I’m so exciting to be sharing my interview with renowned poet, Maggie Smith. Maggie Smith is the author of three prizewinning books: Lamp of the Body, The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, and Good Bones, the title poem from which went viral internationally and was called the “Official Poem of 2016” by PRI (Public Radio International). Smith has received a Pushcart Prize as well as fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Sustainable Arts Foundation, the Ohio Arts Council, and the Academy of American Poets. Her poems have appeared in the New York Times, Tin House, APR, The Believer, The Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Best American Poetry, and on the CBS primetime drama Madam Secretary. You can purchase her latest book, Good Bones, here.
Why poetry? Why do you write? What has kept you connected to this genre?
I write because I can’t not write. When I see a tree or hear car tires on a rainy street, I am immediately trying to access the language I need to in order to write about it. As I experience things, I am grasping for the words. It’s my nature.
You speak a lot about children and motherhood in your latest collection Good Bones. How has being a mother changed you as a poet and an artist? What do you think we writers can learn from children and the questions they ask?
Nothing has changed me more as a person—and therefore as a writer—than becoming a parent. It’s an enormous, electrifying (and yes, exhausting) shift. I’ve learned from them to see the world anew, to stay in touch with my curiosity and sense of wonder, and to prioritize play—in life and on the page. We can all learn from the beautiful minds of children. They are all poets.
Why do you think the world needs poetry? What does poetry give to you that other genres do not?
I can’t say why—or even if—the world “needs” poetry. I can’t speak for anyone other than myself. But I know that I need it. I don’t go to poetry to be comforted, even though I sometimes find comfort. I go to poems to be challenged, to savor the language, and to be changed. Who doesn’t need to be challenged and changed?
Can you speak about your writing journey? What brought you to this moment in time as a writer? What is your writing process like? Has it differed with each poetry collection?
I tend to work in spurts—a lot for a few days, and then nothing perhaps for a week or two, even a month—and I tend to work by accruing smaller bits to eventually make a whole. I may write down a line, image, or metaphor that comes to mind, and often I set it aside. I may come back to it later and try to build on it, or I may jot something else down later and then realize that it wants to be in conversation with that earlier idea. This has pretty much been my process all along: one poem at a time, piece by piece.
What is some of your favorite writing advice to give to young poets and aspiring writers?
The first piece of advice I give anyone who says they want to write is “read.” Read often, read widely, read against the grain of your own taste. I think that spending time with beautiful sentences day after day gives a writer an intuitive sense of syntax, structure, and turn. I also advise writers to spend more time outside or at the very least, at a window. A walk—or a long drive, or a flight (especially in the window seat)—always kick starts my writing brain.
If you could speak to your younger self, what advice would you give her?
Do not be afraid to fail. Do not give up. And in the words of Kim Addonizio, “listen I love you joy is coming.”
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