David Jeddie Smith spent nearly all his first thirty years in or near the tidewater region of Virginia. The collection of towns and villages clustered around the fishing and shipbuilding economy of the lower Chesapeake Bay formed the scenes of his childhood. Born in Portsmouth, he began rearing his own family in nearby Poquoson. It was there, after graduating from the University of Virginia in 1965, that Smith began his teaching career at Poquoson High School. Soon after his marriage in 1966 to Deloras Mae Weaver, Smith traveled to Edwardsville, Illinois, to work toward a master’s degree at Southern Illinois University (1967-1969). Returning to Poquoson, Smith spent the next three years (January, 1969-January, 1972) on active duty in the Air Force, continuing to teach night classes at local colleges.
Smith began writing in the late 1960’s and ran his own small press, Back Door, for a number of years. The press’s colophon, a dilapidated shack, was an emblem not only for a typical shoestring small press operation but also for the shoestring lives of the characters that Smith would write about so often. The marginal but deeply felt and patterned lives of the Atlantic watermen provide the subject of Smith’s first small collection, Bull Island, and of individual poems in later volumes. People living on the brink always appeal to Smith.
The geography of Smith’s imagination embraces his own immediate region, his ancestors’ mid-Atlantic wanderings, and the cauldron of United States history: the Chesapeake from Norfolk to Baltimore, and the slow ascent westward to the mountains of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. In much of Smith’s work, the song of his time in this place becomes mixed with the lingering, ghostlike voices of landmarks and battlefields.
The traditions of this part of the South and his admiration for the common man and the physical life are aspects of the sensibility that Smith brings to his work. There is also Smith the man of letters: no noble savage at all, but rather the winner of graduate degrees in literature and the university teacher. The boy who had gone hunting year after year with his grandfather would find himself stalking the long commons of the contemporary American poet—academe. In his work, Smith has managed to subdue this bifurcation and, sometimes—as in “The Roundhouse Voices,” in which words and deeds are explicitly measured against one another—to exploit it.
In 1972, Smith began a program of study at Ohio University that allowed him to earn a Ph.D. in 1976 with a creative dissertation. He was in residence for only the first and last years, spending 1973 to 1974 teaching at Western Michigan University and 1974 to 1975 at Cottey College in Nevada, Missouri. By the time the degree was completed, Smith had published his first two full-length collections and earned several important fellowships. While Cumberland Station was being readied for publication, Smith was offered the directorship of the creative writing program at the University of Utah. He held that position for four years. Life in the American West provided the landscape and inspiration for Smith’s next book, Goshawk, Antelope. During 1980 and 1981, Smith brought to publication four books—three poetry collections and one novel—while working as a visiting professor at the Binghamton campus of the State University of New York. Two of these collections, Dream Flights and Homage to Edgar Allan Poe, marked Smith’s imaginative return to his tidewater roots, although with modifications of style and sensibility.
The imaginative return anticipated the actual one. After spending the academic year 1981-1982 as director of creative writing at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Smith moved with his wife and three children to Richmond. There, as professor of creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University, Smith continued to write and to build on the reputation that had risen meteorically in little more than a decade. In...
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