Poet Maggie Smith to Kick Off Spoken and Heard Series March 15

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Maggie Smith is the Bexley, OH-based poet who was recently rocketed to international acclaim with the 2016 publication of her poem “Good Bones,” which was called by the BBC and Public Radio International “the poem of 2016.” Smith has been published widely, having penned 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). Smith is also responsible for three prizewinning chapbooks. Her poems appear in Best American Poetry, the New York Times, Tin House, The Believer, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, The Gettysburg Review, Guernica, Plume, AGNI, Virginia Quarterly Review, among other places. 

On Thursday, March 16, Smith will be a part of the first Spoken and Heard event at the Dairy Barn Arts Center. The event has been organized by Athens poet laureate Kari Gunter-Seymour, and will also feature opening poet Deni Naffziger. The event starts at 6 p.m. and will run until 9 p.m. 

WOUB’s Emily Votaw spoke to Smith about how she started her writing career, what it was like to have “Good Bones” go viral in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting, and what a poet is supposed to do in the bewildering, terrifying, and deeply confusing year of 2018. 

Maggie Smith (Lauren Powers)

WOUB: When did you start writing?

Maggie Smith: I started writing poetry here and there as a teenager. I think that is when a lot of writers start writing as a way to try and sort things out for yourself, it feels like a very natural way to express yourself. I wrote in high school, but I started to write seriously and think of myself as a writer when I was in college – which seems kind of strange now, that I sensed that was the direction I was going in when I was 20 or 21 – but I went to grad school for poetry after that and have been doing it ever since.

WOUB: I wanted to ask you about your poem Good Bones going viral in 2016 – what was that like? I know that the BBC and Public Radio International called it the poem of 2016.

MS: That was very strange. I had written the poem very quickly, in 20 or 25 minutes in a Starbucks close to my house. I had just managed to get out one night after my husband got home and took over the kids. I thought ‘I’ll go out with my pen and my yellow legal pad and see if I have any ideas,’ and Good Bones is what came out. And that was a year before it was published, in 2015. It didn’t come out until 2016, and by then a year had passed and in the meantime I had written many more poems, so it really wasn’t in the front of my mind. I didn’t think it was a poem that would make a splash, and it was published alongside two other poems I had written. I had no sense that any of those poems would find an audience beyond people who regularly read poetry, which is a pretty limited audience. So when it went viral a year later in June after the Pulse nightclub shooting, it was shocking to me that, A) a poem could go viral; B) a poem of mine could go viral; and C) that it would be this poem, which I had written so quickly. I just didn’t see a poem that I had written so quickly as being the one that would take off, it struck me as odd, to be honest. And then it went viral again after the 2016 presidential election, which was shocking to me because after it had gone viral in June of 2016 I thought that it was over with, that things would calm down again. But that is not what happened, and now every time that something tragic happens, like a school shooting, my social media starts going crazy again. People tend to share the poem widely on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram when something bad happens someplace in the world.

WOUB: Why do you think the poem is so popular? Do you think that it speaks to some of the underlying anxieties of the past couple of years?

MS: It must. When I wrote the poem I wasn’t thinking of any specific tragedy or any particular event, I was just writing it as a concerned mother who is raising kids in the 21st century and who is concerned and worried. But, I probably would have felt the same way if I was raising kids 50 years ago. I don’t know what it is about this moment in time that feels particularly dangerous other than the fact that we are living in it. The past always seems less dangerous because we aren’t experiencing it. We have a tendency to say ‘oh, these times are so terrible,’ and yes, a lot of it is terrible – but you know, World War II also happened and that was awful, and parenting through that was terrible. I receive a lot of feedback from people who read the poem, through email, through direct messages on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, and often what they say is that the poem puts into words something they had been feeling but hadn’t been able to articulate. That means a lot to me because that is what other people’s poetry does for me. When I find a poem that says or expresses something that I have been struggling to crystallize for myself, that poem means a lot to me, and the fact that I have done that for other people is wonderful.

I don’t know what it is about this moment in time that feels particularly dangerous other than the fact that we are living in it. The past always seems less dangerous because we aren’t experiencing it. We have a tendency to say ‘oh, these times are so terrible,’ and yes, a lot of it is terrible – but you know, World War II also happened and that was awful, and parenting through that was terrible. – Maggie Smith

WOUB: I was wondering if you could speak on what role you think poetry plays in the public consciousness right now? Do you think people are more apt to connect with poetry since it is often presented in a shorter format, and people in general consume everything in a condensed format now?

MS: That’s an interesting idea. I don’t know. I think that on one hand we could say, yes, you can pick up a book of poetry and just read one poem and get a little taste, a little amuse-bouche, and you can choose to read the rest of the book of poetry or not. Or you can come across a poem on the internet and read it and it enriches your day, and you didn’t have to read a novel or a lengthy memoir and your day is still enriched. However, I think that unfortunately poetry is very intimidating for many people. Even if it is only ten lines long, often ties people look at a poem as though it was a puzzle or a riddle that they have to figure out, especially if they are not regular readers of poetry, they may feel as though they are not equipped to understand the poem. I wish that wasn’t the case. I do think that there is poetry for everyone. The analogy that I often use is that if you hear country music and you don’t like it, that doesn’t mean that you don’t like music, it just means that you need to hear a genre of music that resonates with you. And maybe that is hip-hop or indie rock or classical music, they’re all so different, and just because you dislike one, that doesn’t mean that you dislike all music. I feel the same way about poetry. If you have gone through school and the only poems you have ever read have been in an English textbook or have been poems that your teacher brought in, and none of those speak to you, that doesn’t mean that poetry isn’t for you, it just means that those particular poems didn’t speak to you, you just haven’t found your poems yet. I do think that social media is a great tool for disseminating poetry because in many cases poems are small, and it’s a way to expose people to a wide variety of poems very quickly. That way, people are far more likely to find poems that resonate with them, that speak to them, and that feel right and true to them.

WOUB: What do you think a poet’s role is in 2018?

MS: You know, I can only speak for myself, and I think that my job is not any different from the job of a poet 150 years ago: to make my art. I think that it is dangerous if we require our poems to jobs outside of being the best poems they can be. A poem can be an agent for social change, or light a fire under someone to do something, or make you more empathetic to people who are unlike you, and I think that those are amazing things. I try not to write a poem just to teach. I feel that if I do my job well enough, and make a poem strong enough to stand on its own, that is enough. I try to not be pedantic in my poetry. Just like I think that anyone’s job as a person is to be the best person they can be, and to try and make the world a kinder, safer place, I try to be the best poet I can be, to do the best I can at making my art and I try to let the poems come through as they come through.