I've known Ennis Smith for almost a decade now. He and I were in the New School MFA program at the same time. He for non-fiction and me for fiction. We both had a couple seminar classes together and were some of the few writers of color in the program. While I wasn't exposed to Ennis's writing directly since we didn't have workshops together I was drawn to him because of his intelligence, easy-going nature, lively attitude, and way with description whenever we entered a class discussion on some of the texts on the syllabus. Ennis and I remained in touch after we graduated and that grew as not only friendship but also critique partners. We regularly exchange work and have brunch with fellow writers and friends in Chelsea.
I was particularly glad that Ennis agreed to do an interview because his writing, as do many of my critique partners, always incites me to improve upon my own work. There's a level of humility with workshop mates where you gain fans for life and wonder "How the hell did they just do that?" Ennis has been instrumental in helping me improve my work and I definitely wanted to present more of his process to others. The memoir he's been working on is one of those texts I cannot wait for him to finish (and tell him this consistently). So I want people to be as jazzed about it and his writing and him as a person as I am.
Why non-fiction? Perhaps that’s a weird question considering our work tends to guide us, but what aspect of this particular genre did you gravitate to to write your longterm project instead of fictionalizing it or writing it in bits as an epic poem? Perhaps the better question is, why do you want to write a memoir?
When I was a kid I identified strongly with Superman’s alter ego Clark Kent, to the extent that I used to pretend I was a newspaper reporter. I’d send my friends scurrying around the neighborhood to gather gossip, or anything that looked “suspicious.” In high school, I wrote movie reviews and features for the school newspaper—as a writer, as a person, I’ve always been interested in the known world, the things that surround us every day.
My memoir is about the death of a loved one, but it’s also about my situation in the world: people I’ve encountered, experiences that really branded me. I feel these things choose you, not the reverse. Someone suggested I fictionalize those events and my first thought was, “Why would I want to do that?” The “truth” is hard enough; beyond that I’m not interested in protecting myself, or muddying those waters of thought. I want more clarity, not less.
What I’ve always admired in your writing is your knack for details, for setting the scene and the world around you so well that the reader is very much centered in it. They can see it. To me these details are your particular strength and something I learn from in terms of my lack of details of space. Have you always been in tune with your environment? If so, does it stem from your acting background?
There’s always a struggle to make sense of things for a reader, which is what I think the primary function of description is. But it’s also about an exploration, about how far you can go in terms of pinning down the experience of something. You learn to ask yourself those grad school questions, like: Is it visual? What does it sound like? Does it smell? But before that, I’m actually trying to pin it down for me. Later comes the playing with, the finding variety, and the search for some fresh terminology, which isn’t that much of an effort. Everyone has a frame of reference that’s distinctly their own—the trick is to be brave enough to share that with the reader.
In grad school you may remember there was a divide between genres, mainly in the workshop sense. Do you think this divide is necessary? Outside of the MFA environment and even conferences there tends to be the need to read as much as possible, to learn and gain inspiration and ideas from various avenues. Do you find that you get just as inspired by non-fiction as fiction and poetry or dance or visual art?
I feel the "how" of approaching those genres are, or should be the same. Give me interesting sentences. Give me wit—take those elements, be they made up, or reportorial, and tell me a story. I tend to think there’s nothing new under the sun: other writers have had to tackle the mechanics just as we are now. Models are good, they show us another way, or at least give us hope, that we will find the solutions to whatever writers wrestle with.
I remember one of our professors, Robert Polito, who emphasized the importance of cross-pollination. How is a written scene like a movie, for instance? Can you abstract a piece of writing like a painter? What every medium of art shares is the story it has to tell—it’s only the tools we use that are different. I try to see as much art as I can. I love theater and film, and I also read a lot. Aside from Shakespeare, poetry is the hole in my education I’ve been trying to patch; fiction is a particular pleasure, always has been, but it’s only been since grad school that I’ve tried to take writing apart and figure out how it works. I do it reluctantly, though, for fear it’ll ruin my experience of reading—it’s hard to surrender as a reader if you’re analyzing, and I enjoy giving myself up to a story.
