You may know Maggie Smith’s name from “Good Bones” her poem that went viral last autumn. Or perhaps you know Smith from her new book of the same name. Her poems are inquisitive, influenced, in part, by her kids’ questions about the world and how it works. Gentle while still being frank and honest, her poems interrogate some of the darker questions of motherhood, infertility, and postpartum depression.
Smith lives in the Ohio city she grew up in, and has watched it change over time. Many of her poems chart this question of change and growth, while remaining suspicious of nostalgia and easy answers.
I Skyped with her about her kids, reactions to her viral poem, and hawks.
The Rumpus: The first thing I noticed about Good Bones was the dedication to your mother, and that the first poem is about the speaker’s daughter—your daughter—and her first foray into language. In the sixth line the speaker says, “I become my mother.” There’s a tri-generational thing happening in the entire book.
Maggie Smith: I feel now like a hinge between generations, which is strange. It just happened recently. I think it’s because my daughter is so much like me at her age. I feel like I’m reliving my own mother’s experience of raising me.
Rumpus: Did you ask your mother as many questions as your kids ask you?
Smith: No, I was thinking about this yesterday. I took my kids to the Conservatory and we were having all these interesting conversations and I thought, I didn’t talk to my mom like this. But my mom is not a poet. She’s a numbers person. I probably had the same questions but we didn’t talk about it the way my kids and I talk about it. We weren’t constantly making metaphors.
Rumpus: There are a few poems that start with what I assumed were your children’s questions.
Smith: They’re my daughter’s questions from the car. I thought, “Do I need to say Violet age 3 or Violet age 4.” I thought about whether I needed to clarify those epigraphs, but I hope it’s clear.
Rumpus: It was clear to me because it seems like throughout the collection there are these questions or musings from your children in the body of the poems. Your daughter really does act like a poet in the world, poking at things and interrogating them.
Smith: I joke that she is my muse, but for the first year of her life I didn’t write at all. I think it’s because I was so resistant to the idea of becoming a “mother poet” and writing “mommy poems.” The experience, the existential shift of being the grown-up, was strange for me. I wasn’t sure how to write about that. I couldn’t wrap my own head around it enough to process it in a poem. It’s taken me a long time to write as a parent and to write their experience. My kids are really learning everything from scratch. It’s our job to be their tour guides and camp counselors and orientation people. That’s a weird responsibility, especially in a world that feels as good as it feels bad.
Rumpus: That reminds me of “First Fall,” when you write, “I’m your guide here” and that your children only know things “because [you’ve] named them.” It’s very Dante-Virgil, that relationship that you have with your kids.
Smith: That is one of the oldest poems in the book, one of the first I was able to write about her. Because it’s more about me, really. A lot of writing about being a mother is not so much writing about the kids themselves. They become placeholders for the shift that happens when you’re suddenly in charge of other people. There are responsibilities which are parental responsibilities and those are the types of things we prepare the next generation for, but no one tells you how to answer the kids’ questions in the backseat of the car when they want to know what the world is for or where they came from or why any of this is happening. That’s the stuff no one prepares you for, and you have to think on the fly. My daughter can read now, but it’s not like she’s opening the New York Times on Sundays, so I’m able to keep a lot of things from them, but not everything.
Rumpus: What’s the last hard question your daughter asked you?
Smith: I don’t know. It’s funny, she doesn’t ask as many now. I think she feels like she can figure things out on her own, or she came to the realization that I don’t have the answers. Kids at three and four, they really think of you as some kind of oracle, and they think there’s some kind of definitive answer and you are the person who must have it. I find myself answering a lot of questions with, “Well, that’s a science question,” or, “That’s a history question and Mommy knows a lot about some things but not about other things. If you had a question about sonnets [I could answer], but for a question about the Jurassic period, we should find a book or look it up on the Internet.” So now we’re into research mode, rather than quick-answer mode.
Rumpus: It’s nice that they can be your guide into the world your poems explore and how to explain that world to others. I really like the word “hinge” that you use because it’s so apparent. You’re really having a dialogue, not just they ask a question and you answer, but it’s something that goes back and forth.
