Mary McMyne: It’s such a pleasure to have this opportunity to chat with you about your work. Let’s talk first about your most recent collection, Good Bones. Throughout the book, the speaker articulates the difficulty she has as a parent in “trying to love the world,” the need the speaker feels to “sell the world” to her children despite its obvious flaws. As a parent, I found these poems spoke to me very directly; the desire of any parent to help their child experience joy, despite the great sorrows of existence, is keenly felt. And yet in this collection, as in life, the world consistently gets in the way, forcing the parent to help the child compile “a long list/ of disappointments.” In this collection, “there is no such thing as safety—/only survival and the absence/of survival,” but there is still a “soft,/ bewitching world inside the world.”
The book ends with a prayer, an invocation of sorts, for the speaker to be able to “listen to the rain…” and hear the promise of what the world could become. This idea is a complex emotional concept, and the book as a whole serves as a meditation on it. Could you talk about how you arrived at this idea?
Maggie Smith: Yes, the book ends on a hopeful note, which was important to me, but I don’t see it as a grand, “it will all be okay” gesture. The rain in the last poem is likened to a broken piano, with its endless plinking that can hardly be considered music unless—unless!—we consider it a “beginner’s song.” If we remember what it was like to first learn an instrument, or to hear someone learning, then we remember that the what is at first off-key and unpleasant slowly becomes melodic. With practice, the notes come, and the beauty and complexity we seek in music. It speaks to me as a metaphor for living: we are all learning as we go, and we need to keep trying and be patient.
MM: Could you talk about how consciously you had to work to achieve the sense of equilibrium, or balance, between the positive and negative poles of this complex in the collection?
MS: For me, the book is full of the tension between light and dark, hope and despair. There is horror and there is beauty. They can muffle each other a bit, but they both continue to exist. Neither one triumphs in the sense that the other is eradicated. Hope “wins” in that we keep going, we keep finding beauty to pull us along, we keep seeing—in the world and in each other—things that sustain us. But most days it feels more like a draw.
I can’t think of a poem I’ve written that struck me as too optimistic, but I do sometimes feel the need to allow light in to an especially dark poem; not light to solve the poem’s problem or to somehow rescue the poem from its own mindset, but to add complexity. Because isn’t “everything is awful” less interesting, and also less accurate, than “so much is awful and so much is beautiful”?
MM: Absolutely. And I think there is an intricate relationship between the two poles of that tension, a relationship that is difficult to articulate without figurative language, which Good Bones really speaks to as a whole. The collection resonated with me almost the way a long lyric essay would, building an argument about that relationship in song. I’m really interested, actually, in finding out more about your process for sequencing the collection. Could you speak to that process a bit? At what point in writing the poems did you realize how they would be sequenced? How did you decide on their order?
MS: In that last question, I paused at the phrase “difficult to articulate without figurative language.” It struck me that most things are difficult for me to articulate without metaphor. And also without speaking with my hands—but that’s a different issue!
As far as ordering the collection, that’s one of the most exciting parts of the process for me, both with my own books and with other poets’ books I work on as an editor. I don’t have a sequence in mind as I write the poems. I welcome each poem as it arrives, do my best with it, and file it away. Then repeat, repeat, repeat—until I think I have enough poems to build something not only book-length but also cohesive. At that point I print everything out and begin the work of shuffling through the poems, seeing which ones seem to be in conversation, seeing what kinds of images and motifs repeat, and so on. I tend to make small piles of poems that seem to want to live together in the manuscript, and then I take those smaller piles and try to figure out the order they should appear in and then what transitions are needed to get from one to another. Usually the “transition poems” exist in the manuscript somewhere and just need to be moved into place. Other times a section divider is needed in lieu of a poem or poems. Very rarely I can see the kind of poem that needs to bridge the gap, and I task myself with writing it.
I am also thinking about the arc of the book as a whole—where it begins, where we take the reader next, and where it ends. I’m always asking myself about the emotional register in different sections of the book, and thinking carefully about what the emotional arc should be as well.
MM: In your collection The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, you often borrow narrative tropes, literary techniques, and images from fairy tales, a genre famous for all the horror and beauty it can simultaneously hold. As I read this book, I found myself more and more interested in the series of “Apologue” poems which begin and end with first lines and last lines from Hispanic folktales. In your notes, you acknowledge a debt in these poems to the book Tales Our Abuelitas Told: A Hispanic Folktale Collection by F. Isabel Campoy and Alma Flor Ada. Could you talk about what inspired you to write your own fairy tales bookended by lines from these folktales specifically? I’m also interested in how you conceived of the wonderful motif of addressing objects, people, and abstractions within these poems, such as, “Little Darning Needle,” “Little Hat the Wind Blew Away,” “Little Bride of the Mountain,” and “Little Operetta Composed in the Wrong Key.” Was that a trait of the folktales as well? Could you talk a bit about your process for writing these poems?
