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Spotlight: A Way with Words

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Spotlight: A Way with Words

Date Published:
Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tucked away in the Great Valley of Virginia about three hours southwest of Washington, D.C., UNC Charlotte alumnus Rodney T. Smith has made his home in bucolic Rockbridge County, home of 20,000 souls. Around 7,000 people reside in the nearest town of Lexington. Yet Smith, who graduated from UNC Charlotte in 1970 with a philosophy degree, has found plenty of inspiration there for his award-winning poetry and short story writing.

Smith, who is Writer-in-Residence at the small, elite Washington and Lee University and the editor of the literary journal Shenandoah, says that while he used to look for his muse in his extensive travels, he now finds himself with plenty of fodder right at home in the Virginia mountains.

“If not a scholar then I would consider myself certainly a student of southern culture, literature and history,” said Smith, who publishes under the moniker R.T. Smith.

I didn’t arrive at UNC Charlotte as
an inventive and imaginative conductor of my own life, but I left there that way.
Rodney T. Smith

Whatever the subject, Smith’s writing has drawn acclaim. In 2008 he won the Virginia Poetry Book of the Year award for his collection, “Outlaw Style.” The same year he won an award from the Virginia governor for his work as editor of Shenandoah.

Smith, who grew up in Charlotte, started his college career at Georgia Tech, thinking he was going to be an engineer. After discovering that wasn’t the right path for him, he transferred to UNC Charlotte. He wasn’t sure what to major in until he befriended vice chancellor Hugh McEniry after interviewing him for the campus newspaper. McEniry told Smith that he had majored in philosophy, and it had never failed him.

“I had great professors like Bob Byerly and Loy Witherspoon,” said Smith. “I still look at those years as the most exciting time of my life. I didn’t arrive at UNC Charlotte as an inventive and imaginative conductor of my own life, but I left there that way. The atmosphere encouraged it.”

For students, or anyone, aspiring to be a writer, Smith advised “the inspiration comes from perspiration.” Then he added, paraphrasing poet Robert Penn Warren, “The muse doesn’t come that often, so if you’re not at the desk when it comes, it’s not coming back.”