A CONVERSATION WITH MAGGIE SMITH
BY MARTHA SILANO
Maggie Smith is the author of, most recently, Good Bones (Tupelo Press, 2017) and The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (2015). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the New York Times, Ploughshares, Tin House, the Adroit Journal, the Believer, AGNI, the Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. In 2016, her poem “Good Bones” went viral internationally and was called the “Official Poem of 2016” by Public Radio International. Smith is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ohio Arts Council, and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. She lives and writes in Ohio.
I contacted Maggie in late November 2017 with my first question. We went back and forth with one question at a time for the next couple of weeks, mostly focusing on half a dozen of poems from her newly released poetry collection, Good Bones (Tupelo Press, 2017).
Hi Maggie! Thanks for being open to being interviewed. I’d like to dive right in by asking you some questions about your much-anticipated new book (couldn’t wait to read it!), Good Bones (Tupelo Press, 2017). My first question is about your poem “Accidental Pastoral,” one of my very favorites in the book. Is it based on a true story—did you happen upon the scene as described in the poem, or did you rely on your imagination/memory?
MS: Yes, I was driving home from Gambier, Ohio, where I’d been co-teaching a workshop with Stanley Plumly at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, and I passed through Centerburg. They had just celebrated something called the Heart of Ohio Festival that morning—I remember seeing the signs. The horse droppings, flags, and chairs were things I saw as I passed through town after the festivities. There were huge, flat-bottom clouds above a gas station, Webb’s Marathon, and it looked like they were resting on top of something. I grabbed my notebook from my bag on the passenger seat and started scrawling some notes for the poem.
The image trifecta of horse droppings, toothpick-sized American flags, and cellophaned candies clicking onto pavement packs a wallop of small-town nostalgia. I’m curious how many drafts it took to nail the images in this poem.
MS: I scrawled a very rough draft across a couple of notebook pages in the car, and those images were there. I think this poem probably went through two or three drafts. What I remember spending the most time on in the poem was the ending—getting the wording right, and making sure the metaphor came across without hitting the reader over the head.
I have to share that I first read this poem while on a ferry ride back from a very old-timey Fourth of July celebration in Winslow, WA. Your poem seemed to match perfectly what I’d been experiencing that day, but it also took me straight back to my childhood days living in a small town outside of New York City. Your poem is definitely an object lesson about how the poet’s job is to choose specific images to get to the universal, where, in this case, your town becomes everytown. Where did you learn to let the image do the heavy lifting in your poems (specific teacher or teachers? Workshop moment? A poet or poets you admire who do the same?)
MS: Certainly my teachers and mentors—particularly Bob Flanagan, Kathy Fagan, and Stanley Plumly—have greatly influenced how I approach a poem, letting the images release the meaning rather than counting on the speaker to relay the meaning. The challenge is in not only recognizing the poetic moment but also being able to see it through. It’s not enough to come up with a strong premise for a poem, or a stunning metaphor; you have to be able to build a whole from that piece.
It sounds like you had some amazing poetry teachers, and that you’ve shown yourself to be an A+ student. The poem would be fabulous and perfect enough if it ended at “I am not a parade, my one car passing / through Centerburg, Ohio, too late.” But instead, it goes to a deeper, unexpected, and more resonant place—to the empty chairs, the shuttered houses, and those miraculous clouds, “flat-bottomed as if resting on something / they push against though it holds them.” Were there earlier versions of this poem that stopped sooner, or went on longer? I have my own interpretation of the cloud metaphor, but I’d like to hear your ‘take” on it before I share my hunch …
MS: I love that you see another viable ending inside the poem! For me, it always began with the image of the recently passed parade and ended on the clouds. In the version I sent to Indiana Review, which first published the poem, it also included an epigraph by John Constable, a painter famous in part for his gorgeous paintings of clouds. Jennifer Luebbers-Leonard, then editor, was smart to suggest that the epigraph was unnecessary, and so we removed it. I wanted to convey the push/pull, love/hate relationship with home, and how the home/person relationship can sometimes feel like the parent/child relationship. I’ve lived in Central Ohio all my life, and though sometimes I feel myself pushing against it, it holds me.
