Stopping by with Maggie Smith
During this extraordinary moment in time, we asked writers, musicians, curators, and innovators to reflect on influence, memory, language, shared spaces, and the power of poetry to bring us together.
Maggie Smith is the award-winning author of Good Bones, The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, Lamp of the Body, and the national bestseller Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change. A 2011 recipient of a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Smith has also received several Individual Excellence Awards from the Ohio Arts Council, two Academy of American Poets Prizes, a Pushcart Prize, and fellowships from the Sustainable Arts Foundation and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She has been widely published, appearing in the New York Times, The New Yorker, the Paris Review, The Best American Poetry, among others. Her new poetry collection, Goldenrod, will be published later this month.
What is the last thing that moved you?
It’s probably not a surprise to people who know my work that I’m moved easily and often. Over the past few days, I’ve welled up or gotten goosebumps or had an “oof” moment thanks to many things: songs by Fruit Bats, Andy Shauf, and Widowspeak; episodes of Mae Martin’s terrific series Feel Good on Netflix; Elissa Altman’s memoir Motherland; and a beautiful conversation with Rhett Miller (with poems and songs!) celebrating the launch of Goldenrod.
What is your first memory of poetry?
My first ideas about poetry were probably born from music, listening to my parents’ record collection and repeating lines to myself: “Cellophane flowers of yellow and green / Towering over your head” and “Wordlessly watching, he waits by the window and wonders / At the empty place inside” and “Because a vision softly creeping / Left its seeds while I was sleeping.” I would listen to these records and write down the lyrics I heard (or misheard). I have my parents’ entire record collection in my house now, and many of the albums are terribly scratched from so much love over the years, but I can still listen to some of them.
What is a piece of art that changed your life?
There are countless pieces of art that have changed my life—changed me—but one that comes immediately to mind is this crankie by Katherine Fahey, an artist based in Baltimore. I met Kathy at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in the fall of 2011, as I was writing poems for my second book, The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, but was also beginning to write poems that didn’t quite belong in that manuscript. I watched Kathy perform this crankie there, and was transfixed. That night in her studio, watching and listening, ended up inspiring a whole series of poems in my third book, Good Bones. I am so grateful for her and her work, and glad we are still in touch. The cross-pollination made possible by interdisciplinary residencies is magic.
How has this last year changed you, and what is something that you will take with you into a post-pandemic world?
Every year changes me, some more than others. People close to me call me “sensitive,” but I like to think of myself more as “porous.” Or perhaps “susceptible to stimuli.” Haha. This past year or so has been an intense one personally—single parenting through a pandemic, releasing one book and finishing up another. But mostly I’ve been focused on keeping myself and the people I love most as well as possible, mentally and physically. I learned to let a lot of the little things go, and I hope to carry that forward. May I not pick up the little things I set down this past year because they were—are—not worth carrying.
Who or what is your greatest creative influence?
Questions. All the questions I have about myself and my life and this world, and for which I will never have answers.
If you were to choose one poem or text to inscribe in a public place right now, what would that be? And where would you place it?
I’ve been thinking a lot about a little piece of Clive James’ The River in the Sky: “I thought that I was vanishing, but instead/ I was only coming true”
It’s about reframing. I can imagine someone who feels a bit lost looking down and seeing that on a sidewalk square, or looking up and seeing it on a billboard or painted on the side of a building, and feeling like maybe something more is possible for them.
What do you see as the role of art public life at this moment in time?
A question I’ve heard asked a lot over the past year (but also in most hard years—which is most years, period) is “What is the role of the poet in these times?” I suspect the expected answer is something about expressing collective grief or outrage, or speaking truth to power, or providing comfort. But my answer is usually, “To do your work.” Any world worth living in and fighting for is a world full of art.
So we do our work, whatever it looks or sounds like, without expecting it to fix or solve anything, without expecting it to heal someone. We just do our work, and perhaps it will mean something to someone else, the way we find art that means something to us.
What do you want people to take away from your writing?
It’s funny—I don’t think it’s for me to say. That’s between them and the work. But would I be touched to hear that someone read a poem or essay of mine and felt a little changed? Or maybe a little less alone in the world? Of course I would.
Are you working on anything right now that you can tell us about?
Right now I’m working on couple of prose projects and a children’s picture book, but I’m always working on new poems, too. Poems always and forever.
Photo Credit: Devon Albeit Photography