Metaphor Is Everywhere: A Conversation with Maggie Smith

September 17, 2021   •   By Melissa Uchiyama

I SPOKE WITH poet Maggie Smith on the precipice of the publication of her fifth book and fourth collection of poems, Goldenrod, available July 27, 2021. Smith is considered a “viral poet” after her poem “Good Bones” filled the hearts and minds of thousands. The poem, written in a coffee shop in Smith’s hometown of Bexley, Ohio, has been translated into well over a dozen languages. Its impact continues to extend the poet’s vulnerable belief in the beauty of a world that also knocks the wind out of us.


Indie Books has already placed Goldenrod on the Indie Next List for the month of August, but this is just a drop in the deluge of praise that is to come from her 68,000 Twitter fans alone. Maggie was poised for the launch, though this is her second book launch in a pandemic. Keep Moving was borne from the author’s tweets and written, at least initially to herself, as the poet went through a divorce.


As we talked via Zoom, her evening in Ohio, and my morning in Tokyo, we recounted our previous connection.


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MELISSA UCHIYAMA: I realized that we began our email conversation back in 2015. Both of our work appears in the anthology Mothering Through the Darkness. Yours is the beautiful piece that starts the whole book. I discovered you then, and reached out via email, asking if you would spend some time editing my poems. We began that editing relationship, and you also sent me The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison. It is astounding that even with your fame and schedule, you continue to invite writers to work with you, reviewing line edits and larger manuscripts.


MAGGIE SMITH: Right! The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison came out in 2015, so that would be right. I still love doing it. I have been doing a lot less editing, with two kids at home during the pandemic and my own writing schedule, but I can’t give it up because it’s my favorite work. Even if I only work on a few poems or one book manuscript a month, I continue to do it because I love it so much.


Diving into Goldenrod, I notice that much of your work explores architecture — whether it be outside with the structure of air and birds, and how the trees fill in space, or in a room. Do you think that being sequestered during the pandemic contributed to this? Or is it quite separate?


I know one poem that you’re thinking of, and I wrote it a couple of years ago, so that’s a pre-pandemic poem. While it’s not like being cloistered in a literal way like we have been for the past year, I still live in my hometown, so I’m always thinking about place as something that holds you and nurtures you, and also as something that you push against as a kind of constraint.


It’s something that comes up in my poems. We often think of setting more when we think about fiction — you know, setting, character, and plot — but I find that the poems I’m able to quickly enter and move into as I write are poems that take place in a specific setting. Poems that are grounded in place and often poems where the place isn’t just the where or when, but also the why and what, the thing that sparks the poem in the first place. I don’t know exactly why that is, but I suspect it has something to do with being here so long and having to make it new and keep my eyes open and pay attention to things, reframing this place for myself, from day to day and month to month and year to year and decade to decade, so that it doesn’t just constrain. It has to also be something that holds me.


I think about the namesake poem of this book, Goldenrod, as well as the plant. The idea of naming and renaming birds and plants has been an element in your work. Yet there is also an emphasis on technology helping you map a place. I’m also referencing your “Modern Love” piece and the element of Google Maps.


I think about that a lot. Technology comes up in Goldenrod in a couple of ways. One, this sort of bane of my existence, autocorrect, comes up in “Rose Has Hands,” and I think the mapping poem you’re talking about, is “Lacrimae.” That one is sort of a language obsession poem as much as it is a mapping poem, and it includes something that’s sort of a carryover from the poems in Good Bones, which is a dialogue from my kids. That’s a real thread from the last book of poems to this one. They are still the people I speak with the most. Especially through the pandemic, they were certainly the people I spent the most time with, and they’re great conversationalists; they’re curious and empathetic. Kids are interesting because they don’t see things the way we do. They’re not yet jaded. Things are truly new, so to spend time seeing the world through their eyes is useful to help me stay fresh in my thinking, especially as they get into these existential questions.


They’re your muses of metaphor so they come up with terms for what they’re dealing with.


They know it’s my love language. It’s sort of my currency.


In addition to your innate ability to make stunning metaphors (which Slate calls your “superpower, your “ability to find the perfect concrete metaphor for inchoate human emotions and explore it with empathy and honesty”), I think that so much of your superpower is how you give readers the space to deal with how to live. Whether it is someone retweeting Good Bones in response to another horror taking place, we have this poet in real time with us, in it with us, and I think you’re really mirroring or helping us put to words some of what we deal with — sadness and joy and where we fit in.


I love that. That’s one of the things that excites me so much about reading and teaching living poets is that we’re making it now, right? We’re not dredging something up from the canon from the past, and we have the opportunity to access current interviews, follow poets on Twitter, or go to a reading and pick their brain about something. I get really excited about that, too. Most of the poetry I read is late-20th-century and 21st-century poetry — that’s my sensibility. It excites me to see what people are doing now and how accessible the poetry is. I don’t mean “accessible” as “easy to understand”: some of the poems are very difficult and challenging, but the poetry itself is accessible in a way, in part because of the internet. I find poems every day just scrolling through either Twitter or Instagram. Thanks to the Academy of American Poets, poems are delivered daily, and that is such a gift. And yes, a lot of those poets are in their living rooms or offices right now, making poems.


