April 28, 2018
JOSH ANTHONY, CAYLIE HERMANN, KIMBERLY POVLOSKI, & TAYLOR WARING
A CONVERSATION WITH MAGGIE SMITH
Photo Credit: Devin Albeit Photography
Throughout her work, Maggie Smith presents vulnerability and softness that comes from someone writing a love letter to the very thing that is trying to destroy her—and everyone else. Smith pulls from fairytales, imagined natural disasters, and biblical stories, but reminds us that the dangers we face are often human. Without an edge of anger or despair, her poems balance love and fear and demand that the reader not lose hope, even when that seems like the most logical choice. Her precise and often mystical imagery and her unwavering lyricism encourage her readers.
Maggie Smith is the author of three books of poetry: Good Bones (Tupelo Press, 2017), The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (Tupelo Press, 2015), and Lamp of the Body (Red Hen Press, 2005). She is also the author of three prizewinning chapbooks. In 2016, her poem “Good Bones” went viral after appearing in Waxwing and has been translated into nearly a dozen languages. Smith is a 2011 recipient of a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She has also received six Individual Excellence Awards from the Ohio Arts Council, two Academy of American Poets Prizes, and a Pushcart Prize.
In a review of Good Bones for The Rumpus, Julie Marie Wade says, “I think if [Good Bones] has a moral, it’s about learning to grow where planted.” Smith was born in Columbus, Ohio, and remains rooted to her native Ohio today. She has taught creative writing at Gettysburg College, Ohio Wesleyan University, and in the MFA program at The Ohio State University. She’s currently a consulting editor to the Kenyon Review, and a freelance writer and editor.
Maggie Smith’s poems often feel as though they’re balanced on the edge of catastrophe, just trying to hold themselves (and their readers) in place. She explores the fears of childhood, the fears of motherhood, and the fear and excitement of being alive. Through this buzzing exploration of world-fear, she never lets her readers fall into despair, urging them that “This place could be beautiful, / right? You could make this place beautiful.”
We met with Maggie Smith in Spokane, where we discussed birds, the power of observation, writing within today’s political landscape, and mom poetry.
Good Bones has a lot of what you’d call mom poems, and I believe in an interview you said you’d never want to become a mom poet.
That’s true. I’m a poet who is a mom. And I’m a mom who is a poet. But I have a terrible fear of writing mommy poems, which I feel is a derogatory term for a subgenre of poems that are sentimental about one’s children. So I resisted writing about my kids for a long time. Or I wrote about them in oblique ways, hence the fairytales. I wrote an article for the Poetry Foundation about poets like Sharon Olds, Beth Ann Fennelly, Rachel Zucker, and Brenda Shaughnessy, poets who were writing about being mothers in smart, difficult, challenging ways, that weren’t just saccharine. Because that’s the trick: I don’t want to be saccharine about anything. I don’t want to be saccharine about birds, or about trees, or my grandmother, or my parents, or my kids.
The longest period I ever went without writing was the period after my first daughter was born. I just couldn’t do it. Part of it was sleep deprivation, and sanity, but part of it was, what am I going write about? The baby? Am I just going to be someone who writes about babies now? Am I going to write a poem about how much I regret this? Because I have postpartum depression and she screams all the time? Or am I going to wait until that passes and everything is hunky-dory, and this is the best thing that ever happened to me? Does anybody need that poem? Actually, people probably need the first poem. So it took me a long time, and writing The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, to get to a place where I felt like I could not just do justice to the experience, but be honest and do it my way. Being tender and acknowledging my love for them, but also not really writing about them.
The poems are more about me, more about the existential shift that comes with being in charge of other people in this world when I can’t even sort it out for myself. I don’t know how to process 21st century existence, but I have to because I have to process it for other people. That is the biggest challenge and what inspired a lot of poems in this book. How do I do this? The difficulty of it. The bittersweetness of it. And also, there is, let’s be honest, a gendered response to poems about children. I’ve said this before: when women write poems about their kids, they’re soft. When men write poems about their kids, they’re sensitive—and they end up in The New Yorker. It’s the same way you would never say a woman is babysitting her kids, but you might say that about their father. Something about that response really gets my hackles up.