Smith: Those poems, the sonnet-esque poems, they’re not really sonnets. I call them “nonnets.” I mean, they’re fourteen-line poems that have a rhetorical turn around line ten. They’re lazy sonnets. They’re non-sonnets. The questions are real questions, but those answers are not the answers I gave my daughter in the car. Those are all my meditations thinking through her questions, learning about how I feel. I think there’s one poem “Leaves,” and the first sentence is exactly what I told her in the car. Which is something like, “Trees stop needing the leaves so they let go and people built this car.”
Rumpus: And that’s the poem that ends with “On second thought.” That seems to have the most distinct turn of the “nonnets.”
Smith: That’s an actual conversation we had in the car. She asked, “How did God build this car?” My kids were in preschool at the Jewish Community Center, and we’re not a religious household. But they hear about God, which doesn’t get reinforced at home, and so they would come home from preschool with all these ideas. And I would think, “Oh, someone told you that God made everything but no one told you that God didn’t make this library.” So how do we have that conversation? So then we get into a lot of “Some people believe…” Oh! I know the hardest question Violet asked me. She asked me in the car, on the Fourth of July, “Why do people put water on babies when they’re born?” And I said, “That’s called baptism. We did not do that for you. Christians believe when babies are born…” and I was trying to think, well how do I say some people think it saves your soul?
Rumpus: And what a factual way to think about it! Why do people put water on babies? If you had seen it happen, that’s exactly the language you would have for it.
Smith: Yeah, and she said, “Well, that doesn’t make any sense. Why water?” And I said, “Well, it’s a Christian tradition.” And she said, “Why wouldn’t you put honey on a baby because they’re sweet?” And I said, “This is very wise,” and she said, “I would want cake on me,” and I said, “It’s not about snacking.” Then she said, “Well, for people who don’t do that, their babies don’t go to heaven?” And I said some people don’t believe in heaven. It opens up a whole can of worms. It’s every day. Every day is an adventure. I think we ended up having a talk about how if we had all the answers, life wouldn’t be very fun because it would be like reading the last page of the mystery and then you would know exactly what’s going to happen. The fun of life is not knowing what’s going to happen next and not having all the answers and making meaning where you find it.
Rumpus: There are a few poems in the collection seemingly of a different time. I thought perhaps they had to do with stories your daughter was reading.
Smith: My editor wanted to know if people would understand those and I said, I don’t know but I’m not going to explain it. There’s a series of “Hawk and Girl” poems that I started writing when I was at a residency at Virginia Center for Creative Arts. I met a visual artist there named Katherine Fahey who was working with paper. She makes these things called “Crankies.” It’s an old-fashioned wooden box with Tyvek paper. She scrolls through one side and scenes roll by, and she tells a story or sings a song that goes with it. It’s like an early movie or an old-fashioned puppet show. She makes puppets that move behind the scene. When I was there I went to her studio and saw this crankie that she made about a midwife who lived in Vermont named Elizabeth Whitmore, a real woman, in the mid 1700s, and her husband was a tinker. He would leave to go find work on the other side of this mountain, and so for a period of time he left her and her two-year-old daughter. Since she was a midwife, the two of them would travel around and take care of other people and help them have their babies.
When I was at VCCA, I watched this and thought, “That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen! I’ve never seen anything like it.” I was inspired to write a poem about these characters. And I imagined the character of this hawk that acts as the guardian angel, but not really. To keep someone in shadow all the time, there’s a darker side to that. But the character of this hawk is so curious about the girl, because he’s never seen a child, so he follows her around. When I came home from VCCA, I wrote another poem and another poem and another poem. Then I wrote in the husband coming back. And then I wrote in the son, who doesn’t exist in the real story, but I have a son. As it turned out, I used those poems to write about some things that I wasn’t quite able to write about as myself yet. Somehow writing these very distant, third-person poems where the characters are “the girl,” “the woman,” “the man,” and “the boy” enabled me to have enough emotional distance that I basically wrote autobiographical poems using them as a frame. And when I finished them I thought, I don’t want to have a collection—I had enough for a book, I had about thirty of these poems—and it just felt too monotonous. It felt flat and very “project-y” and at that point I had begun to write direct, first-person poems about having miscarriages and about my own children in a way I hadn’t been able to before and so I thought, “Can I just braid these things together chronologically in the book?” It dovetails. The poems I’m writing directly about infertility or miscarriage are weaved in with that story. They live side by side.
