liked it, and I continued to go to the group.

Later, I came to Vermont for a writers retreat in Adamant and I wrote my first poetry that was not Haiku. The poems were about nature. Then I wrote poetry off and on for the next ten years. This poem, “June Heat,” [featured in The Best of 2016] was one of a couple I was working on about Ukraine and Russia.

Where did you grow up?

Berkeley, California. 

How do you think your childhood impacted you as a writer?

My mother’s mother lived with us and she liked to tell stories about family history. I was fascinated with these stories. I think that storytelling affected me.

There was also tension between my mother’s family and my father’s family. I became watchful, always listening to what was said around me. My mother was unpredictable. She was very supportive at times and very critical at other times, so I was always extra observant.

You write a lot about the time you spent in the Ukraine. Do you miss living there?

Living there is hard. It is much more stressful then living here because it is such a different culture. For example, everybody eats the same food in the Ukraine, but in America we have Italian, French, Japanese, and all these choices. In the Ukraine, they don’t have a civic culture. There, if someone bumps into you on the subway they, don’t bother apologizing or even acknowledging it. They don’t smile at strangers either.

I guess I miss the friends I made there. Once you establish friends over there, you are friends for life.

Where do you see your career as a writer going in the next five years?

I would like to see my novel published.

Spencer Smith reading at the Best of 2015 launch party
Spencer Smith reading at the Best of 2015 launch party

Who are some of the writers you admire?

At different times, I have admired different writers. When I was first starting to write novels, I was very impressed with Vladimir Nabokov’s work. The book I recently finished was Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich. It won the Nobel Prize in literature. I had read another of her books, Voices from Chernobyl—quite a work. 

What are you working on now?

A novel titled She Wept for the Lobsters of the World, the adventures and opinions of Esther Joan Clemens. It is a dark, comic novel about the life and mysterious disappearance of a self-appointed prophet, set in New York City’s East Village in the 1980s.

The story is told through several genres, including narration, journals, a Greek tragedy, a fairy tale, and Q & A interviews. In April, Lobsters won the $1000 annual fiction prize from the Northern Colorado Writers organization.

I am also working on a memoir about my time living in the Ukraine. I am almost finished with the first draft.

About Spencer

Spencer Smith has published short fiction, two plays, and in 2011 a novel, Depth of Field. She taught creative writing at American colleges and universities, in Belarus on a Fulbright grant, and with Peace Corps in Ukraine. In New York City she worked as a writer-producer in corporate television.

About The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016

This book is the fourth installment in the Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop series. Founded in 2013, the annual anthology features work that is written, selected, and edited by BWW members. The mission of the anthology is to showcase the work of new, emerging, and established Vermont writers while offering Vermonters the opportunity to learn first-hand about the editing, publishing, and book marketing process. The 2016 edition is available for purchase on our website or in the BWW space at 110 Main Street, Studio 3C in Burlington. Buy your copy now >