I appreciate getting the backstory—it definitely feels fine to me, as a reader, to have no idea who John Constable is, though now that you’ve shared it makes me want to look at some of his work. Your words do such a great job conjuring up those epic Mid-Western clouds—the epigraph hardly seems necessary.
But as for my take on the ending! I took your interpretation one step further, so the parent-child/push-pull morphs into a kind of God/no-God conundrum—the clouds pushing against the speaker’s (and in turn, the reader’s) regard of a supreme being. The clouds, to me, represent my own atheist/agnostic/believer dance. For instance, every time I patly decide there’s no God, damned if some kind of magical/incomprehensible force doesn’t make its presence known, much like this cloud, holding me steady, keeping me in place. Does that seem way off to you?
MS: I wasn’t thinking of a higher power, or the struggle surrounding belief and doubt, when I wrote the poem, but I absolutely see what you mean. I consider myself agnostic, but I’m relentlessly curious, and I can’t imagine where I would be without awe and wonder in this world. A number of the poems in Good Bones deal with doubt and faith, even if that “faith” is humanistic rather than religious.
Gotcha. I use the “God” term quite loosely for the ineffable forces of goodness in humankind, shorthand for awe and wonder—but also ‘get’ how the clouds serve as a stand-in for your having stayed in Ohio despite the tug toward other regions of our great country.
The next couple poems I want to focus on are “Stitches” and “Invincible.” In “Stitches,” I love how the words on the page mimic the act of cutting and saving scraps of paper the way your daughter “keeps the scraps for stars, / snowflakes, flowers.” Both poems move along by accretion (I think that’s the right word for it), taking a step forward but a half step backward, as in “they said the thread would dissolve, / they said my body would dissolve,” so there’s this feeling of moving forward but also harkening back to the previous line. It’s a very effective rhetorical strategy. I got to the last line of “Stitches” and gasped, then scribbling paradox in the margin. To cut away is to have more. That is so cool. Would you mind sharing about your process for writing this poem? When did you realize you were embodying a contradiction?
MS: The poem began with the idea of dissolving stitches. What an odd thing, to have had any kind of wound, to be sewn up like cloth, and to be told the stitches will simply vanish. Both of my children were born via Caesarian section, and I was thinking about the metaphorical implications of becoming a mother by being cut open, unpacked (quite literally!), and put back together again.
As I recall, the ending—“The more they cut, the more I have”—came quite late in the drafting process. When I begin, I never know where a poem is going to end. Otherwise, where’s the fun? Where’s the discovery? I do think readers can sense when a poet has written toward a previously established ending; it’s like being corralled through a maze for a bit of cheese. The poem becomes a means to an end—that zinger of a final line—and the previous lines are meant to get us there. I don’t see the point of that.
In a similar vein, in “Invincible” you write:
I glowed with love but also
with suffering. Even the suffering
I wore like a blue robe, beautiful enough
for a painting. I felt the sky guarding me.
When I wore the babies and under
the babies the blue robe of suffering,
I was lit from within.
The repetition feels to me, in a way, like the speaker is steadying herself. It’s almost like the repetition is what helps to steady her, keeping her strong, getting her through each potentially catastrophic day of mothering. Am I on the right track here?
MS: Yes, repetition, for me, is often a way of digging my way into an idea. With each repetitive word or phrase, whether it is used the same way twice or twisted slightly, I can feel myself chipping away at an idea, uncovering it, getting closer to what I’m trying to articulate. I’m turning something over and over in my hands, seeing it from various angles, trying to wrap my own head around it. In a sense, using repetition is a way of showing my thinking. I think the title poem, “Good Bones,” has some of this in it, too.