You mentioned in an interview that your daughter wanted to be either a writer or a botanist. Do you think that urge to be a writer is hereditary, like a poet gene, or do you think it’s nurtured and you've nurtured it?
I definitely would not say that there is a poet gene. I’m the only person in my family who really did anything artistic, so I’m the anomaly. My son’s five now, but even as early as four, before he could write more than just his name, he took a writing notebook to preschool and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle pencil case with a pen. I said, “Why are you taking a writer’s notebook to preschool?” and he said, “You never know when you might have an idea.” He’s heard me say that, because I carry around a notebook or talk into my phone. Even if he can’t write, he thinks his ideas are valuable. I find that really moving, and Violet is the same way. She’s a bookworm. I brought her up in a house that’s obsessed with reading. I praise her a lot for her ability to read and tell a good story.
She actually said, “I’ll study plants during the day and at night I’ll come home and paint.” And I thought, first of all, I love you, and second of all, what you need to be a scientist and a writer, maybe an artist—they’re curiosity, attentiveness. You have to be observant and quiet and patient and really plumb the depths of the thing. It made a lot of sense: yes, study the cactus and then paint it and then write a poem about it. I think the botanist thing has kind of slipped. She told me the other day that she wants to write mystery novels when she grows up. She loves mysteries. I told her, “You might be the only writer in this family that makes money. You should totally do that.”
You’ve spoken previously about the hawk as a talisman, something that brings you good luck. Was there ever an experience that you had where you were able to observe this in action?
No magic has ever happened. I wish I could say, once I fell off the side of a cliff and a hawk came and lifted me up and carried me. That never happened. Growing up in Ohio, I used to do all of these backroad drives in high school, and every time I’d see a hawk, it was this amazing bit of wilderness. I feel the same way about deer and foxes. I see them fairly often. It’s an amazing thing to be able to live in a suburb or a city and see wild things.
So no, I don’t know what it was. It started in high school, and every time I’d see one I’d think, “It’s going to be a good day.” Now even when my kids see one, they’re like, “Hawk! It’s going to be a good day.” I don’t know why that bird more than others. . . . I’m very attached to crows also because they’re so smart. Birds in general. Somebody asked me last week, “What’s with all the birds?” Well, they’re the one bit of wilderness everyone gets to see all the time. Even if you don’t see deer or red foxes, you see birds, and they are wild. You might forget that because you see robins or wrens or sparrows or blue jays or grackles all the time. They’re wild animals you get to see regardless of where you live. We’re coexisting. And I love that.
My parents still get deer in their backyard even though they’re pretty deeply entrenched in the suburbs, and they still get herons and foxes. A creek runs behind their house in some woods, so I spent most of my childhood outside, using my imagination, collecting polliwogs and guppies and salamanders and just exploring.
It’s basically a stand of trees not much more than the width of this room, but when you’re five, it’s the woods. When you’re forty-
one it's just the trees in your parents’ backyard. But yeah, I was an explorer and a reader, and I loved art, and I really just wanted to spend the summer inside with a book. Not much has changed. If I had to choose a vacation, I would choose a cabin in the woods over a beach any day of the week. That’s where I feel at home.
Is your daughter the same way?
They’re both like that. But Violet just wants to read now. She’s reading To Kill A Mockingbird and I’m like, “Is that maybe too advanced?” She’s in third grade, but she seems like she’s really liking it. I figure if she has questions, she’ll come to me. We’ll see. She’s not as interested in being outside. But my son is obsessed. He wants to dig in the dirt and find bugs all day. He’ll bring them in to me. And every time I do the laundry I find acorns, rocks, dirt. His pockets are full of “nature treasures,” which is what he calls them. I’ve made the mistake of putting clothes in the laundry without checking the pockets before, and it’s like silly putty, stones, three rocks, three seed pods. I love that. That’s something I want to foster in them. That it’s all magic and it’s all around you, and you get to experience that all the time if you want to. So maybe you should go outside.
What were you curious about as a child?
Oh my god, everything. I was probably not the easiest person to live with.
Do your current curiosities come off in your writing?
