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Technique Talk: Poet Maggie Smith

Posted by Jackie Mantey | December 14, 2012 01:16 PM

Technique Talk is a weekly online Alive feature that spotlights the process of a Columbus artist. Know someone we should talk to? Send tips to jmantey@columbusalive.com.

Maggie Smith is an award-winning poet who lives in Bexley with her husband and two children. Smith’s poetry has a gentle hum, a cadence that keeps you moving through verses on parenthood, love and self. Always present is a heart-warming, if sometimes sad, honesty (e.g. “I’m desperate for you to love the world because I brought you here”). Smith wrote to us about her art, why she listens to Bon Iver when she works and what she tells herself — or, more accurately, what Sol LeWitt “tells” her — when doubt takes hold.  
Word lovers would be remiss not to check out more of her work. Here. Here. Here. And here.
 
What kind of art do you make and why?
I make poems — what William Carlos Williams called “small (or large) machine[s] made of words.” There’s something deeply satisfying about making one of these machines — choosing the tools and raw materials, planning how everything will work together, tinkering with it to make it run faster or more smoothly, whatever the case may be, and finally seeing it work.
 
When do you write?
I’m not one of those disciplined, “I write for an hour every day” or “I write at least 1,000 words a day” people. I write when an idea or a few lines come to mind, and I need to get them down before I lose them. I like to write in the morning, and I do that when I can, but my free time is usually in the evening, so I make that work.
 
How often do you write?
I often work in spurts. Some weeks or months I seem to be constantly writing or at least revising existing drafts, and other times my brain seems to be taking a breather. But I’m happiest when it seems the ideas are coming faster than I can get them down.
 
Where do you write and why?
I tend to work at home, mostly out of necessity, because I have two small children. I almost always write longhand first (I know, how 20th century of me!) in notebooks or on legal pads, and then once the poem has started to take shape, I go ahead and type what I have on my laptop and go from there. So the poems begin on paper but are revised and tinkered with on the computer. Thank god for the cut, paste, and undo keystrokes.
 
What has been inspiring your work lately?
In November 2011 I spent time as a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). While in residence there, I met an artist named Katherine Fahey and watched her perform a shadow puppet “crankie,” which she describes on her website as “an old fashioned visual hand-cranked scrolling device. It’s a box containing a ream of paper or fabric rolled around two posts, which is then pulled across the front, much like film in an old camera.” (It’s hard to explain but enchanting to watch. And thanks to YouTube, folks can watch the crankie here.)
 

 
I was inspired to write a poem about the characters and situation in the crankie — a woman and her small daughter fending for themselves in the Vermont wilderness in the mid-1700s, while her husband was working elsewhere. Then when I returned home to Ohio, I wrote another poem. And another. And as I wrote more of them, I found myself exploring my own experiences as a parent and feelings about motherhood and family through the woman, man and girl in the poems, so they’ve become semiautobiographical. Sometimes I think of the series of poems as a novel in verse, because the poems share a setting, characters and conflicts. Seven of the poems are forthcoming in “The Southern Review,” and two were recently published in “Shenandoah.”
 
What advice that you’ve found invaluable would you give a new artist?
In 1965 the wonderful artist Sol LeWitt wrote a letter of encouragement to the artist Eva Hesse, when she was having a block of sorts. LeWitt advised, among other things, “Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out, struggling, grasping…Stop it and just DO!…Don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool….you are not responsible for the world — you are only responsible for your work — so DO IT. And don’t think that your work has to conform to any preconceived form, idea or flavor. It can be anything you want it to be.” I revisit these words often.
 
What do you do while you work?
I like to write while listening to music — whether at home or at a coffee shop — though I know some writers don’t like to listen to others’ words while trying to write their own. It doesn’t bother me at all. The crankie-inspired poems I’ve been working on lately sort of have their own soundtrack — songs from Bon Iver’s first album, For Emma, Forever Ago, plus some Gillian Welch, Iron & Wine and Sufjan Stevens in there. I was listening to this playlist on my iPod when I was in Virginia, walking the grounds, watching the horses graze — and the songs all seem to fit the tone of the poems.
 
Do you ever experience writer’s block? If so, what do you do to combat it?
I have times when I’m not very productive and times when I’m really trying to work on a poem and the poem is just not having it. Sometimes a poem, like any other machine, breaks. Or sputters. Or has a whiny wheel. And sometimes I don’t have what I need in a given moment to fix it — so I set it aside and vow to come back to it later, with different tools, perhaps, and a different frame of mind. But I really don’t find myself staring at a blank page and wondering what to write. If I don’t have anything to write, I don’t sit down at the blank page to begin with.
 
Three artists, living or dead, that you would invite to a dinner party:
Sol LeWitt, because he was a brilliant artist and top-notch pep-talker; Katherine Fahey, because I owe her so much, and because I miss our talks; and too many poets — but today I’ll choose Donald Revell, because every time I reread “The New Dark Ages” or “Erasures,” I’m floored.
 

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