Voice of Columbus: Maggie Smith

Andy Downing

The idea of “voice” is something writers rarely consider until asked, which is also true of poet Maggie Smith, who said, “I don’t think about it when I’m writing because it’s happening organically.”

But inspired by this selection, Smith recently had conversations about voice, or, as she explained it, “If you picked up a poem that didn’t have my name on it, would you think, ‘That might be a Maggie Smith.’”

“I think I started sounding like myself in college, and by that I mean not sounding like I was doing bad cover poems of poets I admired,” said Smith, who was introduced to a larger audience on the strength of her nationally recognized 2016 poem “Good Bones” and earlier this year expanded on her repertoire, penning a moving essay for The New York Times borne of her divorce (“Tracking the Demise of My Marriage on Google Maps”).

Developing voice, for Smith, has been two-fold, homing in on her strengths (description, tone, word choice, pacing) while simultaneously stripping away extraneous elements, be it early poetic influences (Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Marge Piercy, among others) or even the protective shell many of us build around our private selves. Smith’s best work, in turn, is often intensely personal, shaped by motherhood, death and divorce. And she never flinches, inviting readers in as she wrestles with sheltering her children from the world’s horrors, or the Google Maps view into a life she no longer leads.

Getting there is rarely easy. Smith generally drafts on legal pads, reworking and revising as she goes. She’ll read the poem aloud, since the words take on a different cadence in spoken form, and then type it in the computer, always in Garamond, though a friend recently advised she adopt a different font when drafting, because typing in her preferred “professional” font could also trick the eye, making a poem appear complete before it is. A poem is finally finished, Smith said, “And I know this sounds negative, when I am no longer dissatisfied with it.”

The intention with which Smith approaches her work only intensified with the viral success of “Good Bones,” which caused her to reconsider the idea of audience. “I always knew there was an audience before, but it was mostly poets,” she said. “Suddenly there were all these people reading my work, and maybe they didn’t know anything about me, and maybe they weren’t even poetry readers. I had to think really quickly about, ‘How do I write after this? How do I keep going?’”

The answer Smith landed on wasn’t far removed from her high school approach to sharing her work, where she would write a piece and then leave it in her locker, giving the combination to select friends who could then retrieve the poem and read it, leaving comments if they so wished. Essentially, she disconnected from the audience, allowing them to engage the work on their own terms rather than making herself an active participant in the transaction, which has served her well in recent times.

“My reaction was basically to pretend [‘Good Bones’] never happened so that I could continue to do whatever I wanted and not feel obligated to try to recreate either that poem or that reading experience,” Smith said. “It’s never going to happen again. Nothing I ever write is going to be read by as many people, which, on one hand, could be kind of depressing. But I don't see it that way. I see it as freeing. It’s like, ‘Well, I've done that. I peaked, and it's not sad. It's great. Now I can just do what I want.’”