Maggie Smith: Poet, ‘Homebody,’ and 2018 Axton Writer’s Block Keynote

By Guest Blogger Brent Coughenour, Assistant Director of Creative Writing, University of Louisville

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The sponsors for the 2018 Writer’s Block Festival—which takes place at the College Street Building (812 South Second Street) on Spalding University’s campus, on Saturday, November 10, beginning at 9:00 a.m.—are ecstatic about this year’s keynote speaker: the poet Maggie Smith, who will deliver the University of Louisville’s Anne and William Axton Reading Series keynote address at 5:00 p.m. in the third floor ballroom.

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The Writer’s Block Festival, including Maggie Smith’s keynote address, is free and open to the public—first come, first served. Smith is perhaps best known for her poem “Good Bones” and the 2017 poetry collection of the same name (from Tupelo Press). Good Bones is the 2018 Fall Residency Book-in-Common for students in Spalding’s low-residency MFA in Writing program.  (Editor’s note: MFA students and faculty attend Smith’s keynote address on Saturday, then meet with her in a private, MFA-only Q&A session on Sunday morning.)

 

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Smith, who currently serves as a Consulting Editor for the literary journal Kenyon Review, has numerous Ohio Valley connections, in part due to her hometown of Columbus, Ohio, and to her education at Ohio Wesleyan University (BA) and The Ohio State University (MFA). Good Bones was lauded upon its initial publication in 2016 and went viral almost immediately; the poem was subsequently covered in detail by the Washington Post, which quoted an estimate that the poem had been read almost a million times merely two months after its debut. Aside from its coverage in the Post, Good Bones was read aloud by Academy Award-winning actress Meryl Streep at the Lincoln Center in 2017, and it gave an episode of Madam Secretary its name, where the poem was read by lead actress Tea Leoni.

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Meryl Streep at the Lincoln Center

Smith’s poetry in Good Bones strengthens itself with its sincere usage of a few select themes throughout the collection, some of these being maturity, innocence (its presence and loss), and birds. The poems in the collection, though, are tied together by the theme of motherhood, which Smith herself says allows her poetry to explore this experience of motherhood, existential “shift that happens when you’re suddenly in charge of other people,” one that Smith “wasn’t [initially] sure how to write about” (interview with The Rumpus). This is evident in the title poem, whose narrator wonders how they’ll keep the side of the world that is “fifty percent terrible” from their children, all the while preparing a home, a sanctuary, that can remain beautiful, and whole.

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A recent poem from Smith—“Homebody,” published in Berfrois in October 2018—deals with similar themes of home-as-sanctuary, and the omnipresent nature of memory and place. Smith writes “But I am so full. Meaning staying / in oneself. Meaning staying / in one’s body. I am full of this / place—home…” In “Homebody” Smith alludes to the same level of comfort—the same level of homeliness—and fulfilled desire of making a home for those around you that features so heavily in Good Bones. Smith’s search for warmth, and for home, keep me coming back to Good Bones and to the poetry of Maggie Smith. After all, I am a homebody, too.


Brent Coughenour

 

 

 

 

 

Brent Coughenour is Assistant Director of Creative Writing at the University of Louisville.