Thomas Hugh Smith was 44 years old when he wrote his first poem in 1979. Now known as t. kilgore splake, he has become one of the small press icons. His work and name appear everywhere. The self-proclaimed “graybeard dancer” told me, “Early one l979 morning while nursing a modest hangover and drinking a cup of coffee brewed from the coals of the previous night’s campfire, I felt compelled to write my thoughts about the past several days living in the pictured rocks wilderness outback. I collected several additional poems over my summer of camping, and upon returning to Battle Creek after Labor Day, they were published in my first chapbook edition titled pictured rocks poetry.”
Until that day Splake had never written poetry, “I taught political science at Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, Michigan, for twenty-six years. I lectured on the dynamics of a federal system of government and outlined the characteristics and functions of the American political party system. However, outside the world of academia, my job status was at best anonymous. If I was in with a strange group of people and asked what I did for a living, I might as well have replied I was a brain surgeon for the understanding most people have of what is political science. Now, I declare myself a poet, and it still seems I am anonymous to the average individual.”
Backwater Graybeard Twilight is the magnum opus of Splake’s work. It is a comprehensive collection of both his word and photo art. The 150 pages devoted to his writing are dense and word filled; word overflowing, words everywhere; for Splake puts to paper what comes to his mind in what he calls stream of consciousness prose. I asked him about this and he told me, “What initially attracted me to poetry, and later writing stream of consciousness prose, was the absence of necessary writing rules. In a doing contest with the ever elusive damn-dame lady muse, I seize a passion and redline it. I still compose my writing works in long hand, scribbling between the lines of quill econo legal padlets. With the rough long hand drafts, I then key a poem or a story into a word document and turn to the fine-tuning the writing into the best shape possible.”
One of the characteristics of the writing in Backwater Graybeard Twilight is its sheer volume. I often felt like I was drowning in a tidal wave of images and metaphors. This machine gunning of words often left me feeling lost and falling; not an altogether unpleasant experience, but even numinous falling needs nuance and direction lest we shut down the sponge in our head that reads and absorbs. Here is an example from, “homeboy escape”: “small town, womb nurturing captive population of fascists / and losers, hometurf where acting like a man is all important, // a few basking in fleeting, momentary athletic glories, awash / in school colors, cheers, the rest settling for spectator status, small // value for sadness of beating nobody, // small numbers move on town the highway, seeking college / education, others off to a career, some branch of the military service, most quickly back at home, armed and relieved, convenient excuse,” and on it goes for two more pages. Image on image, metaphor after metaphor, with only commas to give my mind a breath.
I asked Splake about this volume of words and whether themes get lost in the word pile. He sort of answered my question, “I believe in a pizza theory of poetry. Imagine being on a date and discussing what kind of a pizza to order. If I might suggest a pizza with anchovies, my feminine acquaintance might reply, “Ugh, I can’t stand those slimy little fish.” Where if she would suggest a pineapple pizza, I would not find pineapple agreeable to my culinary palette. Yet neither anchovies nor pineapple are bad, they simple represent a difference in individual tastes. I think the same analogy holds true for poetry. There are no good or bad poems, and what is good in poetry simply appeals to one’s aesthetic sensibilities. I can, and do not believe that the poems and stories I write will be liked by all those who read them. An anchovy lover will not win over a pineapple devotee.” I can’t argue that all art is loved by someone and finds a home, but does poetry lose its power (brevity) when it becomes overloaded? I think it does, but this does not diminish Splake’s achievement or skill in accomplishing it, it just means his audience will be filled anchovy lovers who welcome his form of word art.
Backwater Graybeard Twilight is broken into titled, Being, NonBeing and Becoming – I was most drawn to Becoming (can I say the pineapple section) where Splake delivers more then a few poems I could read, digest, inhale such as this excerpt from, “the mountain beyond”: “mournful foghorn elegy / chuck spires vanishing / gray dying light / san fran bay / union street hill / below Washington square / bro brautigan / bench shadows / ben franklin statue / brown sipping sack / bard blood a-hummmmmm/inviting Alcatraz gulls / to carry him home / musical wings / through vivaldi’s season / escaping / life’s surface mirror.” Splake’s gift is his facility with image, his challenge maybe mitigating the blinding speed with which he lets these images fall to his paper.