What was it like for you to get your first acceptance for a piece and see it in published form? Did you feel legitimized in a way? Like, “Yes! I am a writer!” Were there tears of joy? Or a pressure to continue to produce? Sometimes I just have to reread some things that are in print or acceptances to residencies, especially after receiving rejections to know that someone does actually get what I do.
With the arts criticism I’ve written it wasn’t so much the pleasure of being published than it was that I was getting paid a tiny amount. I’m always thinking, “it could’ve been better,” so when something makes it into print it’s a happier experience for my family and friends than for me. The first time was unexpected: I submitted “The Super with the Toy Face” out of frustration because a writing teacher told me it was lacking. I didn’t expect it to wind up in a book. When you tinker with something too long, you start to feel as if you’ll never finish it, something I’m going through now. That was a lesson—sometimes others have issues with your work that have more to do with them than with what you’ve written.
Let’s talk about process. What’s yours? Is it sporadic? Consistent? Scheduled? Has it changed a lot over the years? For me it’s rarely ever as consistent as I’d like it to be. And I know for all of us working or seeking out work things can get even more convoluted when it comes to our art, an often unpaid venture.
Lately I feel I’m bouncing all over the place, because there’s so much I’d like to do. I have a big project I’ve been chasing for years, a memoir, and I go back and forth on it. But there are also smaller pieces I’d like to do. Part of it is feeling inspired—part of it is not wanting to sit down and work until you have a definite plan. I work best when I have a draft of something. Usually the ideas I want to explore are there in some form. It’s tragic—I can go weeks without laying anything down and feel tremendous guilt about it. And there are times when I can sit for days and hours with something, even if every word I type feels as if I’m going off the rails. I set deadlines, which sometimes helps, though not always. Schedules are hard for all of us—I’m teaching, so my students pull me away. Chasing paying work is another distraction that can’t be helped. I write when I can, even if it’s just notes about something I’m interested in.
Having lived in NYC there’s a sense, in your writing, that it’s home for you. Do you consider NYC, specifically Harlem, your home outside of your hometown in Ohio? Is NYC such a part of your work that you couldn’t imagine being anywhere else? Or are there times you long to leave here?
From the moment I sprang from the womb, I feel that I’ve been yearning for a place like NYC, or someplace like it. Especially growing up gay and in a family where you didn’t feel like your thoughts were validated, you wonder if they’ll be a time, a place in your life where it doesn’t feel like you’re constantly holding your breath. That was what the Midwest felt like—Sinclair Lewis nailed its peculiar sense of societal oppression, that pressure to conform, that’s still rife there. NYC kind of leads by example; you meet so many people and all of them are doing their own thing, which gives you permission to be yourself. It’s very much home, and even though I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere, I’m still getting to know it; I love that I haven’t cracked it yet, that there are still discoveries to be made.
Your website focuses on many things, but often I notice the obituaries you post, specifically for figures in the arts be it in theater, film, dance. What strikes you to do these posts rather than focus on more personal items or use it as a journal like some may use an online platform for?
An undergrad professor who’d read some of what I’d written told me that as a writer my subject was loss. (No one had defined it before.) Even if I don’t sit with the intention of writing about loss, it always comes out that way, so I guess it’s an obsession of mine. As a former theater major, the course that impressed me the most was theater history. You found out about all these people who’d done it before, these innovators. It broke my heart that I’d never get to meet them and even now, a similar feeling occurs whenever I read the obits. I find out about people who’ve done amazing things, some of which have had a tremendous impact on our lives, and the first time I’m hearing about them is after they die. How whacked is that? It’s a selfish interest—my friends think I’m macabre. How is it that I find dead people’s lives more fascinating than those who are currently alive? I’m still working that out, but there’s an Armistad Maupin quote that moves me because it’s so true: “Missing people and wanting them back—that’s the price we pay for being alive.”
Thanks so much, Ennis, for the interview. See you at brunch soon!