Maggie Smith, GOLDENROD

Maggie Smith, GOLDENROD

Zibby is joined by professor and poet Maggie Smith to discuss her latest collection, Goldenrod, which includes a selection of the poems Maggie has written since 2016. Maggie shares why she calls herself a recovering pessimist, the reason she doesn’t write when she’s in the midst of big feelings, and how she often pulls together poems from lines she writes as they come to her. Zibby also reads two selections from the book, including a piece Maggie forgot she had written.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Maggie. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Maggie Smith: Thanks for having me. This is great.

Zibby: I loved Goldenrod. I feel like it’s a memoir in poems. I learned so much about you, but I had to keep digging and guessing and figuring it all out. You left these little crumbs to figure out your life. You just got to go through it together. It was very cool the way you did it. I loved it.

Maggie: I love that. I think sometimes, metaphor is sort of like an imagistic shorthand that says in a concise, tight space, gestures toward bigger things. I love the idea of this being a sort of memoir in verse because it does address a lot of things going on in my life and in our lives, but just in more concise pieces.

Zibby: It seems very efficient. It’s like the ultimate moms’ — why waste the time with the whole story? I’m going to tell you about my son in eight lines. I’m going to tell you about my marriage. It’s amazing. Pretty efficient.

Maggie: Poetry is actually a great genre for moms who don’t have a ton of time. The poet Lucille Clifton used to talk about that. You can be making dinner, stirring the soup, getting something ready, putting the soccer jersey from the washer in the dryer, and if one little idea comes to you, you write it down. Then another little idea comes to you. You write it down. It’s worked me. I started writing poems before I was a mom. It’s been something that’s been probably easier for me to keep up than, say, novel writing because I can dip in and out, both as a reader and as a writer, and not have to feel like I have to remember where I was or where the characters are. What have I explained? That kind of thing.

Zibby: I feel like full-length can be very unwieldy. It’s just so much. You can’t hold it all. I’ve been trying to edit this memoir. I’m like, this is so hard. How do I remember? It’s harder than an essay, which I much prefer to write. I wanted to maybe read one or two of these, if you don’t mind, if that’s okay.

Maggie: Yes.

Zibby: Particularly, “December 18th, 2008.” Some of these just caught my attention. I’m going to read two if that’s okay. “For just a fraction of a moment that afternoon, if we think of time as being a whole, you were the newest person in the world. You were the emptiest vessel on Earth knowing nothing of this place or of yourself, that you ever were a self, that a self was something one could be, that one could be at all, and what was being? For that narrowest sliver of a whole, you were the least-experienced person on Earth, and then you weren’t. You knew me before you knew your own body, what to do with your hands. Your pink fists battering your face, we swaddled you as if against that confusion. Though I tell you, that confusion never leaves. The body remains a house unaware of its rooms.” That is so good. I just love that. “The body remains a house unaware of its rooms.” It’s so good. Tell me about writing this poem.

Maggie: The title is “My Daughter’s Birthday,” my firstborn’s birthday. I actually wrote this poem in a hotel room. It came out in, more or less, one fell swoop, which is not usually how poems happen for me. A few happen quickly. Most of them happen in tiny, little fits and starts accruing over a long period of time after lots and lots of revision and various versions. I was thinking about what it means to be a newborn. That moment that you’re born, you are the newest person. What does that mean? How do you figure out what it is to be a human being? Then just thinking a little bit about what we have to do for babies because they don’t even know their own boundaries or edges yet, clipping their tiny fingernails so they don’t scratch their faces and putting socks over their little fists and swaddling them so they don’t wake themselves up by punching themselves in the face, which they tend to do, and just thinking, actually, that sense of not knowing oneself and one’s life and one’s edges and one’s boundaries, in a way, never really goes away. We may not scratch our faces or bop ourselves awake in the middle of the night, but there are still so many things I don’t understand about myself and my life. That confusion is not something one can swaddle oneself against, and so thinking of that as the bigger metaphor in the poem.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I love it. Maybe the weighted blanket as adult swaddler.

Maggie: Actually, sometimes I call my son my weighted blanket because at nine, he’s still a snuggler and still wants to drape himself over me when we’re watching TV or whatever. I joke with him, you’re like my heating pad/weighted blanket. It’s perfect, actually. Just don’t go anywhere.

Zibby: Here, let me read this one, “Poem Beginning with a Line from Bashō.” Did I say that right?

Maggie: Yeah.

