Newtown Literary Contributor, Steven Ray Smith

Poet Steven Ray Smith has a few poems published in the second issue of Newtown Literary.  Here, he reflects on the inspiration for his poems.

My three poems in this issue, “All nighter,” “From New York to Austin,” and “The arrows,” all attempt to address the thrill, problems, and ambiguity of competition. As it says in my bio to this issue of the journal, I was raised in Texas but lived in Manhattan while my wife’s family lived in Rego Park. By going back and forth to these three places—Texas, Manhattan, and Queens—I’ve seen how competition plays out in its different phases with its different faces.

“All nighter” could be set in any Manhattan office building. A project team works all night, messes up the room with pizza boxes and papers, and feels they have discovered something extraordinary by morning, only to have the next inhabitant of this conference room erase the white board of their work. But this is New York in so many ways. New York City is a pressure-cooker of competition where everyone competes for a good apartment, for walking space on the street, for a place in line at the deli counter, and for attention. There may be true breakthroughs during these all-night meetings, but these may just be ways of self-congratulations in a city that can seem to dismiss everyone by its overwhelming largeness.

I explicitly compare two places, New York and Austin, in my poem “From New York to Austin.” I imagine the image of spices—fenugreek or kafir lime—emitting from behind a closed door in an apartment building in Rego Park, much like the one my mother-in-law lived in. The diversity of people in New York, and Queens in particular, is unmatched anywhere in America. But the poem quickly turns to nervousness that New York’s greatness may come to an end. The woman who discovers that her “legs are her Bentley,” which is to say that she has a competitive edge for a young women in New York, knows that her physical advantages will end. It’s perpetually invigorating and stressful. One inhales New York’s greatness while trying to proclaim a place in it. Then the poem shifts abruptly to Austin where the ethos is different.  Austin’s story is less about its diversity (like Queens) and more about its need to be counter-cultural. No less competitive than New York, Austin’s methods are different. In this poem, some unnamed boss “fires a lazy guy” and still ends up inviting him to join the minstrel band that same night. Austin hides its impersonal competitive face behind its quirkiness.

“The Arrows” is a scene from a bowling alley and this type of scene should be familiar to anyone who enjoys bowling alleys. I love them and they are filled with a motley crew of characters. Unlike any other sport, bowling attracts all types.  The two young men in this poem are trying to get the attention of the young woman in the next lane and she, by dressing too provocatively, is trying to get their attention. The third party is the young girl’s grandmother who inserts herself into this mix. In this poem, the people are competing for attention in the silliest ways—big hair, strange antics, sexy outfits. But this is just another example of the same theme. Namely, people must assert themselves to get noticed, to make headway. The woman who discovers her legs are her Bentley is doing the same thing that the young woman at the bowling alley is doing. The all-nighters in the Manhattan office building are trying to build themselves up as is the young Elvis at the bowling alley as are the naked, dancing, mandolin-playing hippies in Austin.

My thanks to Tim Fredrick and Newtown Literary for publishing these three poems.

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