Cheryl Smart, author of “Red Dresses” from Issue 9 of Apeiron Review, is the nonfiction editor of the University of Memphis’ The Pinch. “Red Dresses” snagged my attention from beginning to end, and I found myself thinking that it was too short and just the right length and simply perfect all at once. The timelessness of the love story, of growing old together and sharing memories of times past is something that I hope to do someday with someone I love. Thus, I had some questions: Who was this poet who’s able to pull this desire from me so easily? What experiences did she have to be able to write this? I have to admit I was being slightly nosy, wanting to probe into another person’s life just so that I could understand my own life better. So I contacted Cheryl, informed her that this was my very first interview, and apologized for seeming so forward, but I just had to have these answers; this poem was haunting me – but in a good way. A self-proclaimed open book, our conversation began:
I’m very interested in learning more about what makes you, you.
I think life experiences and how we perceive them shape us as individuals. I believe how, where, and when I grew up played a major role in me becoming the me I am now. I was born in Memphis a month before Dr. King was assassinated. Some years later, my parents moved us out of the city onto a family farm seventy miles outside Memphis. I grew up with a lot of religion, racism, and moderate poverty. There were good times and hard times. There, I learned gratitude for small things, and since my father had three daughters instead of three sons to help work our land, I learned how to labor like a strong farmhand at an early age. Those were good lessons. But, the most valuable discovery that came through my upbringing was learning that it is not enough to despise racism, prejudice, and oppression. To really learn from it, we must try to understand what motivates these behaviors. What makes us intolerant? What is the origin of these feelings? How can we help each other overcome the negative and work together to grow something positive?
What is something you wouldn’t mind telling us about yourself?
Just five years ago, I was a night-shift clerk in Tennessee’s most renowned mental institution. And I loved my job. Every person who walked through those doors had a story, even my patients.
Do you have a role model of a sorts? A favorite author/poet/ artist/ musician that you look up too/ looked up too? Who is it and do you think they influenced you in any way?
I have admiration for many, however, two women come to mind as greatly influential in my growth as a writer. My professors, Kristen Iversen and Sonja Livingston do things with words on paper that create such vivid pictures in my mind, when I read their writing, it is less a reality to me that I am here in my own time and place, and a stronger reality that I am there with their past selves, reliving with them the memories they offer through prose. To have that kind of power and control over the written word is startling, and something that leaves me mesmerized every time. I am blessed to have the privilege of Sonja’s guidance still. Kristen has since moved into a new life in Cincinnati, but the words she shared with me when I began grad school will never leave me. I had grown an appreciation for Creative Nonfiction and chose that genre as my concentration, in spite of having yet to experience even one class to help me find some direction with my writing. Kristen assuaged my fears by telling me I would be fine and to “think like a fiction writer, write like a poet, and tell us true stories.” I’ve been working toward that ever since.
I’m curious about the imagery and what may have inspired that for you in “Red Dresses.” So what was your inspiration?
The inspiration for “Red Dresses” came through ruminating on long term love relationships around me, as well as that of my own relationship. I’ve been married for twenty-nine years. To use Old Testament biblical terms, my mate would be “the husband of my youth” for we were only children when we met, barely approaching adulthood when we married, and we did all our growing together. There’s something to be said for all that growing together. But, sometimes when we grow old beside one another, it’s only natural to yearn for those times when we were vibrant and our love was so much fire and mystery and lightness. That’s what Red Dresses is about. It’s about finding our way back to a time when love was effortless, when we were a younger ‘us’ in a younger time, and our hearts were lighter because life was mostly lived in the clouds.
What were you looking to inspire in readers of your poem?
I had hoped to share with readers the same good feelings that I inspired within myself while writing the poem. I wanted to communicate the universality within long-term relationships of aching for a more carefree time when our minds were freer, our bodies more cooperative, and our hearts wide open. But while all of that was beautiful and good, what strengthens a bond between two people is not the easy living, but the hard living, and the time put in. Real love happens in the trenches, not the clouds.
What do you think of your own work? Will you change anything eventually or is it pretty much perfect?
I am proud of much of my writing, but I would never say a piece is “perfect”. I still critique my work even after it’s published. I can always see flaws, even if they’re tiny. I try not to obsess over small imperfections though because I’m not a perfect writer or a perfect person so what comes from me will most likely not reach that mark. It’s pretty damn good though and something I feel happy about. I mean look. I just ended a sentence with a preposition but it somehow worked.
I see what you did there. Lastly, do you have any advice for future writers that you’d like to share?
Write out of your comfort zone. I am a mediocre poet. But I keep writing poetry, even though what feels more natural to me is to write Creative Nonfiction. I’m a memoirist and I’m very ‘prose-y’ in my writing. Even in this awareness of myself as a writer, I write poetry because I know it will help me strengthen my writing all around. And it must be working. “Red Dresses” makes me sigh when I read it…and I know how it ends. I sigh anyway. Write out of your comfort zone and you’ll surprise yourself.
Full of insight and wisdom, Ms. Cheryl Smart and our conversation had me thinking long after the interview had ended. I chose “Red Dresses” for the experience that was evident in the lines of the poem. I never thought that I would sit down with such an insightful and reflective person, kind enough to share just a little of herself with the world. I feel that not only did Ms. Smart teach me valuable lessons about accepting advice, personal critique, and even a little about marriage, she helped me learn a bit about myself as well. First, it’s not such a horrible thing to ask others for advice or wisdom or to share their stories; you’ll always learn something. Second, she gave me hope that someday I will find the timeless love that she spoke of in her poem – that it could happen to anyone. And last (and you may think this is a stretch) that it’s okay to be me, and someday, maybe, I’ll be as wise as Ms. Smart.
– Ashley Marvel