When I encountered Maggie Smith’s poetry manuscript The Well Speaks of its Own Poison, winner of Tupelo Press’ 2012 Dorset Prize, I knew, immediately, that I was in the presence of the real thing. There is wise, fierce, and truthful beauty here, the muscular craft to carry it across time and place, and both the risks and stakes required to engage the reader at a level that matters. It’s not pretty, it’s beauty. It’s writing we need.
The Well... also draws on thematic obsessions I unabashedly share: fairy and folk tales, animal archetypes, shapeshifting, vigilance, protection of the beloveds (and inevitable failures to protect), music and the lack of it, and much else that resonated at the level of bone and blood, which is where these poems live.
I had the opportunity to have an email exchange with Smith about these themes, the book, and the writing life, and am delighted to be able to share that conversation in this launch issue of TQ, as well as four previously unpublished poems from her manuscript.
– Jessamyn Smyth
This summer, stalking the Montague Book Mill for sustenance with my familiar at my side, I found an almost-complete set of the Andrew Lang Fairy Books and fell on it, slavering, dragging it by the throat to the cash register—where, by virtue of being a regular, I got a discount. I gloated all the way home, basking in the bloody glow coming from the heavy paper bag. The Lang books interest me particularly because they capture a threshold-moment in our inheritance of these stories: in these turn of the century versions, published between 1889-1910, we have clear trace of entirely unsanitized origins, and glimmers of the Disneyfication to come. Even as Lang himself objected to any domestication of the original tales, his framing of them as stories for Victorian children stuck: these iterations of “The Tinder Box,” “The Enchanted Deer,” “The Snow Queen” stand as culture-markers—and last examples, for some time to come, of mass acceptance of our visceral need for visceral stories that do not neatly resolve the hazards and grotesqueries of our lives.
Your manuscript “The Well Speaks of its Own Poison” uses the archetypes of fairy tales with the same kind of visceral power the original stories do, and does so with the same kind of cultural-moment-clarity we can see so clearly in Lang: the poems create a temporal and contextual fusion so that even as they are unfolding on a suburban cul de sac and a bike’s banana seat, they are also the glass mountain, the trackless wood, the gingerbread house.
In recent decades, genre writers have taken back the fairy tale (Angela Carter, most famously, turned that burning boat around), but it seems to me there is still sometimes discomfort with them in literary and poetic work: for all that all of us mine archetypes, we seem to like to pretend that we don’t, and accuse others of being heavy-handed or taking short cuts when they do so very directly.
Your poems are so unarguably strong in craft at the levels of language, line, image, that I don’t think even a Literary Arbiter of Very Tidy Spirit could accuse you of whatever the particular gripes of the moment are against use of fairy tale, myth, archetype – that’s a big part of why I’m so excited about your book. It does what catharsis must do: these poems make their own utility unarguable, even as they slide in past all defenses on a wave of beauty and skill.
But what’s up with that cultural unease with drawing directly from these symbols and structures? And what enabled you to go so very directly, effectively, and beautifully into the heart of these familiar woods, bringing the reader through the very same kind of catharsis the original stories provided, even as what you’re doing is entirely contemporary?
I’m not sure it was bravery that allowed me to plunge headfirst into writing these poems and, ultimately, this book. I must admit, it never occurred to me that this material—fairy tale, myth, archetype—would be off limits. After all, if we all sat around thinking about what people would say before picking up a pen or paintbrush or whatever the tool may be, we might not make anything at all—and whatever we did end up making would be inherently timid. Thinking too much can make your work dangerously small, can’t it? (I starting typing “world” rather than “work” there, which would have been a typo, and yet I think there’s truth to it.)
I started writing The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison without knowing I was writing a book about fairy tales. It began when I was working as a copywriter, reading books for children and young adults and crafting catalog copy about each book. One of the books that came across my desk that year was Tales Our Abuelitas Told: A Hispanic Folktale Collection by Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy, and I was really taken by the turns of phrase, the imagery, and the differences in plot, character, and narrative style as compared to the Eastern European tales I grew up reading (and the Disneyfied versions I grew up watching). So I wrote the first Apologue...and then another...and then another. Eventually I decided to revisit some of the tales from my childhood, so I dove into Grimm’s, and there was no going back. I spent the next couple of years immersed in that world.
