What’s in a Name

by Sam Schmidt

I’ve been thinking about the mystery of author names, how the name of a poet or writer will sometimes seem exquisitely fitting, like it’s an emblem of the work. And there’s music in a name. The “Billy” in Billy Collins catches something about that poet’s intimate tone; it’s like a family nickname; his work, consequently, feels like the jokes and musings of an eccentric uncle. “William Carlos Williams” is also perfect: The almost redundant English of the first and last names is saved from absurdity by an injection of Spanish, creating an emphatic rhythm and somehow also mirroring the polyglot America whose great poem he wanted to write.

The exact form of the name for Collins and Williams presumably involved some kind of esthetic choice, and of course a writer is free to write under a pseudonym, but in most cases writers use the names they are given.  Is a good writer name one of the factors that pushes someone to write? More likely, the beauty of the name is a trick of my imagination: I apply back onto the name some of the glamour that I invest in the work itself.  The puritan plainness of “Sharon Olds” says something to me about the steady tone of her work even as she delves into disturbing subject matter. For me, it’s a name full of churchyards and hedgerows. The name “Mary Oliver” makes me think of a kite: the first name biblically grounded in language, culture, myth, the last name rising musically aloft. Poet names seem to work, as in the cases I’ve mentioned, by the feeling they give of rediscovered words deeply buried in the past, or alternatively by an air of exoticism and strangeness, the interest of a culture that’s different from mine: Yusef Komunyakaa. Ntozake Shange.

This brings me to my own name. My first book of poems is soon to be published, and I do not feel that my name works. I’ve never liked how the “a” in “Sam” gets twisted into a diphthong; it’s like an act of cruelty on the part of the “S” and the “M,” with the “a” crying out in fear. And my last name “Schmidt” is about as subtle as a snub-nosed gun. I’ve thought of extending “Sam” to “Samuel,” but that feels even worse. It’s impossibly cocky, like I’m striding along in a gaudy costume, a parade of one. This perception may just be a product of my anxiety. At work, I consider the names of the people in the cubicles next to mine. “Lindsay Singleton” would be an excellent name for someone who writes mystery novels. “Ellen Stanton” could write a very interesting book about proper language usage. In fact, out of an entire floor of cubicles (I’ve walked down the rows looking and thinking during my breaks), the only name that does not seem to work as an author name is mine. Maybe for me that’s the point, that my writing has to proceed out of that discomfort. I’m not at home in a world where I can’t write, but not totally at home in the world of letters either. How about you? What’s in your name?