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Honest on the page – honest in the classroom: Carolyn Smart

Honest on the page – honest in the classroom: Carolyn Smart

Poet and professor Carolyn Smart sees no point in darting around the truth and urges students to follow their own path, not the latest hip way.

[photo by Carolyn Bailey]
Photo by Bernard Clark

In her own writing and with that of her ­students, Carolyn Smart takes a no-holds-barred approach. She doesn’t follow any ­fashion, the ­latest hip way. She stays true to her own voice and urges the same of her students.

“You are your strongest critic. You’ve got to feel good about it. Be honest with yourself, with others,” says Ms. Smart, a poet who has taught ­creative writing in the Queen’s Department of English since 1989. “And I am honest with my students. There is no point in unwarranted praise.”

It’s this tough, fearless attitude that has long kept Ms. Smart’s career bubbling and fresh. She launched her sixth book of poetry, Careen, in ­September, to a full house in the Malting Tower of the Tett Centre in Kingston. Careen is a long poem, a new take on the tumultuous lives of ­Bonnie and Clyde.

At the event, Julie Salverson, a friend of Ms. Smart’s and drama professor at Queen’s, said a few words before Ms. Smart read from the book. Ms. Smart often guest-stars in one of Dr. Salverson’s drama classes on the artist as witness to risky stories. Here’s a small excerpt of what Dr. Salverson said:

She dive-bombs into the darkest of places.

She brings up sweetness.

She shows us that those places are in all of us.

She is fearless in her gaze.

Her words are fierce, untamed, beautiful not pretty, anguished not sad.

She takes no prisoners, this one.

Ms. Smart admits that it’s not always the easiest road, being honest on the page. Her work flip-flops between two styles – from dissecting her own life in a confessional and lyrical way in her books The Way to Come Home and Stoning the Moon, to the more ­narrative works that explore others’ lives in Careen and Hooked (which is also a highly celebrated one-woman play performed by Nicky Guadagni, most recently at Passe Muraille in Toronto).

In those confessional works, Ms. Smart has delved into difficult parts of her own past – her memoir At the End of the Day explores family, and in particular her father, through prose-poetry and prose. At times, it’s a difficult book to read, for its dance around abuse – and she’s said in the past that it’s the hardest book she has written.

“There is an intimate life hidden from view in most of us. I think it can be revealed in writing in a helpful sort of way,” she says. “Writing has helped me understand my own pain, grow beyond it, heal from that.”

Teaching writing can be equally revealing. For many in her classes, it’s anxiety-causing to bring forth personal stories, and to be pushed to be ­honest about those stories. In most academic years, Ms. Smart has about 150 students over two terms. She teaches both poetry and fiction.

“There is a lot of emotion in the classroom. Sometimes I do feel a bit like a psychotherapist. There’s a trajectory of healing that moves through the classes.”

Ms. Smart began writing at a young age. When she was 11, she started studies at a boarding school in the U.K. Her father was a diplomat, moving around quite a bit, and her parents wanted continuity for Ms. Smart and her sister, who attended a different school. Ms. Smart remembers feeling like an outsider, the only one in her class with a non-British accent. She found her place when she started writing fictional stories for one of her classes. She read her story based on writer and ­adventurer ­Walter Raleigh to the class, and they loved it.

“I was so enthralled to do something I loved, and to be praised for it,” she says. “I started writing real bodice-ripping romances. Pot-boilers. I’d read them aloud to my friends.”

Later on, Ms. Smart remembers how the British writer Nicholas Monsarrat would visit the family home. “It was then that I knew writers were living, existing beings. And that I wanted to be one myself.”

Back in Canada, and in her usual fearless way, Ms. Smart entered the world of Canadian literature, working in her twenties for the Macmillan publishing house, under Douglas Gibson, in Toronto. She was hired as poetry editor and worked with Gwendolyn MacEwen, already an ­established and award-winning poet.

“My knees knocked meeting her,” says Ms. Smart. “She was just wonderful. So brilliant and other-worldly, magical. She lived in a world of ­language and metaphor.”

The first two books Ms. Smart promoted went on to become huge pillars on the Canadian scene: Hugh MacLennan’s The Rivers of Canada and ­Dennis Lee’s Alligator Pie.

Outside of work, she surrounded herself with ­poets – Roo Borson, Susan Glickman, Barry ­Dempster, Pier Giorgio di Cicco. They shared their work constantly, and talked. A blind date led to ­marriage, which led to moving to the Kingston area, where her husband worked and still works designing kitchens. They live on the ­outskirts, on a piece of land between ­Harrowsmith and Sydenham.

“I like living in an isolated place. I don’t like ­being in the action – this way I get to choose to come in and out.”

Taking the Queen’s job 26 years ago was both difficult and exciting, she says. She was hired to ­replace her longtime friend, poet Bronwen Wallace, who died suddenly of cancer at 44 years old.

“I was in deep grief when I first started, and ­didn’t know if I could do it, but as time wore on, I realized I was doing all right, and the job gave me a great deal of confidence. I also wanted to keep going for Bron, to keep her memory alive.”

She honours her friend, too, through the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award, which Ms. Smart founded in 1994. Offered by the Writers’ Trust of Canada, the award celebrates emerging ­writers ­under 35 in fiction and poetry, alternating every year between the two genres.

She pushes students to their best, and in turn is fuelled by their “constant ideas” and energy.

The award seems fitting, given Ms. Smart has mentored and propelled the writing lives of ­thousands of Queen’s students over the years. She pushes them to their best, and in turn is ­fuelled by their “constant ideas” and energy.

“There’s so much talent out there. This university attracts such a high level of knowledge. And I’m that teacher parents hate, because I’m the one who talks their students out of going to med school,” she says, laughing.

 What Carolyn Smart is reading: Don Coles’ poetry, Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, and The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison.

[Queen's Alumni Review 2015 Issue 4 cover]