Interview with Maggie Smith
by Ann van Buren
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. As of July, 2019, she joined the MFA faculty of Spalding University’s School of Creative and Professional Writing.
Maggie will present her work at the Katonah Public Library on October 6, 2019, at 4PM. The reading will be followed by a Q&A, book signing, and reception. Ann van Buren conducted the following interview with Maggie Smith, via Skype, in August, 2019.
Ann van Buren: Thank you for taking the time to talk about your work with KPS and congratulations on the success of your most recent book, Good Bones. Since your title poem appeared on the television series Madam Secretary and the book was published, your work has entered the realm of popularity that most poets never see. How does it feel to be recognized not only by the old standard bearers of good literature (2018 Pushcart Prize, 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards) and to also see your poetry go viral on Twitter? How did this come about, and is getting your work into the mainstream a deliberate effort on your part?
Maggie Smith: It’s very strange. It’s funny, I joined Twitter right before my second book came out. I remember feeling put out by the idea of joining. My publisher didn’t ask me to join, but I thought ok, I have a book coming out, I should probably join so I have a place to say, “Hey! I’m going to be in your city for a reading.” So I joined thinking I’m not going to spend much time here, I don’t know what kind of substantial interaction is going to happen—it seemed like a place for the Kardashians to sell lip gloss.
The character limit didn’t scare me at all because I know how to say things in a brief space—it’s sort of made for poets that way—but I really didn’t expect to use it much or to get much out of it, to be quite honest, and I was proven wrong.
I ended up loving Twitter and made Twitter friends in the literary community, and when I’d go to a city to give a reading, I’d recognize their faces from their photos. We’d been talking back and forth on Twitter, sharing things for months—I’d been reading their work and they’ve been reading mine. It proved to me that this is only a shallow space if you use it in a shallow way.
“Literary Twitter” is a real space! I was using it before “Good Bones” was published, but it was the poem’s publication that blew everything up. It was really surprising. I wrote the poem in 2015, pre-Trump, pre-the election cycle. I just was thinking about being a parent and raising kids and not knowing how to tell them about the world they live in. I remember dropping my daughter off at school the day after Sandy Hook. I remember kissing her head and sending her inside and thinking, I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to do this. I can’t tell you any of this stuff, but I can’t keep it from you. I can only keep it from you for a very small window— because now you’re learning to read. I can’t get to NPR fast enough when we get into the car—I can’t turn it off before you hear something. That poem came out in a big rush, after 20 minutes or so in a Starbucks in the summer of 2015. I happened to sneak away that night to get a little bit of writing done away from home.
I sent it to some journals. It was rejected at the first couple of places. Then I sent it to a journal called Waxwing, which was a relatively new online journal at the time. They picked it up with the whole batch of poems I’d sent. They took all of them! And so “Good Bones” was published alongside two other poems that ended up being in the book Good Bones. But they weren’t published until like 8 months after they had been accepted. I had just forgotten about them. Then, the week “Good Bones” was published happened to be the week in June of 2016 when the Pulse night club shooting happened in Orlando. The same week in Northern England, Jo Cox, the British member of parliament who was a mother to two young children, was murdered. And it was because of those two disasters happening, here and there, that the poem went viral in the States for one reason, and in the UK for a totally different reason. It wouldn’t have happened if the first journal I sent it to had taken it, because that journal was a print journal. If it had come out in print, this wouldn’t have happened. If it had come out online during any other week, this probably wouldn’t have happened. If it had been a three-page poem this wouldn’t have happened. And so it was this strange Venn diagram of everything overlapping in just the right way. The poem happened to be online, and the poem happened to be small enough that you could see the whole thing in one screen shot, and it happened to come into the world at a time when people were really struggling with understanding this place we’re living in. I was more surprised than anyone, I’m sure. I didn’t know what was happening. It was the strangest, strangest, most overwhelming— I mean I wrote a poem at Starbucks and then the BBC is calling and Slate is calling and I’m in my house, just trying to parent and work, and I’m on the phone with all these people and doing Skype interviews!