Yeah, I’m writing some poems right now that were inspired by phrases in other languages for which there is no English word. For example, there’s an Italian phrase for dreamer that translates literally as “head full of crickets,” which I find really fascinating. If you explain that someone is a dreamer and in their own head all the time, you’d say they have a head full of crickets. What a metaphor. And in Yiddish the same idea is luftmensch, which translates literally as “air-person.” So I’ve been researching foreign phrases, building poems off of that.
Many of the new poems have to deal with language as language, and I’ve been trying to think of why that is. A lot of the poems in Good Bones are grappling with what to make of the world—so much I’m unable to articulate. That’s the real trouble, and I think part of that inability to articulate is pushing me into exploring other languages and the idea of the untranslatable, or the things we struggle to translate for ourselves, which is sort of what metaphor is, right? It’s a way of translating ideas. I find myself writing a lot of—I won’t call them nature poems, but poems about botany, poems about plants and flowers, and different kinds of trees and things. Then I thought, “Why am I writing nature poems now of all times?”
Somebody always asks me, “What is the role of the poet in these times?” And probably the answer that they don’t expect is, “To write poems about goldenrod and ivy,” but maybe that’s it. It’s a resistance to having to write a poem about anything else. Love is attentiveness—this is the only world we have, so I’m going to pay attention to things that give me joy. I’m thinking of that Brecht quote: “One cannot write poems about trees when the forest is full of police.” I feel myself pushing against that: don’t tell me what my poems have to be about, you know? The trees are going to outlast the policemen, and it’s not the trees’ fault that the policemen are there, and I can write about the trees if I want to. And maybe the policemen will make a cameo, but it’s not my job to ignore the trees to write about the police. Maybe to not write the overtly political poem is a kind of political act in itself, and the freedom to write about what we wish and to not give our poems jobs outside of just being poems, which I feel pretty strongly about.
You said in an interview with Upright Magazine that a lot of your work is concerned with vision and revision, orientation and disorientation, your obsessions—could you speak more about that?
Some of that has to do with still living in my hometown. I was saying this morning to my workshop that when you live in your hometown, these things become really important. Everywhere you go, you’re thinking, “Well, that used to be a. . . .” There are so many constants that I’m the variable, or my life is the variable. Being in the same place makes me notice changes in myself more than if I moved around a lot because then I’d be like, “Is it because I’m in a different place or because I have new friends or. . . ?” But no, it’s just me. I’m changing, and I know it’s me because I’m surrounded by the same people and the same place, so it's easier to tell those incremental differences. Thinking about Ezra Pound’s “make it new”—it’s a love/hate thing, staying in the same place.
Part of what I need to do to make it interesting is to never let it be the same place. That means always trying to see things that I didn’t see the day before or hear things that I didn’t hear the day before. That’s part of what I’m doing with my kids, constantly asking, “What does that bird sound like to you? What does that tree look like to you? If you noticed the way your shadow looks today . . . and look at my shadow touching your shadow.” I’m always trying to see things and re-see things. It’s a way of keeping things fresh when I could get really bogged down in the sameness of my experience. I feel like a lot of people resist the idea of rootedness. You know? Like, “Well if I move, this change or this experience will give me so much more to write about.” But I’m still in my hometown and I find there’s no lack of material. Part of it is that constant, weirdly vigilant attentiveness to things.
Do you think that observance is something that isn’t taught as often as it should be?
I don’t think it’s taught at all. Is it? I think research is taught, which isn’t the same thing, right? If you’re taught research methods, it’s not about noticing things; it’s about reading and inquiring. I don’t think we’re ever really taught to observe. We either grow up as kids who do it or kids who really don’t. I’m not going to be that old person who’s like, “Kids now on their phones!” because I’m always on my phone. I’m always checking email, so I’m not anti-technology. But whenever one of my students says, “I don’t know, I can’t get any ideas,” I’m just like, “Put your phone down and take a walk. You will find something. Do you hear that? Do you smell that?”
I think a lot of times we don’t spend enough time looking up. We spend a lot of time looking in our hands and in our laps and we don't spend enough time absorbing. It’s not something that’s taught at all.
