conversation with maggie smith
SMALL ORANGE (ORANGE): I’m struck by how you weave the sensory detail characteristic of lyric poetry with a clear political or even ethical position. To me it seems that you write about American and global politics (I’m thinking of “Columbus” and “Small Shoes”) from an openly white/privileged subject position. I admire this especially because I don’t think many white poets, even those with clear ethical/political concerns, manage to bring their own whiteness into their work successfully. I’m wondering if you can say a bit more about how you began to navigate this?
MAGGIE SMITH (MS): It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge privilege, but isn’t not acknowledging it more uncomfortable? I write a lot about my anxiety as a parent—how to raise kids in an age of school shootings, lock-down drills, police brutality, family separation at the border, etc. etc. etc.—but there are things I don’t worry about, things I don’t fear, precisely because of race and class privilege. My children haven’t lost anyone they love to violence. They have never feared the police or the government. (Correction: until now. My oldest daughter knows about the family separation policy and the “tender age shelters” and is mortified.) But many children do fear the police and government officials, because frankly their experience, and their parents’ and communities’ experience, requires that fear as a kind of vigilance. It’s about sending your kids out and giving them the tools to make it home alive. One of those tools is awareness of danger. It feels disingenuous to talk about the dangers my children face without also taking about the dangers they don’t. It’s not fair. I wrote about this most recently in “Airplanes,” a poem published in Ninth Letter.
ORANGE: I listened to your interview with Alison Stewart on “All of It” last week and I was interested to hear you talk about how most poets conceive of their audience as consisting mostly, if not entirely, of other poets, and how the viral sharing of “Good Bones” took your work outside of that particular readership. Did thinking of your readers as specifically poetry-literate have an effect on the kind of work you were doing, and did that change at all after the popularity of “Good Bones?”
MS: I try not to think too much about audience, to be honest, and that certainly became more challenging after “Good Bones” went viral. I realized that to be able to keep writing—to not be overwhelmed, to not be thinking too much about reader expectations—I was going to have to pretend that it had never happened. And that’s what I did. I was able to write poems after “Good Bones” only because I wasn’t trying to recreate that poem or that reading experience. My thinking was, “I’ve peaked, and now I can do whatever I want.” The glorious (and often maddening) thing about poetry is that it exists almost entirely outside of capitalism. It’s hard to “sell out” when no one’s buying. Still, it was—and is—important to me to be able to write any kind of poem I wanted, not just the kind of poems that I thought the people who loved “Good Bones” would want to read. I feel lucky that so many readers have stuck with me.
ORANGE: In your poems Poor Sheep, Button, and Woman, 41 with a History of Alzheimer's on Both Sides of Her Family, memory seems to take on physical qualities, both as a space to be inhabited and an object subjected to manipulation or movement. What role does memory play in your writing, in terms of both the process and end result? Conversely, what function do you think poems provide in the ongoing act of memory? Be it personally or for our collective histories.
MS: Memory has always been integral to my work—thematically, sure, but it’s also the mine where I find some of the most interesting material. When I was writing the poems for my MFA thesis—what became my first book, Lamp of the Body (Red Hen Press)—my maternal grandmother was living with advanced Alzheimer’s and dying of cancer. Sometimes she knew who we were and often she didn’t. Sometimes she had a lucid moment and knew she was sick, but often she didn’t. Spending time with her in the last months of her life changed me. I was always nostalgic and sensitive—which is probably why, or how, I became a writer I the first place—but seeing her lose her life while still technically living made memory that much more precious to me. Part of what I’m doing as I write, particularly about my children, my family, and my hometown, is create a record. If I ever forget that my daughter asked me “Why is the sky so tall and over everything?” at least it lives in a poem. All there is when we’re gone is our work, if we’re lucky, and the stories our loved ones tell about us. We become stories, don’t we?
ORANGE: Girlhood, and specifically the connection between different generations of women, comes up a lot in your work, especially the poems in “Good Bones.” What are some challenges, or joys, of writing a young girl’s experience?
MS: So much of my first book was about coming of age—growing up one of three girls, trying to understand what it meant to me to be a sister and a daughter. As I write my second book, The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, the dangers of girlhood took center stage, and my own identity was more complicated. I was thinking then about what it meant to be a daughter, a sister, a wife, and a mother. With Good Bones, I was thinking a lot of being a hinge between generations: I am my mother’s firstborn daughter and the mother of a firstborn daughter. What’s more, we were all three born in the same hospital. Writing about my daughter is in many ways about reliving—or at least revisiting and re-articulating—my own childhood. (Here comes memory again!) I have to be careful to write the experience honestly and without being too precious about it. As my daughter grows older, I know I’ll also have to be vigilant about protecting her privacy and about not co-opting her ideas for my writing. Her ideas will be for her own writing.
ORANGE: Fairy tales and magic come up a lot in “The Well Speaks of its Own Poison.” What do you think draws you to fairy tales as a source of energy in your writing?
MS: I was reading a lot of fairy tales and folk tales when I began writing the poems for that book, so it happened organically. Fairy tales are really cautionary tales—at least the classic versions, untainted (i.e., not sanitized) by Disney. They are brutal and visceral and strange. What’s not to love? Plus, the tropes and narratives are so well known, they give readers a foothold in what might be an otherwise challenging poem.
ORANGE: Could you talk a little bit about your revision process? Both for individual poems and for a collection of poems?
MS: I revise as I write, so I don’t really have separate composition and revision processes. I draft a poem, often but by bit, line by line, and often over weeks if not months. I revise as I go, saving each significantly changed version by numbering the draft (“Airplanes_1,” “Airplanes_2,” and so on). Eventually I save the final version as “final” and files away the other drafts. Generally I don’t delete versions because I often find, once I hit version 15, there’s a problem. You really can revise the life out of a poem if you’re not careful—you can scrub all the wildness and weirdness out of it, and lose touch with the original spark. I find that returning to the earliest versions, maybe one through five, helps. I may be able to excavate something from those versions. When pulling a book together, it’s about finding out what I’ve been doing. I print everything out and start reading, shuffling the poems in my hands, seeing how they are in conversation with each other, pulling out the ones that seem not to fit. It’s one of my favorite parts of the process.
ORANGE: Could you share a bit of advice about putting together a collection of poems for beginning poets?
MS: I tend to prefer books that aren’t too compartmentalized—one section of X poems, another section of Y poems, etc. So I like to blend and integrate thematic strands, and I spend a great deal time looking at the openings and closings of the poems and carefully considering those transitions. I remove the poems that either don’t feel like a good fit thematically or tonally, or don’t quite rise to the quality of the poems around them. Sometimes this means pulling out a poem that was first published in a terrific journal—maybe the “best” publication—because the poem just doesn’t work well in the manuscript. In this case, I set it aside and consider it fair game for another project—maybe the next book or chapbook.
ORANGE: Who are you reading right now?
MS: I’m working my way through my AWP poetry hoard and am also reading a lot of nonfiction these days. I just finished Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments and loved it. The books on my bedside bookshelf: Jericho Brown’s The Tradition and Nora McInerny’s No Happy Endings.
Maggie Smith is the author of Good Bones (Tupelo Press, 2017), The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (Tupelo Press, 2015), Lamp of the Body (Red Hen Press, 2005), and three prizewinning chapbooks. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ohio Arts Council, and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, Smith is a freelance writer and editor.