Washington and Lee University's R.T. Smith, editor of Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review, has won the 2008 Library of Virginia Poetry Book of the Year prize. The award was presented Oct. 18 at a gala ceremony at the Library of Virginia in Richmond.
An independent panel of judges selected the winners in the categories of poetry, fiction and non-fiction from among 138 nominated books.
Smith won for his book Outlaw Style: Poems, (University of Arkansas Press), which he calls "my riskiest and most eccentric book yet."
By risky, Smith is referring to the centerpiece of the book, a sequence of poems dealing with John Wilkes Booth, where he blends a historian's interest in discovery with a poet's interest in expression. "If you're a white southern male writing about John Wilkes Booth," says Smith, "some people will be quick to imagine some sympathy with the character, and that you miss the confederacy. That is not the case with me."
Smith remembers the image of Booth he was presented with in high school history as superficial and almost cartoonish. He was dismissed as a failed actor, a racist and probably a maniac. It was the failed actor image that triggered Smith to revisit Booth after discovering that he was, in fact, a very successful actor who may have been the prime celebrity in America in the late 1850s.
"As I researched further," says Smith, "and visited historical sites from Ford's Theater where Lincoln was assassinated, to northern Virginia where Booth was killed, I began to ask myself 'What did Booth's behavior do to the lives of people who knew him and liked him?' The answer is that it destroyed them. So in Outlaw Style, although Booth is an important figure, each of the poems is centered around someone who knew him and whose life his actions damaged."
One of those is Booth's brother Edwin, a primary Shakespearean actor of his day in America, who would never say his brother's name again after the assassination.
Another is his sister Asia and her family, whom authorities assumed were in on the plot, and who put them under such close surveillance that she had secret service agents in the room with her when she gave birth.
The subject of John Wilkes Booth takes up nearly half the poems in Outlaw Style, but there are also two other elements to the book, which Smith describes as being about characters who are outside the mainstream - the "outlaws" of the title.
One element is the traditional American musicians - jazz, bluegrass, folk - and the destruction they sometimes found in pursuit of their art. The other is the people who are marginalized in our culture, such as the convict who protects his sanity by building churches out of matchsticks and the fundamentalist worshipper who handles serpents to demonstrate his faith.
Smith, who has edited Shenandoah since 1995, has published 13 collections of poetry, including The Hollow Log Lounge and Trespasser. In 2002, he received the Library of Virginia's poetry award for "Messenger." He has published two collections of stories, Uke Rivers Delivers and Faith. His work is frequently anthologized in such books as The Best American Poetry 2008 and appears in many periodicals, including Atlantic Monthly and Gettysburg Review. He also teaches literature and writing at Washington and Lee University.
Outlaw Style: Poems is available at The Bookery in Lexington and on amazon.com.
For over half a century "Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review" has been publishing poems, stories and essays which display passionate understanding, formal accomplishment and serious mischief. It is published three times a year and its Web site is http://shenandoah.wlu.edu/