Ann van Buren: Amazing! It’s also interesting to see how poetry speaks to tragedy. People are always looking for a poem when these things happen—
Maggie Smith: Weddings and funerals, right? It’s often that poetry is used for those sort of big life occasions. Graduations—there are other things, too. But it definitely feels like it’s big life, birth and death material. This was that kind of poem.
Ann van Buren: I have to point out that you’re being very modest. At the center of that Venn diagram is a great poem.
Maggie Smith: Thank you! I’m like, it’s the medium and the timing. It feels so fluky. I’ve written many, many poems, and no other poem has quite done what that poem has done. After this happened I had to sit down and think about how to write a poem again. Really! The only way I could do it was to pretend that it never happened.
Ann van Buren: Were you tempted to change the formatting of your poetry so that it fits in a Twitter screen?
Maggie Smith: That’s a really good question. I tend to write small poems as is, and they continue to get smaller, the older I get. I don’t know if that’s a time constraint. My joke is that if I revise the poem enough it will disappear, because my poems get smaller as I revise. I’m a whittler, not an expander. Usually I’m not adding, I’m taking away. So it’s not unusual for me to have really short poems. I just published a poem in the past month that was, I think, six lines long. I think the poem dictates its size and it’s my job to trust the wisdom of the poem and not try to give it a job or tell it what to do or manipulate the process too much. Readers are savvy, and they know when they’re not getting something that’s authentic. It’s tricky. The one thing that “Good Bones” did was make me aware of audience in a way that I hadn’t been aware of audience before. I write poems not thinking very carefully about where they’re going to go or who is going to read them. If I thought about that too much I might not write anything, or I might censor myself. I try not to think about it too much, and then this happened. It’s kind of impossible for me now not to think about having a wider readership than I had before. It’s a blessing really, a blessing for poetry in general. If poems are going viral it means that people need them, and people are reading them. Maybe someone reading “Good Bones” will lead them to my other work, which is a wonderful thing. It might also lead people to other people’s poems. It’s a good thing for poetry.
Ann van Buren: It is remarkable how just a few years ago we were wondering whether or not it was a good idea to send our work to an online-only medium, or to wait until it was published in print.
Maggie Smith: It’s true. I think if “Good Bones” had been published by one of the so-called dream journals that I sent it to right off the bat, this wouldn’t have happened. I could have said, “ooh I had a poem in this journal,” but not as many people would have read the poem. This is skewing my feeling about publishing online vs. publishing in print. I like both and I’m glad that so many print journals also have a robust online presence— because I think you have to. So many people are on their screens, especially young readers. If we’re going to get high schoolers and college students to really engage with poetry, we have to meet them where they are, and where they are is on their phones.
Ann van Buren: It’s true.
Maggie Smith: For better or worse.
Ann van Buren: I wanted to ask you some questions about the poems themselves, particularly the ones that seem to come from folktales and fairy tales, both of which represent a very structured kind of story telling. Can you tell me about that? Did you study folklore? Did you study Spanish literature?
Maggie Smith: No, I have no background in folklore. I have no background in Spanish language unless you count the few years I took Spanish class in middle school and high school. That came to nearly nothing. After graduate school I taught for a year and then I worked writing marketing copy for a children’s book publisher. I would get the galleys and I would have to write something pithy about the book. One of the books that came across my desk was a bilingual collection of Latin American folktales, in pre-publication form. So I read it and did what I was supposed to do; I wrote the marketing copy. But then I couldn’t stop thinking about the turns of phrase. The book had facing pages in Spanish and English. I didn’t have to translate. I could find the analogous phrase on the facing page. I didn’t need to know much Spanish at all. I just fell in love with the stories, and so on my lunch hour and in little scraps of time I wrote the first of the eight apologues based on some of those stories. I had so much fun doing it. These poems were so unlike any other poem I’d ever written—mostly because the poems I’d written previous to that were grounded in my life and my experience—and this was really freeing.
Ann van Buren: These poems are addressed to ideas, aren’t they?