Zibby: “The moon is brighter since the barn burned, and by burned, I mean to the bones, the rafters on the ground of a whale’s ribcage. A barn is mostly kindling. No wonder it went up like that. Whoosh. Or should I question my perception? As the therapist tells me, look for evidence to support the feeling. One minute, beams. The next, smoke. Didn’t my husband say hardly to me at all, it was a long time coming? In this still-smoldering field, I am looking for evidence. How can something stand for years and then just like that, where the roof was all this night?”

Maggie: I know. All we can do is look at each other and sigh. This was a hard one. Honestly, somebody shared this poem. Around the time Goldenrod was first published, somebody shared this poem on Twitter. I read it again. I thought, wow, I actually don’t remember writing this poem. It’s one of those poems that I can’t tell you where I was sitting. I don’t know exactly how it happened. I have completely blocked out the writing of that particular poem. Maybe that’s not that strange considering how raw some of the emotions in that poem are. Really, the metaphor for me is — it’s something that comes up in Keep Moving too, actually, is the idea that when something burns down or is destroyed, there is something destructive there, obviously, but there’s also a space that’s created where something new can be built or something new can be seen. I thought a lot about that when my marriage ended. I had the shelter of this thing for almost nineteen years of my life. My entire adult life, I had the shelter of this thing. When it burned down, it was terrifying. Yet look at the sky without the beams, without the roof, without the walls. I was in the open. It was scary. I was exposed to the elements in ways I hadn’t been since I was a kid, and really ever. I lived with my parents before I lived with my then-husband. But look at the view. What can I see now that I couldn’t see before? What is possible now that wasn’t possible before? What can I build in this charred imprint of what used to be there? It’s up to me now. It’s not a group project. I get to decide. Trying really, in that book and in this one, to kind of reframe things for myself, which is not to deny that something hard happened or try to snap into positive thinking right away, but to sit with the feeling and also think, yes, but what else? Yes, and. It’s also maybe this thing. There are all these stars that I didn’t get to look at because I had the shelter.

Zibby: I love that. That’s like the ultimate optimist. From something terrible can come something so amazing.

Maggie: I’m trying.

Zibby: How’s it going?

Maggie: You know, it’s funny. I say in Keep Moving I’m a recovering pessimist. I think I was a pessimist most of my life, but in a self-protective way, like when you think it’s not going to go well, but you’re really saying that to protect yourself in case it doesn’t go well because you don’t want to get your hopes up. I’m putting that aside because, honestly, when things really, really go wrong, you need optimism in a way that you don’t when things are going pretty well and you can kind of be self-protectively pessimistic. Self-protective pessimism doesn’t protect you when you’re already at the bottom of the well. You need something to help you climb out of it. Starting to think about the things that could go right instead of only the things that could go wrong has been serving me pretty well for the past two or three years.

Zibby: I feel like the self-protective pessimism is just another way of saying anxiety.

Maggie: Oh, yeah.

Zibby: It’s basically that. I feel like if I worry about something enough, then I don’t have to really worry about it anymore.

Maggie: Also, you’re right.

Zibby: Only by actively worrying do I take the risk out of flying or something. If I forget to worry, then what?

Maggie: It’s so funny. We worry and worry and worry. Then if the thing actually happens and it goes wrong, we get to pat ourselves on the back because we were so smart and right. We saw that coming. We almost feel like, see? I knew it. That’s a weird space to be in too. I agree. It’s all anxious magical thinking around problems where, really, if we loosened our grip a little bit and thought about the possibility that maybe the worst won’t happen — nine times out of ten, it doesn’t. It’s just that one time

Zibby: Even for the most anxious people, keep moving. You have no choice when the worst happens. You have no choice. You figure out a way. Then you realize all that time spent worrying was a total waste. It’s just cluttering your brain. When the worst happens, you’ll deal with it. I say this to my kids. “What if I cry in school today?” “Well, you’ll handle it.” Same with us. It’s just easier said than done.

Maggie: Easier said than done, for sure.

Zibby: Tell me, also, about your son’s fevers. I was so worried about him in the book. What was that about? Was it diagnosed? Did it go away?

Maggie: Some kids run high fevers naturally. My daughter, if she was really sick, it might get to 102. Rhett, if he was really sick, 105. If your firstborn never got past 102, you think that’s a high fever. When you have a kid who, you take their temperature and it’s 104.7, it’s like, uh, I don’t know what to do with this. No, actually, nothing, at least in regards to that, was ever wrong. It was just, his body was different from his sister’s. It was scary. Even now, he just runs a little hotter. If he gets a fever, he just feels a little hotter. I end up going and getting the washcloths and doing, again, the little mittens of washcloths and the little socks of washcloths. We just do it.

