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

Michael Smith, Losing Track, 2023, acrylic on canvas, 121.92 × 152.4 centimetres. Photo: M Smith. Courtesy the artist and Michael Gibson Gallery, London.

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.

But in writing about Michael Smith’s work, I don’t want to lose the painterly forest for the poetic trees. He is a kind of tightrope walker, finding in the construction of a painting a way to balance mark making as content with marks made for their own sake. His commitment and skill are virtuosic.

Since immigrating to Canada in 1978, Michael Smith has had 73 solo and 65 group exhibitions. He is represented in Canada by Nicholas Metivier Gallery in Toronto, Michael Gibson Gallery in London and TrépanierBaer in Calgary.

The following interview was conducted by phone to his Montreal studio on February 22, 2024.

A Part of Speech, 2023, acrylic on canvas, 134.62 × 157.48 centimetres. Photo: M Smith. Courtesy the artist and Michael Gibson Gallery.

BORDER CROSSINGS: Was poetry part of your life when you were growing up?

MICHAEL SMITH: My family was working class, but it wasn’t an impoverished childhood. It was very rich in lots of different and interesting ways. My father had a keen interest in music and theatre, my mother in drawing and painting, and my parents were supportive of anything to do with the visual arts, theatre and music. It’s just that in the household there weren’t books to read. I remember mentioning that to my father when I came back from college, and he was very embarrassed and started to purchase books in second-hand stores. I could see that this was a compensatory act on his part, which I loved him for.

Did you develop an interest in poetry when you finally got to work with Peter Redgrove at Falmouth School of Art in 1974?

Exactly at that time. There were seminars every week where a group of us would get together in a small, cottage-like building close to the studios. These seminars would involve workshops where we would play with the idea that words leading into phrases and potentially poems could open up an imaginary way of thinking about ideas and about one’s own work. It was a stretch for me to understand that language and literature were not academic but something that was very much alive and could be brought to our critical assessment of what we were making in our studios.

Above the Cave, 2023, acrylic on canvas, 167.64 × 182.88 centimetres. Photo: M Smith. Courtesy the artist and Michael Gibson Gallery.

How was Redgrove able to incorporate poetry into the curriculum of what was essentially a painting school?

There was an amazing budget for art schools at the time and we were able to bring in people from all kinds of different disciplines. The teacher-to-student ratio was incredibly low, something like three students to every teacher, and we were given free materials. We had people from the Royal College of Music conducting seminars and helping us make notations for music scores and then aligning them to what we were making in drawing and painting. I remember theatre groups were coming in; we had people from Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club every Friday, and we were privy to the most amazing jams that would go on all night long on the weekends. It was a golden educational moment in England that never existed again. It was a small opening and then it started to close down. That’s when Peter realized that his days were numbered, and he moved on.

A line in one of his “Water-Witch” poems goes, “What is death, but a lack of talent.” You clearly were alive because I went through your early poems and was struck by how visual they were. It’s as if the look of the work, as well as its sound, was something you were after. You also used language tropes in your poetry. You have a poem called “Through Surfaces,” where the lines are, “Here, tongues are learning codes”; and you refer to “Translucent winds that are like shreds of syllables, voices forming on the white air.”

I didn’t really know what I was doing. I recognized at the time that if I were going to pursue poetry, I would need to go back to university because it’s a huge endeavour and a full-time occupation. I was still thinking within the realm of play. But as I read more and more poetry, I recognized there was something within the musical structure of the poem that I could learn by osmosis. It was my reading of other writers that helped me form a more coherent sense of my own verse. But my passion strongly veered towards the visual and painting. I wanted to paint desperately, but I had no money to buy materials. What I did have was an old, beat-up Olivetti typewriter, a Lettera 22, and I had paper. So it was a way of continuing an imaginative pursuit. If I couldn’t make the things, I could imagine them; if I couldn’t make a landscape, or reference land, I could at least conjure them through words.

Landscape with Snake, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 121.92 centimetres in diameter. Photo: Kevin Baer. Private collection.

Your recent exhibition at the Michael Gibson Gallery was called “A Part of Speech,” a title you take from a Joseph Brodsky poem. What was it about that poem that was so compelling?

It was the title. I had this sense that whatever I was making in the world, I needed to find a way of making it my speech. For years, the underpinning of what I was making in paintings was a kind of speech. I would grab words almost from the air and write them down, and they would become a kind of graffiti from which I could build more visual material. So “A Part of Speech” was both the strata and the way in which I could deliver to others what I was endeavouring to make and do. Speech is a part of all the things that we do. Speech and utterance don’t necessarily have to be a word; they can be an act, an activity, a breath. For me, word and speech are a sculptural thing. They happen in the air. When I’m irresistibly drawn to a poem, I often speak it out on my own. There doesn’t have to be a listener. I want to hear it in the world; I want to hear it in space. That was what I was thinking about when I titled the exhibition “A Part of Speech.”

Laminate (Break of Weather), 2019, acrylic on canvas, 193.04 × 238.76 centimetres. Photo: Paul Litherland. Courtesy the artist.

You seem to be drawn to poetry whose subject is landscape but also to poetry that’s active to the point of ferocity. I’m not surprised that you like Ted Hughes. The poems you chose are very intense.

They are. When I look at my own direction towards poetry, I realize there’s a darkness to it. I think that comes partly out of the experience I had as a kid going to London with my dad to visit museums. I remember walking through London burnt out from the Blitz, and seeing soldiers who were scarred and maimed from the war. We were walking to the Tate or the National Gallery, where we would be looking at sublime painting. There’s a shadow to this fascination with what otherwise could be seen as romantic or spirited, or bucolic. I’m drawn to poetry, and perhaps to painting, too, that has this other side. Recently I was looking at a line in WB Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” and he says, “Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” It suddenly struck me that memory and expectation are moving in this very simple phrasing. There is nothing fixed. I did a series of paintings called “Acts” from black and white photographs taken of wars over the last 150 years. I was talking about things that happened, are happening and will happen, and that was the correspondence I found in Yeats. It was a helpful way to look at time, but it also drew me back to this landscape riddled with shadows.

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