A Conversation with Margaret D. Smith, Poet and Author of “Holy Struggle” and “Barn Swallow”

TWO POEMS BY MARGARET D. SMITH

Pavel talks to me over lunch

My farmhouse is away, so far from Prague
there are no planes, not even cars.

You can hear everything that way.
The pigeons make love on rooftops,

workers talk in fields,
bees make sounds like music far off.

My grandfather loved bees.
He left Prague to live in that farmhouse

to raise bees: bees in boxes, bees in fields.
When he died he left me his farmhouse.

The first time I stepped inside after he was gone,
rooms were dark, my shoes hollow,

and all I could smell
was honey.

Yes

A flying squirrel only falls slowly….
A sun is a star, but not all stars are suns.
Waves move in light. Grass grows down.
All those names of things we had been given
were not true, not true, but somehow yes.
We don’t know what, but maybe
there is a name somewhere.

TALKING WITH MARGARET D. SMITH AT “THE EAGLE AND CHILD”

Talking about poetry with Margaret D. Smith is like jumping into a pile of autumn leaves. By the end of the conversation, there are beautiful observations scattered everywhere, and you want to preserve each one.

Publishing a conversation with her is like raking those leaves back into a pile, so I can give you a turn jumping.

Margaret’s latest poetry collection is entitled Barn Swallow. You can purchase it from the author: But you don’t have to read the poems to enjoy our conversation here. I enjoy corresponding with Margaret via email because her responses are worth saving and sharing. And her blog is a chronicle of seemingly ordinary moments… moments she shares in her own particular way so that they come alive.

When I proposed this interview, Margaret responded with one of her bright ideas. What if each message we sent to each other ended with a question… not just from the interviewer, but also from the interviewee?

I might have tried to answer her questions. But as I read her replies, I thought it might be better just to let her questions hang in the air… something for the reader to take away and think about.

So here we go…

Overstreet:

As a longtime reader and admirer, I probably presume to think I know you. And I would be wrong. Would you please re-introduce yourself? Who the heck are you, anyway?

Smith:

I’m Margaret, which means “pearl,” which means a many-layered, opalescent source of irritation.

But my last name is Smith; my whole name means “pearl maker,” so I’m really an oyster.

As a writer, artist and musician, I find myself doing art in a struggle to understand how to be in love with God, who refuses to be understood, even as he begs to be in relationship. God’s presence in me is like a grain of sand. He neither shows himself visibly nor goes away, and this agitates me daily. So I cover and cover that holy irritation with layers from my own core. Don’t we all?

Overstreet:

You have a new book called Barn Swallow.

But I’m still recovering from your poetic exploration of the imagination of Gerard Manley Hopkins, A Holy Struggle: Unspoken Thoughts of Hopkins. If a reader wanted to discover that beautiful book, do you know how they could get their hands on a copy?

Smith:

I’m working on a third printing of A Holy Struggle, which should be out in plenty of time for the 120th anniversary of Hopkins’ death (2009).

In the meantime, readers can go to amazon.com or bn.com or any number of online bookstores that sell used — I mean pre-loved — books.

What Barn Swallow has that Struggle doesn’t have is a distillation of twenty years of poems, written in my own voice. I wrote Struggle in Hopkins’ journal voice, causing readers everywhere to ask, if they happened to skip the preface, “Did Hopkins write this book, or did Margaret?”

Overstreet:

How has Hopkins influenced your own poetry? And who else has helped tune your writing instruments?

Smith:

Besides the influence of Hopkins’ poems on my poems, there is the overarching influence of his life on my life. I’ve been struck by what he writes in his letters and journals. There’s his dry humor, no matter what he was going through at the time. There’s his genius, which is impossible to fathom. And there’s the way he willingly chose to sacrifice, time and again, rather than to gain fame or stature as a poet. He didn’t pretend to be humble, fingers crossed behind his back, secretly aiming for fame, but fame happened to him anyway after he died. God is funny like that.