Maggie Smith: They use terms of endearment for the listener. These tales come from an oral tradition. In this book they address the reader directly: “Dear Little Torn Shoe, come gather and listen to the story.” I used many of those terms of endearment to address the reader of the poem, and when I ran out of them I made them up. So they get progressively more absurd throughout the book. Little Torn Shoe is an actual term of endearment from one of those traditional tales, and so is Little Bird of Many Colors. But Little Curio Lined with the Hearts of Men— that would be me.
Ann van Buren: Yes, I could imagine!
Maggie Smith: And so I pulled pieces from the tales and added them to the poem. I had so much fun doing it, and so I did it again and again. I think I got to eight and thought ok, that was really fun but I’ve exhausted that project. What am I doing here? Am I writing a book? What is this going to look like? So then I went back to Grimm. I was so enthralled by these tales that were unfamiliar to me, I thought I should probably go back to the ones I grew up with and see what I can mine from those stories. Really, the stories I grew up with weren’t the Brothers Grimm, they were Disney. They were sanitized versions, and they are really nothing like the original tales, which are gory and brutal. So I went back to Grimm and started writing some poems based on some of those tales. I think that about halfway through I realized that the next book would be fairytale-based. That became The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison.
Ann van Buren: What you did was really fresh. Perhaps it was better that you weren’t so close to the folk tales because you looked at them in a totally new way and made them modern.
Maggie Smith: Thank you. It’s funny, I think sometimes they’re really stories about storytelling. So much of that book is storytelling. It is also about the stories we tell ourselves, the narratives we have to make up in order to just live.
Ann van Buren: That brings me to my next question. Several poems of yours allude to tragic events—a murder, death, or some difficult situation— that the speaker wants to escape. The reader can’t be certain of the details of the story and does not have enough information to ponder how things might have been different. For example, in your book, The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, the poem “Suspension” describes someone fleeing. They are instructed not to look back, but to keep going. We are reminded of Orpheus and Eurydice, of course. In that tale, looking back is what makes everything crumble. Looking back too closely is equated with a lack of faith; you just have to keep looking forward in order to believe that there’s a future. Can you talk a little bit about the balance between close scrutiny and escape?
Maggie Smith: That’s a really good question. In the poem “Suspension,” it had never occurred to me to ask what the speaker is fleeing. I have no idea what the speaker is fleeing. To me it’s more the focus of the poem, not the event—the dangerous event— that isn’t named; it’s the fact that the speaker is fleeing. The focus is on not the event but what we do in the face of the event. I think my poems, more recently, do name things a little bit more directly than maybe those poems do. I think that book in general is pretty oblique. It tends to look at things a little bit aslant, not head on. It sneaks up on things. It sees things off to the side in the peripheral vision. I think that’s a form of self-protection. But I also think sometimes the point or the most charged part of any sort of trauma isn’t the trauma itself, it’s what’s next. What do we do with it?
I think that there is something about the danger of nostalgia and the danger of lingering where you can’t live anymore. That place isn’t for you, for whatever reason. You have to keep your eyes on the horizon and look forward. It’s funny, there’s a poem in my first book called the “Wife of Lot.” It’s a persona poem, in her voice, about why she turned back. It’s because she desired to witness it. She had to know. That curiosity about what’s happening behind us can get us sometimes.
Ann van Buren: It can get us. But it is also important to bear witness. You’re doing that; you are bearing witness, but you’re not getting dragged down by the details. Instead you present the idea of ever-onward.
Maggie Smith: It’s tricky. The act of seeing is so important, and I think pretty much every poem I’ve ever written says something about seeing, or something about perspective, or something about vision and re-vision or re-envisioning a situation or a place. I think some of that comes from the fact that I still live in the place where I grew up. I have never left home.
Ann van Buren: Wow!
Maggie Smith: Yeah. I‘m here. As Ezra Pound said, “Make it new,” which is part of what I have to do as a writer living in central Ohio my whole life. In order to write a new poem, I have to see new things all around me, even when I’m looking at the exact same things. There’s witness to that.
Ann van Buren: That brings me to the question of form. You often write poems in couplets—and the folktale poems are shaped so that each begins with a quote, in Spanish and then English. Do you sit down with a form or format when you begin to write, or does the shape of a poem come later?