Rumpus: There are ways in which the characters in the 1700s poems are archetypal. And the hawk travels through the whole book. You say the hawk is your talisman.
Smith: Hawks have always been, even when I was a teenager, good luck for me. So if I’m on a road trip and I see a hawk on a post, I know, like, “Okay, we’re gonna be fine.” The hawks show up in a lot of the Ohio poems because I see them all the time. And crows and grackles and all kinds of birds, too, but I think that’s probably why I created the hawk and the boy—and I was writing many of these poems at a time when I wasn’t even sure if I would have another child, so the sense of needing luck. Inventing the boy in the story was a way of rewriting my own narrative, and to say “My gosh, he’s here and he’s safe.” I didn’t want to say too much in notes about specific people. When Kathy sent me history on this woman and her daughter, I didn’t read it because I didn’t want to be swayed by the actual life of this woman. I just wanted to use her art as the jumping-off point and go straight out into my imagination and not worry about staying true to her story.
Rumpus: I want to go back to what you said about the hawk and its shadow. You mentioned good luck symbols, but also that there can be something ominous about it. I think this is representative of a line you’re often toeing in your poems. Your daughter isn’t reading the New York Times, but there’s a certain number of things she knows, and a certain number of things you keep from her.
Smith: Yeah, but I think this book is my most optimistic. Which is strange—I’ve always thought of myself as someone who writes out of difficulty. And I did do that, but I came out on the side of light more often than not. The structure of the book [shows that] and the ending note of the book lands on that light. We’re trying—I think that’s really what this book is about. We are as much blessed by that hawk as we are in its shadow. We can’t escape the shadow, so the best thing we can do is notice the light and be open to it. I want to say “especially right now,” but I don’t think it’s especially right now, I think it’s always. It’s easy to get bogged down in bad news. I’m definitely guilty of it. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. The twenty-first century is so rotten, but the twentieth century wasn’t that great either. The twentieth century was easy for me because I was young in it. I didn’t have parental awareness. I was a twentieth century child and I’m a twenty-first century adult raising twenty-first century children. I’m a century hinge. My mom is a twentieth century parent and my kids are very twenty-first century, and I’m sort of straddling it. Part of where I want to land with this book is hope. I feel a shift happening. I think that’s parenting.
Rumpus: You talk about still being in Ohio after growing up there, but things have changed. I can’t think of a way to explain this analogy that happens in the poems, but there’s this idea of cutting something out, like a shape. There’s both what remains of one thing and the new thing that comes of it. The passage of time that has made Ohio something different, or in the poem “The Crows” there’s this meditation on an idea that, “the girl would rather be pulled from the crows than pulled from another’s body,” or in the poem “The Stitches” we have this idea of mutation over time.
Smith: Yeah, it’s funny. The area of Ohio I grew up in, the passage of time means it’s a different place. And the area I grew up in, if you went a mile from my parents’ house it was cornfields. We would go out there in high school and have the place to ourselves. And were we trespassing? Yes, we were trespassing, but no one was there to call us on it. Now it’s all strip malls and streets and a giant mall. The childhood I’m offering to my kids can’t be the childhood I had.
Rumpus: Well, you’re trying to “sell them on the world.”
Smith: Right, for many reasons. And one of those reasons is I’m not my mother. And so I’m not raising my kids in the same way. I don’t respond in the same way. We don’t spend our days in the same way because I don’t necessarily enjoy the same things she likes to do. We’re kind of starting from scratch even though I live in my hometown. Which is a weird, again, kind of hinging thing. Where in a way you would think I would be reliving my own childhood, but in other ways I’m just “making it new” in that Ezra Pound way.
Rumpus: What was it like to have your poem go viral?
Smith: Wild! I mean, I’ve said this a million times now, but I wrote that poem in half an hour in a Starbucks. The poem felt so fast in a way that most of my poems aren’t. I tend to revise multiple, multiple times and work on different documents and compare. So that poem in particular going viral freaked me out. The fact that it had the word “shithole” in it really freaked me out. It’s the first time I’ve ever cursed in a poem and I thought “Oh! This is the one?” But also, I could not have imagined [it]. When I wrote the poem two years ago, none of the things that made the poem go viral had happened yet. So the fact that it was published in a week when both terrible things in the UK and in the US happened and that it caught fire in both places simultaneously for different reasons. It was the perfect storm. And the fact that the size of the poem made it easy to take a screen grab of it, and share it. Without the Internet, none of that would have happened.
