Art Talk with Marc Smirnoff
Marc Smirnoff. Photo by Carol Ann Fitzgerald
Marc Smirnoff wasn't looking to start a literary magazine when he moved to Oxford, Mississippi, in 1987. In fact, the native Californian wasn't even looking to move to Mississippi. But thanks to mix of car trouble and serendipity, Smirnoff found himself settled in William Faulkner's hometown. In 1992, Smirnoff made his own contribution to the town's storied literary landscape when he launched The Oxford American, known as "the Southern magazine of good writing." Through the years, the magazine's mix of exceptional text, art, and photography have garnered it three National Magazine Awards and a number of NEA grants---its annual Southern Music Issue in particular is noted for both its literary and musical merits. Though the magazine now operates out of the University of Central Arkansas, Smirnoff continues to serve as its editor. I talked to him via e-mail about the tantalizing attraction of the South, the intersection of music and writing, and why it takes more than just determination to cut it as a writer.
NEA: I read that you ended up in Oxford “by accident,” after your car broke down there while on a cross-country trip. Is that true? How did car repairs lead to a permanent move?
MARC SMIRNOFF: In 1987, I set out on what was supposed to be a car trip around the country. I hadn’t traveled much growing up so I guess I was looking for life outside of what I had known---for cultural shock. The plan was to save enough money to spend six months on the road. I also needed to invest in getting my used, but beautiful, BMW 2002 (1973 model) into cross-country shape. I worked two nearly full-time jobs to achieve all that. I finally left California with much excitement, but right across the border in Nevada, “Hilary” (as I called the BMW) started billowing clouds of smoke from her backside. That led to garage shop visit number one. She broke down again soon after that (I forget where) and then, again, in Missouri. In Missouri I made a pact with Hilary that if she got me to Oxford, Mississippi, she could die there for all I cared. I was suddenly out of money and had to get a job. I had worked at two bookstores in California, and thanks to an earlier visit to Oxford, I figured I could get a job at Square Books, the great Oxford bookstore. I would then stay in Mississippi until I saved up enough money to continue my trip. But Oxford gave me all the cultural shock---cultural shock is wonderful because it doesn’t allow you to turn everything into the routine---and I ended up staying in Mississippi until 2002.
NEA: How did the idea for The Oxford American first come about?
SMIRNOFF: Well, I had been a magazine lover for a while and, to a certain extent, I saw the world in terms of magazines. (People who love chess often see the world as a big chessboard.) So that outlook mingled with working at Square Books where I was daily and ceaselessly exposed to Southern literature and Southern writers. At Square Books, I learned that the South not only had an overwhelming literary history, but enjoyed a contemporary scene that was just as rich and varied. Despite the literary saturation, no ambitious magazine existed in the South. I couldn’t get over that. Where was the Southern Harper’s, the Southern New Yorker?
NEA: What about the South do you think is so evocative? As a native Californian, do you think you’ve finally figured out the “sublime mysteriousness” of the South?
SMIRNOFF: For many of us who didn’t grow up in the South, the South is our native Other. There is so much about the region that tantalizes the outsider: its tragic past, its potent culture, even the musicality of its accents. In California the only voices we heard on TV were neutral and passionless. The South promised mystery.
A cover of The Oxford American. Image courtesy of The Oxford American
NEA: You’re also a musician, and of course publish Oxford American's annual Southern Music Issue. Where do music and writing intersect for you?
SMIRNOFF: Me a musician???? I’m actually tone-deaf and lack rhythm---I’m not kidding. I mess around with a bass so that I can get closer to understanding how music works, but I literally can’t get through even one song, no matter how “easy,” without making a mistake. If anything my lack of musical talent allows me to appreciate how difficult, how special, music-making really is---and so I start off from a position of awe.
That said, I think we often rely on writing to get us closer to a subject. When we humans feel a need to be precise and thoughtful and eloquent about a thing, we often turn to writing rather than speaking. The other thing is that many writers use their writing as form of exploration and discovery. They don’t often have a precise agenda in place before they start writing, just sheer curiosity. In turn, many readers experience the same act of discovery while reading…and who doesn’t like to discover things?
My least favorite kind of music writing, by the way, is that which focuses on song lyrics. Song lyrics are of secondary importance to a music listener, even if they don’t realize it. Talk about Dylan’s words all you want, but I still think, before we even comprehend what he is talking about, Dylan first affects us sonically, with the sound of his music and the sound of his extraordinary voice. A young literary person once told me that he couldn’t enjoy music unless he liked the lyrics. I thought that was a pose he had been taught and bet him I could play him a song of African pop that he would love even while not understanding one word of the singing.