Maggie Smith: The poem never comes out in a form, and I never give it a form until later in the process. I tend to write on legal pads. I never learned properly how to type, so I only use my two index fingers. My brain works best with my pen. That’s the relationship. So when I write prose, I tend to write directly in my computer; but when I write poetry I handwrite everything first. It looks like a complete mess. There are lists, things circled, arrows. I think, “No, maybe that belongs with that idea”—and I cross things out. First, I think about what the arc of the poem will be, where I want to enter the poem, where I want to land. I might number sections all over the draft, however many pages of legal pad it is. Then, as soon as it gets to be such a mess on the page that I can’t actually navigate it anymore, that’s when I am forced basically to recopy onto another sheet of paper. That’s when I start thinking about the shape of the thing, the line length, where they break, the stanza length, the couplet or tercet or quatrain. Should they be irregular or will it be one torrent or column of text? I won’t know until I get it into my computer and I begin looking at it. Oftentimes the first stanza becomes the template. If I really am wedded to the first three lines being a unit— for whatever reason— then I will see if I can get the next three lines to be a unit. I might do it that way. That’s not to say it will stay that way. But often, when drafting a poem, I let the beginning of the poem set the pace and then I’m just along for the ride to see what happens.
Ann van Buren: So, with the couplets for example, do you consciously put the incomplete line in the second line of the couplet in order to begin the next couplet with the complete thought?
Maggie Smith: Oh yes! Probably my favorite part of writing a poem is thinking about the unit of the line and thinking of where it ends, where that horizontal power gets shifted down the vertical plane of the page. There’s kind of a fulcrum there, in that last word of any given line. That’s how I think of it. I’m thinking a lot about that but also the potential for double meaning. Oftentimes I find that if you get the last part of the sentence and the first part of another sentence living on the same line, you can create a hinge and those two things can speak to each other and make their own little meaning before you get to continue on and see where that next sentence is leading you. So I’m pretty obsessive.
Ann van Buren: Wonderful! It’s rare that structure comes through in the body of work as clearly as it does in yours. Perhaps this is because you create your own forms to carry the work along—you have to go to the next line because the previous line is not finished. This happens in between poems as well. In the same way that lines interweave from one stanza to the next, the poems in the manuscript overlap. At times, a word in the last line of a poem is carried over to the title of a poem that appears on the next page. This makes your reader look back, mull over, and make connections between one poem and the next. Were the poems “Lullaby,” which ends with the line “like honey left too long in the jar” (Good Bones p. 42) and “Where Honey Comes From” (Good Bones p. 44) written in immediate succession, or did you put the poems together when you were ordering the poems in your manuscript? I’d welcome your answer to this question as well as your more general reflection on how you put a manuscript together.
Maggie Smith: When I put together a book, I look in my big Word folder and I think, Oh my gosh, I think I have enough poems here for a book. And then I print everything out. So just this last December I printed out every poem I’ve written since Good Bones came out. I have about 120 poems. This is more than a book. It could be three books. But they don’t all hang together as a book. That’s the trick. So I print everything out and then I do the really luddite thing and shuffle everything in my hands and start grouping them together, looking very carefully at the entrances of the poems and the exits of the poems. Not just imagery—although the honey, obviously I did that, yeah. Sometimes the imagery I want echoes, but sometimes it’s also tone. For example, you can’t really end on a really sad elegiac poem and have the next poem be really light and funny. So I think of it a little bit like making a mix tape or maybe now it would be making a playlist— people don’t make mix tapes anymore—and you have to really think about what song comes after another song. So that’s how I put a book of poems together. I think here’s this poem, here’s how it ends, let me look through every other poem in this stack and see if I find one that feels right to me, just on a gut level, to pick up where this poem leaves off.
Ann van Buren: Your description of process speaks to the musicality of the work. It’s interesting that you’re looking at the music from line to line and also the music of the whole book.