Rumpus: What were some reactions like?
Smith: When it first went viral it was in June and I was at Kenyon College teaching for a week, and so I was trying to do poetry workshop and during workshop breaks take phone calls and do interviews with the Guardian. And the BBC messaged me and it went to my spam folder, and I didn’t get it. And just really ridiculous, amateur-hour stuff. Because I didn’t see it coming. The sheer number of people who read the poem and the celebrity response was really strange. I would get messages from parents who just brought home newborns from the hospital and just during all of this they’re sitting nursing a newborn at three in the morning, watching the news, and it’s just bad bad bad bad. Hearing that something I wrote two years before was giving somebody hope two years later during this time—it meant a lot to me. I still joke that it’s a disaster barometer. When my Twitter starts going crazy it’s because people are sharing “Good Bones” and tagging me. It’s almost always because something bad has happened in the world, somewhere. I was in New York City a few weeks ago and I came back to my hotel after a reading at NYU and I opened my Twitter and it was nuts. I thought, “Okay, something bad has happened in the world.” And it was the Ariana Grande concert. And that’s how it is. It’s really strange to have the success of a poem be so directly tied to people processing grief. It’s a strange thing, because it’s a blessing and a curse. The best thing that happened, not to me as a person—I joke when people say, “that must have been the best thing that happened to you all year,” and I’m like, “Actually, I adopted a dog. So it’s not the best thing that happened all year.” But professionally “Good Bones” is the best thing that happened to me, of course. And the best thing that happened to me because of bad things happening to other people. And that’s something that I struggle with. It’s hard to be unequivocally happy about it.
Rumpus: I guess it’s strange that it takes up new resonances with new people who read it. The poem lives beyond you writing it in thirty minutes.
Smith: It doesn’t feel like mine anymore. Within a few months, it felt like it was in the public domain, if that makes sense. I don’t feel about that poem the way I feel about other poems, which feel uniquely me. You know like, a poem like “At Your Age I Wore a Darkness”—
Rumpus: That was my favorite poem of the collection!
Smith: I love that! If I could have a favorite, that might be my favorite, too. But that poem feels so unique to me and my daughter. And it’s very idiosyncratic and it’s just us, so it feels sort of intimately mine in a way that “Good Bones” doesn’t. “Good Bones” feels very universal. I think the writing of it is also universal. It doesn’t have specific details about my life. It’s written in a universal way. It’s more general. It feels weird, almost, that it’s part of this book because it exists in this other space now. I wrote this book long before any of this happened. That poem is buried in the back. When I wrote this book, the title was Weep Up and “Good Bones” was not my favorite poem in the book, and so it’s tucked away in a way that maybe readers will be surprised by, that it doesn’t get top billing. Because I didn’t revise the book after this happened. The title changed, but the book is the same.
Rumpus: It sounds like your hope for your kids is very genuine. Despite “the blue robe of suffering” and all that.
Smith: Oh yeah, “the blue robe of suffering.” Postpartum depression is no joke! Coming out of that, I thought, “Oh, okay, it’s really going to be okay, even if it’s not okay right now.” I think that’s funny about part of the postpartum experience is that especially if it’s your first child, you have no concept of that ending. You think, “Oh, this is my life now, I have a screaming, colicky newborn and I feel like driving off a cliff and this is my life? What did I do to myself? I should have just gotten a dog and a houseplant.” I remember very distinctly feeling that way, and I remember saying to my husband, “What have we done? I just don’t know why we did this because I feel terrible.” You don’t see the light on the other side of it. You have no frame of reference. How that child might grow out of that cranky behavior or how you might either shake off the hormones or be able to go get help and feel better and enjoy it more. I feel that very acutely, that sense of “Oh, okay, I thought it was all bad, but it’s not.” And is it all good? No. It’s not all good. I’m not here to say that life’s great, the world is great, and parenting is easy and fun. I mean, it’s not. It’s hard—life is hard and writing is hard. A lot of things are hard, but it’s not just hard.
Read four new poems from Maggie Smith here!
Author photograph © Studio127.