I think about what people do when they need a break. People who work long hours want to go to the beach. They want to go to a cabin in the woods. They want to unplug. People talk about unplugging as if it’s something you can only do one week out of the year. We all have time for half an hour, even if it’s at lunch, where you leave your cubicle and you walk around outside and maybe you listen to music. I need it. It makes me feel better, and it brings me joy. And even if I weren’t writing, I think I would still need it. I don’t think poets need more fresh air than the average person.
But are we taught to be observant? I think kids are taught much more to be compliant than they are to be observant. I’m not trying to teach my kids not to be compliant, but I’m definitely teaching them to question before blindly complying. Questioning and observing are two things that if we’re not teaching, we’re not doing anybody any favors. Those are high priorities for me. I hope my kids’ teachers don’t mind. “Oh yeah, your mom’s the poet . . . that’s why you’re always asking, ‘But why? But why do we have to do it that way?’”
Actually, my daughter had poetry in school, and when the teacher asked her to write a rhyming poem, her hand shot right up. She said, “My mom’s a poet and not all poems have to rhyme.” Like, don’t poet-splain your teacher. She came home and said, “I told her!” and I said, “Okay, you’re right, Violet. You’re right, you’re right, simmer down. But some poems do have to rhyme. There are forms that have to rhyme, so if your teacher asks you to write a rhyming poem, that’s a valid assignment and you should still do it. But maybe your next poem will be free verse. Not all poems have to not rhyme either.” But I love that she felt like she could assert herself regarding poetry.
In another interview you said that, often, you start writing a poem because of a “seed”—a line of dialogue, an image. You’ve already talked about untranslatable language. Are there any other seeds that are developing in your brain? Is there one in particular that you could share with us?
Well, I just finished a poem that I’ve been working on in some way, shape, or form for a few years. It’s not about Sandy Hook, but it references the idea of, “Why don’t we leave the flags at half-mast all the time?” I don’t understand why we even have kids go out into the snow in front of their elementary schools and move it down and up again when they just have to go back out the next week and move it back down. A couple days after Sandy Hook was my daughter’s birthday, and I had to drop her off at school and send her inside. I remember seeing the kids pulling the flag down, so I wrote some notes about what that felt like. Do the kids pulling down the flag to half-mast at an elementary school know that they’re doing it for kids who were shot at an elementary school? Probably not. They probably were like, “Flag Corps, you’re up!” and they sent them outside. I wrote that down, and I didn’t know what to do with it and so let it sit in a legal pad for two or three years. I just went back to it pretty recently and monkeyed with it for like a month and finally, finally finished it. Ilya Kaminsky just took it for Poetry International.
I’ve been working on wrapping my head around the idea for so long. How do you approach that idea? Of the things that we ask of our kids? Of what they know and what they don’t know. My daughter, I’m quite sure, doesn’t know that there’s ever been a school shooting. They have something called lock-down drills at her school in case a bad person gets inside, but I’m pretty sure based on things she’s said, she thinks the bad person’s there to steal computers or something. I don’t think she has any idea that the bad person could have a gun or that the bad person would want to hurt kids. And I’m not about to tell her that because I want her to go to school and not be afraid. But this is the kind of stuff, the high-stakes stuff, that as much as I would love to write about birds and trees, I can’t. Because I have to drop my kids off at elementary school where the flag is half-mast most of the time. For good reason.
A lot of this big stuff I have to sit with for a long time because I don’t want to bungle it. Somebody recently on Twitter was like, “Poets don’t have to be first responders.” You don’t have to write and publish a poem about a disaster the day after it happens. And I kind of laughed about it, but I think it’s true. We can be really clumsy about things if we’re not careful. Some poets do the political, post-disaster grief poem really well, even in the midst of it, but I think it never hurts to tap the brakes and take a breath and process it because some of this stuff is just so big.
As I was reading The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, I kept reading hints and murmurs of “Good Bones.” Do you feel like you’ve been writing the same poem? Could you talk more about that?
