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The Flesh Made Word: Harry Smith Speaks

Chuck Pirtle discusses the latest text on Harry Smith, Think of the Self Speaking: Selected Interviews of Harry Smith. Featuring interviews from 1968-1989, this text elaborates on the life of this groundbreaking American Surrealist artist.

The inimitable Harry Smith. Photo © Brian Graham, courtesy of Harry Smith Archives.

The inimitable Harry Smith. Photo © Brian Graham, courtesy of Harry Smith Archives.

Think of the Self Speaking, edited by Rani Singh and jointly published by Darrin Daniel and Steve Creson's Cityful and Elbow Presses in Seattle, provides an in-depth look at one of the most unusual minds of the 20th century. Yet, reading this wide-ranging collection of interviews leaves one with the tantalizing feeling of having barely scratched the surface. If one has seen some of Harry Smith's pioneering film work but doesn't know much about the man, this is the place to start. The book includes P. Adams Sitney's extensive 1965 interview, in which Smith discuss in detail the methods and materials that went into his Early Abstractions. He even tells of his earliest projections, done with photographic negatives and a flashlight lens at the age of five. Another interview with Sitney focuses on what Smith thought of as his masterpiece, the complex and difficult Mahagonny; and a long, hilarious, speed-fueled encounter with NYU film student A.J. Melita, who tells Smith he's only interested in talking about Heaven and Earth Magic, about which he has to write a paper that's due in a few days. "You don't know what you're up against," Smith tells Melita, and over the course of the next 39 pages goes on to give him both what he wants and way more than he's bargained for. Shorter conversations with Dawn Baude and Mary Hill focus on the occult and spiritual aspects of Smith and his films, and two informative talks with John Cohen and Gary Kenton delve into Smith's involvement with record collecting and the genesis and development of his Anthology of American Folk Music (re-released last year on Smithsonian Folkways). Along the way, Smith touches on his youth in the Pacific Northwest, his anthropological studies, and his belief in the connection between all things. Rani Singh's preface gives the reader a taste of what this obscure trickster wizard -- who ought to be far better known -- was like in person, and Allen Ginsberg's introduction sets Smith's half-century of creative activity in cultural and historical context. Think of the Self Speaking is a revelation, and to have it is a delight. Think of the Self Speaking: Selected Interviews of Harry Smith; introduction by Allen Ginsberg, edited by Rani Singh. Seattle, Washington: Elbow and Cityful Press, 1998. 156 pages. ISBN: 1-885089-06-6 (U.S. $14.95, shipping $2.25).

Chuck Pirtle won a Grammy Award for Best Album Notes for Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. He studied with Smith and Allen Ginsberg at The Naropa Institute, and wrote his Ph.D. thesis on Ginsberg's The Fall of America.

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