Interview: Maggie Smith

CONDUCTED BY DREW S. COOK

After her visit to the University of Central Arkansas campus on February 13 and 14, poet Maggie Smith corresponded with Drew S. Cook to discuss personal influences, publication, and how to approach the genre fearlessly.

Arkana: Do you see the personal “I” in your poetry as yourself, or is it a fictionalized self?

Maggie Smith: I think we have to take a poet’s “I” on a case-by-case, poem-by-poem basis. In poems like “Weep Up” and “Let’s Not Begin,” both very personal poems from Good Bones, the speaker is very close to me. I’m not saying that I’m the speaker, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it a “fictionalized self” either; the “I” is as close to me as it can get, albeit with the aesthetic distance a poem provides. In persona poems like “The Wife of Lot,” from Lamp of the Body, and “The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison,” the title poem from my second book, the “I” is identified in the title. I have a soft spot for persona poems. Working in persona frees us from the limits of our own experiences, and it allows us to practice speaking in a very specific voice.

A: I’ve heard you speak about your own development as a writer, moving from early work that imitates or derives to an authentic, personal voice. Who were those early sources of inspiration, and what was it about them that you wanted to honor or mimic? Are any of these influences still detectable?

MS: My first poetry loves in high school were Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Nikki Giovanni, and Marge Piercy. I don’t recall how I found my way to those particular poets, but looking at the list now, I’m struck by how they are all strong women with incredibly different styles. What in their work attracted me? What did I want to emulate? I still admire the surprising use of metaphor, vivid and often unsettling imagery, vulnerability, and a certain directness in their work. These poets pulled no punches. I hope that some of my best poems share these qualities.

A: You’ve referred to some of your poems as “nonnets,” a term I’d never heard before, but with which I instantly, deeply, fell in love. Through the twentieth century to right now, I think there has been a lot of back-and-forth with form, and its place in contemporary poetry. Working with a sonnet-like shape seems a good way to evoke tradition while still retaining linguistic freedom.

Can you talk a little about formal choices like this? What does it buy you, either mechanically or thematically? At what point in your composing process do you make decisions about shape?

MS: “Nonnet” is a term I somewhat jokingly created to explain what I was doing in those particular poems—as in “non sonnet” or “not quite a sonnet.” The poems are fourteen lines and have a turn in them—some more obvious than others—but they’re not traditional. When I drafted the first of the series, I found myself hovering somewhere between twelve and eighteen lines. The added formal constraint of keeping it to fourteen lines and imposing a point at which a shift needed to occur actually helped me craft the poem. The rigor of form requires us to get past “first thought, best thought.” If we’re writing in rhyme or syllabics or with a certain scheme of repetition, we can’t necessarily fall back on our first word choice or metaphor choice—at least not the way we originally conceived it. I like combining the rigor of form with the freedom of free verse, which is why I create constraints for myself while I draft. Once, when a high-school student asked Terrance Hayes why he wrote in form, Hayes answered, “If you can breakdance, that’s cool. If you can breakdance in a straitjacket, that’s even better.” I love this analogy.

To answer your second question, I tend to write longhand first—pen on legal pad—and then I move over to my laptop when I feel the need to use cut and paste to experiment with the shape of the poem and the sequence of ideas. The shape usually doesn’t come together until I type it, and then it may go through many versions.

A: What role, if any, does research play in your writing/conceiving process? If research is negligible, what drives the discovery and creation?

MS: Some poems require research—scientific, historical, linguistic, or literary. For example, I read many fairy tales, folk tales, and fables during the process of writing The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, and I watched many doomsday films for Disasterology. But most of my poems are driven first and foremost by a phrase or an observation. I may notice something while on a walk or while driving—a bird’s call, or the texture of the clouds, or a tree’s shadow on pavement—or I may read an article, or hear about a news story, or see a painting at a museum. The poem begins with that observation, or that found bit of rich language, and often moves into metaphorical territory from there.

A: How did you come up with the idea for your 2015 chapbook Disasterology? Can you talk a little about your approach to realizing such a project successfully?