Maggie Smith: Yeah. That, to me, is always a surprise. When I put a book together, I don’t know what I’ve been doing. I write these poems individually, over months and sometimes years. I remember not realizing until I printed everything out in The Well Speaks of its Own Poison— how many birds and apples there are in this book. It’s often a surprise to see the motifs that emerge in a book because I am not aware of what I’m obsessing over. That said, the images in Good Bones tended to be intentional—scissors, paper, hawks. The poems I call the hawk-and-girl poems are loosely ekphrastic in that the first of them, called “Marked,” was inspired by a shadow puppet show that an artist, Katherine Fahey, performed at a residency I was at for a couple of weeks. I went to her studio visit and she performed this thing called a crankie.
Ann van Buren: Oh, I love crankies!
Maggie Smith: Kathy’s a paper cutting artist who made shadow puppets to go behind the crankie. Her piece tells the historically accurate story of Elizabeth Whitmore, a midwife in Vermont who lived with her two-year-old daughter on a mountain in the mid 1700’s. Her husband was a tinker who had left for work, and so she and her daughter were alone on this mountain for a period of time. She was a midwife who would travel on this horse with a birthing stool and her daughter, and birth babies on this mountain. I watched Kathy perform this crankie, and went back to my studio that night and wrote “Marked.” I invented the character of the hawk. I don’t know why, it just struck me. So all of those references to paper and shadow and scissors are an homage to Kathy’s craft within my craft.
Ann van Buren: Wonderful! I wouldn’t have guessed.
Maggie Smith: Yeah. The secret back story to those poems.
Ann van Buren: And what about the image of the blue robe that reappears in your work?
Maggie Smith: Well, that’s my mother. Sometimes it’s not blue, lately she’d been going green— but my mother always has worn this long polyester robe at night. So when I think of my mother, I think of this long blue robe. I’m not Catholic, but it also has that iconography.
Ann van Buren: Yes. It’s very recognizable as the mother.
Maggie Smith: And that’s exactly what it is.
Ann van Buren: It would be fun to read your glossary of recurring images.
Maggie Smith: There would definitely be apples, birds, scissors, shadows, hawks, robes, children.
Ann van Buren: Do these words have a similar meaning throughout all of your poems? Are you developing your own personal iconography?
Maggie Smith: I don’t know if the symbols are stable enough so that you can plug one from one poem so that it means necessarily the same thing in the next. I write each poem individually, so I’m sometimes the last person to know what my own poems are doing. To me it kind of works that way. If I thought too carefully about orchestrating symbols in the poems or controlling them too much, the poems would lose their mystery. The pleasure of writing is twofold for me. One of those pleasures is the mystery of not knowing at all where it is going. The other pleasure is really, once I’ve decided where it’s going, how do I solve that problem on the page? How do I best serve what I think the poem is telling me it wants to do? Sometimes that means getting out of the way. This may sound weird and mystical and I don’t mean it to sound that way, but I have to be careful not to impose too much of my own will or ego in a poem. If I stay very quiet and listen, usually I can find my way through it. But if I start thinking about well, I really want to write a poem to send to this magazine and I know the editor really likes x, or I would love for this poem to appeal to the people who liked “Good Bones” so I should probably do x, or even less obviously, if I think the book I’m writing might be about x so maybe I should steer this poem more in that direction, I really try not to do that because I think you can scare a poem away.
Ann van Buren: I was just mentioning that this morning, about life in general. It’s a delicate balance between the intention that you have— like let’s make a plan for our future— and really listening to what options might be out there. You do have to receive a poem. You have to receive life. It’s a real give and take.
Maggie Smith: Yeah. And it’s vulnerable. There’s a reason why we’re not comfortable with that.
Ann van Buren: Yes. We’re vulnerable when we go out there with our intentions. There’s always the chance that defeat is on the other end. Listening can help us circumvent defeat. We might not go there if something feels a little bit too risky. Or maybe we will, if the end goal is important enough.
Maggie Smith: Yes.
Ann van Buren: So you began to talk a little about living in the town where you grew up. Do you live in the exact same town?
Maggie Smith: I was born in Columbus and grew up in a different suburb from the one I live in now, but I live within 20 minutes of the suburb where I grew up.
Ann van Buren: But you’re about to start teaching at Spalding University.
Maggie Smith: I am, although it’s a low-residency MFA program, so I do it from here and I have to be there a couple times a year during the residency periods. But I’m not moving. Spalding faculty live all over the country, and we mentor students from afar and then gather for these residency periods where we get to have one-on-one time.