Yes, that’s so interesting. I didn’t realize that until the magic of the Internet, and someone posted “Good Bones” adjacent to a poem from The Well Speaks. And there was a hint of “Good Bones” in the last book: “What will you tell your son about this world? That children can be unzipped from the bellies of beasts? No one is out of danger.” Those are all cautionary tales, mostly, about bad things happening to children. That’s what fairytales are. So I think I was starting to go into that territory, and maybe that’s why “Good Bones” happened so fast. They say if you write something fast, it’s not because you were hit by lightning, but that stuff had been cooking in the back of your brain for a long time. Instead of saying it through the framework of fairy tales or some other persona or narrative, I think “Good Bones” was the first time I said it directly, as myself. There is no distance between the “I” and me in that poem; “life is short, though I keep this from my children”—that is how the poem started because that’s what I was thinking at the time.
I had my first child about halfway through The Well Speaks, and so suddenly the stakes went up. It all felt much more present and real to me. And when I was working on Good Bones, I had both of my kids. I was working out the same issues, just in the real world with real people and real stakes and without the . . . I’ve described it before as oven mitts—using persona or other received narratives as a distancing device for holding hot material without dealing with it in a really direct way. I was doing that through persona poems as far back as my first book, and then through a lot of third person narrative poems where I was writing about other characters in The Well Speaks. Then something just happened and in Good Bones I was like, “I’m going write these poems as close to me as humanly possible,” and so for most of those poems I took the mask off. Which is what made those poems so scary to write.
Do you think that unmasking had to do with having children?
I do. So Good Bones has two narrative threads running through it. One is the poems that are close to me, the “I” poems, and the other poems are the “hawk and girl” poems, the “he she” poems, and those poems—I had like forty of them—I had been considering as a kind of a novel in verse. And then the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of their being in conversation with poems that were a little more contemporary and a little bit closer to me because a lot of the subject matter is overlapping. It was also a bravery test for me, like wanting to do something different. I’ve done the other stuff before, so how do I do it my way, but push myself a little bit? I felt a little bit backwards. I think a lot of people start out writing autobiographical poems, and their work gets more experimental or more elliptical. My last book was a bit pushed away from me and more esoteric, and in this book I just stripped it all down.
I wondered if you’re a batch writer.
Like . . . series? Yes. Yes, I am. A lot of this started in undergrad, honestly, because I had deadlines. I’m not an every-day writer. I know some people are like, “Every day I write for an hour.” I do not do that. I try to do something every day in service of my writing, so that may be thinking, looking, listening, revising. It may be researching a magazine or sending something out. But it might not be working on a new poem. I just don’t quite work like that. So when I was in undergrad and I had to come to workshop, suddenly I had deadlines. I had to bring a poem in and share it. I thought, well what am I going to write about? And so I started working on series because it gave me a way of having something that I could pull from and do every week and know I always had a fallback. I did the same thing in grad school, which is how those Bible persona poems started.
“Delilah” was the first one I workshopped. It was based on a picture of my then-boyfriend having some woman cut his hair in Poland. He had really long dark hair. I was looking through some snapshots at his mother’s house, and there was a picture of this woman cutting his hair on a patio in Poland. I was like, oh, Samson and Delilah, which is why Poland is mentioned in a poem about Samson and Delilah, which otherwise wouldn’t make any sense. I had so much fun writing it. I thought, I’m going to do this again. I also think it helps us dive into our obsessions, to not write a one-off poem, but to really dig down into something, and ultimately, I end up being happy I did it because it helps me bring my books together when I have enough to make one. I’m always thinking, how can I pattern these throughout the book to make it feel like a book and not like just the sixty best poems I’ve written since my last book came out. A series is one way of creating an arc.
I like to work on a series, and I like to leaf it through the book. I think Disasterology is the only outlier, because one section is the movie-inspired poems and one section is other poems. If it had been a full length book, it wouldn’t be like that. In a chapbook there isn’t enough space to get away with that. But in a book, instead of having one chunk of the same thing and then another chunk of something else, I like the idea of having a series as support beams, a sort of scaffolding, and then you can leaf other things around them. I like that when I’m reading a book.
