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Remembering Mark Smith-Soto

Friday from the Archives: “Last Retreat to Topsail Island” by Mark Smith-Soto from NCLR 22 (2013).

We at NCLR were saddened to learn of the passing of long-time friend and poet, Mark Smith-Soto, early in November.

Smith-Soto shared his poetic voice with NCLR close to a dozen times over the years, including the Applewhite Poetry Prize poem featured here, “Last Retreat to Topsail Island.” The poem was published in our 2013 print issue.

Upon selecting Mark Smith-Soto’s poem to receive the 2012 prize, James Applewhite wrote:

“This beach poem brings its conversational, rhythmically measured lines out of an informal context of waves and sand and old friendships. This mix of the casual and the learned especially fits a balancing of things ordinary and things crucial. This group on vacation has been together many times; this “once more” thus seems only usual. Still, there are subtle signs of time passing, a sense on the part of this literate, sophisticated speaker that for all of her or his knowledge, the things taken for granted are really uniquely precious – that those who think of ‘”‘Rilke, Rumi and Yeats'”‘ are like everyone else, subject to endings as well as beginnings and middles. The conclusion of the poem condenses this synthesis of the quotidian and the artful, with the group singing ‘”‘. . . old / songs we long made ours . . .’ – which may also have been poems. Then the landscape is made almost to mourn. But it is a more loving, a less definitive end than in the pastoral elegy. As the ensemble go down ‘one last time'”‘ toward the surfline, ‘to where the horizon blows its kiss over the sea,’ the sense of this ending is not of the last one, in spite of the poem’s title. But the remaining meetings are made wondrous, for not being endless. Like these last lines, the poem as a whole is excellent, beautifully crafted, unselfconsciously eloquent. I am proud to name it as winner of the contest that bears my name.”

In our 2013 online issue, Joan Conwell praised the poet:

“Mark Smith-Soto is the name that recurred most frequently when I asked the experts which North Carolina connected Latino/a writers a generalist should read. Smith-Soto is a professor at UNC-Greensboro and longtime editor of International Poetry Review, as well as the recipient of a 2005 National Endowment of the Arts fellowship in creative writing and the winner of the 2012 James Applewhite Poetry Prize competition. Valladares (herself an accomplished poet) told me Smith-Soto’s poetry is “approachable, musical and real. He can make anyone love poetry” and that she couldn’t put down his 2012 collection, Berkeley Prelude or his earlier chapbook, Waiting Room (2008), which she called a “brilliant glimpse at living with the fear of cancer.” Of the poems in Smith-Soto’s collection Any Second Now (2006), former North Carolina poet laureate Kathryn Stripling Byer said, “they make magic out of language. They play with words, images, emotions, everyday encounters, and in spinning their magic, they seduce and delight me.”

We will miss reading his voice in future Applewhite contests and offer our condolences to all his friends and family. May his memory remain a blessing to all.

Read the entire prize-winning poem in the 2013 issue on Proquest or order it for your collection.

Mark Smith-Soto during our poetry editor’s book tour with NCLR poets, Scuppernong Books, 2022