Maggie Smith

“It’s amazing to me how driving to the post office with a three-year-old can yield a discussion about the space-time continuum.”

new msd cover

Disasterology (Dream Horse Press, 2016)

What’s your chapbook about?

Disasterology is focused on apocalypse and depictions of disaster in American culture. The first half of the collection is a series of poems based on doomsday films form the cold war to the present, including The Day the Earth Stood Still, Night of the Comet, The Day After, and Armageddon. I’m interested in how depictions of apocalypse and post-apocalyptic life in literature and film—from zombies to large-scale disasters—are so often hyper-masculinized, and in how these popular narratives and tropes can be read against the grain and re-imagined.

If you have written more than one chapbook or novella, could you describe each of them in chronological order?

Nesting Dolls, my first chapbook, came out right around the time as my first full-length book, Lamp of the Body. The poems in this chapbook feel to me like “B sides” from my first book, as they’re poems that deal with memory, loss, Western myth, and place.

The List of Dangers, my second chapbook, won the Wick Prize just after my first child was born. Poems in that chapbook, inspired by folklore and fairy tales, grew into my second full-length book, The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison.

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

The first few film poems are the oldest, though I’m not sure which came first. Likely “On the Beach” or “When Worlds Collide.” I caught one on television and was captivated, both by the humorous junk science and the timelessness of the concerns. I wrote a poem inspired by a film, and I enjoyed the process so much, I just kept going.

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?

I typically prefer to have series broken up and spread throughout a manuscript. But in the case of this chapbook, I liked the idea of having a first-section epigraph that alluded to the films. I arranged the poems chronologically by the release date of the film, from 1959 to 2009. The second section, then, is thematically related but formally varied.

To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

I’d always thought a disaster scene would be a good fit given the subject matter. I’d been focused on photographs of abandoned buildings—particularly in Detroit—but the publisher preferred not to work with a photograph. We scoured the web for images and found the work of artist Michael Paul Miller. I was thankful that he agreed to let us use his painting “Dead Air” for the cover.

What are you working on now?

I’m fine-tuning my third book, Weep Up, and writing new poems as well.

What advice would you offer to aspiring chapbook authors?

Follow your obsessions. Chapbooks, because of their length, are perfect for long series or projects.

What music do you listen to as you work and write?

It depends on the project, but I’ve made playlists for some of the books I’ve worked on. With Disasterology, I listened to a lot of Explosions in the Sky and Godspeed You Black Emperor. Neko Case’s “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood” was the soundtrack to the writing of The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison. With Weep Up, I listened to Bon Iver, Gillian Welch, and Sufjan Stevens.

Without stopping to think, who are ten poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least your clothing, to take with you at all times?

Wislawa Szymborska, James Wright, Beckian Fritz Goldberg, Charles Simic, Adrienne Rich, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Terrance Hayes, Donald Revell, Donald Hall, Carolyne Forché

Why the chapbook? What made it the right format for your work?

I think the chapbook is a perfect container for a long series of poems or focused project. I didn’t have the stamina—and, more importantly, I didn’t expect a reader to have the stamina—for 80 pages of poems on doomsday films and disaster. A whole book felt like pushing it to me, but a chapbook seemed just right.

Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?

The Future” and “Big Bang” are both sort-of-but-not-sonnets (nonnets?) in that they are fourteen lines long and were crafted with the rhetorical structure of a sonnet. Both were inspired by questions my then-preschooler asked me while we were running errands around the neighborhood, and those questions serve as the epigraphs: What is the future? How did the world get here? It’s amazing to me how driving to the post office with a three-year-old can yield a discussion about the space-time continuum. The poems are certainly not my verbatim responses; they are meditations on the questions that employ diction and metaphors a child would understand.

Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?

“The Road (2009), Which I Can’t Finish Watching,” without a doubt. I’d written all of the other movie poems before having children. After my daughter was born, I tried to watch The Road, having never read the novel, and couldn’t make my way through it. It absolutely wrecked me—this father and son in such danger, and in a dying world to boot. I turned it off but couldn’t let it go. So I read the novel, and then I did a bunch of research about the filming of the movie, even learning that much of it was filmed not far from where I lived right after graduate school. And then, after the research and the novel, I went back and watched the rest of the film. I really loved the film and the novel, but don’t think I’ll put myself through either again.

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Maggie Smith is the author of The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (Tupelo Press, 2015), winner of the Dorset Prize; and Lamp of the Body, (Red Hen Press, 2005), winner of the Benjamin Saltman Award. Her three prizewinning chapbooks are Disasterology (Dream Horse Press, 2016); The List of Dangers (Wick Poetry Series/Kent State University Press, 2010); and Nesting Dolls (Pudding House, 2005). The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ohio Arts Council, the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and elsewhere, Smith is a freelance writer and editor, and is a Contributing Editor to the Kenyon Review.

Maggie Smith

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When Worlds Collide (1951)

_______I think all you scientists are crackpots! Nothing is going to happen.

If Dr. Bronson’s calculations prove to be correct,
this will be the most frightening discovery of all time.
The astronomer is convinced a star umpteen times
the size of the sun is barreling straight at us, but
no one believes. His daughter—nicknamed Stargazer,
tiny-waisted in tailored suits and pearls—is terrified.
Looking out a taxicab window, she wishes she were
ignorant like all the others, still rushing to work, saving
for a time-share at the beach, planning for the future.
She doesn’t want to know the day and time of the end
of the world, or that the only thing to do is hurry up
and build a rocketship, a modern ark bound for a planet
that may not even be inhabitable. It’s a world war
mentality, except they’re rationing time. The daughter
knows this, like she knows only forty can be saved
and she’s one of them. When the star bears down,
big and orange as a harvest moon, the tin rocketship
lifts off. Her eyes are wild. The pilot she’s sweet on
wonders aloud if they’ll have enough gas to get there.
It’s hard to say—the needle bounces on the fuel gauge,
likely stolen from a ’48 Lincoln Continental. It’s so
American, coasting in to the new world on fumes.

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