MS: Disasterology is focused on depictions of disaster and doomsday in American culture. The first half of the collection is a series of poems based on films from the Cold War to the twenty-first century, including The Day the Earth Stood Still, Night of the Comet, The Day After, and Armageddon. Soon after 9/11, I was flipping through the channels and stopped on When Worlds Collide, I think, and I was immediately captivated by the 1950s junk science and the timeliness (and timelessness) of the concerns. I wrote a poem inspired by the film, and I enjoyed the process so much, I just kept going. I watched film after film, taking notes. I knew I didn’t have the stamina for a full-length book—and I wasn’t sure a reader would have the stamina for a whole book of doomsday film poems either—so a chapbook seemed like a more sensible goal. At some point, I stopped writing about films and started writing more personal poems about what it was to live in America post-9/11, color-coded terror alert system and all.

I typically prefer to have series broken up and spread throughout a manuscript, but in the case of this chapbook, I liked the idea of having a first-section epigraph that alluded to the films. I arranged the poems chronologically by the release date of the film, from 1959 to 2009. The second section, then, is thematically related but formally varied.

A: Manuscript publication has become competitive in a very literal sense. That is, contests have come to play a significant role for many of us. Thinking either of your own successes, or of your experiences as an editor, what would you say is the most important consideration for unknown writers trying to publish a first manuscript in an environment like this?

MS: The contest culture—the dominant culture of poetry publishing—is brutal. I think of the path to publication as a many-chambered lock, and every single chamber (the screener, the editors, the final judge) must align perfectly for the manuscript to win and be published. I was lucky that my first book made it all the way through with the first press I tried, Red Hen Press, but I sent my second book out for four or five years before Kimiko Hahn selected it as the winner of Tupelo Press’s Dorset Prize. Until then it had been a finalist or runner-up dozens of times. So, as a writer, the process requires tenacity, patience, and a belief in one’s work. And in the interest of transparency, I should say this: contest culture also requires money. It is an expensive endeavor to send one’s work out over and over again, when many reading fees are $30 or more. Not all poets can afford to send their manuscripts to multiple presses, especially not for multiple years. It’s a real problem of access.

As an editor, I do feel obligated to consider the contest model when I’m working on a poet’s book manuscript. Knowing the burden that falls to screeners, who review many worthy manuscripts in short order, I want the opening of a book to be particularly strong, resonant, and memorable. I want to hit on a number of different notes in the first ten to fifteen pages, since that’s where I think you win over a reader. I also advise poets to do the “print and shuffle”: print your poems and lay them on the floor, or shuffle them in your hands, identifying thematic strands and looking at the openings and closings of the poems to see which transitions would be the most natural and the most impactful.

A: For some of us, poetry is intimidating, particularly for those of us who typically write in other genres and are preparing to teach creative writing or facilitate workshops that should include some things poetic. Do you have advice for approaching poetry fearlessly, or with less trepidation?

MS: I think we can all agree that poetry has an image problem. It’s perceived as elitist, difficult, confusing, or tricky. Part of the problem is with how we are first exposed to poetry—both as readers and as writers. Often a poem is presented as a riddle for students to solve: What does the author mean here? What is the poem “really” about? The reader is on the outside, disadvantaged, not privy to the secrets the poem holds. This approach can make any reader feel inadequate.

If readers don’t feel capable and confident when approaching poems, how do we encourage them to try writing one? I sometimes use a music analogy when teaching or leading community workshops. If you don’t like country (rap, jazz, pop) music, does that mean you don’t like music at all? There are so many poems and poets out there. Part of our job as educators—and as writers who visit schools, libraries, and communities—is to expose people to a diverse offering that may reflect their experiences, emotions, and sense of identity. And I think by focusing on craft, and by asking the right questions, we can help people access what poetry has to offer: What do you notice about the poem? What techniques is the poet using (imagery, line length, word choice, line breaks, metaphor or simile, sound play)? What effect does that choice have on the poem and on you as a reader? How could you use this technique in your own writing?


Maggie Smith is the author of three books of poetry: Good Bones (Tupelo Press, 2017); The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (2015); and Lamp of the Body (Red Hen Press, 2005). Smith is also the author of three prizewinning chapbooks. Her poems are widely published and anthologized, appearing in Best American Poetry, the New York Times, Tin House, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. In 2016, her poem “Good Bones” went viral internationally and has been translated into nearly a dozen languages.

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