And let’s be frank: contest culture is brutal. When I’m editing books for other poets, I’m always thinking about the first fifteen pages. Because screeners and judges have a lot to do and a lot of manuscripts. What if you had a series of poems that you thought were really strong, and you put them in the front of the manuscript? The first fifteen pages might be the same kind of poem, over and over, which is great if that judge or screener happens to love that kind of poem. It is not great if they don’t. So hitting a few different major notes in the first fifteen pages, and yes, putting a lot of strong poems up front, is good. It’s not fun to see how the sausage gets made, but I do think, as poets, we have to think about this stuff.
You mentioned the contest culture being brutal. I think a lot of us are just barely stepping into it now. So maybe you could—
Buckle up. It is brutal. My first book, Lamp of the Body, was my MFA thesis with a couple of undergrad poems pulled in at the end, which my committee read and I don’t think realized I wrote them as an undergrad. When I left Ohio State, I sent out the book to like ten presses, at like twenty-five to thirty bucks a pop. I didn’t have that kind of money—who has that kind of money? We’re poets. And it won the Benjamin Saltman Prize, which was crazy fortunate, right? But it gave me a completely unrealistic idea of how easy it is to get a book of poems published.
The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison I sent out for almost five years. I think it’s a better book. It was a runner up or a finalist for every prize I sent it to: National Poetry Series, Cleveland State University, Barnard Woman Poets Prize, Green Rose, etc. It was like: bridesmaid, bridesmaid, bridesmaid. Thirty dollars, thirty dollars, thirty dollars. I don’t know if I broke even. I had one offer on it about halfway through that I ended up turning down because I didn’t like the distribution agreement. And I don’t regret that because I’m also not an academic, and I felt no pressure to publish. I really wanted to wait for a “jump up and down when I got the phone call” situation because I didn’t need it for tenure. I just wanted people to read the poems. So after five years, I got a call from Jeffery Levine at Tupelo that Kimiko Hahn had chosen it. One book got taken right away, and the next took almost five years.
Were you editing the manuscript?
I would add a couple new poems and then take a couple old ones out. This is going to sound so crazy, but it’s true. Near the end of the long nightmare, of me sending this book out over and over, I had a dream. And this is true. This is the magic, not the hawk. I had a dream that I took it back to basically draft one, and in the dream I was like, that was so smart, it was so much stronger before I started monkeying with it and putting in all the new poems and getting away from the original premise. I woke up in the morning, and I was like, “Oh that was so smart . . . I’m so glad I did that. Wait, I didn’t do that, that was a dream.” So I ended up actually going back in, taking out a bunch of the new stuff, going back to some earlier versions, and thinking about what made me write the book in the first place. I wanted to get back to some of the original integrity of the manuscript, with a few new poems at the end. That was the push. It came to me in a dream. I listened. And I think that was smart.
Has that happened ever again?
No, never. Most of my dreams are terrible nightmares where buildings are falling on me. So if I ever get one about poems, I listen.
And then in the winter of 2015, I sent Good Bones to Tupelo, and in the spring they took it. And that was six months before the poem “Good Bones” went viral. It was called Weep Up, the name of the first poem in the book, even into cover design. Then, April of last year, the poem was on Madam Secretary, and a week or so later, Meryl Streep read it at the Lincoln Center. My press was like, “We need to talk about this.” It seemed to them a missed opportunity, so that’s when the book changed titles.
But yeah, the contest circuit is brutal. I describe it as a many chambered lock and each chamber is like a level of the review process—the first screeners, the second screeners, maybe the editors, maybe the final judge. To get your book to go all the way through, they have to line up just perfectly, and if one is slightly turned, your book won’t get through.
If I’m helping an organization screen, I’m not just sending along art that confirms my own aesthetic. We don’t need that. We should be sending on the most interesting, the most fully realized. Does this book deserve to be in the world? What’s the urgency of this book? Which book do you most want to see in the world? And, unfortunately, there’s usually only one, or maybe two, or maybe three, that get picked out of thousands of worthy manuscripts, good, whole, well-written, strong manuscripts. It’s heartbreaking. I don’t take it lightly because when I read for a press and I have to put something in the no pile, I’m putting that in the no pile remembering that somebody put years of their life into that manuscript, and you’re in charge of sorting it out. That’s a weighty responsibility. But yes, it’s brutal for all those reasons and more. I wish there was some other model. I wish more presses had open reading.
