‘It’s easier to write a hard truth than to speak it’
US poet and writer Maggie Smith in conversation with Irish-Australian poet and writer Anne Casey on what makes their writing tick
ANNE CASEY: I had one of those electrifying moments recently. You know, when every hair bristles with recognition? Since very early in the process of writing my second collection, Out of Emptied Cups, I’d been having this on-off internal battle. It was nothing I could name. Just this slow current of unease rippling beneath the skin.
I’d known from the beginning what I wanted from this book – to probe what it is to be human, born into a body which preordains so much of what our life experience will be – the good, the bad, the ugly, the transcendent.
But as the pieces began to emerge, each time I’d finish a poem, there would be this surge: “Can I do this? Can I really say this?”. Then off that little piece would go into the world (with a few sweaty-palmed moments) and, most of the time, nothing seemed to explode.
My poetry seems to want to reveal often very intimate details
As the collection started to really come together, there were moments of mild to moderate panic. There were poems emerging that I knew I would never be able to read out loud. It was only when I read this comment by poet and writer Chen Chen that I realised what was happening: “my poems are braver than I am/ but I am constantly trying to catch up”. There it was in ten-foot-tall blinking (lower case) letters: the writing was pushing me out of my comfort zone. But it was something I felt, and still feel, compelled to do. It’s something I’m trying to fathom.
For some reason, my poetry seems to want to reveal often very intimate details. But I’m actually a very private person, so this can be more than a little terrifying. Just naming that now, makes my pulse start to race.
Do you ever feel like that Maggie? Much of your work is vested in the deeply personal. You don’t shy away from the difficult moments in your poetry or essays. I feel though, that you do this as a means to shine a light for us? Is that what we’re doing do you think? Is there a personal cost to that? What is driving it?
MAGGIE SMITH: I think sometimes it’s easier to write a hard truth than to speak it. At least I know I won’t be interrupted, and I don’t have to stand there watching someone’s expression as I divulge something painful. Advice I received very early on was “write what scares you”. I think I do try to take whatever is troubling me – whatever is busying my mind in ways I don’t enjoy – and drag it to the page. I don’t mean to say that writing is therapy; to me, it’s not. I don’t feel better after I write something painful; I haven’t exorcised any demons. No, that’s not how it works. But I do enjoy working with difficult material and allowing my mind to bat it around. If I can’t wrap my mind around the experience itself – if I can’t “master” it – at least I can do my best to master the formal possibilities in the piece of writing.
I’m grateful for what you said about shining a light. Yes, this is part of it, too. I think that writing about one’s struggles can make other people feel less alone, and making those connections through our writing, in turn, makes us feel less alone. I realise how terribly earnest that must sound, but that’s where I’m at right now, in writing and in life.
I spent so many years thinking I was alone when I wasn’t, leaning toward the darkness when there was so much light all around me. I find myself leaning toward the light now, in part out of necessity: there is so much wrong in the world that I feel the need to pile some stones on the other side of the scale. I think your new book, too, allows for both darkness and light. I’m curious: how you would describe your relationship to the word “hope,” as a writer and as a woman, in the current moment?
AC: Now, see Maggie – there you go crystallising things so perfectly in that nonchalant way of yours! “Write what scares you” is challenging and brilliant advice. And I agree with you about writing the hard stuff not being “therapy”. It’s not for me either, but writing definitely helps me to process things.
Your comment about people responding to your pain absolutely rings true for me too. Poetry had, for many years, fallen by the wayside for me as I pursued writing as a career in other directions. It was the loss of my mother that drove me back to poetry. Laying that out in a poem – which ended up being my first published poem as an adult (The Draper in The Irish Times) – I was overwhelmed by the response from people in sharing their own stories of loss. I really did feel that two-way exchange you mention in allaying the “aloneness”. Grief is, in so many ways, a lonely experience as people can feel awkward and there is a shying away from broaching it.
As to your question on hope, as a writer, I worry about gravitating towards the bleak. I’m conscious that often the strongest emotions, and drivers to write, for me can be negative. As a mother, I worry about the shape of our world – the climate crisis, humanitarian emergencies, ongoing assaults on democracy, the future for our children.
Over the past year, particularly in piecing together Out of Emptied Cups, I’ve written a lot on women’s issues – driven to some extent by the horrendous revelations around the mother and babies homes in Ireland, coupled with the #MeToo and #TimesUp disclosures, my own experiences of sexual assault and ill-treatment, and growing apprehensions about the erosion of women’s rights globally. These are topics I wrangled with in the article Marked women, unmarked graves in The Irish Times, eliciting some interesting responses. When I went on to the newspaper’s Facebook page and read the first few comments, I closed it and never went back. As I discovered, there are strong views on both sides.