One of the strangest shifts in the writing of this book was that I started out focusing on the girls of these tales—these lost girls, swallowed girls, abandoned girls, girls in unthinkable danger—and then I had a daughter of my own, and all of the love and the fierce protective instincts fed a fire I had already been tending through these poems. Finally I knew firsthand that feeling of being desperate—but ultimately unable—to protect your child, not only from the real danger in the world but also from the knowledge of danger. How can we possibly keep our children from the brutality of the world they live in—the world we brought them to–without keeping them from all the wonder and beauty in it, too? We can’t have it both ways. And these poems, I think, are full of that tension.
In the titular poem “The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison,” you masterfully summon—through evocation of betrayal—the profound we, the private I, and the archetypal us:
[...] to warn the water-witchers
against divining here, I taught myself to speak. You know
what they say about poisoning a well: Soon it seeps.
In the opening poem “Vanishing Point,” we meet a girl who
[...] measures her distance
in lines: a sonnet for every fourteen steps down
a long hall of yellow leaves. They smell as bitter as aspirin.
Later, she is
Swallowed whole by trees, eaten alive in a manner
of speaking, she walks toward a point none of us can see.
It is blacker there than in the gut. From far off, her life
rings like a thrown voice. Let it not be a fable for others.
In “Seven Disappointments (2),” the poem opens: “You are human again, but you remember/both lives.”
For me personally, as both reader and as writer, these kinds of visceral lines that move us seamlessly back and forth between the primal we/I/us and the animal/human worlds are the whole point of this art thing we do, this catharsis thing we need. Poems as psychopomps carrying us between the land of the living and the dead: poems as crossroads: poems as theriomorphic experience: poems as transformation of the daily into the archetypal: poems as lifeline and tenderness for those we wish we could protect: poems as refusal to lie about how easy it will be.
What enables this kind of shamanic presence and courage in your work?
The human world and animal world collide with such mixed results in fables and fairy tales. There are beasts that eat children, children who become birds, creatures that aid children in escaping evil adults, predatory animals that dress as trusted adults, and the list goes on and on. It is never clear whom to trust—and, while portrayed more dramatically in fairy tales, this is the way the world works. So for me the daily and archetypal dovetailed pretty naturally. Also, though, I worried about the book becoming monotonous. I felt strongly that some of the poems should be set in the present to add a little more texture to the collection. And then there are poems like “The List of Dangers” and “Shapeshifter” that help to bridge the gap between the present-day, more semi-autobiographical poems and the more traditional fairy tale poems.
People often talk about the music inherent in poetry. Your language is rich with it. What struck me in this manuscript, though, was your willingness to go so directly at the experience of being without it, or being with it when it is not beautiful; an existential realism as gritty as the oldest fairy tale.
In “The Shepherd’s Horn, we get these lines:
[...] Listen, Murderer.
No one said the music is beautiful.[...]
What did you expect? The truth is not
melodic, not something to dance to.
In “Seven Disappointments (1),” these are the final lines:
[...] she cuts off
her finger and turns it inside the keyhole.
Not everything can be set to music.
In “Lanterns,” of the banished dead we learn:
The stories say that you can hear them.
That they sing by the lanterns of skinned rabbits.
That the music is what coats the grass with frost.
What allows you to access this realism without flinching, and to stay out of your own way when there might be an impulse to soften or sanitize it?
“Not everything can be set to music” was a really important idea to me in this book. Going back to those Disneyfied versions of fairy tales, there is always sweet music that swells and lets you know that everything is going to be all right. It’s not so different from the horror movie music (or terrifying silence) that clues you in to the slasher hiding right around the corner. But life doesn’t provide a tidy soundtrack to let us know what might happen next, or to let us know we’re safe. In fact, sometimes the cues it gives us are dead wrong.