Never before has poetry been this accessible.


The role of the poet, what our job is, is keeping people’s eyes open and noticing things. It is also to articulate things that are hard to articulate in any other way, shape, or form, which is what gives you that delicious click when you’re reading a poem. You don’t even know why it makes sense to you and why it makes you feel the way you do; something just happens when you read that perfect, apt metaphor. The image is just right, and you think, Yes, that’s the thing. You want to text it to someone or retweet it or share it with a friend or buy the book for someone. It’s that seeing, I think, that makes that click possible. That’s what we’re all chasing, right? We’re all chasing the click, like when I’m drafting a poem — I don’t know where it’s going. The quickest way to kill a poem is to know what you’re doing when you sit down to do it, so when I’m writing a poem, I have no idea what I’m doing. I don’t know what it’s going to be about. I don’t know where it’s going to go. Actually, there’s a poem in Goldenrod about how I started writing thinking it was going one way, and the poem ended up in a completely different place. That’s the process of discovery and the joy. If you wring that out of it, it’s just not fun anymore. 


I was thinking about that moment of “clicking” when I was listening to the Kenyon Review podcast where you’re speaking with editor, Andrew Grace. You were a consulting editor at the time it aired, but congratulations on being an editor-at-large now. You speak of that feeling where a poem just goes in and kind of rearranges the furniture.


Right. It’s like when you’re in an old house that has carpeted floors and you move the couch, or the coffee table and you can see the grooves in the carpet where that piece of furniture was. What I want as a writer and as a reader is to make and find poems that move the furniture in my brain so it can’t go back into those same old worn places, and that, again, is about seeing in this sort of metaphorical way, perceiving things differently, and reframing things. I’m not looking to poems for comfort, although some of them provide comfort. I’m not looking to poems to cheer me up or make me feel better, although sometimes that happens. What I’m really looking for is to be sort of opened, shaken awake, or changed. That’s what I’m chasing in my own drafts. How do I surprise myself? How do I crack something open that I didn’t even see coming? If I can do that for me, there’s a better chance that it will also happen to the reader.


Is there a poem or are there a couple of poems in this collection that surprised you and opened you up?


Every poem surprises me, just by showing up, and then by what it reveals about itself in the process. Oftentimes when we draft, we think of the poem in a certain order and then we get stuck on that order — like, well, the poem came to me when I was walking through the woods, then I thought about this, and then I remembered this, and so that’s the structure of the poem. You just keep drafting that structure and it’s like, well, what if you don’t even need the woods? Or what if you don’t need the memory? Or what if it can happen in some other order? Everything is up for grabs. Even if I’m five drafts in, I’m still asking myself the big questions about a piece: “Does it need to start here? Should it end sooner than it does? Am I missing something? How are the transitions? Is there something that’s like completely essential that I’ve left out? What work is the title doing on the poem’s behalf? And if the answer is nothing, then what might a different title be that could do a little bit more heavy lifting for the poem?”


That was one thing that came up in the work I did with you — that titles are places for expansion. And yet your titles tend to be very sparse. How do you make them do so much work?


There are a lot of sparse titles, just one or two words. But I can also think of a few titles in this book where the poem wouldn’t make any sense without it, like “Woman, 41, with a History of Alzheimer’s on Both Sides of Her Family.” The whole poem is about forgetting and the fear of forgetting. It wouldn’t land or make as much sense or carry as much weight if we didn’t name the underlying problem.


More furniture moving in there, too!


Yes! Take the poem, “After the Divorce, I Think of Something My Daughter Said About Mars.” I wrote the title, and my daughter more or less wrote the words. I mean, I didn’t write the poem, I just put the line breaks in. I scribbled it down at the lunch table when she was telling me these facts, and I thought, There’s a metaphor. The poem needs the title as a frame, to make it more than simply what would happen to your bones if you came back from Mars.


The most obviously “pandemic poem” is “During Lockdown, I Let the Dog Sleep in My Bed Again,” but “How Dark the Beginning,” written before the pandemic hit, also feels like a poem for this time. I think we all are feeling this sense of new beginnings right now. We talk so much about light, but actually, the beginning of the day is dark. The beginning of the day is 12:01 a.m. and it’s very dark for a while before the sun comes up. You have to kind of keep your eye on the horizon and know that that little flicker of light is going to come and it’s going to grow. This time feels to me personally, but also collectively, hopeful, but these transitions that we’re going through aren’t easy.


How beautiful to know more of the background. Maybe we are retraining our eyes to a fuller sense of what light is.


I’ve been thinking about that. Healing never happens fast enough. When something hurts, you want it to be over, but not everything works that way. It can be raw and dark for a while, but knowing that you’re heading in the right direction and that change is happening and coming is comforting — healing, whatever that means for you, also requires what poetry requires, which is patience and tenacity.