Naive or not, I do truly believe that the written word has power. And poetry can be an extremely potent medium – armed as it is to efficiently deliver pithy facts, juxtapose positions, make pointed observations and strike at the heart. So, in that sense, I think poetry offers hope – the ability to tap into the deeper self very quickly – both for the writer and the reader – and the exciting possibility of shifting attitudes, which in turn can feed into action.
I do also feel a kind of responsibility, I suppose – and maybe this is just me – a need to celebrate the positive, the beauty, the possibility of transcendence in the everyday. I think people want and need that. And of course, Maggie, you are the living proof of that – how your extraordinary Good Bones went viral – with its tough questions but underlying positive message. I love that bewitching ability you have to drift so seamlessly from the personal to the universal. So what are you “dragging” to the page lately? Your recent New York Times article talked of “unblurring”. I’ve been following your daily wisdoms for a while now – any thoughts of assembling them more formally?
MS: You are so kind. I love what you say about poetry offering “the ability to tap into the deeper self very quickly” – and I admire how you’re doing that in your new work. I do think, as a genre, poetry is particularly well-suited to surprise, discovery, epiphany. Its metaphor-based centre of gravity is certainly part of it. As a mother, I worry about the same things you do – and I’ve often brought those worries to my poems, especially my most recent collection, Good Bones. The world is a beautiful, terrible place – it’s both, always both – and my job as a parent is to help my children navigate it the best they can and wring as much joy from it as possible.
Taking pain and building something useful from it – useful to me, useful to others – feels important to me
As you say, I’ve been dragging some heavy things to the page lately – and making deep furrows in the ground as I drag them! I’ve written poetry since my teenage years, but lately I’ve found that there are stories and ideas that require a different sort of container. I’ve been writing essays primarily since my marriage ended for this reason – I needed room to be more expansive, more discursive, less strictly concise than I am in poems.
The essay you mention, which I originally titled Unblurring, was published in the Modern Love column of the Sunday New York Times in January as “Tracking the Demise of My Marriage in Google Maps.” It was the first piece I published about my divorce, and to have it appear in such a prominent publication was both daunting and exciting. The response to that piece was incredible. And yes, I’ve been posting daily notes-to-self on Twitter and Instagram since last fall as a way to keep myself in a positive headships in a time of traumatic upheaval. I hear from people every day that my words seem to have been written just for them, and that means a lot to me – that I’m speaking to myself, giving myself a daily pep talk, but that I’m also giving pep talks to other people, too. Taking pain and building something useful from it – useful to me, useful to others – feels important to me right now. And yes – please stay tuned. I’m building something bigger with those that I hope to be able to share soon.
AC: Oh I hear you on the world being a “beautiful, terrible place”. It reminds me of Yeats’ “a terrible beauty is born” and it does somehow seem as if we are again in a present where everything has “changed, changed utterly”. I feel the same parental responsibility as you, but I also have a growing understanding of just how much we learn from our children. They seem to have so much awareness and capability. I see a new hope burgeoning – the emergence of a more politically astute and vocal youth. This is where I also feel the power of words shining through. Spurred in part by Swedish teenager and school strikes leader, Greta Thunberg’s mandate to “call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency”, The Guardian recently changed its policy on terminology around the environment. Out of the mouths of babes…
Interesting that you are reaching beyond poetry for broader forms of expression. I am doing the opposite – having moved away a little from writing longer articles and books (although of a duller kind!), I am loving the concision and deftness of poems. I am excited to hear that your “notes-to-self” are finding their way into a new form, and look forward to hearing more. It has become a daily pleasure to parachute in and have that instant high-voltage hit from these!
Thank you also for your very generous words and for this chat – somehow I’m feeling a small bit less panicky about my new collection stripping me somewhat barer than I may be comfortable with! As you say, it is part-challenge, part-epiphany and mostly about trying to make something useful from the struggle.
MS: Thank you, Anne! You’ve given us – and, I suspect, yourself – a gift with Out of Emptied Cups, having given voice to difficult experiences with such care and precision. I have so enjoyed your insights here and spending time with you on the page. I hope that our paths may cross off the page one of these days, too. Until then, I’m toasting you from here!
Anne Casey’s latest collection, Out of Emptied Cups is published by Salmon Poetry. Read The Irish Times review here. Maggie Smith’s Good Bones is published by Tupelo Press