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Poet Maggie Smith on her new memoir 'You Could Make This Place Beautiful'

MILES PARKS, HOST:

In 2016, a poem titled "Good Bones" went viral. You might remember it.

MAGGIE SMITH: (Reading) Life is short, though I keep this from my children. Life is short, and I've shortened mine in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways, a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways I'll keep from my children. The world is at least 50% terrible, and that's a conservative estimate, though I keep this from my children.

PARKS: That's Maggie Smith reading the first lines of her poem. It electrified her writing career, and it changed her life in a multitude of other ways as well. She writes all about that, what happened before and after, in her new memoir, "You Could Make This Place Beautiful." And she joins us now. Hi, Maggie.

SMITH: Hi.

PARKS: Thank you so much for being with us. I'm wondering if we can start there. Talk me through what it was like when "Good Bones" went viral.

SMITH: As a, you know, middle-aged mom of two young kids in Central Ohio, it's hard to overstate how completely bewildering and wonderful and confusing and strange and thrilling that was. I'd been writing for years and years and had published a couple of books at that point. But the poetry readership is generally sort of small and discerning. And so that poem widened my readership in a way I just - I couldn't have anticipated.

PARKS: The memoir touches a lot on your work, but it really focuses on the end of your marriage. Tell us a little bit about your husband and then what happened to your marriage after this poem went viral.

SMITH: Well, I mean, we are a couple with two kids, and we both worked, although he worked out of the house and I worked inside the house and was the primary caregiver. And that is probably where the issue sort of stems from. I think many of us have had changes in our marriage that require some sort of recalibration. And, in most cases, we're able to plan for them. But a poem going viral isn't something that you can plan for. And it's not something that you can sit down with your spouse and say, I'm about to get a ton of requests to travel, and as the primary caregiver, I'm going to need to hand things off to you in order to do this, because this has been my dream my whole life. Maybe with some planning, it could have been different, but it caused a lot of tension.

PARKS: One of the striking moments in the book, for me, was that moment where I believe it was your husband's attorney used air quotes around the phrase your work. Can you talk about that moment and just kind of this idea of your work being considered legitimate?

SMITH: Yeah, I mean, some of it, honestly, is when you're in the arts, your work doesn't look necessarily like other people's jobs. My work might look like going to a city and giving a reading at a bookstore. It might look like teaching a class in another city for a week or going to a literary festival. And it might look more fun than work should look. But yeah, so I think, in part, there is a sort of diminishment of working in a creative field. I think, in part, if you're not the primary earner, you know, there may have been some resentment about the time that it took up not being, quote, "worth it." It's hard to know.

PARKS: I also want to talk about the format of this book. It reads almost like a diary. You know, it moves - you kind of revisit ideas that were a few pages back, and you say, actually, here's how I think about it now or my view on this is kind of changing. How did you come to format it this way or write it this way?

SMITH: Well, I knew early on it would be vignettes because I'm a poet. Compression, concision, lyricism, a focus on metaphor, a focus on image - these are all things that I'm, you know, dragging from my poetry toolkit into my prose. And I wanted to not only tell the story, but to help the reader feel the experience. And I figured if I'm going to be this vulnerable in the telling, I want to be able to show up and really talk person to person. Like, my kids' math homework - the teacher says, don't just give me the answer. Show your thinking. So I wanted to be able to show my thinking in this book.

PARKS: The fundamental issues in your and your ex-husband's relationship - how much of them were unique to you - your and his kind of dynamic and personalities - versus how much of this is systemic, like, just from the fact that we live in a patriarchal society? Were you able to parse between those two things at all?

SMITH: I think the patriarchal foundation of it is huge. I don't know exactly how much of the pie chart, if I had to color it in, is that. You know, what the sort of invisible labor, the power dynamics in a marriage, the balancing of work and motherhood, the considering the worth and value of your time, even if you're not making most of the actual money - all of these things are huge. And then you add something really particular like a viral poem into the mix. And in some ways now looking at it, I'm like, well, that's I think what we call a perfect storm.

PARKS: I have to ask, too - I am a child of divorced parents, and honestly, your ex-husband does not come across looking great after reading this book. And I was thinking about how much you thought about what you wanted to share, considering your two children are probably going to read this book or may have already read some of it at this point. My parents have grappled for a long time, even now that I'm an adult, with how much of their personal relationship to share with me and my brothers. How much did you grapple with that?

SMITH: Oh, a ton. I mean, my kids are sort of always my first consideration about how I talk about myself. And that's really why I say I can only speak for myself. And I'll also say, really not much of this book will be a surprise or is a secret. And I don't believe in family secrets. I think family secrets are poison. I think kids usually know more than we're telling them. If and when they choose to read this book, probably what we'll do is sit down and have a conversation beforehand so that we can talk our way through it.

PARKS: Have you heard from your ex-husband about the book, or did you talk to him before it published?

SMITH: No.

PARKS: And you haven't heard since?

SMITH: No.

PARKS: Do you - does it matter, I guess, how he feels about any of this? I'm asking genuinely. I don't know the answer.

SMITH: I don't know that there is an answer. I think I just got to a point in my life where I decided not to make decisions for myself based on anxiety and fear. And all I can do is sort of approach the project with honesty and integrity and do my best to keep it centered on my own experience. And I've done my best at that.

PARKS: There is so much grief and pain in this book and throughout this time that you write about. How are you doing now, now that the book is done? I mean, has it helped you find any of the peace that it seems like you were looking for?

SMITH: Well, thank you for asking. You know, I am doing really well. I mean, it was a really emotional writing experience, as I'm sure you can imagine, having read it. But I did come out the other side of it, I think, with a new sense of sort of fortitude about who I am as a person and the kind of work I want to be doing in the world and not allowing myself to be scared or small or to sort of snip off pieces of myself and bargain them away over time, which I think some of us can find that we've done in the middle of our lives. And so, no, it's been - not an uncomplicated journey, and it's not an uncomplicated time right now, but I'm happy.

PARKS: That's author Maggie Smith. Her new memoir is "You Could Make This Place Beautiful." Thank you so much for talking us through this, Maggie.

SMITH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEU!'S "ISI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.