Maggie Smith is the author of Weep Up (Tupelo Press, September 2017); The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (Tupelo Press); Lamp of the Body (Red Hen Press); and three prizewinning chapbooks. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the Paris Review, Plume, Ploughshares, the Kenyon Review, the Southern Review, and elsewhere. In 2016 her poem “Good Bones” went viral internationally and has been translated into nearly a dozen languages. The BBC/PRI called it “the official poem of 2016.” The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ohio Arts Council, and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, Smith is a freelance writer and editor.
TBL Author Q&A Series: Maggie Smith
This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!
How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path?
I began writing poems as a teenager, as many of us do, but I didn’t start writing seriously until college. By “seriously” I mean thinking of poetry as part of who I was. I had a creative writing professor, Bob Flanagan, who was incredibly supportive. His encouragement made me believe that I could be a writer, and that I could call myself a writer.
I came up with some really bizarre poems in the last workshop I took with my professor. The poems were part of my applications to MFA programs, and he never once questioned my choices. I felt absolutely free and uncensored, and I think the poems reflected that.
A few of those undergraduate poems I used for my MFA applications even made it into my books. “Doubting Thomas” and “Memoir, in Circles” were the first poems I had published, both in Poetry Northwest. These two poems were later included in my first book, Lamp of the Body. “Unclassified Stars” won the 2001 Fineline Prize from Mid-American Review, though I’d written it two years earlier as a senior in college. It became part of my second book, The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison.
You’ve published several books of poetry—what can you tell us about the publication process? How would you evaluate your own experience with getting your work printed? How has that shifted over time?
My first book, Lamp of the Body, was more or less my MFA thesis from The Ohio State University. I’d finished up there in June 2003, and over the summer I removed a couple of poems, added a couple new poems, and shuffled the order a bit. I sent it out to a handful of presses that fall; one of which was Red Hen Press. I learned in January 2004 that it had won the Benjamin Saltman Award, and would be published the following year.
My first experience with publishing was very lucky, but it also gave me a completely unrealistic idea about what it takes to get a book of poems published. I sent out The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison in various iterations for four or five years, and it was a bridesmaid over and over—a runner-up, a finalist—before Kimiko Hahn selected it as the winner of the Dorset Prize in 2012. The contest circuit can be frustrating and disappointing. It requires poets to be tenacious, and it requires deeper pockets than most poets have, as most presses charge a reading fee. I’m very glad that my next book, Weep Up, will be published by Tupelo Press, the same press that published The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison. It will be out September 1, 2017.
Can you discuss the themes and topics that entice and inspire you most? In what ways has your writing evolved throughout your career?
My poems have always been concerned with vision and re-vision; with orientation and disorientation, and how the daily is transformed into the archetypal. But now that I’m a mother, I find myself writing out of the experience of watching my kids read the world like a book they’ve just opened, knowing nothing of the characters or plot. They are seeing everything for the first time, and I am seeing it in a fresh way through them.
What/who are some of your greatest literary influences?
As a teenager, I began reading mostly poetry by women—Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Ann Sexton, Nikki Giovanni, Marge Piercy. Today I find myself returning to Brenda Shaughnessy, Beckian Fritz Goldberg, Kaveh Akbar, Sharon Olds, Charles Simic, Jamaal May, Mark Strand, Louise Gluck, James Wright, Natalie Shapero, Donald Revell…so many incredible poets. I’m reading all the time.
What would you say is the most important element for crafting a poem, or for discovering a new mode of creativity?
For me, the most important thing is to stay open and avoid self-censoring. Judgment comes in when I begin to revise and edit a poem, but I don’t want to be filtering things out or second-guessing myself as I compose. I think it’s important to stay open and get it all down first.
In terms of publication, is there something in particular that you look for when approaching different presses? The Well Speaks of its Own Poison, as well as your older collections, have all been published by different publishing houses. I wonder what factors played into choosing and developing relationships with presses?
So much of poetry publishing is based on contests, which requires poets to submit widely and hope for the best. Each of my published collections—the two full-length books and three chapbooks—won a prize at a different press. Weep Up, my next book, is the first collection that was not submitted to a press as part of a contest.
My advice for poets submitting manuscripts, whether it’s through a contest or an open reading period, is to do your research and choose presses that are publishing poets you admire. Ask other published poets about their experiences. I think most of us want the same thing: beautifully designed, well-distributed books that are marketed with enthusiasm.
What drew you to poetry over other genres of creative writing? Do you ever write fiction or non-fiction? Would you in the future?
I started out writing poetry, and that’s feels natural. Fiction—inventing people and places and situations—it’s magical, but it never clicked for me. I don’t know how people do it. I’ve always begun from the “I”; even if the speaker is an inanimate object, I’m bringing my own observations, impressions, feelings, and struggles to the poem. I enjoy writing personal essays, perhaps because of that “I,” and I expect to do more of that. It’s just a question of when I’ll have the time and focus.
Is there a particular achievement or experience that has opened up the most opportunity for your writing?
“Good Bones” going viral in 2016, without a doubt. I still can’t quite wrap my head around that.
What guidance might you give to fledgling writers/artists?
Don’t be afraid of your own imagination. Don’t revise the wildness and weirdness out of your poems. Seek out community. Be a good literary citizen: read your peers, signal boost, give back. And be tenacious. (This advice from artist Sol LeWitt is something I return to all the time, too.)
After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?
My goal is to keep writing, to keep carving out space for my work, whether it’s poetry or prose, and to hold that space. Otherwise life will come and fill it.
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