Since writing about what a song or voice sounds like is extremely difficult to do, many writers simply focus on dissecting lyrics.
NEA: It’s not an easy time for publishing in general. How do you envision the future of literary magazines as a field?
SMIRNOFF: I’ve attended the AWP Conference for the last two years, and each time the exhibition halls were flush and jubilant with young people showing off their often exquisite and handcrafted (or machine-made but nonetheless beautiful) journals and books. Such activity flies in the face of “the printed page is dead” jabber. When it comes to serious reading of lengthy material, some people crave the quiet that the printed page offers in order to go deep within themselves (which is where you want to go when reading the greatest minds and voices mankind has to offer). The Internet is perfect for data, short, streamlined writing and non-literary executions, but I don’t think I am the only one who prints out the longer and more involved pieces that I find online (rather than reading them online). Taking in Henry James or William Faulkner on the Internet---next to pulsating neon advertisements with arena-rock voiceovers and porn ads and other subliminal trash---may be a walk in the park for some, but for others it’s like being caught in a smoggy, overheated traffic jam.
A cover of The Oxford American. Image courtesy of The Oxford American
NEA: What’s the most common reason that comes up for rejecting submissions? What advice do you have for writers to overcome this?
SMIRNOFF: Lack of talent. A lot of writers are competent but think they are more than that and suffer from overconfidence. I’ve heard too many editors and agents (on various panels at various literary conferences) tell audiences of young writers this fib: “All you have to do is not give up.” It’s more accurate to say: “All you have to do is be born with talent and then not give up.” We want everything to be democratic, but is talent democratic? Yes, training and development cause growth---but can you train nothingness? We have no problem thinking that other callings require innate talent (singing, sports, acting, etc.), but we seem to think that writing is an exception. Editors and agents should be more forthcoming about the need for writers to be realistic about their level of talent. (By the way, I consider myself slightly above average as a writer and while I wish I had higher talent, I try to improve what is within my grasp. And, yes, drive has improved my writing, but I don’t pretend to be capable of the heights of Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Jane Austen, and others, and that gives my life some reality.)
NEA: What gives you greatest satisfaction as an editor? And as a writer?
SMIRNOFF: As a editor: Finding and publishing a piece that thrills me as a reader. Nothing is more exciting. As a B/B+ writer (see above): I am delighted if something I’ve written is thoughtful with its subject or contains an accidental, or divine, A- sentence (or thought) or two.
NEA: If there’s one stereotype about the South or its art that you’d like to dismantle, it’s…
SMIRNOFF: 1. That Southern writing can fit into one little New York- or Hollywood-approved category/box. (Tell me again, how Faulkner and Guy Davenport and Barry Hannah and Elizabeth Hardwick and Albert Murray and Tom Wolfe (and Thomas Wolfe) and John Jeremiah Sullivan and Jack Pendarvis and H.L. Mencken and Randall Jarrell and Elizabeth Spencer and Jesmyn Ward and so on and so on write the same way?) 2. That Southern music means either country or the blues. (Southern music means country AND the blues, AND jazz (invented by a Louisianan), AND rock & roll (invented by a Mississippian), AND soul AND r&b AND funk AND popular gospel AND bluegrass….).
NEA: What artist, living or dead, would you take out for sweet tea and why?
SMIRNOFF: Oh geez. That’s a tie between Robert Johnson and H.L. Mencken and William Faulkner and Jane Austen and William Shakespeare and, dang, I wish Montaigne and Marcus Aurelius spoke English….
NEA: What does the phrase “Art Works” mean to you?
SMIRNOFF: I don’t use that phrase, but I think I use that thought and it means to me that art has real power---the kind of power that can change people and societies. We often underrate this power, thinking of art as irrelevant entertainment or as a sidebar to serious history. But all you have to do is look at The Beatles (well, hear them) to see how art can sweep across nations and change looks, sounds, attitudes, and thoughts---in other words, consciousness. (Hollywood had a similar, though more convoluted, impact.) Anybody who didn’t catch how The Beatles and their hippie followers shaped if not kick-started the Hippie and Sexual Revolutions (and look what they wrought!) shouldn’t be a talking head.