By Caryn Coyle
“Baltimore is an acquired taste like the mustard scraped from a crab’s backfin,” said poet Dean Bartoli Smith, who won the Maryland Prize for Literature in 2000 and the Washington Writer’s Publishing House Poetry Prize in 1999. “This is sacred ground for me – where my feet know the terrain better than anywhere else in the world. There are barred owls, sparrow hawks, foxes and snakes patrolling the neighborhoods and a purple-clad football team named for a poet.”
In his poem, “Chesapeake Bay,” which is published in his book of poetry, “American Boy,” is another description of Baltimore:
Influx of German, Irish and Italian
their blue-collar faith buttressed
by rows of marble steps scrubbed
and shining with tank-top pride,
balancing craps and boilermakers,
gnattering about Orioles.
Smith works in publishing at Hopkins and finds in Baltimore that “there is poetry everywhere – in the crabgrass and in the alleys where the best sno-ball stands once gave extra marshmallow topping. I love Baltimore when I drive down Orleans Street, the tin cross of a church lit by the sunset suddenly becomes mother-of-pearl.”
Smith began writing poetry as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia “to create an identity for myself that was different from my classmates.” He added that he writes because “It’s something I have to do – for myself.”
Smith views his Irish and Italian ancestry as “volatile – a kind of natural bipolarism.” He added that “many of the things I write are done in gratitude to my mother.”
Smith’s mother, who is also a poet, found herself unexpectedly pregnant in 1963. “She was into Bob Dylan and had a great sense of irony and metaphor – an intellectual. My mother wanted to go to college and write. Her dreams were put on hold.” The last lines of his poem, “Wedding Photograph, 1963,” also published in “American Boy,” captures his mother’s dilemma:
Your smile exposes
the wonders of Tuscany,
but this is East Baltimore, and underneath
the roses in your gloved hands
my unexpected feet kick.
Smith believes “there is a humility about the city [of Baltimore]. There is rust and grit and grime and memories that people cling to like rosary beads.”
Smith, whose poems have been published in Poetry East, Charlotte Review, Innisfree Poetry Journal, Upstreet and others, is also published in several anthologies, Fresh Water from Pudding House Press, 2002 and Beyond Lament: Poetry and Holocaust from Northwestern University Press, 1999, among them.
Currently at work on a manuscript of poems called “My Father’s Gun,” Smith is also writing a memoir about the Baltimore Orioles called “Bleeding Orange.” His book of poems, “American Boy,” was published in 2000 by Washington Writer’s Publishing House and it won the 2001 Towson University Prize for Literature.
Smith added that he wondered “what was it like on the boat when first light came, shrouded in the aroma of gunpowder and he saw the flag … Francis Scott Key, the lawyer poet who witnessed the siege of Fort McHenry.”
Caryn Coyle lives in Baltimore. Her fiction and non-fiction have been published in more than a dozen literary journals and the anthology City Sages: Baltimore (2010) from City Lit Press.