Create Out Loud
with Jennifer Louden
17 | Poet Maggie Smith: How To Be Honest In Your Creativity
In this episode:
- A behind-the-scenes glimpse at the creative process that went into bestselling poet and writer Maggie Smith’s latest collection, Goldenrod
- What if feels like to have written a poem that goes viral when there is a mass shooting
- How to incorporate our everyday experiences into our writing
- The art of paying attention
- How to unlock a good metaphor
- How Maggie navigated her divorce in public and how it became her best-selling book Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change
For bestselling poet and author Maggie Smith, sometimes the secret behind making her poetry interesting, unexpected, and surprising is about "making it weirder."
Maggie's unapologetic, unabashed approach to her work is the reason her work has been read by everyone from Meryl Streep to Dr. Jill Biden.
Maggie hits on something essential about successful creativity. How do we be truly honest in our work? Sometimes it means admitting that we DON'T want to write every day. Sometimes it means making sure you don't miss that therapy appointment. Being honest with yourself is the only way you can be certain to be honest in your work.
I love her poetry but I also wanted to talk to Maggie because she had her life broken open, as so many of us have, and she made something out of it. This is such an important part of our creative work — to let ourselves be affected, shaped, and in dialogue with events of our lives, and our broken hearts and our spoiled plans. She shared hers with us on social media as it unfolded. So our conversation started there.
Is there a public aspect of social media that can change us for the better?
I was getting into that space on my own. But the social media aspect of it was more about aligning my public life with my private life. Social media is by nature curated...And I think that we run the risk of sort of living in this dual way where in our own homes, we may be struggling but no one else really knows because from the outside, it looks like we've got it all together. And I think that's really lonely...we don't really realize that other people are struggling in the way that we are. So for me it was more trying to talk to myself every day, but then kind of coming clean about it by posting it publicly.
This brought us to talk about voice and authorship, what it means to author our work while authoring our life, and how her creative process reflects her life. To her, it comes down to paying attention.
I reminded her of a quote from a beautiful piece she wrote after Mary Oliver died:
I learned from Mary Oliver how attention is a kind of love, how shining your mind's light on a thing, a grasshopper, a bird, a tree is a way of showing gratitude. I learned that poems do not need to be difficult to be intelligent, that poems can be both inspiration and investigative, that poems can be tender without being soft. I learned from her to own my wonder and to stay open to uncertainty.
Maggie believes we all have the ability to shine our mind’s light on a thing, not just poets. We all see things and make something of them, whether that be a passing thought or a metaphor. She creates something. To her, making connections creates pleasure, so her work is play.
She chews on an idea when she wants to and may make something of it. But her process does not include writing every day.
I tend to scribble in my notebook when I get an idea. It might be when I'm walking my dog, I might speak something into my phone or quickly type something into the notes or whatever. I don't actually ever sit down to write until the drive is strong enough, or the idea is strong enough, or enough things have accrued in the little notebook that they feel like they're sort of magnetized and moving toward one another and want to take shape as something bigger than just a few scraps.
You’ll laugh when she talks about how her kids grow bored of her bestselling brilliance at the breakfast table.
Next, we turned to her latest collection of poems, Goldenrod. (Don’t miss hearing her read to us from it. She enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed listening - you’ll hear why.)
In describing her process, she used one of my favorite words — container.
I use this word in so much of my work, I joke I should sell Tupperware. Container of time, container of materials, container of form. We’re afraid sometimes of containment as creative people. We just want to do everything, and we want to do it all the time, and we don't want to choose.
But art needs form and shape and structure. And we need it so that we can choose what to focus on and not be overwhelmed and not short circuit our brains.
Poems are Maggie’s containers of permission. She thinks becoming a poet early is what gave her the permission to go bold, starting as a 14-year-old who didn’t think she needed permission for anything.
I think having poems as containers for those things, having poems as a place to put the stuff that I wouldn't have said...‘Oh, this is what I'm supposed to be doing versus this is what I'm not supposed to be doing.’ And yet poems always have felt like a place where I can do anything, like it's the sandbox; I can just go in there and play. It’s supposed to be strange. I'm allowed to be strange and frankly expected to be strange in poems.
Permission is built into the genre. “Make it weirder,” is her editing mantra. In her poems, Maggie can be a mess, which is liberating. Especially in middle age, where she realizes all of the things she was afraid would go wrong actually did go wrong. And now she’s on the other side of it, knowing that she doesn’t have to tiptoe through life, afraid of tipping something over.
So we talked about the other side of it, and how she’s taken care of herself through it all. We discussed what it feels like to have written a poem that goes viral when there is a mass shooting or other horror. And we discussed how Maggie navigated her divorce in public and how it became her best-selling book Keep Moving. She was so generous; we can all learn from what she shared here.
Of course I couldn’t skip the money question. She’s been self-employed for a decade, and here’s what she had to say about that:
I'm at a point now where I value the freedom and flexibility of making my days look like I want them to more than I value the safety net of knowing exactly what my take home pay is, and that I have health insurance. So I know it's a sacrifice to give up some of that security for the flexibility. But as a parent, and also as a writer, it's been so much better for me in my life to have things be more open, and so I've just been cobbling it together. It's a mix of writing freelance stuff and editorial freelance stuff, and pre-pandemic speaking gigs or traveling to teach workshops or give readings. It's never the same thing every day.
Although this would’ve been scary for her when she was younger and she admits money isn’t her strong suit, she says it keeps her on her toes.
We also chat about her approach to editing — “be careful not to scrub the wildness out of your poetry.” And her approach to teaching about poetry and literature — “tell me what you notice,” rather than try to interpret what it means, and permission to choose mystery over clarity. We’re in alignment on both accounts.
Join me as we learn how Maggie Smith creates out loud.
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