Nurturing Craft in an Age of Content: An Interview with Maggie Smith
This is the seventh in our series of interviews with creatives who inspire us by staying craft-focused in a era of easy-to-consume, shareable internet content. Our aim is to explore the tension of art versus entertainment, empowering readers to find, nurture, and stay true to the stories inside of them. Enjoy!
If we were in a pinch and forced to pick a spokeswoman for our little corner of the internet, it would likely be Maggie Smith: the woman, the wonder, the poet. We were completely disarmed by her viral poem, "Good Bones," which has been circulating the web like crazy since summer--and since, we've been smitten with her ability to weave heavy truths into the most delicate of words.
Upwrite: The first of your poems we fell in love with is "Good Bones," which went viral recently on social media. The poem so beautifully points out both what's wrong with the world and its potential for beauty, particularly in the last few lines: Any decent realtor, / walking you through a real shithole, chirps on / about good bones: This place could be beautiful, / right? You could make this place beautiful." Tell us about how you process this tension of brokenness and beauty.
MS: My poems have always been concerned with vision and re-vision, orientation, and disorientation—and yes, I think, brokenness and beauty. But those concerns intensified when I became a mother. I brought two people into a beautiful, broken world, and now it’s my job to introduce them to it. I want to tell them the truth, but I don’t want to overwhelm them. I want them to be careful but not afraid. I want them to believe in goodness but not be oblivious to danger. The world is both wonderful and terrible, and people can be both wonderful and terrible. These complexities are the meat of poems like “Good Bones.” (In the words of Samuel Beckett: “You’re on earth. There’s no cure for that.”)
Upwrite: Speaking of "Good Bones," what's it like for a poem--such a sacred, delicate, saturated piece of art--to go viral? Do you find it hopeful that a poem with such poignant political observations resonates with the masses, or is it heavy that such a poem needed to be written at all?
MS: I have to admit, I’ve had mixed feelings about the poem’s popularity. It seems that “Good Bones” is shared widely whenever a tragedy occurs. I saw it happen in the summer and again in the fall with police-involved shootings, murders of children, kidnappings, and on, and on. It is difficult not to be conflicted about success tied to tragedy.
I sometimes joke that I wish I’d written a joyful poem that could be shared, instead, whenever people fall in love or a baby is born. But while these celebratory times are occasions for poetry, I don’t think they’re when we need poems the most. I’m learning to accept that “Good Bones” is shared as a light in dark times, and I’m still in awe about how far the poem has travelled and how many people have read it, whether in English, Italian, French, Spanish, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Hindi, or Korean. Having a poem go viral been a strange and mostly marvelous experience, and I’m grateful for it.
Upwrite: Many of your poems are written to or about your children--some of them even include your children's voices, which seems like almost an ancient Greek "chorus," drawing out the themes of your piece from a different perspective and lending a really sweet texture to otherwise serious content. What role do your kids and mothering in general play in your creative process?
MS: One of the things I enjoy most about mothering is that it means spending a great deal of time in what Nathalie Sarraute calls the “amplified present” of childhood. I’ve been writing out of the experience of watching my children read the world like a book they’ve just opened. They are seeing everything for the first time, and through them I am seeing with fresh eyes. They ask pointed questions: What is the earth for? Why does spring always come after winter? Why is the sky so tall and over everything? They are natural makers of metaphor. And they describe their sensory experiences in such unfiltered detail. The “amplified present,” I’ve been delighted to find, is poem-time.
But mothering is incredibly complicated. It’s not all poem-time. It’s not all magical discovery. One paradox of the experience—and I speak only for myself—is that mothering is at once anchoring and obliterating. Mothering introduces an otherness to our experience while at the same time requiring us to more fully inhabit ourselves. If having children has softened me, it has also made me more ferocious, more protective, and fiercer in my loyalties—to my family, yes, but also to my writing.
Upwrite: As English majors, we have a soft spot for poetry. Unlike any other genre, it so easily serves as a capsule for visceral meaning and beauty. What draws you to poems, both writing and reading them?
MS: I’m drawn to poems for so many reasons: the way they can make my scalp tingle; the way they can articulate something I’ve been groping for in the dark; the way experience can be concentrated but never “boiled down,” as in reduced or diminished; the way they can lie and be true.
I was talking to my daughter recently about what she wants to be when she grows up. Her answer? “A writer or a botanist.” We talked about how the two aren’t as different as she might think. For poets and for scientists, close observation is a means for discovery. Both poetry and science require imagination, invention, and exploration. (So, if you need to be reminded of what you love about your work and why it matters, you might try talking about it with a seven-year-old. It can’t hurt, anyway.)
Upwrite: We're so intrigued by the title of your newest collection of poems, Weep Up, due out in 2018. Can you share a little about the concept behind the collection, the title poem in particular?
MS: The title poem of my third book, Weep Up, was inspired by my daughter—then a toddler—who woke before sunrise and tried to wake up the birds outside. She couldn’t pronounce the word wake, and so “wake up” sounded like “weep up.” What a delightful little language gift that was!
I think it’s safe to say that Weep Up is my most intimate and direct book yet, and I see it as a natural next step—a stripping away of the masks of persona and framing narratives, which are a large part of my first book, Lamp of the Body, and my second book, The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison. I’m particularly interested in intimacy and imagination as paths to empathy, and in this broken and beautiful world, I can’t think of a more valuable and powerful tool than empathy. I keep returning to a line in one of Ada Limón’s fine poems: “You say you love the world, so love it.” The way I love the world is by paying attention, and by finding ways—formally, rhetorically, lyrically—to write about my own experience, on my own terms.
If you're as crazy about Maggie as we are, get yourself an enchanting collection of poetry with her name on it, and then go connect with her at her online home.