Ann van Buren: That’s fantastic. So, do you consider yourself to be a regional poet?
Maggie Smith: I consider myself to be an Ohio poet.
Ann van Buren: And what would define an Ohio poet?
Maggie Smith: I don’t think you can. There are so many of us and we’re not all doing the same thing.
Ann van Buren: Who are some of the other Ohio poets?
Maggie Smith: Oh there are so many! We actually have more colleges and universities per capita than any other state in the US. So if you think about faculty at all of those colleges and universities we have lots of poets. Just at the colleges around here, there’s David Baker at Denison, who is the editor of the Kenyon Review; Ann Townsend also teaches at Denison; David Kaplan; Robin Beth Schaer, who I think is at Oberlin now; Dave Lucas who is the poet laureate up in the Cleveland area, Philip Metres, Rebecca Lindenberg is at University of Cincinnati. We’re sort of everywhere. Not all of us teach. I haven’t taught in a sustained way for many years; I’ve been freelancing. But there are lots of us and I think the label fits because even if I moved away— which I don’t think I will— but even if I moved away, I’ve lived here for 42 years. I don’t think you can take the Midwest out of me.
Ann van Buren: Do you think that this plays out in your poetry? I think that a lot of the scenes you paint are very typically Midwestern.
Maggie Smith: I agree. Once I was talking to Stan Plumly. I was trying to write a different kind of poem and I was struggling. He said, I’ll tell you why this poem isn’t working. It’s because you’re a Midwestern pastoralist and you’re trying to do xyz. I don’t know if I’d agree that I’m a Midwestern pastoralist. I don’t think of myself as a nature poet— because what I write is often just what I see, what I’m reporting. I’m looking out my window and I see magnolia trees, so I write a poem about magnolia trees. If I were living in the desert, I’d write poems about red rocks and cactus.
Ann van Buren: But I don’t think of your poems as being about birds. I think that the birds are always scissoring out, to use your image, a darker place in the sky. So how would you connect that to the Midwest?
Maggie Smith: You know, it’s funny. I don’t know how. There is sort of a love/hate thing that we have with where we come from. I think that’s often the relationship people have with their hometowns. It’s not all light or dark, but there’s a mix. There’s a push and pull. For every person I tell that I still live here, that I still have Sunday dinner with my parents and my sisters and nephews and nieces, every Sunday—
Ann van Buren: Oh that’s so nice!
Maggie Smith: But not very common I think, now, to have that. And when I tell people, I was born in the same hospital as my mom and kids— and for all I know maybe their kids will be born in that hospital— there is usually one of two reactions. One is horror, because they can’t imagine still living in their hometown—maybe that says something about not where they came from but their relationship with their family. The other reaction is Oh my gosh, you’re so lucky! I would love to have that kind of close-knit family. I can understand why, for some people, that might seem exhausting. But for me, that’s just normal. So is it always sunny? No! It’s complicated. Though I sometimes think about what would it be like to live in x or y and have adventures here or there, the great thing about poetry is that it has allowed me to have a larger life within my small life. I live here and I drop my kids off at school and pick them up every day and I see my parents every week. It’s a kind of a small, intimate kind of daily life that I have. But because of poetry I get to travel a lot and meet new people and talk to people all over the world. This has enlarged my life in a way that makes living in my hometown not feel too small at all.
Ann van Buren: Well, it definitely doesn’t seem small in your work. You’re not depicting the perfect life you’re describing—that’s not the dominant image. Perhaps it’s the embrace of love all around you that helps you grapple with the dysfunction in society, the things that pop up in the news, for example, that people sometimes synthesize with the help of poems like yours.
Maggie Smith: Yes, it’s a safe place to land. That’s what’s important to me.
Ann van Buren: The language of your poetry is so beautiful that it makes it easier to handle some of the dark scenes that you allude to. It’s a wonderful thing. No wonder you’re a Twitter star!
Maggie Smith: I would never have guessed in a million years…
Ann van Buren: See you on October 6th in Katonah!