Zibby: Did you ever see the documentary on HBO? Not a documentary. Sorry. The limited series called John Adams on HBO based on David McCullough’s book. I watched it forever ago, but I can’t get this one scene out of my head of Abigail Adams with the washcloths back in day with her children at home with nothing else, no tools in the toolbox, just the cloth and the fear and the kids. Every time my kids have a fever, I kind of flash back to that because it’s just like, this is what we do. You have to go back to just cooling off the body of somebody you love who’s struggling. There’s not really much you can do. Not much has changed since then.

Maggie: Thank goodness for the children’s Tylenol or whatever in the middle of the night.

Zibby: Yes, exactly. Antibiotics.

Maggie: It’s true. At three in the morning, it really is you, your child, and a washcloth. The poem about that in the book is really a poem of having a crisis of faith or a crisis of not having faith that I can lean on in that moment and thinking, goodness, I wish I were a person of faith in this moment because this washcloth is not enough. I need to feel like something’s looking out for me right now. I really need to feel cared for and tended to in this moment. I feel that way a lot with my children. I would love more of an army of protection for them than I’m able to offer on my own.

Zibby: Yes, that would be nice.

Maggie: It would be nice.

Zibby: How many days out of the week do you write poetry? Is that something that you do to cope with the everyday, or you work on a collection? Do you write in other ways? How often do you turn to that?

Maggie: I don’t usually write every day unless I’m on deadline and making myself do it. Poems in particular, they come to me in little bits. I had a period about a month ago where I think I wrote nine poems in four days, which for me is like six months’ worth of poems. I don’t write that many poems in a short period of time. I haven’t written any poems since then. Although, this morning, the plumber working on the burst pipe in my basement said something about the pipe that I was like, that’s a metaphor. I think I startled him a little bit. I said, “Oh, my gosh, that’s a great metaphor.” He just looked at me. I was like, “I’m a poet.” He was sort of laughing. He was like, okay. I’m like, “I’ve got to write that down.” There might be something that comes from this basement experience. Not every day. I try to keep my antenna up every day. I keep my ears and my eyes open. Not everything gets written down right away. Sometimes I’ll have a conversation with one of my kids or the plumber will say something or I’ll see something on a walk. I might not think to type it into my phone or jot it in the notebook right away. It might just be percolating in my brain until something else maybe happens that seems like it wants to live alongside that thing. Then enough pieces begin to accrue that I feel like I need to sit down and write it down. It’s a messy process and not really anything — I’m not disciplined in the way that some writers are disciplined in that I sit down at my desk at five AM every morning and write for an hour. I’ve never been that kind of writer even before I was a parent and even before I was a single parent. I was not that kind of writer. I’m certainly, probably, not going to become that kind of writer now that life is even more pull in many direction-y than it was.

Zibby: What do you do, then, to cope with big feelings and all the rest during the average day if you’re really upset about something?

Maggie: If I’m really upset about something, I will call one of my closest friends or my mom or I will put on my colossally giant headphones and take a long walk or go for a run or jump on my little trampoline or sometimes just take a hot bath and try to take a nap, unplug in a more literal way, just really disengage for a period of time if I can. Writing, for me, it’s not usually something I do in the middle of the big feeling. I feel the big feelings. I’m working through that. Writing is usually something I do when I’m in a reflective headspace or more of a processing, thinking headspace than a feeling headspace. Especially because I write poems, I need to be able to think about form and structure and how to be concise. I’m not in that space when I’m having big feelings. Usually, I have to take a beat. Then a week or two later, I might think, oh, that was interesting for these reasons. That might be an essay. Oh, this line or this image won’t leave my mind. I need to write this down and see, maybe, what I can build momentum-wise off of this. Maybe it wants to be a poem.

Zibby: What do you do with the poem? What do you do when you finish writing? How do you know when it’s a collection versus it’s just a poem?

Maggie: When I’m writing a book of poems, I’m not really writing a book of poems. I write a poem at a time. Then at a certain point, usually at two or three years in, I realize it’s been two or three years since my last book of poems came out. I wonder how many poems I have in this Word document sitting on my laptop. I open the Word document called “Next Book” or “New Poems” or something not very organized. I’ll see that there are hundreds of poems inside of it. Then I think, okay, there’s probably a book that I can carve out of all of this stuff. I just go through the process of — with Goldenrod, I printed out every poem I had written since submitting the manuscript of my last book of poems, Good Bones, to my publisher. The poems in Goldenrod date back to 2016 because that’s when I was handing that last book over. I had a hundred and fifty poems or something. I think there are only fifty-some in Goldenrod.

