Poetic Passion: 2020 Merrill Poet Maggie Smith Visits Lawrenceville

On Thursday, January 30, this year’s Merrill Poet Maggie Smith shared her experiences with the School community at the Edith Memorial Chapel.

On Thursday, January 30, this year’s Merrill Poet Maggie Smith shared her experiences with the School community at the Edith Memorial Chapel. Author of four books of poetry—Keep Moving, Good Bones, The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, and Lamp of the Body—Smith has also earned numerous awards throughout her career, including the 2012 Dorset Prize and the 2016 Gold Medal in Poetry for the Independent Publishers Book Awards. Her collection The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison was also a finalist for the National Poetry Series and the Montaigne Medal. Perhaps one of her most acclaimed works yet was Good Bones, the title of her book and poem that received international attention after the 2016 Pulse Nightclub Shooting in Orlando, Florida. According to the Blue Flower Arts literary agency, her piece explores the theme of “staring down darkness while cultivating and sustaining possibility,” as it aims to touch the lives of many by consoling them through difficult and turbulent times. She is currently a freelance writer and editor and a Consulting Editor for the Kenyon Review. In addition, she is a creative writing teacher at the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program at the Ohio State University, Gettysburg College, and other nonprofits in America.

Unlike many of her professional peers, Smith found her inspiration for writing poetry in music rather than in books. A music lover, Smith often listened to artists like The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and other musicians whose lyrics possessed a great sense of depth and meaning. As she has grown older and gained more life experience, poetry has come to define the ways in which she lives. “Even when I’m not writing, I’m thinking through the world as a poet,” Smith reflected, “Even when I’m not physically writing, I’m always writing in my head.” For example, when Smith sees an object, her brain automatically conceives of ways to describe that item and its relation to the world around it.

While the level of her writing has certainly improved over the years, most of her poems continue to highlight the same humanistic themes, such as life, perception, memory, time, and loss. At the age of 19, she truly began to find her voice as a writer, developing a unique and individual poetic style. Yet, being a poet still comes with many challenges, and it is often tiring to maintain the tenacity, patience, and self-confidence required of a successful writer. To Smith, “self-censorship is the death of any poem” because if a writer places too much emphasis on what the audience will think, he or she immediately “shuts down the avenue” to a work that could be raw and authentic.

Writing a strong poem does not require a profound, life-changing experience, but rather, poetic inspiration can strike serendipitous times and come from the most unassuming places. Instead of viewing poetry as a form of therapy, Smith sees writing as a gratifying experience. Often times, the pleasure for her work is simply “the discovery and surprise” of working through something complex and confusing. “It’s a conversation I’m having in my head,” Smith said, and she can never truly understand what she’s doing until she has sculpted the final product. For example, Smith wrote her poem Good Bones in a Starbucks cafe within a span of 20 minutes; the inspiration for the poem came from solely “being a parent in the 21st century.” At the time it was written—during the summer of 2015—the Sandy Hook shooting had just taken place and her son’s daycare had frequently received bomb threats. The lines of the poem “came out in a rush” and derived from the feeling of “trying to figure out how to explain these things to her children.” While Smith felt the urge to speak the truth, she also didn’t want to “expose [her kids] to this stuff too early because there’s also so much beauty and good people in this world.” When Smith finally completed the poem and submitted it the next day, she only changed one word from the original draft, emphasizing that a unique aspect of poetry is also maintaining the authenticity of the work.

Reflecting upon her experience workshopping with students in Lawrenceville English classes, Smith said, “The students are amazing and it seems like such a supportive environment. The [class] sections have been working hard and asking smart questions, I’m really impressed.” Today, she will continue to work with a number of English classes through her live poetry workshops.