Dean Bartoli Smith’s second poetry collection, Baltimore Sons, paints a brutally honest portrait of Charm City – a place bursting with personality and charm, but also marred by poverty and violence. In these poems, readers will find neighborhoods filled with vibrant people who, along with the city itself, have shaped the speaker’s perspective.
Smith’s poems range from snapshots of childhood pastimes and homages to iconic Baltimoreans to missives about gun violence and even poems from the weapons’ perspectives. Despite the grit and realism in his work, Smith never despairs, instead highlighting the humanity that ultimately redeems the city and its residents. According to Smith, “No one really knows what to make of native Baltimoreans. The city remains a wildcard that’s hard to define,” but through these poems, Smith has certainly given us a powerful representation.
A Baltimore native with a background in reporting and a journalistic eye for detail, Smith has written a collection that is accessible, heartbreaking, and “the most painful love letter I’ve ever written.”
Recently he spoke with Baltimore Fishbowl about his new collection.
Baltimore Fishbowl: What was the process of writing the poems in this book?
Dean Smith: I wrote the poems in Baltimore Sons over a 20-year period beginning in 2000. I didn’t know where the book would take me. It first started as “My Father’s Gun” and then it evolved into more of a poetic memoir with vignettes about Baltimore as a microcosm of our nation.
After my father bought a gun in the early 2000s, I grew concerned for him and the Baltimore we both love. I developed a persona in the gun poems that’s loosely based on him but also a composite of a mindset that I’ve encountered throughout my life. Then I started writing poems about firearms as the focus of our country’s obsession: their complicity in the destruction of a city and by extension our nation, their place in the subconscious of the male psyche, and their metaphorical significance in my own life as the offspring of a shotgun wedding.
BFB: Could you talk a bit about what guns meant to you as a child and what they mean to you now?
DS: There are too many guns in the collection and in our country. We’ve become desensitized to them. We have 17-year-olds walking around with automatic weapons policing protests, and it starts at a young age. The book is a blunt instrument on that score on purpose. I started reflecting on guns after Virginia Tech, the DC Sniper and Sandy Hook. I want the reader to say, “this is too much,” because it is. It’s an intervention and a wakeup call.
Baltimore Sons explores the root cause of how we got to this place of active shooters on the loose every week. As boys, we were mesmerized by the echo of a Winchester rifle reverberating through the canyon during a Western. We played “guns” in the woods. We made the sounds of machine guns as we shot each other. The gun as one of the main characters in this collection serves as an objective correlative on steroids. Anger, hatred, self-loathing, and love in the form of worship are all prevalent emotions. The poems from the perspective of guns were fun to write because I had no idea what would happen.
The book’s central arc takes the reader through a childhood where violence leads to positive outcomes and then into adulthood as the narrator bears witness to the destruction those weapons have caused.
BFB: What inspired you to write about Booker T. Spicely, a young Black man who was murdered in North Carolina in the 1940s?
I wrote about Booker Spicely in the aftermath of Ahmaud Arbery. Guns, race, Jim Crow and the “I felt threatened” excuse were still intact. I also needed to look at my Baltimore past related to race. The poem, “Reading James Baldwin on Election Day in Charleston” started those excavations. Who were the people of color in my life?
BFB: As the title suggests, this book is indebted to Baltimore for so much of its content. What do you think makes Baltimore unique? What do you hope readers unfamiliar with Baltimore will take away about this great city?
DS: It’s a hard place, a real place, a holy place. There is a moxie, a survivalist mentality. Baltimore is not full of itself. The city embodies humility. There is a grit to it. It’s always been about the work–about making ends meet. Baltimoreans forged the steel that built the heartland at Sparrows Point. Its soldiers defended Ft. McHenry. It’s close and tight knit. You are always just around the corner from someone who knows you from grade school. Baltimore is memory, nostalgia, and blood–marble steps scrubbed clean, a peppermint stick in a lemon wedge at the city fair, mustard from a backfin on your finger, Matthew’s Pizza. Baltimore is America.
BFB: Lots of “characters” appear throughout the collection. Are there any people who didn’t make the cut?
DS: Many! My grandmother, Carolyn Bartoli ran a beauty salon in her basement off Harford Road. I’d sweep up and listen to the conversations that took place between the beehive dryers. Junk dealers, bookies and all types stopped in. My father, Snuffy Smith, coached college basketball during the city’s Division II heyday when Loyola, Towson, Baltimore University, Hopkins and Morgan squared off in the ’70s. The battles were heated. Players like Isaiah “Bunny” Wilson, George Pinchback, Ronald Smith, Brian “Gumby” Matthews and Morgan’s Marvin “The Human Eraser” Webster who starred in the NBA deserve their own collection of poems. Also absent: Nina Simone and Norm Van Lier. Their poems were not quite there.
BFB: Many of the poems describe moments from your childhood, and you capture the atmosphere of the time and place so vividly. Do you have thoughts about the way kids today spend their time?
DS: Kids today have a different perspective. Everything is immediate in the next Snapchat, text, or TikTok videos. They’ve rightly retreated into the electronic bunker in response to September 11th, school shootings, global warming and now the pandemic–the effects of which are still to come. They don’t trust us. My kids call me “Boomer.” I bristle at that. When I was a kid, we pitched baseball cards. They were our cell phones. They contained biographies and data. Record album liner notes, too. You couldn’t customize a playlist from “Exile on Main Street” or “Are You Experienced?” In addition to instant access to far more knowledge than we ever had, today’s youth have a sense of what a better, non-racist, empathetic, and accepting world looks like.
BFB: What projects are you currently working on?
DS: I’ve been working on a series of poems inspired by the magical realism of my 17-year-old daughter’s art.