Interview by Nicole Melanson ~
Maggie Smith’s second book of poems, The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (Tupelo Press, April 2015), was selected by Kimiko Hahn as the winner of the Dorset Prize. She is also the author of Lamp of the Body (Red Hen Press, 2005), winner of the Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award, and three prizewinning chapbooks, the latest of which is Disasterology (Dream Horse Press, forthcoming 2015).
A 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow in poetry, Maggie has also received four Individual Excellence Awards from the Ohio Arts Council, and fellowships from the Sustainable Arts Foundation and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She lives with her husband and two children in Bexley, Ohio, where she works as a freelance writer and editor.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?
I began writing as a teenager, but my first national journal publication came in 2000, right after I’d graduated from college. I’d applied to the MFA program at the University of Washington, and one day I received a handwritten letter from the poet David Wagoner, who was then the head of the creative writing department there and also the editor of Poetry Northwest. He wanted to publish two of the poems from my grad school sample in the magazine. I was thrilled. I didn’t end up selecting UW for grad school—I chose The Ohio State University instead—but both Wagoner’s praise and the publication in Poetry Northwest were really important to me. These things boosted my confidence. They told me I was doing something right.
WHAT IS YOUR LATEST BOOK OR CURRENT PROJECT?
My second book of poems, The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (Tupelo Press, April 2015), was selected by Kimiko Hahn as the winner of the Dorset Prize. My chapbook, Disasterology, winner of the Dream Horse Press Chapbook Prize, is also due out in 2015.
WHAT IS YOUR WORK ENVIRONMENT LIKE?
I work from home but lost my home office when my son was born; it’s now his bedroom. So I work on my couch now, and my laptop has a regular place on the coffee table, where it sits and charges when I’m not using it. It is not unusual for it to be buried under toys, library books, or even used as a large coaster for my son’s juice and snacks. In my dining room, an antique chifferobe serves as storage for my printer/copier and all of my office supplies. I share bookshelves in the playroom with my children. Their books line the bottom shelves, and I’ve taken the top shelves for my own books.
WHEN DO YOU WORK? WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE?
My youngest is two, and he is in preschool three days a week. Those are my dedicated workdays, plus evenings after the kids are in bed and—if deadlines require it—some time on the weekends, too, when my husband is home to watch the kids.
A typical day involves getting the kids up and dressed, feeding them breakfast, packing lunch for my kindergartener, driving one or both kids to school, and then the work day begins. I tend to work at a local coffee shop in the morning, and then I return home for lunch and work from home for the afternoon. Around 2:45 I have to stop, though, to pick up my daughter from school. Then we pick up my son, and my day is theirs until 7:00 or so, when they’re in bed. Then from 8:00 to 11:00 I tend to get back to work.
WHAT IS YOUR WRITING PROCESS?
It varies. A poem usually begins as a single image or line—something I hear or see, or something that occurs to me or sparks my imagination. Then I’ll sit down and tease out some more. I tend to write longhand at first, but then I switch over to my laptop when the poem begins to take shape. The computer is great for playing with different line breaks and stanzas, and for cutting and pasting to move things around.
WHY DO YOU DO WHAT YOU DO?
I don’t know how not to do it.
WHO OR WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
I get a lot of ideas from science and nature. I can almost guarantee an episode of NOVA or Nature on PBS will spark a poem. I also write a lot in my head as I walk or drive; I’m always looking and listening, keeping myself tuned to things. My kids, too, are a recent source of material, as parenting requires me to see the world through their eyes and field their endless questions.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST PART OF WHAT YOU DO?
Logistically speaking, the hardest thing is finding time—and not any time, but quality time. It’s not always easy to get myself into the right frame of mind for writing after the kids are in bed. I’m tired, and plus there are dishes to wash, loads of laundry to fold, and on and on. Aesthetically speaking, the hardest thing is getting it right. I can sit down and draft a poem quickly, but it won’t be what I want it to be or what I know it can be. Feeling satisfied, even happy, with a poem is a challenge. It takes work.
WHAT DO YOU WISH YOU HAD KNOWN WHEN YOU STARTED?
I submitted poems to my high school literary magazine, but I never had one accepted. I wish I’d known then that I’d still be writing twenty-some years later. I wish I’d known I’d have several books one day. I think I would have been more confident about my writing.
WHAT IS YOUR ARTISTIC VISION?
My personal goals are simple: keep writing, keep pushing myself and my poems further, keep publishing. The publishing industry is tough for poets. Poets don’t make much on their books compared to prose writers, and many magazines don’t pay for poems. I would love to see that change.
WHO ARE YOUR FAVORITE FEMALE AUTHORS?
There are so many: Brigid Pegeen Kelly, Linda Gregerson, Amy Gerstler, Deborah Digges, Beckian Fritz Goldberg, Kimiko Hahn, Wislawa Szymborska, Louise Gluck, Sylvia Plath, Lyn Hejinian, Mary Oliver, Jean Valentine, Kathy Fagan, Anne Sexton, Marianne Moore.
WHICH FEMALE AUTHORS WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE INTERVIEWED ON WORDMOTHERS NEXT?
Thank you, Maggie Smith!
— Nicole Melanson
* Author photo by Lauren Powers
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