Whenever I think I’m done mining Hopkins, another gold vein opens up. I’ve written a screenplay based on Hopkins’ time in Wales, where poetry spurted out of him after his seven-year silence. I’ve attended the International Hopkins Summer School in Ireland for three years, presenting lectures on Hopkins to international academics one day and to young, gifted Irish students the next. On the Oregon Coast at a reading series, I recently read poems of Hopkins, talked about his life, and performed music based on his poems. And I’ve got another book on Hopkins in the works, which I’ll talk about some day when it’s ready. I’m not tired of him, and he’s not done with me, so this love affair might continue throughout my life.

I’ve been influenced by a number of poets, from Rumi and Basho to Dickinson. I’m often quoting bits of poems to myself. There’s Frost: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that sends the frozen groundswell under it.” Or Edna St Vincent Millay: “I know what my heart is like after your love died: it is like a hollow ledge holding a little pool left there by the tide, a little tepid pool, drying inward from the edge.” Or Sandburg: “In your blue eyes, O reckless child, I saw today many little wild wishes, eager as the great morning.” Or the Swedish poet Edith Sodergran, who actually died in the 1920s of starvation because her poetry was labeled “too natural”: “My soul was a light blue dress the color of the sky. I left it on a rock by the sea.” I’m influenced by as many good poets as I read. Linda Hogan’s line, “Birds fly in and out a thousand windows” is one of my favorite pieces of poetry.

What does it mean to be under the influence of another poet without going under?

Overstreet:

You’ve lived a lot of places, and now you’re the Poet Queen of Astoria. You seem to like it there. Why are you moving now?

Smith:

I don’t think anyone has called me the Poet Queen of anyplace, but thanks for the compliment.

Katherine Bond wrote recently about my essays on the Oregon Coast: “Sometimes you long for solitude – great extended stretches of it in a location where the pace is much slower: where you can walk into town and visit with the sea lions on the dock over a cup of good coffee, where eagles swing suddenly over your roof and deer curl trustingly on your back lawn. Margaret Smith lives in such a place….”

Astoria has been a good place, but now I feel God kicking me out of the nest, as it were, drawing me out of the boat onto the stormy waves to the next step, with no clear message except to trust him. It seems the Portland area is the place to be going next, but I’m open. I’m in the middle of moving in the next few weeks with nothing more than a certain intuition that I should go, so prayer and chutzpah is needed. “Lord, if that’s you out there, tell me to come out on to the waves to you.” What is it that drives a nomad away from one watering place toward another?

Overstreet:

Whose imaginations have had the biggest influences on your writing? Who set the kindling in place?

Smith:

Walt Wangerin, a consuming storyteller, filled with pipe smoke and the Holy Ghost, more an Old Testament prophet than anything else;

Eugene Peterson, a quiet retired preacher who cares deeply about the common reader;

Annie Dillard, who writes like other people drive nails;

Luci Shaw, who for 30 years has shared so many interests (Hopkins, Celtic music and blue glass, for example);

and my mom, who urged me (age 9) to publish my poems on ditto paper, with accompanying drawings. Does anyone remember how wonderful ditto paper smelled, fresh off the machine, the purple ink forever smearing on our hands? I just wondered.

Overstreet:

Let’s talk a bit about the new collection, Barn Swallow.

In these poems, you frequently express a desire not only to observe creation, but to merge with it… to feel what it feels. In the poem called “Unveiled,” you want to feel the urgency of the waves crashing upon the rocks. What’s going on here?

Smith:

For poems, I don’t observe nature with an impersonal eye, record it in a notebook and report on it. That’s what scientists and nonfiction writers do so well. What poets do, when they’re doing their job, is to empathize so deeply with a natural object (shooting star, cliff, tarantula) that they do merge with it. The poets love that thing as deeply as possible until the two become one.

