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Turning angst into art

When Maggie Smith sat down to write her poem “Good Bones,” she didn’t do so with a goal of helping thousands of people cope with grief. She just wanted to find a way to channel the angst created from watching her children growing up in an increasingly conflicted world.

Good Bones allowed her to accomplish both.

Smith’s poem went viral in the aftermath of the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016. Since then the poem has been shared hundreds of thousands of times, putting readership beyond a million people. It has been translated into Spanish, Italian, French, Korean, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam and worked its way into pop culture as the name of an episode of the CBS drama Madam Secretary in April 2017.

For Smith, who earned her MFA from Ohio State in 2003, the fact her poem has had this level of success has been surprising, particularly because she generally does not write political poems.

“This is a poem about one mother’s anxiety about the world, which was fraught with danger before Orlando and continues to be fraught with danger.”

Smith writes about her life as a mother, friend, daughter and sister in Columbus, Ohio. It is in this Midwestern capital city that she finds enough joy and tragedy to sustain her work. (See her piece, "Tracking the Demise of My Marriage on Google Maps," that ran in The New York Times in early 2019.)

“My life is not an intrusion on my art or something I need to diffuse out of it. We don’t need to feel like this over here is the stuff of life and this over here is the stuff of art. What’s happened with ‘Good Bones’ has reaffirmed that for me."

 

So what was the inspiration for “Good Bones?” It is something she could’ve never thought about 10 or 15 years ago. It is the amount of depth and terror that comes with loving another person, and for Smith this began with the birth of her two children.

“To anyone who loves another person the stakes are high. In my 20s my stakes were not as high. It’s not just about me anymore; it’s huge to me now. It’s not simply me protecting the two people; it’s considering what the world is that I brought them into. I did that. It’s those two bodies and the family they make and the people they touch that I may not live to see.”

For Smith, inspiration comes from scenes like watching the children at the elementary school lowering the flag half-staff after the Sandy Hook shooting and thinking, “I can’t believe I have to send my child to school today.”

When asked what the nature of this poem’s success was, she said it was how many people the poem reached who feel it gave words to the emotions that they were not able to.

“To see people from all walks of life reading and sharing this poem as medicine in the midst of tragedy is my definition of success.”

She is witnessing the poem do tangible good all over the world. A performing arts organization in Chennai, India, had people perform the poem in translations of native languages. Smith was not connected with the group but received a photo of the students in a direct message on Facebook.

“This poem feels less like mine than any other poem I’ve written. It belongs to others. I live in this nest in Ohio and my poem is flying to people and places I will never see. It has a bigger job to do.”

It’s not simply me protecting the two people; it’s considering what the world is that I brought them into."

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Maggie Smith, On her poem 'Good Bones'