Pictured: Managing editor of The Sewanee Review, Eric Smith. Photo courtesy of Eric Smith.
By Luke Gair
When Professor David Haskell asked the new managing editor of The Sewanee Review about his time on the Mountain so far, Eric Smith could only think of this paradise where he doubly works the “dream job with people who challenge” him and offer their zeal in a way that matches his own. There are certainly days that require a quick pinch of the arm to ground Smith in this “magical place [where he] works with amazing, young people as a part of a larger intellectual community hungry for knowledge.”
In the summertime, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference offered a couple of opportunities to soak in the experience the Domain offers, but Smith alluded to the excitement that accompanied the prospect of working for the Sewanee Review and living in Sewanee “not for ten days, but every day,” and how that seemed like a dream. Today, he is able to “do work that I have wanted to do since the beginning. I had to throw my head in the ring and see what happened. Luckily, here I am.”
He chronicled his career by beginning as an undergrad at the University of West Georgia, where he noted the encouragement professors offered to him, someone who “probably had more ego than talent.” As a smart reader in the classroom, he then refocused much of this skill to the page. Following an undergraduate degree, he went on to earn a master’s from Northern Michigan University and a master of fine arts from the University of Florida.
Several years of education as a student in the classroom then evolved to time working as a professor at Marshall University in the English department. Regardless of where he found himself, he added that throughout “I’ve been writing when I can and reading more than that.”
Smith remarked on his current profession’s consistent overlap with his time as an educator. After teaching for a number of years he adds that he was always working as an editor too, “officially or unofficially anyway… whether it was helping students find the best version of their work, or helping my peers with their work.” He added how his brain is always “queued toward that kind of attention,” and those conversations one has when revising and polishing work.
“I think in that sense, other than the logistical and spatial realignment of my life from West Virginia, to North Carolina, to Tennessee…,” he remarked, “my work has remained pretty steady.”
On occasion, editors inevitably doubt what Smith calls a sense of “aesthetic judgement.” He detailed how often they discuss their internal editors, “that voice in our head that is sometimes protective and sometimes self-defeating, but is always there to sort of regulate an impulse.” He went on to emphasize a notion that an editor’s opinion of a piece should never change a writer’s view of said work, adding his hope that “they will persist in doing it because it matters to them.”
Whether it’s deciding to take a second look at a piece or questioning if he is “meeting a work where [he] should be meeting it,” he remarked on the ability to walk right upstairs and consult three “brilliant people” and ask what is missing. Furthermore, this availability allows opportunity for Smith to “expand [his] response and ways of reading.”
Even before his post as managing editor, Smith co-founded cellpoems, an online poetry journal that sends a quick poem straight to subscribers’ devices. “Instead of it being a news alert or text message,” he said, “it was a quiet moment where they could have a little moment of literary joy.” In scope of the Sewanee Review, online presence has allowed more widespread readership. Additionally, their social media presence has created “a way to reach people” beyond the print issues.
The Winter 2019 issue’s “Yale Will Not Save You” by Esmé Weijun Wang perfectly embodies his point: described as a “vital piece of writing” by Smith, it explores “institutional failures” in context of mental health of students.
Available online without a paywall, the wide accessibility creates a space “for people to have that conversation, to tell their story and connect with others who have survived similar experiences and to be advocates for each other,” he said, “I think we see how the internet and social media has helped literature do its job, which is to communicate and to change people – more often than not… for the better.”
Adam Ross’s relaunch of the magazine in 2017 offered much more than an expansive online presence and a cover redesign – Smith adds that the “hits just keep coming… I would look at an issue these were my favorite writers. If nothing else, I get to talk to Alan Gurganus on the phone about an interview, or talk to Mary Ruefle about edits to an essay.”
Smith smiled and said that when growing up, he and his friends would obsess over athletes, “those were our heroes… Now, these are my heroes and this is my pantheon. It’s magic.”