When Jesus says, “Consider the flowers of the field,” he is saying “sit with,” meditate upon, gaze in wonder at them, as if they were each an icon of their Creator. Close off the noisy world for a minute, Jesus says, and pay deep affection and attention.

Once I was given the strange assignment in a poetry workshop to study a daisy for ten minutes. It sounded extreme, and at first I thought I couldn’t possibly study it for more than 30 seconds without knowing all there was to know about it. But after a while, I felt I was above a field of yellow mustard flowers, looking down from a great height. I studied how each petal was hinged to the core. And I began to love that daisy. Jesus said, in effect, study the flowers, and you will come to love them and love their Creator who cares for them and cares for you, making a good love triangle. When I stop and deeply consider some created thing, I discover there’s a metaphor of God in there for me.

It astonishes me how nonchalant nature is. It mirrors God without self-consciousness. Today on my walk, I saw a kingfisher perched a few feet away on a branch over the Columbia River. He was bright blue, with a way of blending in to the river background. I stopped and tried to study him, but he flew away, and all I got was a glimpse. How is God like a kingfisher?

Overstreet:

In “Skin,” you observe children in the presence of Christ, and how they would rather “cuddle and be teased” than be merely “blessed.” What is important to you about the distinction?

It makes me think of the distinction between art and sermons. One teases us, plays with us, intrigues us… while the other delivers or presents something.

Am I crazy, or is there some kind of connection there?

Smith:

One of my favorite paintings of Jesus was on a simple Sunday School poster when I was little. He was looking directly at the viewer, mouth open in happy recognition. I could imagine this Jesus being my friend. I felt nothing for the other Jesus, the one placing his hand on children’s heads as they sat on his lap as if they were getting pictures taken with Santa. The personal Jesus is able to tease me — yes, great art does this, too — whispering, knowing my name before I speak it. The placid Jesus, like a non-threatening sermon no one is affected by, has nothing to do with the world-twisting gospel, nothing to do with art that maddens and gives joy.

When you make art, you have to choose between beige and indigo, old wineskins and new ones. If Jesus were arrested for being a subversive artist, what would be the charges?

Overstreet:

This constant process of looking outward — at the sea, at the bird, at the whale — gives me the impression that creation is, in your perspective, more a form of language than just an environment. But that language always seems to be speaking of something just out of reach.

In “This is where I am,” there seems to be an unspoken second clause — “and this is where I am wishing to be.” In that poem you suggest our longings aren’t just for something we don’t have, but they’re leaning backward, toward something that we once truly knew, the way we can remember a song even if it’s not playing just now. Am I getting the right idea? It reminds me of Plato’s idea that all learning is actually an act of remembering. What does this act of “remembering” through art do for you?

Smith:

There’s a poem I’ve written in A Holy Struggle. Part of it goes like this: “The bliss, a poem is, of being born, coupled with extraordinary tension, which is dying.” After a few lines it continues, “The birth a poem is, of death, which is the death of it.”

Somehow a poem, like a child, can be created — birthed — out of great love and great pain. A poem can cause readers to be pierced with love or pain as they experience a new in-sight, for example, of black winter trees “clapping their branches,” as I’ve written in a poem. Some readers of that phrase will know it hearkens back to the Old Testament’s promise of trees of the field clapping their hands, and those readers will compare the two images, one a promise and one a present reality. In that poem of the clapping winter branches is the seed of life and the seed of death. One reason poems can seem so sad and lovely is their attempt to describe a fading instant on a small page. But doesn’t the fact that a good poem lives on, even after the reader and poet have died, mean that death has been defeated after all?

Overstreet:

As I read these poems, I feel like you’re selecting a variety of tiny mysteries, placing them under slides, focusing the microscope, and inviting me to take a look. Again and again, you take us deep into something very small, and you reveal that everything is vast… and vastly important. This raises the question: Why do you suppose this is the nature of your poems? Why are you drawn to “the vastness of small things”?

