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Obit: Harry Smith, beloved Heights-based poet and publisher, dies in Maine at 76

Harry Smith with Toby.
Smith family photo

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Longtime Brooklyn Heights resident Harry Smith, a poet and publisher whom the NY Times Book Review called “a venerable small press editor” , died recently at the age of 76 in Portland, Maine.

Smith was a beloved and benevolent figure in Brooklyn Heights. Walking along local streets, he presented a huge frame and bearded face, and often muttered thoughts to himself. Neighbors and passers-by found that engaging him in conversation brought out a bright smile and highly intelligent thoughts that made the encounter , well, sunny. He possessed what one former editor of the Brooklyn Heights Press called “ a wicked wit” , often shared with Heights neighbors in letters to the editor.

Despite a formidable physical presence, his modest manner belied a stellar career, perhaps unequalled, in alternative press publishing and poetry.

Smith first became known as the founder of The Smith, a literary magazine in publication from 1964 to 1974. Later he established Pulpsmith (a literary quarterly), and a small press, The Smith-Publishers, founded in 1964.

The Smith-Publishers produced more than 70 titles over five decades. Featured authors included James T. Farrell, Seymour Krim, Stephen Dwoskin, Lloyd van Brunt, Dick Higgins, Terry Kennedy, Richard Kostelanetz, Alicia Ostriker, Leslie Whitten, Menke Katz, and many others.

Numerous formats published by The Smith included The Scene (Off-Off Broadway plays), Newsart, and The Newsletter (on the State of the Culture). According to Wikipedia, Smith was cited as "a new and remarkable phenomenon . . . Harry Smith has demonstrated the value of a muckraker in the cosy New York literary world."

Smith was the author of 13 published books of poetry and three books of collected essays, and his work appeared frequently in numerous literary magazines. In 1976 he received the Medwick Award from PEN “for his poetry, his commitment to human values, and his achievements as an editor.” His epic poem, Trinity, published in 1975 by Horizon Press, is eerily set at the time of the building of the World Trade Center towers. In 1993 Mr. Smith received the Small Press Center’s Poor Richard Award for lifetime achievement. His screenplay for Chinese Checkers, produced and directed by Stephen Dwoskin (shown occasionally at MOMA and in many Dwoskin film retrospectives throughout Europe) won a Solvay Prize.

Mr. Smith was  a founder and twice Chair of the nation’s first small press trade association, COSMEP, important for placing small presses more prominently in competition with larger publishing houses. He was a founding editor, along with Buckminster Fuller, Joyce Carol Oates, Len Fulton, et al, of the annual Pushcart Prize for small press writing. In 1972, Mr. Smith created a literary foundation, The Generalist Association, Inc., which sponsored non-commercial publishing and many outside activities, such as the New York Book Fair and the COSMEP Prison Project.

 Smith (as he signed himself to avoid confusion with other Harry Smiths) was born on October 15, 1936 in New York City, educated at Brown (B.A. 1957), and split his time between Brooklyn Heights and  Downeast Maine, living entirely in Maine since 2007. He leaves his wife and close companion of 26 years, playwright Clare Melley Smith, and three offspring from an earlier marriage (to Marion Petschek): Tristram Smith of Rochester, NY; Lisa Smith Trollbäck of Brooklyn, NY; and Rebecca Waddell, of Waldoboro, Maine. Six grandchildren also survive Smith, with August and Stina Trollbäck a close part of the lives of Harry and Clare. Mr. Smith also served as honorary grandfather to Aidan Kelly, son of Marielise Kelly, of Cotuit, Massachusetts. He lived in Cape Elizabeth, Maine and died in Portland, Maine on November 23, 2012 of complications from treatment for lung cancer.

Memorial contributions in Harry’s name to the Brooklyn Academy of Music would be appreciated.

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Ailanthus

Porched, how many tired evenings, I
Watch ailanthus swaying leaves on sky . . .
Why, I ask still, will the tree of cities
Thrive where roses die.
Cinder-sprung, smoke transpiring--
Yet strangely palmlike in the spring,
With simple symmetry, haloed high
The long lush-green psalms upon the twilight
Seas of paradise  . . .
Touched, how many tired evenings, men
Snatch wonder from the tree of Brooklyn.

From the book “Two Friends,” poetry in dialogue written with Menke Katz

January 4, 2013 - 12:48pm


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