Q&A: Poet Maggie Smith on Family, Writing and the Fairy Tales That Inspired Her

Taylor Starek

Maggie Smith didn't know she was writing a book.

After stumbling across a collection of Latin American folk tales, filled with vivid imagery and peculiar phrasing, the 38-year-old poet began using them as inspiration in her own writing.

Smith, who works from her Bexley home as a freelance writer and editor, pieced together enough tales to fill a book, which she titled The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison.The collectionwas chosen byKimiko Hahn as a winner of the Dorset Prize.

She'll read from The Well Speaks at Thurber House on Wednesday, July 15, as part of the center's Summer Literary Picnic series. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at thurberhouse.org.

We asked Smith about her writing process, advice for aspiring writers and how she decides on a title.

Tell me about this collection of poems-what are some of the major themes throughout?

I really don't set out to write a book about anything. I just sort of write poems, and usually I don't even know what the themes are until I amass enough that I can look at them together. When I started writing this book, it came out of a poem here and a poem there. I was exposed to these Latin American folk takes, and they were so deliciously bizarre. The language was different from the language I remembered from fairy tales when I was a kid. They were using these odd terms of endearment to refer to the reader, so I thought I wonder if there's a way to sort of work some of these techniques and images in to poems that also have some of my life woven into them. So they're not just straight fairy tale or folk tale poems. They draw from that, but then you'll get mentions of birds and trees that are obviously Midwestern. Then I thought maybe I need to go back and look at those tales I grew up with. And maybe they seem commonplace in my mind, but I probably got Disney versions of them. The real versions have got to be richer. They are crazy and violent and brutal. Not stories for children at all. I ended up finding a lot there as well. And then I had kids in the middle of working on this book, so now they're real people, and I'd been writing about these mothers and daughters and kids being swallowed, and now I actually am a mother. It got real.

How did having children change your process and outlook?

I think fairy tales-they're cautionary tales, and I think originally they were used that way. You know, "Don't go into the woods by yourself. There might be a wolf." And after having kids, I realized that, and this sounds so dark, but there's no really, really loving anyone without a feeling of terror because you can't keep them safe. And I feel that as a parent because your kids are young and they depend on you for everything. I think that feeling was really heightened when I had kids. That feeling of I want to be able to keep you safe but I can't in a way because I can't be with you all of the time. How do you keep someone away from the dangers of the world without keeping them from the wonderful parts of it too? You can't have it both ways. If you're going to let your kid and yourself experience the world, it's going to be dangerous. There's this tension between wanting to experience things and not wanting anything bad to happen.

How did you come to this title?

There's a poem in the book that 's called The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, and when I'm trying to title a collection, I go to the poem titles first to see if there might be a title that sort of speaks in a bigger way to the themes of the book. I was gravitating towards The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, but I kept telling myself it was too long. The more I lived with it, the more I liked it. I feel like the title speaks to self-disclosure. I liked the idea of that-that you would self disclose all of the parts of you.

What got you started with poetry and writing?

I was a bookworm. I was definitely that kid. It was just natural. I listened to a lot of music and read a lot of books. I can remember sitting in my bedroom and listening to Beatles' songs and lyrics. I was really interested in language, so I'm pretty sure I wrote my first poem when I was 13 and then I continued in high school. They were bad, but they were high school poems. That's something you have to go through. It wasn't a serious thing. I didn't consider myself a writer. When I got to college, I started writing a little bit more seriously. I had professors and mentors who saw something in me. It gave me the confidence to pursue it more seriously.

What's your writing process like?

By the time I sit down to write, a lot of things have accrued in my brain. I like to say I'm writing all of the time, even when I don't have a pen or a laptop with me. I'm seeing things and mentally recording them and hearing things. I feel like I'm constantly accruing little bits and pieces. I like to say I'm like a magpie, which was my nickname when I was young. They'll pick up anything shiny and squirrel it away. I don't have large stretches of time to write. I have two small kids, and I work as a freelancer. I'm writing for clients also. I might wake up and be excited to work on poems, but I might have to put that impulse aside and hope that my brain is still chomping at the bit when I put everyone to bed at 7 p.m. I try to write things down as I'm thinking about it so that when I do have time it's waiting for me.

What does it look like when you sit down to write-are you in an office or a cafe?

Actually, I'm sitting right now in what used to be my office, and now it's my son's nursery. We had a second child, and it was more important for him to have a bedroom. I literally work on a coffee table. I sit on the couch with my little Macbook. I like to go to the Bexley Coffee Shop. I tend to work there in the mornings because it's good to get out of the house.

Advice for aspiring writers?

One thing I try to tell young writers especially is to read. I think a lot of people think I don't want to taint my own writing and read too many people because then I'm putting too much in my head. I think it's your duty to see what's being written. If you like the Romantics, read the Romantics. Be up on what's being published in literary journals. Subscribe. If that's too expensive, go to the library or go to Northstar or Barnes & Noble. I use our public library. It's free. It's a beautiful thing. Fill your head with as many words as you can. And just pay attention. Sometimes that means putting your phone away when you're taking a walk. Look and listen. I have to remind myself of that too. Keep your antennas up.

Photos courtesy Thurber House