Smith:

I’ll respond to that by giving you this complete and tiny essay I wrote recently, called “Xillions of Stars”:

“Reading Bill Bryson`s steamy science book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, I feel like kneeling when I find out with all our fine knowledge we have no idea just how many xillions of galaxies there are, and to think that God names the stars and not just by number but probably Aragon and Sweetpea, pet names.”

For the past year I’ve been especially intrigued with “the smallness of God.” That phrase is an important part of the book of small essays I’m writing. The smallness of God means that (number one) God cares intimately for the smallest things that escape our notice as we run noisily through our day, and (number two) God became flesh and pitched his tent among us, becoming small so we, who bungle every deal God offers, could let him feel what it’s like to be human, to be loved and despised in a small frame of bones.

I don’t understand any of this very well; I probably never will. But the smallness of God, the Incarnation, God bothering to be with us, is what I am ruminating about. It spills out into my writing without warning. Why do we still, after Jesus went to all that trouble, love big things like success more than small things like slugs, when we know he wants us to care about the small things?

Overstreet:

The gift of your poems is, again and again, comfort. Contentment. Look here, and you will find some peace … whether you’re looking at a barn swallow (“Desires”) or suddenly noticing the smile of a passing stranger (“Recognition”). I keep thinking throughout the book, “His eye is on the sparrow.” I find that considering these small birds, these fleeting details, and finding that God has given attention even to these, it’s reassuring.

Do you turn to art so that you can share the comfort you’ve found, or do you go there to find it for yourself?

Smith:

I appreciate what you say here, because that peace does come with a price. I wrestle with something; I write a poem. Here’s a complete poem I wrote October 1, as I saw the leaves turning gold too fast:

Dear trees,
please leave
a little this
afternoon, don’t
fade so
gold you drop all
knowledge.
Remember in March
you thought every
small warm tic
of the wind
was a promise,
not an aching
song of a child’s
too-far-gone
call through
bare woods.

The poem gives me some measure of peace, showing me something I hadn’t considered before. In this case, I could tell myself that next March, any brief warmth will be a promise, not a sadness of summer leaving.

When I do read my poems to an audience, I look around the room. After a few minutes, people look peaceful, even if that means they’ve been “found out” because I told the truth. Poets might be seen as today’s prophets, foretelling disaster and promise to people who are going about their business, noses to the grindstone, eyes on the next month’s rent. Poets who are doing their job speak their despair and their hope, not just to shout “I’m in pain!” but to bring peace, or a simple moment of silence. When poets tell the truth with love, it helps heal a hurting neighborhood. If my struggling is translated into peace for others, isn’t that a sharp-edged gift?

Overstreet:

You seem to be constantly interested in not just poetry or music or painting by itself, but in a combination of the arts. Why is that?

Smith:

Art is art, whether it’s a collage, a poem or a song.

Bringing a group of people together — as I do in workshops — to make poem collages of words from magazines, for example, is a way I can help break through an outmoded mindset. Academics have told us since the Renaissance that we need to categorize and cubbyhole the arts. The way we’ve been raised, we are sure that there’s an “-ist” at the end of every art form, that artists work in seclusion (from one another and from the everyday world), and that watercolor and trombones should never mix.

But art wasn’t always like this. A while ago, all of the world’s art meant nothing outside of community. The whole neighborhood got together, dancing around a fire with carved instruments and beaded jewelry, singing and telling stories. There you have dance, visual art, music and storytelling, all wrapped together.

Now, after centuries of picking apart the various art forms and making sure they stay away from each other, we’re starting to return, in the 21st century, to that connectedness among the arts and among artists of different media. In art galleries today, we’re seeing connections people haven’t thought of for years: placing music and voices alongside paintings and sculpture.

Haven’t artists always used metaphor to connect things? The stranger the connection, the stronger it becomes, which is why children think up some of the best metaphors. Who came up with the image of herringbone skies?

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