Poet Maggie Smith's new book finds her wrestling with being a “20th century mom raising 21st century kids”
It's not that local poet Maggie Smith doesn't like or isn't proud of her “Good Bones” poem, it's just that it's become hard to enjoy its popularity.
Written in 2015, the piece went viral last summer as a response to the Orlando nightclub shooting. Many found Smith's words of longing, frustration and hope amid heartbreak and despair comforting, and that's a good thing, but it hasn't come without a difficult side effect.
“It's become a disaster barometer,” Smith said in an interview at the Bexley coffee shop at which she wrote “Good Bones” in one sitting. “When my Twitter goes crazy, I know that something bad has happened in the world, and that's a weird thing.”
Visiting New York City this past spring for a reading, Smith noted another social media surge. It was the day of the bombing at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England. And it happened again earlier this month, on the same day her new book, which takes its title from the viral poem, was released.
“My Twitter is going crazy and I'm like, ‘What happened? It's not because my book came out,'” Smith said. Unfortunately, she was right, as the Las Vegas mass shooting was front and center in the news and in people's minds.
Smith said much of the work in the book, written over the past several years, is the stuff of parenthood. As in the “Good Bones” poem, the writing finds Smith addressing and assessing the world through eyes younger than her own, eyes looking to her with questions and fresh perspectives, the answers and responses to which Smith bears significant responsibility.
“The themes I've been writing on for 20 years are still the same: place, memory, loss, connections, those big ideas that sort of undergird everything,” Smith said. “But they're being expressed in different ways [and] they mean something different to me. So I'm processing all of those big ideas through being responsible for [my children].”
“It's sort of, ‘Here's the world, warts and all.' But it forces me to see the good. For this latest book, being a parent has made me more optimistic out of necessity, not in a false way, but because of the hope I see in them,” she said.
Directly or indirectly, Smith's two kids (Violet, age 8, and Rhett, 4) provide much of the existential fodder that fuels Smith's poems.
“Part of my job as a writer is I need to be seeing things, and they're helping show me things for the first time again,” Smith said. “I kind of forgot how magical things are, so seeing things through them is making me stop and be more observant in general and appreciate things that I might have otherwise rushed by, or probably got really excited about when I was 5.”
“It's about articulating something. I've seen something and it's got me thinking and I want to see if I can articulate this thought or feeling with words,” Smith said. “The fun for me is the figuring it out. I never come to the page with an agenda or knowing where I'm going to end up. If I have it worked out in my head then I don't need to write it.”