I asked Jim Chandler, whose Thunder Sandwich Publishing published Backwater Graybeard Twilight what drew him to Splake’s work and he told me “I believe Splake is unique because his style is unlike that of anyone I’m familiar with. I suspect that most people who have read any Splake could pick his work out of poems by 10 (or 20 or 100) poets by reading a line or two. I know I can. The talent obviously speaks for itself, since one doesn’t bother to interview untalented people. Splake is the most dedicated writer I know; perhaps driven is a better word. He sets goals and he doesn’t rest until he achieves them.”
Indeed, he is a Type-A poet if ever there was one; a volcano of productivity. In an interview conducted by Peter Magliocco of ART:MAG Splake describes himself as a proverbial over-achiever who TRIES HARDER and I would agree. I asked him if, as he nears his 70th birthday, if he has enough time to get it all done and he told me, “NO! I do not have enough time in the working day to bring my attention to all of the works that I currently have in progress. What I call “rat bastard time” has truly become my primary adversary. I often hear some of the truly geezer gents at the evergreen café sigh over their coffee mornings and whisper “what am I going to do today.” I feel, how sad I cannot allocate a couple of their unused hours, and possess twenty-six for a day’s lit-laborings. It is obvious they would not miss them.”
Splake has published over 70 chap books of poetry and if that weren’t enough, he is also an excellent photographer. Backwater Graybeard Twilight has over forty pages of his photos, and these are exceptional. His subjects are common and clear. They are lit on the page and easy to assimilate. I asked him if he had to choose poetry or photography, what would it be? In characteristic Splake fashion he didn’t exactly answer my question, but rather the associations my question prompted in his mind, “At present I am moving away from writing poetry and short stories and into the field of movie making. However, note, I am not abandoning poetry, but incorporating a poetry on human “being” into the camera footage that I work with. To date I have produced three DVD movie-length productions: “Splake poetry on location i,” “Splake poetry on location ii,” and the most recent film creation “Splake: the cliffs.” In regards to my filming perspectives, I have been greatly influenced by the work of Jim Jarmusch, and particularly his early movie “Permanent Vacation.” I have also learned a great deal of cinematography from the works of Richard Linklater. His experimental movie which is part of the criterion film package for the movie “Slacker,” has had a strong effect on my movie making attitudes.” Can you hear a man sprinting toward his art? I can.
In less then 20 years Splake has created a lifetime body of work. I asked him about his legacy, “If I flatter myself, I think that t. kilgore splake writings and photographs “might” still be remembered l0 days to a possible full two weeks after I pass on to that “quiet darkness of nothing.” However, I still continue to post my work and daily correspondence to Marcus C. Robyns, archivist for Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan. I do entertain the remote possibility that I possess an Upper Peninsula artistic consciousness and regional identity. So, maybe some future NMU literature or writing students will study the works of Splake. I would like that.”
Jim Chandler is right. Here is a unique voice, talent and personality. Splake is a small press original. While anchovies are not for everyone, even a pineapple lover like me can see the glory in an anchovy. I strongly encourage you to add Backwater Graybeard Twilight to your library.
To Find Additional Information on Splake Go To:
http://www.thundersandwich.com/tspublishing.html = Order More Splake Books
http://www.tksplake.freehosting.net/ = Sample Splake Poetry
http://poesy.org/tkilgore_splake-kerouac.html = Splake Photos
http://www.geocities.com/bmorrise2/tk_splake.htm = Splake Photos
http://www.mipoesias.com/mipoprint/volume2issue16.pdf = MiPo Print
http://www.mipoesias.com/mipoprint/volume3issue1.pdf = MiPo Print
About the author:
Charles P. Ries lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His narrative poems, short stories, interviews and poetry reviews have appeared in over one hundred and sixty print and electronic publications. He has received four Pushcart Prize nominations for his writing, and most recently read his poetry on National Public Radio’s Theme and Variations, a program that is broadcast over seventy NPR affiliates. He is the author of THE FATHERS WE FIND, a novel based on memory. Ries is also the author of five books of poetry — the most recent entitled, The Last Time which was released by The Moon Press in Tucson, Arizona. He is the poetry editor for Word Riot (www.wordriot.org) and Pass Port Journal. He is on the board of the Woodland Pattern Bookstore in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Most recently he has been appointed to the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission. You may find additional samples of his work by going to: http://www.literarti.net/Ries/.