Yes, it’s definitely front and center in “Good Bones.” There are many reasons so many of us find solace and comfort in that poem, but for me one of the chief delights is the use of repetition—“Life is short ….” Well, okay, but who would ever imagine where this poem is going to end up? Use of the vernacular is key—turning clichés on their heads. Striking images (I’m thinking “For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird. / For every loved child, a child broken, bagged, / sunk in a lake.”) But the driver? I would vote for anaphora, though who am I kidding? Poems don’t succeed because they deftly employ rhetorical devices. Any poem’s success is an uncrackable mystery. It’s not about technique, device, or ‘message hunting;’ the poem—this amazing poem—can’t be reduced to a formula. Somehow it works. Like a plane, it flies. The speaker’s aching attempt to remain positive and hopeful: it gets me thinking of what you say in “Stonefish”: “You should know / the most venomous fish lives / in the shallows. It also looks like a rock.” How DOES one continue to parent, make art, live one’s life, when they know that there’s a venomous fish in the shallows?
MS: I think of “Stonefish” as a poem for people who are considered hypochondriacs until their doctors see something on an X-ray, mammogram, or MRI. I think a lot about the mysteries of the body. I have friends who’ve felt fine and then gotten terrible news; I’ve had friends whose small children “seemed fine” but were not fine. Many of the poems in the book reference outside dangers, but this one, to me, is about the potential danger within.
To answer your question, yes, there is danger where we might expect it (the deep) and where we might not (the shallows). For me, the only thing I can do is acknowledge both the beauty and the horror, and hold them both simultaneously. I picture it sometimes like scales, and there are days when one side outweighs the other. I can’t obsess about the horror and in doing so miss out on the beauty in the world; how could I get through a day, let alone parent, let alone write? And I can’t only look at the beauty and pretend the horror doesn’t exist; that kind of denial isn’t good for me, my children, or my poetry. I do my best to work against one and work in service of the other.
Yes, I hear you—so many of us hear you! The line between safety and danger is always razor thin…but it’s the place where poetry lives.
Another favorite poem of mine in the book is “Rough Air.” It’s one that, at least for me, rewards the reader on subsequent readings. The first time I read it, right after I’d underlined “There is no such thing as safety,” a text popped up on my phone: We’re on lock-down it’s okay we’re in math and Maple is braiding my hair. Talk about a moment of pure recognition! I lived in hell for an hour, and then the email came in from the principal: all safe.
The ending … it makes me cry. It hurts to read it, hurts to read “do not pray for me; I have no power here,” and yet in no way would I prefer to be lied to. 100% safety lies. Prayer lies. I’d much rather read “Though motherhood / never kept anyone safe” than a sappy fairytale that leaves out planes chewing up mountains. I don’t think I could’ve written a poem this unsettling when my babes were in arms. Were earlier versions of this poem less stark? More hopeful? Also, how did you manage to tell yourself uncomforting things in the midst of “trying so hard / to trust lift and thrust”?
MS: Oh, that text would have broken me into a thousand pieces! My daughter has had lockdowns at her elementary school, and my son has had them at his preschool as well, thanks to threats at Jewish Community Centers across the country. It’s terrifying.
As for “Rough Air,” the poem was stark from the start and was drafted on an airplane. I believe I wrote it on the flight to AWP in Los Angeles. It chronicles pretty accurately what I go through when flying. I think what this poem and another in the book, “Parachute,” have in common is that they reveal the speaker’s thinking about other mothers’ disasters. “Rough Air” references an opera singer, Maria Rader, who was killed with her infant and husband when the pilot of Germanwings flight 4U9525 locked the cockpit and flew the plane into a mountain. The mother-speaker comes to accept that there is no “magic” protecting mothers and children, no benevolent power who would intervene. “Rough Air,” for me, is about accepting that we are at the mercy of circumstance.
“Parachute” references a story I read about in the New York Times, about a mother who, likely in the midst of severe postpartum depression, strapped her infant son to her chest in his baby carrier and jumped to her death. Cynthia Wachenheim had intended to kill herself and her son, but he survived the fall. The story haunted me, and this poem allowed me the space in which to imagine an impossible outcome—somehow the baby transforming in a way that would save him and his mother.