It’s really hard not to be swayed by the prestige culture in poetry sometimes, so I think that’s great advice. It seems like a lot of times we’re in competition to be acknowledged or to be published in what we consider fabulous, “prestigious” journals. That can be very discouraging.
You know, it’s funny. “Good Bones” was published in Waxwing, which was then a small online upstart managed by two guys and a woman who have babies, who live in different parts of the country. It’s still relatively new. And the poem was rejected by a couple of, as you say, very “prestigious” places before they took it. But the prestigious places that rejected it were print journals. And none of this would have happened had one of those print journals published the poem. It wouldn’t have gone viral. Not as many people would have read it. It would have been a poem only read by those subscribers.
The older I get, the more interested I get in readership and sharing. Online journals do that in a way that some of those old-guard print journals can’t. They just don’t have the readership. And granted some are having online components now, or will share online. And some of them have strong social media presences, which is great. Now, if someone gave me a choice, I would rather have a poem online. Because it’s easier to share. I mean, isn’t it about having people read the poems?
Something you said—when you’re reading manuscripts, you’re looking for things that are most urgent for readership. What do you mean by that? Or what do you think is urgent right now?
It could be anything. I’m never looking for anything in particular. That’s important to say because it might be easy to think that poems that are somehow grappling with our current moment should be considered more urgent than poems that aren’t, but I’m looking for the poems that are the best. And “best” can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But in the moment, can I not keep coming back to this poem? Can I not imagine that this person’s manuscript would sit for five years or ten years and not get published? Do I want to own this book and have it sit on my shelf? Do I want other people to hold this book? Do I feel like it’s important for me to help shepherd this thing into the world? Right? Because that’s what you get to help do whether you’re the final judge or whether you’re reading the slush. You’re one of those chambers in the lock. Whether I’m reading magazine submissions or book manuscripts, I’m always thinking, what needs to be out there? And it’s never the same type of poems. That’s what excites me the most. It might be really experimental—like the language is doing something that I never would have thought to do in my own—and it might be something political, and it might be something tender and elegiac. Maybe it’s that you know it when you see it.
In talking about urgency, you might have answered this a little bit, but what makes a poem political? Is it just the urgency? Is it the topic? You write a lot of nature poems, but that can be a canvas for a reader to extract something political.
They can come in different shapes and sizes. I think of a poem like “A Small Needful Fact” by Ross Gay about Eric Garner. That’s a very clear and needful and necessary poem. You know what it’s about. It’s not cloaking itself in anything else. Some of Danez Smith's poems are so masterful, and handling super-hot, burning subject matter so well. I have a hard time doing that. When I think about political poems, if I try to do it, I worry I’ll bungle it. That’s the problem. A lot of us do. Part of the issue is that whenever we come to the page with an agenda—like, “I’m going to write a poem about school shootings, I’m going to write a poem about the need for gun control, I’m going to write a poem about race relations in the 21st century”—it’s so big that we’re giving the poem a job other than just being a poem.
Instead of just observing.
Yes. I think that’s the only reason I was able to write the poem about the flag being at half-staff. The only reason I gave myself permission to write that poem is because the seed for that poem was an observation about kids in winter coats standing in the snow, moving the flag down after Sandy Hook, at my daughter’s school. And thinking, I don’t know how to process this. What do they know? What are they telling my kid? And how do we do this? But I couldn’t have written that poem without that observation. If I hadn’t ever seen that image, I don’t think I ever would have accessed the poem because it would never be in my nature to write down. I really start with an image or a metaphor or an idea or a question or a problem, and then the poem sort of works itself out from there.
I might get to a political place based on whatever that image is, or a place that could be read as political, or timely. “Good Bones” was an example. I wrote that poem in 2015, long before the Pulse nightclub shooting. And I remember some reporters here and in the UK erroneously saying that it was written in response to the shooting, which was just not true. I never would have written a poem in response to the Pulse nightclub shooting. That’s not what I do. And I wouldn’t know how to do it except in a way that was really inelegant. After something bad happens, I want to cry, I want to donate to causes, and I want to act. But I don’t want to write a poem. To me, those are like different kinds of activism, and that’s not my wheelhouse—although, for some poets, it is.
