Courtney O'Banion Smith is a Writespace member and image-driven narrative poet whose work has appeared in Southwestern American Literature, Poetic Asides, a Writer’s Digest poetry blog, The Ekphrastic Review, Relief, and Barren Magazine. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing-Poetry from Texas State University-San Marcos. A professor of Creative Writing at Houston Community College, she is pursuing a Master of Arts in Theopoetics and Writing at Bethany Theological Seminary. In addition to a Pushcart Prize nomination, she won the 2022 Catherine Case Lubbe Manuscript Award, a prestigious award given by the Poetry Society of Texas for her first book In Fidelity, which they released this month. Learn more about her here and order your copy wherever you buy books.
You’ve just released your first poetry book called In Fidelity in the summer of 2023. Where does the name come from?
The book has to do with the idea of truth and faithlessness. The word fidelity can mean faithfulness to a person or loved one. It can mean faithfulness, support, or loyalty to a cause or a group. I'm fascinated with the idea of narrative, whether fiction or factual, getting at the truth and how artists and writers try to get to the capital-T Truth. I'll bend the little-T truth to get to that capital-T Truth if I need to in my art or my writing.
So the idea for the title and making it two words, In Fidelity, is faithfulness and truth.
I'm fascinated with the questions: How do you stay true to yourself? How do you stay true to others? How do you stay true to the truth? How do you stay true to the past? And when you're true to one of those things, are you dishonest or unfaithful to any of the others?
There are three sections to the book, and they all have to do with either fidelity, one word, or in fidelity, two words.
What inspired you to write this type of book?
This book was 20 years in the making. I am a snail writer; I am very slow. I don't produce a lot of poetry unless I'm doing some kind of project. I’m not a prolific writer, so I'll publish a poem here and there.
I know people who just crank them out, and they’re constantly submitting. I'm so happy for them but also a little jealous. But I have a lot of different hats that I wear and ADHD, so I'm always scattered.
Two of the sections are extended narratives over multiple poems. I like to tell stories in verse. I want the poems to stand by themselves, yet if strung together, tell an overarching story with characters and plot development. It ends up in a different place than where it started.
When assembling the manuscript, I saw the theme of fidelity in the two sections that are separate narratives and then in the one section of stand-alone poems.
Faithfulness was the overall theme.
The poems examine things like love and loss. How did you choose which topics to write about?
We all experience love and loss at some level in some way at some point because we are human. That's the universal — we're all going to experience that at some point in various ways, and it's a unique experience for everyone even though we have those experiences that are common to humanity. They are particular to each individual.
Still, we don't know how to deal with love or loss until we go through it. And even then, if it's a different love or loss, it's still a different experience.
These are themes that come up again and again, and we are always fascinated with those themes, either as artists, writers, or audience members because we can't really know what it’s like for someone else or what it will be like for us when it happens again. I think we're looking for that camaraderie. And we're also looking for that, “How did you get through it to help me get through it?”
On some level, that’s what I’m always writing about.
What’s something you’ve learned through writing the book?
Twenty years takes patience. The positive but difficult things I learned were to have patience and a thick skin because I got a lot of rejections before I won the 2022 Catherine Case Lubbe Manuscript Award. Also, to understand that even when I got those rejections, nobody writes like me. Nobody's lived my life. Nobody lives in this body but me. I had to reframe that and say, “Well, this is just not for them. My voice is not for them,” and move on to a place where it did fit.
I learned fidelity to myself as a writer. I learned to stay true to my vision and that drivenness all creatives possess. What is that drivenness? We have to pursue it.
So patience is the number one lesson.
You have published many poems. What draws you to poetry, and who are your favorite poets?
I loved poetry from the time I was a little girl and heard Mother Goose nursery rhymes. They were always weird, and I didn’t understand them. I loved to say them, and I loved to hear them. I loved the musicality of them.
There were strange little stories, like "Ring Around the Rosie," and I always wanted to know more about them - why they were written and what they meant.
At some point, I came across Shakespeare and fell in love. From Shakespeare to the British Romantic poets. I was a geek like that, a real nerd. From there, the world of poetry opened up.
I started reading who they read, all the way to Homer, and seeing that there was so much more. And then I realized amazing people are writing right now, so it was that progression.
My favorites change all the time, but I can say who are my early influences and who I'm really into right now.
My influences include T. S. Eliot and H.D. Also, William Carlos Williams and John Ashbery influenced the ekphrastic section in my book. Others include Sharon Olds, Louise Glück, Rita Dove, who wrote Thomas and Beulah, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. I cut my writer’s teeth on the confessional poets, which is where a lot of that confessional narrative poetry comes from. Those are some of my influences, and I still love them today.
There are a lot of contemporary poets I love and admire — Jericho Brown, Saeed Jones, Houston’s current Poet Laureate, Aris Kian Brown, and Aimee Nezhukumatathil. I love Aimee and Ross Gay. Their poetic relationship is amazing, so I’m always following that.
I'm looking forward to reading the new book by Courtney Faye Taylor. She's a new voice I'm excited to hear.