As you point out, “Rough Air” does not end on a redemptive note. Instead, there is a sense of resignation. We hope for the best but know the best may not be what we get. It is not comforting, but the truth is not often comforting.
I’m so glad you reminded me how much I admire “Parachute.” It’s one of my favorite poems in Good Bones, with its central images of “each child happily sliding down the [firefighter’s] pole and the “mother / cracked on the pavement.” I love how it draws the reader right in with notion that the belief the world is whole, being wooed by “beautiful things,” lands us in a cozy bed of lies. It’s such a powerful kick-a poem.
One thing we haven’t talked about is how your daughter’s words pop up in several poems, questions she asks while driving around with you. I love how you attempt to answer questions like “What is the past?” in poetry.
People used to ask me “how do manage to write with two small children?” Yeah, it was exhausting and took up a lot of my time, but hundreds of poems came out of me. I’m curious to know about your pre- vs. post- motherhood writing life. What changed? What stayed the same?
MS: I joke that motherhood has given me twice the material and half the time. Spending time with my kids and watching them encounter the world for the first time has been incredibly eye-opening and inspiring. I hear a lot of “Mom, look!” And the object of wonder might be gingko leaves or storm clouds or a spotted slug on the sidewalk, but whatever it is, it’s caught their attention and therefore deserves mine. I love seeing the world through them, and seeing it anew. I can’t imagine experiencing this shift in perspective—let alone the existential shift of becoming a parent—and not seeing a change in my work.
The way you talk about the surfeit of wonder as your kids walk through the world—it is a wonderful thing to rediscover the clouds and slugs. Speaking of stealing from your children, the final poem, “Rain, New Year’s Eve” begins with your daughter’s amazing simile, “The rain is a broken piano, / playing the same note over and over.” I love how there’s this give and take—what she teaches you, what you’ve taught her. For me the poem builds to that moment where roughhousing with your son leads to a split lip. “Let me love the world like a mother.” The notion that there’s another generation—the piano is plinking along. Brilliant. It’s a heart-wrenching close to a heart-wrenching book, and yet I wouldn’t want it any other way. Congrats on writing it.
MS: Goodness, thank you! My daughter said that at age five, and she’s turning nine this month. I wrote it down right away—again, we were in the car—but it took me a few years to write a poem where that metaphor could live. “Rain, New Year’s Eve” is absolutely a 2016 poem. It was such a hard year for so many people, and the world felt so broken, which led me to think back to what my daughter had said years before, one New Year’s Eve, and about how even broken things have a song in them. We have a lot of work to do, but I have to believe we can do it. Despair is not an option.
I couldn’t agree more! Speaking of no time for despair, I would imagine you’re doing quite a bit of book promoting, aka helping people feel like there’s hope. Are you managing to find time to write?
MS: Yes, I’m traveling a lot in support of Good Bones, but I’m writing constantly. Planes and airports are wonderful places to work—just put in your earbuds, turn on some music, and go. I gave myself a little writing residency in Nashville when I was there for a few events in November, which was a real treat. I rented a cottage on a farm, and when I wasn’t at an event, I was holed up in bed with a pen and a legal pad. Every once in a while I’d hear the donkeys, goats, or dogs outside. It was perfect.
Oh, Maggie, it’s so great to hear that you’re finding time not only to write in airports but in places where donkeys bray. It’s been pure pleasure to learn more about your poetic mindset and process. I deeply appreciate your taking the time to chat with me.
MS: Thank you, Martha, for the fantastic conversation. I’m so grateful for your time and attention to the poems. I hope we’ll get a chance to chat in person before too long, too.
Martha Silano’s recent books include The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception (winner of the 2011 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize), Reckless Lovely (Saturnalia Books, 2014), and an expanded edition of What the Truth Tastes Like, her award-winning first collection (Two Sylvias Press, 2015). She also co-edited, with Kelli Russell Agodon, The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts For Your Writing Practice. Saturnalia Books will release Mission Boulevard, her fifth collection, in early 2019. Martha’s poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry, New England Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, and North American Review. She teaches at Bellevue College.
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