What makes a poem political? In some ways, it’s how you read it. There were probably poems written during World War II that maybe don’t feel like political poems, but when you consider the time and space in which they were written, they take on a different kind of resonance. And I bet there are poems being written today that people will read in thirty years and feel like, “Oh, that’s got this all over it.” Disasterology was written in the beginning of the “War on Terror,” and that was the framework for why those doomsday poems were so important to me. We’re always writing from within the framework of our politics or fears or anxieties. We’re writing in our times, and for different poets and in different poems, it can express itself in different ways. Sometimes it might be about the police, and sometimes it might be about the trees.
So The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen is written pre-9/11, though a lot of people say it feels like a post-9/11 book because it encapsulates a lot of the anxieties built into that time. I was really young at the time of 9/11, and I think a lot of us here were too. Could you talk about the change that happened around that time?
I grew up thinking that bad things happened other places. There’s a poem in Good Bones called “20th Century,” . . . “your horrors were far away and I thought I could stand them” is the line. That’s how I grew up. War doesn’t happen here. People don’t come here and attack us. We go there. That’s our M.O. It was such a weirdly vulnerable feeling to have that happen here. Everything was different—your feeling of safety in your own country.
It feels like a completely different world. It makes me a little bit sad that you don’t remember what the world was like before. Because I do. It was kind of nice. It was kind of nice to feel safe. Whether that was real—safety or perceived safety—is a totally other argument. Also, the privilege of feeling safe in your own country is something that many other countries have never had. We really got knocked down in that moment, in not a metaphorical way. So yeah, writing about those movies was a way of addressing some of those things. But again, I didn’t want to sit down to write a 9/11 poem. I didn’t want to write a Towers poem. At the same time, I didn’t feel, especially at that moment, that I could write poems about trees. It was really hard. I just didn’t know what to do. How do you write? Writing the end-of-the-world poems was a way of me writing my way through that initial shock. “Oh, so this is the world now.”
I think there’s a poem in that chapbook called “Green”—did it make the chapbook? I don’t know. It’s about the color code system and how green was the safe color code, but the reason that the color code system was needed was because there was no more safety. So they named green, but we’d already lived all the green we were ever going to get. Before we even knew it existed, the green that you had had until the fifth grade was gone, and we didn’t even know we were living in it, and we weren’t even soaking it up, because we didn’t know we had it. That poem was an elegy to the time we didn’t know was—we didn’t know we were on a clock. And maybe we should have. Maybe some of us did. But I didn’t know we were on a clock.
I wrote Good Bones before the election cycle. The world I’m talking about trying to love while I’m reading it now feels like “Trump’s America.” But I didn’t write those poems in Trump’s America. I didn’t even write those poems in Trump’s election era. I had no inkling that he was going to run for president when I wrote those poems. I just thought the world was a fraught, dangerous place, which it was; it’s just more fraught and more dangerous now. Those poems are speaking to a moment—like you’re saying The Corrections is speaking to a moment coming down the pike—that I didn’t even see coming. Now the book is out, and I’m traveling all over and reading from it. I say I’m trying to love the world, but my god, it’s a mess.
Poor green! We really should have enjoyed that more. Maybe in writing poems, we’re making our own little greens. I feel like all the time I’m trying to dig up some sort of artifact from the unspoiled past. And maybe that’s why birds, and that’s why trees. When everything else feels tenuous, there’s these things that were here before us, and before all of this stuff, and those things will be here after us. And somehow the serene permanence of those things I find really grounding in all this flag-hoisting mayhem of our current times.
Finding a kind of security through poetry.
Yeah. Even in language. It’s an anchor. The only thing that’s been constant. I’ve had my kids for nine and five years, but I was writing poems before them. That love of language and also love of nature, really, love of the world, and love of family, whatever that looks like, have been things that pervaded and lasted through everything. I don’t know how to not include that stuff in the poems. That would feel really strange. To only be political, for example, and ignore what gives me joy. I really want to be able to glean some joy. We deserve it.