Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
“Good Bones” from Good Bones, forthcoming October 1, 2017 from Tupelo Press, copyright 2017 Maggie Smith. Used with permission.
Poetry has a way of getting a rise out of people, one way or another.
Maggie Smith is a poet, Columbus-born and bred, and has her own little next generation of heartlanders. It was this young duo she had in mind when she wrote her poem “Good Bones” in the days after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. The piece is a thoughtful consideration of the evils of the world, and how to frame these to your children, maybe even to yourself.
The work took on a life of its own after it was read at the 15th Annual Presentation of Poetry and the Creative Mind at Lincoln Center in April, by none other than Meryl Streep. Streep recited the poem to close out the ceremony, and it lit a bit of a fire on the internet. Smith is an editor, and the author of three books of poetry. But, this small work set itself apart from her poems with the ease that it inserted itself into the American discourse following the stormy election at the end of 2016.
The dissemination of works in the digital age is swift, and soon, Smith found her work had gone viral. (614) caught up with her to get her point of view on poetry in the digital age, and the world according to prose.
Can you tell me a little about your background and where you grew up? What schools did you go to? I was born in Columbus—at Riverside, where my two kids were born. I went to Westerville Public Schools—Pointview Elementary, Walnut Springs Middle School, and Westerville North High School. I went to college at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, where I began writing poetry seriously, and then received my MFA in poetry from The Ohio State University.
What drew you to poetry? What connects and separates poetry from other forms of literature? When I was a kid, I loved listening to music. When I was maybe 11 or 12, my father took me to the record store in what was then the Westerville Mall to buy two cassettes: Rubber Soul and Revolver, two albums by the Beatles. I got Sergeant Pepper soon after that, and I remember playing the songs over and over, and rewinding them, so that I could write down and memorize all of the lyrics. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was one of my favorites—I loved the imagery, and the sounds of the words together: plasticine porters, cellophane flowers, kaleidoscope eyes. So when I began writing, it was natural for me to focus on imagery and the sounds of words rather than narrative or story.
Poetry is an ancient medium, and we are seeing a resurgence in its popularity. Why do you think this is? I’ve always read poetry, and I’ve always shared and talked about poems with friends, so it’s somewhat hard to register what’s happening now as a “resurgence.” We poets have been here all along! But I will say that social media has made reading and sharing poems amazingly easy and nearly instantaneous. If I read a poem I like, I can share it on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook with just a few clicks. Certainly this is how my poem “Good Bones” went viral—it got shared and shared and shared. Poetry as a medium is perfect for sharing on social media—it’s often brief, condensed, and can make its impact quickly.
Of course why people seem to be sharing poetry more these days, and turning to poems, is a different issue. I don’t want to fall into the trap of claiming that this particular time is somehow worse than times we’ve seen before. The world has always been a dangerous place. But I do think that many people are grappling with instability and insecurity right now, due in large part to the administration in power, and poetry is a place they are turning. It’s certainly a place I’m turning to—writing it and reading it.
How did it feel when Meryl Streep read your poem aloud? Were you previously aware that she was going to do that? That was utterly surreal. I didn’t know it was going to happen; I didn’t even know the event was happening! I came home that night, checked my phone, and Saeed Jones (a poet, and an editor at BuzzFeed) had tweeted at me that Meryl had read my poem. Of course my first thoughts were, “What? Where? Why?” I gathered, via Twitter and then by doing some Googling, that the Academy of American Poets gala was happening that night at Lincoln Center. Celebrities read poems on stage, and Meryl Streep closed the night by reading “Good Bones.” I was speechless.
Can you tell me about what was going through your mind when you wrote it? “Good Bones” is for me about every parent’s anxiety. How do we tell our kids the truth without scaring or disappointing them? How do we convince them of the beauty and good in the world without glossing over the danger and injustice? And even if we are not parents, how do we reconcile those parts of the world—those parts of life—for ourselves?
Is this poem optimistic? Or disillusioned? Why? I find the idea of hope a little embarrassing. Why is that? Why is someone considered cool and smart if they’re jaded, cynical, or angry? Why is someone considered uncool or even naïve if they’re hopeful or optimistic? I think the poem is about seeing the world for what it is, which is equal parts beautiful and terrible. And I do think it is hopeful. We, each of us, can tip the scales toward beauty.
Your poem has taken its place in a long line of “resistance poems.” How do you feel about the political life this poem has taken on? I wrote the poem in 2015, before the election cycle or the election itself. I wrote it not with any specific disaster—or disastrous person—in mind. But because of the timing of its publication, and because of its message, it was a poem that people shared widely and turned to after the 2016 presidential election. If the poem can be of service in that regard, I’m all for it.