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Exquisite Corpse
Issue 8A Journal of Letters and Life

Willie Smith: The Man, the Aesthete
by Kirby Olson
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It was sometime in the early eighties in Seattle and two people had suggested that I should meet Willie Smith. One was Mike Kettner, a poet who had written a poem about "soap-borne diseases." Kettner ran a small-press bookstore near the university. While shopping there, he suggested that I should meet Willie Smith. I don't really like to meet people, so I put the suggestion out of my mind. Later that same month, however, I was talking to James Winchell, who was teaching a French class for beginners while getting his Ph.D. in French literature from the fin-de-siecle. I was taking Winchell's class, and giving Winchell a lift to the class in exchange for taking the class for free. Winchell had lived in Portland with Smith, and they had edited a journal called Tropical Harmonica Digest together in the seventies. Ever interested in pushing Smith's literary fortunes and widening his circle of contacts, Winchell arranged a dinner so that I could meet Smith.
     My first impression of Smith wasn't good. He was terribly thin and ragged, reminding me of Falstaff's comment on one his soldiers, "the foeman may with as great aim level at the edge of a penknife." No bullet could hit him. This is fortunate because bullets have often streaked through Smith's houses, as his economics have forced him to live in dicey areas. His face was crimson from drinking, and the veins in his nose broken, and his clothes strictly Salvation Army -- a tattered gray coat, a torn t-shirt, torn bluejeans, and boots that looked about as old as he was -- somewhere between thirty and fifty. He had thinning gray hair pushed to the edge of ridiculous sideburns. Somehow his face was handsome, and even boyish, and there was laughter in his eyes, but I sensed some deep disaster within.
     I kept seeing him around town, and discovered he had been a French major at an excellent college -- Portland's Reed, where Gary Snyder, Lew Welch, and Philip Whalen had gone. Smith knew French, and spent his days off reading Proust or laboriously translating Michaux in the library. He also read up on Fibonacci numbers and chaos theory. Strangely, he had no books at all in his house save for a few xeroxed literary periodicals which had published his work. Unlike me, or almost anyone else I knew, he didn't buy books. He rarely even took them out of the library. His house was strangely clear of bookshelves, as I was soon to see for myself.
     One evening Willie invited me over to dinner, and I wanted to see if he would actually serve large boiled cockroaches or something, so I went to his bizarre house overrun with brambles on a street overlooking the highway. At first it didn't even look like there was a house at the address given, so overrun with vegetation was the residence. The house overlooked the I-5 freeway, and looked like an abandoned lot in the early winter evening. I couldn't find any lights in the brambles at the address designated. Did he live underground, in some kind of hole he had dug? The other houses on the street were all normal in appearance and had lights on and clear steps up to the front door, but Smith's house was just not there. Finally I found a door in an alley around back that seemed to function, and which appeared to belong to a house. I rang, and the door was thrown open by Willie, who padded into the kitchen in rubber thongs and shorts, and I followed him with some trepidation. The windows had been painted black to avoid creditors (a standard practice in the poetry milieu of the time) and this was why I had not been able to see a light. What I dared to eat of the dinner -- boiled brown rice, was quite good, but there was a strange smell in the house, and I was afraid to eat the meat, which might have been rat, or dog, or human. A candle glowed in a skull at the center of the spool table. Several other poets were at the dinner, including several American Indians, and when they started to pass joints and nod out, I went around the house for a look, and discovered a lot of empty rooms, and one enormous wall chart with mysterious jottings.
     I began to visit Smith regularly. I read his novels Oedipus Cadet, and Zombie Inna Basement, and thought he was actually edging more towards Proust than towards Bukowski. I wrote them up in a Seattle literary journal as the best novels I had seen among Seattle writers, and I think I had something to do with the eventual acceptance of Oedipus Cadet at Seattle's best press -- Black Heron. The novel sold poorly, and the publisher was later angry with me, I believe, for not having marketed the book through reviews, when I had hinted that I would, a fact for which I am still sorry, because the result was that no more of Willie's works were printed by this publisher.
     Oedipus Cadet is a novel about a young boy who masturbates all the time, and has a war going with his dad over who is going to fuck the mom. It takes Freud to a disgusting literalness, and maintains a cheerful commentary on the average American family. There is an impossible problem left over from Puritan times in which kids aren't permitted to have a sex life or even talk about it, so they go underground, and get more and more depraved. War scenes from World War IIdocumentaries are intercut with revolting masturbation sequences. The father has an obscure job in the Pentagon and returns home evenings and weekends to fuck and beat the wife and kid.
     In the emerging field of Masturbation Studies, I think Smith's work will rapidly become canonical. In his house, there was a huge chart, spreading nearly fifty feet along several walls. The chart had dates, with numbers. There was an entry for every date, for instance, June 6, 1977, had the number 71 behind it. Forming an immense hieroglyph, I thought for years this must be the number of times he had jerked off in a day. Finally, one day while Smith was performing his relentless back exercises, I asked him about the numbers.
     "Ounces of beer on any given day." Smith notified me. "I like to keep it to at least 60."
     Smith's wife was a commercial artist who sold hand-painted umbrellas to the Japanese at a huge mark-up. Smith, whose income was dependent on a temporary secretarial job at the local unemployment office, only had a fraction of hers. He was regularly laid off by the manager there so that he could attend to his writing while receiving compensation from the state. Smith was dependent on his wife for a roof over his head, but he was terribly faithful to her, and never had a bad word to say about her. In this sense, too, he was no Bukowski, but had rather elegant manners, and was an extremely considerate spouse. The couple moved to a large house in a no-man's land between Chinatown and the black area of Seattle, just before Seattle real estate prices shot up in the late eighties. His wife purchased the house for around 50 grand, if memory serves me correctly, but the property must be worth several times that by now. It overlooks the Central District (mostly black) from the back side of Beacon Hill (mostly Asian). This house is where most of his recent letters in the Corpse have been written from. It is surrounded by a scrubby forest, where whores take their dates to fuck in the alley behind Smith's house. I went there several times to get Smith in the late eighties, before we would commence ten-mile hikes through the city. As we walked, Smith would often whisper unlikely guesses concerning the sexual preferences of the geeks we passed in diverse neighborhoods. When I arrived to pick him up for the walk he was usually found doing his back exercises on a red mat, an irritating routine which took him several hours every day to complete, and which often forced me to wait thirty or forty minutes while he continued to stretch.
     "What happened to your back?" I finally asked one day in exasperation.
     "Like many young people interested in literature," he said, "I hurt it trying to blow myself."

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