Story and photo by Lisa Carolin
Combining his profession and his passion are proving to be very satisfying for Doug Smith.
The 67-year-old social worker, who has spent the last 14 years working at Faith in Action, gets much of his inspiration for writing poetry from his job.
Smith has a new book of poems titled Social Work and Other Myths, which he will read from at Serendipity Books on West Middle Street in Chelsea, April 3 at 7 p.m. Smith’s wife, Karen Woollams, helped edit the book, and his son, Geoffrey Smith Woollams, helped with the book’s layout.
It’s not the first time Smith has worked with family. In 1999, along with family members, he opened the Little Professor Bookstore in Chelsea. Smith had been writing poetry since he was a teenager. Being at the book shop gave him the opportunity to attend readings and take writing classes.
He credits writer Laura Kasischke with helping to reignite his passion for writing both fiction and poetry.
After hosting yearly poetry contests at Little Professor, Smith came up with the idea to do a book filled with the work of local poets and artists. He edited the book along with his wife Karen Woollams and Melody Vassal. It was called In Drought Time: Scenes From Rural and Small Town Life, and included poems from Smith and other local poets. It was published in 2005 by Mayapple Press and sold well.
In 2006, Smith along with Sandra Xenakis, one of the poets featured in the book, started the Chelsea Writers Group, which is still active today.
Meanwhile, Smith’s career in social work has occupied him for 41 years and taken him to varied locations. He started as a youth outreach worker in Chicago in the 1970s, moved to Detroit in the 1980s to work as a community organizer, and then became a homeless center director in Ypsilanti. He has a novel in the works about his work in Detroit.
Some of the poems in Social Work and Other Myths date back to an early time in his career and include poems about slum lords and about some of the kids he got to know.
“Over the last several years, I’ve written poems that are portraits of the people I’ve worked with,” said Smith. “Being in social work has given me the opportunity to meet people who are compelling human beings, who have been through trauma and neglect along with the difficulties of being poor.”
Smith says the lives of the people he works with are significant and that he feels compelled to write about them.
“Their stories are poignant, tragic, and sometimes humorous,” he said. “They’re really incredible people.”
The majority of the poems in Social Work and Other Myths were written while he’s worked at Faith in Action.
“I’ve had the time to let stuff percolate and finally come to the surface,” he said. “This job allows me both the space and time to write.”
Smith is grateful for the feedback he receives from his writing group in Chelsea as well as a poetry group he’s part of in Ann Arbor. He says that it’s important to him to protect the privacy of the people he writes about.
“What I want to come across is compassion for these folks,” said Smith. “I want people to read these poems and feel their pain and try to understand what they’re going through. I’m trying to give readers a glimpse into a world that most people don’t have reason to be exposed to.”
“Hopefully the language of the poems have a lot of beauty, even if the subject matter isn’t upbeat,” said Smith. “I hope people will see the art in what I’ve done and the care with which I’ve constructed these poems. I feel like my poems are very accessible. My philosophy about poetry is to keep it as simple as possible but to do it in a way that is not cliche.”
Social Work and Other Myths will be available at the end of March, just in time for Smith’s April 3 reading.
The book will be available at Serendipity Books and can be purchased from the publisher online at [email protected], or by mail at Orchard Street Press, Attention Jack Kristofco, P.O. Box 280, Gates Mills, Ohio 44040.
This is one of Doug Smith’s poems featured in Social Work and Other Myths.
Under a gray sky leaking black tears he comes to me in the usual way wearing all the clothes he owns,
a dirty ski cap pulled down
to the edges of his bushy beard, not sure if the door will open or if he can cross the distance
Spirits gather around him, laugh at his desperation, he awaits
the scorn of his hosts,
dreads the long walk back through the icy
rain and wind
Suffering, cursing, fearing his painkillers will wear off before he can get home, he moves one foot in front of the other, leaning heavy onto his walker
The utility company shut off his power and the food
inside his refrigerator
turned into a blanket of mold
I give him a cart full of food
and bribe the utility company with enough cash to keep
the lights on until Valentine’s Day
The man hasn’t left his house in ten years, he tells me, church ladies kept him well fed and his sheets laundered
until the day he grabbed one 1
by the butt and that was the end of Christian charity for him
I make him coffee, spoon in lots
of sugar, a peanut butter sandwich, and watch him shovel it in like this was sure to be his last meal
He tells me his life story as I load up the car with groceries and bedding— I only half-listen, always careful not to stir up my hunger for reparations with a double dose of empathy,
but I am happy to hear the tenor
of his voice rise and see
a few specks of light
leak out of his bloodshot eyes
I help him clean out his refrigerator with a bucket of bleach and Lysol and think I will go blind for the effort, fill the icebox with eggs and milk, frozen hamburger and half a chicken
As I turn to go, the hermit grabs my arm and says, we are waiting for your book
I feel my knees buckle, hands tremble, was I hearing things, how, I began to ask
Perhaps every social worker
is a poet, a juggler of vocation and verse, belief and practice
His swollen hands take me by the collar he smiles, eyes clear as a child’s
We are waitingDoug Smith at Serendipity Books flyer