I had to go through all of that, pull out the ones I wasn’t that excited about, look at the ones that I was kind of excited about and see how they might be in conversation with each other. Then what do I want the entrance to the collection to be? How do I want to invite the reader in? How do I envision stepping out of the book? What do I want the exit to be? Then what happens in between point A and point B? Really, it’s such a Luddite process. It hasn’t changed at all since assembling my first book in my twenties. I print everything out. I shuffle them together in my hands. I lay them out on the living room floor. I look at the way poem one might transition into poem two. If I don’t like that, I find another one in the big stack that I think would be a good transition from that one. Then I go onto the next, and then the next, and then the next. It’s really just a big shuffling act.

Zibby: What do you do when you’re not writing poems in your daily life?

Maggie: Oh, gosh, all kinds of things other than deal with plumbers. What do I do in my daily life? The average day is, wake up, get my kids up, pack their lunches, make their breakfast, get them to school. Come back, walk my dog, and then check email, do all of that. Realize the fifteen things I was supposed to be on top of that I’m not. Send apology emails that try not to say I’m sorry. I’m trying to rephrase “I’m sorry for the slow response” as “Thank you for your patience.”

Zibby: I like that.

Maggie: We know what this is like. Then it just depends. If I have a book review or an article for The Post or something due, I might work on that and try to bang out a draft while my head is clear. I might have a podcast to record or an interview I have to do, and so I might do that. I might have a meeting with one of my graduate students. I might need to look at a packet of their poems and give them feedback. It’s sort of a cobbled-together life from various writing and mothering-related activities.

Zibby: I could use that description as well. That’s a great description of life.

Maggie: It is. It’s a good life. No two days are really ever exactly the same. There are some posts that remain. I’m always getting them up and always packing the lunch. I pick my son up for lunch still because he’s unvaccinated. I bring him home during the day for lunch so he doesn’t have to be unmasked in his school building. That breaks my day into chunks as well because I’ve got an hour in the middle of the day where I’m eating a sandwich and playing Uno with a small person and then taking him back to school. Then I have to do school pickup. Then I have to make dinner. The mothering pieces of my day are the unmovable ones. Then around those beams, I’m able to move in different ways and get things accomplished.

Zibby: Interesting. I pick up and drop off. I try to do as much work as I can between nine and three. Then who knows?

Maggie: Yes, that’s the life.

Zibby: That’s the life. Of course, you end up with all these amazing poetry collections, so it’s amazing.

Maggie: I try to be productive, but it takes a long time. It’s funny, someone was like, “You published Keep Moving in 2020 and Goldenrod in 2021.” I said, “Yes, I did, but I didn’t write them at the same time.” Goldenrod, that book took me five or six years to write very slowly over time. The fact that it came out a year after Keep Moving doesn’t mean that I spent the year between Keep Moving and Goldenrod pounding out fifty-four poems. It’s just, that was the way it happened on the schedule. No, I’m not quite that prolific.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring poets?

Maggie: I would say read as widely as you can. Read as widely as you can. So many people I talk to, when I say I’m a poet, they’re like, ugh, that was the hardest class for me in school. I hated poetry. I always felt like it was so confusing. I loved writing everything else. Poetry was always the hardest thing. I think a lot of us were just taught it poorly or we haven’t read widely enough to know, really, what’s out there. There are so many living poets writing right now, work that is just flat-out gorgeous and moving, but also accessible and understandable and not esoteric, necessarily, not something that you feel like you need to go get a PhD to understand what’s happening in it. For people who want to write, my first piece of advice is always, read more because until you really know what’s being done out there, it’s hard to start doing yours. I also think it gives people a great inspiration. If I’m ever stuck and I feel like I’m not really writing many poems, the first thing I want to do is read other people’s poems. Reading beautiful sentences and really stunning images or really unexpected descriptions of things always sparks my brain and gets me going in a new direction. I find it incredibly inspiring. More books. That’s the answer to so many things. More books.

Zibby: More books. I love it. Awesome. Maggie, thank you so much. Thanks for talking about Goldenrod. I didn’t even hold this up, your Keep Moving journal, which I’m also obsessed with and couldn’t even figure which — so great. If I ever was going to sit and do a journal, this would be the one. I’m not going to have time to do it, but it’s really great. It’s a great gift. Thank you.

Maggie: I feel you. Thank you so much. This was a joy.

Zibby: You too. Have a great day. Stay in touch.

Maggie: You too. Take care.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Maggie: Bye.

Maggie Smith, GOLDENROD

GOLDENROD by Maggie Smith

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