There is really something so special there. I am thinking about the relationship between the poems Porthole, Wife for Scale, and How Dark the Beginning. We feel that in-between sliding, “The soil as it shifts beneath my feet, as it gives and cannot hold me—.” 


Porthole seems to continue Good Bones in that very first line, “I was hoping the world would earn you.” You as a writer and mother are not being passive. Rather, you’re in it with them. Let’s read. I’ll do this for you and brush your hair.


It’s funny that I hadn’t really thought of how the opening of that poem is sort of a continuation of some of the ideas in “Good Bones,” but I think you’re right. “I was hoping this world would earn you” echoes “I’m trying to sell you the world.” I was hoping this world would do right by you, but it’s not doing a very good job. Frankly, it’s just raining and raining and raining, but I know it will stop.


It’s that same idea that we have to endure this. We know this other thing is coming for us, but not fast enough, not at the speed we would wish for our children in particular. We don’t want our kids to suffer at all, so when something’s wrong, we just want it fixed. I remember writing “Porthole.” I was in my living room looking out these windows at the neighbors’ magnolia trees blowing in this rainstorm, and the leaves were thrashing all around, and there was rain on the panes of the window. I felt like I was on a boat, pitching in a storm. That’s what life feels like sometimes. Being at home with your family feels like being on an ark sometimes. It reminds me of that Anne Sexton line (from “The Fortress”), “What ark / can I fill for you when the world goes wild?” which I love because it’s addressed to her daughter.


I think about my kids a lot and ask myself, “What is this world they’re inheriting, exactly? How much control do I have over how safe they are?” There’s a poem in Goldenrod called “Half Staff” that references Sandy Hook. It took me a long time to write it because I’m always nervous about writing poems that deal with big material. But I needed to finish that poem because it was such a strange thing to drop a child off at school after that happened, and for them to have no idea that it happened because they were too young to even know about the news. There was a cognitive dissonance of kissing a child goodbye and saying happy birthday just days after that happened. She was at school, healthy and safe, but all of these parents sent their kids to school and they didn’t come home, and it can happen anywhere. These are the things that we carry inside of us as people and as parents; it’s a lot to process, but it’s one of the things that poetry is built to hold.


As a parent, I think, “How do I shepherd you through this world and keep you safe when none of this is made for longevity? Our toasters will probably live longer than us.” It’s just such a strange thing to think about. I mean, we laugh like, “Okay kids, you’ll inherit the books. Good luck.” But when you really stop and think about that, yes, our stuff will outlive us. It’s a lot to carry and I don’t know where to take that except to poetry. I can talk about it, but it’s not going to be very useful. I can’t solve the problem in a poem, but it’s a conversation I can have with myself there that feels satisfying in a way.


Something happens, right? There’s a transaction, some part of poetry that is transcendent. Certainly our words can last, right?


You have to have a place to put all of this. Therapy is great. I don’t see poetry as therapy and I don’t use it as therapy, but I would be a lot less functional as a human if I didn’t write. It helps me know how I feel about things, and it helps me memorialize things. I might have forgotten about that little thing my kids said while I was washing dishes, but I’m a writer, and now it’s in a poem, which means it will live in some way, shape, or form. That’s something that’s important to me — being able to document our life together in words.


Is there anything you’d want readers to know about Goldenrod or about your poetry that we haven’t discussed?


A lot of this book is about seeing and paying attention, being in the present moment to recognize the extraordinary, even in ordinary life. This books tries to pay attention to the little things. For example, the little nature treasures that my son collects come up a few times in the book. Even just recently, I found in my purse a shell and a stone after he left the house. That’s what poems are to me — when you can slip your hand into a pocket of a coat that you haven’t worn since last winter, or a purse you haven’t carried in a while and you find this little magical thing that you didn’t even know you were looking for and you didn’t know you needed, but it’s there for you in that moment. When I stumble across a poem, it always just gives me that feeling of that magic click, just like reaching my hand into my pocket and finding something that my son left there — a Mr. Potato Head ear, an acorn, a rock, or a feather.


If each day is representative of what our life looks like, then how do we want to spend it, who do we want to be with, and what do we want to pay attention to? What magic do we want to open ourselves up to, and what might we be closing ourselves off from by looking at our phones and refreshing the news constantly and sort of like numbing ourselves rather than being present. Even though sometimes being present is painful, I think it’s preferable to the alternative. I’ll take the pain. I’d rather feel alive. It’s like not wanting to be under fluorescent lighting at the beginning or at the end of my life — I want to feel “something elemental” (“A Room Like This”). I want to be part of the world, and being part of the world is hard, but it’s also rewarding. And you don’t get one without the other; you don’t get the beauty unless you’re willing to be vulnerable and risk the rest of it. That’s how it works.


I love that your day is just beginning there and my day is coming to an end somehow — that feels like we’re like bookending our days. Metaphor is everywhere. Even if our kids tease us about it.


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Melissa Uchiyama is a writer and creative writing teacher living in Tokyo. Follow her on Twitter at @melibelletokyo.