I'm constantly trying to stay in touch with what is going on right now. I love a strong voice and point of view. I want to come away from reading a poet’s work knowing more about myself or life.
You’re pursuing a Master of Arts in Theopoetics and Writing at Bethany Theological Seminary. What does the degree cover, and how does it fit into your writing?
It's a combination of theology, which is how we think about God, and poiesis, the making or creating of something that didn't exist before. It's art informing theology and not the other way around.
It's more about the embodied experience of aesthetics. It’s about experience, and it's about embodiment. What is that thing that happens when we create? What is that thing that happens when I go into The Zone and I'm writing, and two hours have gone by, and I completely lost track of time because I'm so into the making process? What is that source we draw on? The Greeks called it the Muses. We have different words for it in different cultures and different times.
We're also all trying to express the inexpressible. How do you talk in finite terms about the infinite? And you’re never going to hit that mark, yet we all know and experience to some extent what the creator of that piece experienced. It’s the idea of the transcendent transferred through the artist to the audience.
In the program that I’m in, I’m also pursuing my creative writing. I’m writing a lot of essays, but I’m also pursuing my preferred art form, and it’s the only program of its kind in the country. Theopoetics is newish in theological circles. It’s really exciting to be a part of it.
What type of writing ritual do you follow?
It changes all the time due to my ADHD. I need rituals, but I also get bored. I have to change it when it doesn’t work anymore.
I’m always layering. I might, for example, decide to write sonnets this month, so that’s the first layer. Then I’ll decide the sonnets have to contain colors or specific words, or maybe I’ll write a crown of sonnets about a specific topic. I make my own riddles or puzzles I have to solve poetically, but it’s serious play. I’m playing, but I’m earnest about it and need to have fun.
How did you join Writespace Houston?
I saw a flyer at A Movable Feast, which is a restaurant, several years ago about the Writefest Conference. There was a week of programming before the weekend of the conference, and I attended. I wanted to become more involved with it. I also started volunteering and participating in panels at the conference.
It’s a great organization and has people that have so much to share with me as a writer. I started meeting the people involved and said, “I wanna be a part of this.”
How has the organization helped you with your writing?
I had already started on the last section of my book, which is ekphrastic. Then I took the chapbook class with Kendra Preston Leonard at Writespace. Since I was already working on a series of poems that spoke to each other, I thought they would work as a chapbook.
The class was wonderful because we would share our work and get feedback. She taught us how we should craft a chapbook. It ended up being a whole section in this book. That support and feedback helped me hone those poems and craft them until they could get up and walk on their own. It was priceless.
When did you first call yourself a poet?
I called myself a poet before I got into the MFA program in Creative Writing at Texas State University. In Austin, you could go to open mics every night of the week back in the 90s, which I did when I was an undergrad student at UT. I really got to know the writing community.
Not only was I writing my work, but sharing it in a public space in a public way. And that's when I started saying, “I think this is what I am.”
I wasn’t just doing my poems in my journal and reading them to friends who couldn’t say anything but good things to me because they were my friends. I was taking my poems out and letting them breathe.
How would you describe your writing style?
It’s very image heavy, which is why I love haiku. I want my reader to have something to cling to and see.
I admire more abstract poets. I do that sometimes, but I’m more of an image-driven poet. My poems tend to tell stories or present scenes; I'm not lyrical. An image-driven narrative poet is what I tend to be, whether it's personal or a story I've made up.
There’s also a lot of talking in my poems. Either there's a person speaking and telling the story or actual dialogue.
What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given about writing?
They're so common and cliched because they're, to some extent, true, like that old adage, butt in the chair. You’re not a writer unless you’re writing. You can be writing slowly; you can be writing a little bit. If you’re a writer, you’re gonna write it. You’re not gonna think about or talk about it, you’re gonna do it. So butt in chair!
Keep going after getting rejected many times and read about other writers’ experiences. Stephen King talks about all the rejection slips he received and how he papered the wall with them in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I like reading those kinds of stories from successful writers or writers who have more than one book about how it was before they were published and how long it took them. When I hear them, I say to myself, “I'm gonna keep going because they kept going.” The stories of those who got rejected a million times, but stayed true to their vision until somebody could see what their vision was, I think, are the best advice.
What is the worst piece of advice you’ve been given about writing?
Someone told me that poetry should be standardized. They were giving me feedback on how I should format my poem and that there should be some standardization – to capitalize the first letter of the first word of every line. I said, “What? Okay, that’s very interesting.” But in my mind, I said, “I’m not doing that!”
What advice do you have for an aspiring writer or poet?
You never arrive, but you have to keep going. It’s truly the journey and the process. It’s great to aim for goals and accomplishments, and there's nothing wrong with that, but if that is why you're doing it…That’s a no. It’s really about the journey.
And then, a little more practical, I would say to read everything. Pursue your weird curiosities because it will come out in your work. Read everything and everybody because you never know what will inspire the next thing you write. No experience is wasted experience.
Even if I try something and fail at it, I still gain some skills or experience that will be useful in ways I can't even predict. You never lose the skillsets or those experiences. Read, just pursue your curiosity, and layer things. Be persistent, be crazy, and see what happens!