For me, staying out of my own way often means resisting the urge to micromanage a poem. If I find myself over-revising—tying up every loose end, scrubbing out ambiguity—I need to have the sense to let go and trust the poem. You can revise the life right out of a poem if you’re not careful. In this book I made a conscious effort to loosen my grip on the poems, and I think the strangeness and darkness is a direct result.
The realism, the visceral truthfulness I’ve been ruminating on in these questions – this all sounds very heavy and dark. And while in some moments the work is (welcome to life), the overall experience of the book is for me quite the opposite: because it is truthful, it effects catharsis, it anneals, it gives relief and light. The final experience of it is deeply kind as lies cannot ever be.
Damn, I love this book.
What else can I say to this but damn, thank you!
* * *
Maggie Smith’s The Well Speaks of its Own Poison is forthcoming from Tupelo Press.
* * *
Twelve daughters, and all the woman pines for
is a son. If this one’s a boy, she tells her husband,
the girls must go. She carves twelve coffins,
sews twelve little death pillows, stuffs each one
with the dark curls that fall to the floor
when she cuts the girls’ hair. The man can’t bear
the risk, so he sends his girls into the wilderness.
He tells them if it’s safe to return, they’ll see
smoke curling above the trees, smell their baby
locks burning. But a boy child is born
and bathed in sweet milk each morning.
Later he discovers twelve coffins in the cellar,
yellowed pillows full of hair the same shade
as his own. How can he live, knowing
what was done in his name? What was nearly done?
He curses his mother, half forgives his father,
hunts his sisters to the hollows of faraway trees.
But he’s too late. They’ve flown beyond the world
of mercy and forgiveness, the human world.
They aren’t girls anymore but wild, winged
creatures, their eyes black as the eyes of crows.
Half me, you’re half haunted.
Your heart is destined to skip
like a scratched record.
But lucky you, you weren’t made
of the past, an alchemy that comes out
all rusted. You weren’t hauled up
like a car from the lake. No,
you’re new. As soon as I memorize
your face, you change it. Shapeshifter,
it’s a dream chase—the more
I pursue you, the faster you run.
You answer my wren with a hawk;
my doe with a fox. The more
you change, the harder it is to go back.
Waking at dawn, the light outside still
limey, just barely yellow with sunrise,
I hear the first few birds starting up—
one, then another—then you chiming in:
peep peep peep. Half me, I’m half afraid
to see you this morning, wondering
who or what I will find in your bed.
Which Song, Which Cricket
after Gabriela Mistral
I began as one cricket singing
one song. Soon we were all singing.
The dusk was unintelligible.
I hadn’t moved, but suddenly I was lost.
Which song is my song? Which cricket am I?
Now we are many. If I wait for midnight’s
silences, I can sing, I can try to fill them alone,
or I can stop singing. I can listen
to the little me-shaped hole torn
in the roaring twilight. The sound of me
missing is almost clearer than my song.
I can gift it to the night, which misses
its dear, departed silences.
Even the stars quiver on their own
high frequency. I’m sure they’re lost, too.
Dicen los que lo vieron—yo no estaba, pero me lo dijeron...
Those who saw it say—I wasn’t there, but they told me
the mourning dove severed her tail, and not even flour paste
could make her whole again. Little Moth-Eaten Cardigan,
we must depend on bodies that rot, break, fail. Little Cavity
Pining for Sweetness, it’s hopelessly counterintuitive:
We lock our doors and hide gold coins under our eyelids,
but the only thing of worth is there for the taking. It’s like
keeping your heart in a hatbox. Little Mailbox Without
a Letter to Warm It, this gnawing of teeth is not a lullaby.
It can’t sing you to sleep. What world do you think this is?
There is more to fear in this body than anywhere. Forget
the clumsy undead stumbling across the field, the wolves,
the monsters that pass for men. Little Smile of Moon,
bad things happen no matter how good you are. Your jaw
aches with them each morning. When the body’s gone,
Little Key on a Velvet Cord, we have nowhere to live.
This is the end of the story. I told it just like they told it to me.