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Maggie Smith Reflects on “Good Bones,” Viral Fame, and Her New Memoir

Maggie Smith has been watching a lot of horror movies lately—and no, that’s not a metaphor. It’s a new tradition for the Ohioan poet and her 14-year-old daughter, Violet: They’re working through a loose syllabus of all the classics, like Nightmare on Elm Street and The Exorcist, from home. There’s usually popcorn and a shared blanket, plus the family’s Boston terrier snoring nearby; frankly, the vibes sound immaculate. “We can hide our eyes if we need to or pause if we’re freaking out,” Smith tells me. “Or I’ll say, ‘No, no, it’s too gory. Look away!’ And then I’ll tell her when to look back.” In the Smith house, at least, no one has to face their fears alone. 

This is the kind of cozy negotiation with life’s requisite darkness that’s endowed Smith with the rarer-than-rare modern status of widely read poet, ever since June 2016, when she published three poems in the Waxwing literary journal, coincidentally, on the week following the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, including a particularly hopeful one called “Good Bones.” Told from the point of view of a mother who must teach her kids that this world’s a bit of a fixer-upper, Smith’s poem made viral history almost instantly: If you somehow missed its debut on your timeline back in 2016 (when it was crowned the year’s “official poem”), you’ve certainly doomscrolled through your share of “Good Bones” screenshots that inevitably pop up on Twitter following, oh, insert any catastrophic event here that has happened since (“When my social media mentions start really upticking, I know something bad has happened,” Smith says with a sigh). 

For a stout, single stanza written in roughly 20 minutes and edited only once—tightening “sell them on the world” into “sell them the world” (“More direct!”)—before it took over the internet, got quoted on prime-time TV, and was read aloud by Meryl Streep, it was a poem whose existence comforted the world. But also, as the 46-year-old poet reveals in her forthcoming memoir, it was a personal harbinger of doom. Early into the pages of You Could Make This Place Beautiful, Smith spells it out: “My marriage was never the same after that poem.”

At first glance, though, there is a surface-level consistency to Smith’s life over the last few years: The pandemic may have relegated the promotional tours for two books and a journal onto Zoom, and gotten Smith to grow out her usual pixie cut to shoulder length, but otherwise, she’s still working in the same home office, in the same house where she began raising her two kids, and living in the same Columbus area where she grew up. She was about Violet’s age when she started writing—“It was a rhyming poem that used some sort of ocean metaphor for how sad and terrible everything was”—influenced not particularly by any sort of rigorous poetry education as much as a habit of listening to ’70s records and writing out the lyrics. “The way you could crystallize experience with words in a way that didn’t necessarily require plot—I tend to think more in snapshots than I do in a straight line,” Smith explains. “So poetry, for me, was a natural fit.” She still writes by longhand first, and her version of a productive day often involves spending six hours moving the same 50 words around—so what prompted the pivot to prose for this latest book?

“For me, in every piece of writing, the form is inseparable from the content,” Smith tells me. “It might be like, Oh, I think this actually needs a sonnet, because it needs a tight argument with a turn. Or I think, This poem needs to be in couplets, with plenty of white space so the reader gets literal breathing room.” Putting out a tell-all about her divorce (or rather, a “tell-mine,” as Smith calls it) was never going to fit in a poem’s container: “It would be like trying to put myself in a tiny, tiny house where I was bumping into all the walls constantly.” Still, it’s undeniably a poet’s book, full of vignettes, repetition, and associative leaps that play with the quirks of memory as well as, most interestingly, the memoir’s running metacommentary on the complications of pulling a full Ephron and using life as copy. 

In the era of main-character energy, where constant skin contact with pop culture has normalized the equivocation of our lives to rom-com story lines with new scenes, filler episodes, and guest cameos, You Could Make This Place Beautiful is less of a dishy Heartburn follow-up than a writer wondering why we use the narrative vocabulary we have to make sense of life’s ups and downs. Smith breaks the fourth wall constantly in her memoir, calling out the real-life moments that feel too on the nose, evaluating the fallout of her husband’s infidelity like it’s a predictable HBO drama, wondering frankly why she’s revealing certain details rather than others. 

You get the sense Smith either didn’t actually want to air all of this out, at least certainly not in the way you’d expect, but rather to make a point about how unsatisfying the limits of language and, like, the economy of first-person trauma porn, can be: “It’s a mistake to think of my life as plot, but isn’t this what I’m tasked with now?” she muses dryly. “At any given moment, I wonder: Is this the rising action? Has the climax already happened?”