MS: I came across Tales Our Abuelitas Told when I was working as an editor and copywriter for a children’s book publisher. It was my responsibility to read the galleys of books for children and young adults and to craft catalog copy about each book. When Tales Our Abuelitas Told came across my desk, I was immediately taken in the turns of phrase, the imagery, and the differences in plot, character, and narrative style as compared to the fairy tales I’d read as a child (and the Disney-fied versions I grew up watching and now watch with my own kids). The tales come from an oral tradition, so the repetition of terms of endearment for the listener, or readers, comes from that tradition. Some of the terms of endearment I pulled from the tales—”Little Torn Shoe,” for example, is the English translation of “Zapatita Rota”—and others I invented, such as “Little Curio Lined with the Hearts of Men.” The stranger they are, the more likely I dreamed them up.
I wrote the first Apologue . . . and then another . . . and then another. I didn’t know it at the time, but those eight poems would later become the scaffolding for The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison—two Apologues per section of a four-section book.
MM: One of the most startling poems in this collection is the titular poem, in which a woman who “wishes a man dead and means it” poisons a well. Near the end of the poem, written from the point of view of the well itself, the well explains:
“I’ve done what I can. To stop the thirst
from hauling up my bucket, to warn the water-witchers
against divining here, I taught myself to speak.”
Could you talk about your choice of the point of view of the poem, and how this fascinating metaphor came to you? Particularly, I’m interested in why it is a woman who poisons the well in the first place, and the magical powers of the poison itself (“Who drinks of me/ now will be a tiger, then a wolf, then a roebuck./ Who drinks of me will tear his new love to quilt scraps/ eat himself sick, and flee to a mountain swaddled in fog.”).
MS: The inspiration for the title poem came from the Brothers Grimm. In the tale “Brother and Sister,” the dangerous water is in springs bewitched by the children’s stepmother, and those who drink from the springs will transform into various beasts. The girl tries to warn her brother, but eventually the rushing water speaks up. I loved the idea of a dangerous thing warning others of its dangers. The water, after all, did not choose to be deadly. It does not want to hurt the children. The metaphor here really spoke to me—particularly the self-disclosure, the honesty, the owning of even the terrible parts of the self.
MM: I’m also quite taken with “Unclassified Stars,” an incestuous reimagining of the Hansel and Gretel tale. Could you talk about your relationship to the source material for this poem, and what made you decide to retell the Hansel and Gretel story in this particular way?
MS: This poem is a special one in the collection because I wrote it as an undergraduate at Ohio Wesleyan University, in 1998. When I was in graduate school, I submitted it to the Fineline Prize at Mid-American Review, and Alberto Ríos selected it as the winner in 2001. I liked the poem but knew it didn’t belong in Lamp of the Body, my first book, so it sat quietly in a file, biding its time. When I began writing the Apologues and the other fairy-tale inspired poems for the The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, I remembered this poem and pulled it in.
Because the poem is twenty years old, I really don’t remember what inspired it. I had been writing almost exclusively prose poems in college, so I do have a frame of reference for the form, but none of the others were inspired by fairy tales. It’s funny—I remember very clearly bringing this poem to workshop and sharing it. I think it’s safe to say it was the only incestuous Hansel and Gretel poem they’d ever read. My professor, Bob Flanagan, was really supportive of it, despite its oddness—or perhaps because of it. When I teach poetry, I am always thrilled when a student takes risks with form and subject matter.
MM: Of course! It’s unbelievable that you wrote the poem so long ago.
How do you think your work has evolved over the years? Both as a result of parenting, and as a poet?
Do you have any advice for young poets—anything you wish you could tell the undergraduate-you who wrote that poem so long ago?
MS: It’s funny to think about work evolving when a poem I wrote at 21 fit really well in a book published when I was 40. Certainly motherhood and different kinds of loss have affected my work over the past ten years. But I’d like to believe—and I do believe—that there are more similarities than differences between my early work and my current work. I think my poems have always had a metaphor-based center of gravity. I think they’ve been imagistic and meditative and often grounded in place. Themes like memory, myth, perception, and the mother/daughter relationship have persisted from my first book through the poems I’m writing now, which will likely be part of my fourth book.
As far as advice for young poets: read. Read and read and read. Only when you spend a lot of time with beautiful, well-crafted sentences can it become intuitive, almost second nature, to wrote beautiful sentences yourself. And also persist. Be tenacious. Write, revise—doggedly, with joy, despite how difficult it can be—and repeat.