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Making sense of the senseless

August 30, 2016

In the aftermath of a summer of tragedy, Ohio State MFA alumna Maggie Smith's poem "Good Bones" touched people across the globe.

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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 June. Since then the poem has been shared hundreds of thousands times, putting readership at nearly a million people. It has been translated into Spanish, Italian, French, Korean, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. For her good work, Smith has been featured by Slate magazine, The Guardian and the Telegraph among many others. The Poetry Foundation chose the poem as its “Poem of the Day,” sharing ranks with legendary American poets.

This has all been somewhat of a whirlwind for Smith, an Ohio State alumna and recent visiting MFA faculty. 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, wife, daughter and sister here in Columbus, Ohio, and it is here that she finds enough joy and tragedy to sustain her work. “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-mast 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 described in words 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.” 

Smith attended Ohio State to earn her Master of Fine Arts in Poetry from ’00 to ’03. She describes the MFA program as not unlike her experience as an undergraduate at a small, liberal arts college. “Yes, you’re at a huge university and get to utilize those resources, but your daily interactions and your experience as a student is very intimate and personalized, with a lot of attention. It’s a family.”

During her time as a graduate student she was able to work with acclaimed American poets, Andrew Hudgins, David Citino and Kathy Fagan. Without Ohio State, she says, she wouldn’t have written her first book.

The alumni stick together. They meet up every year at conferences and visit each other in their respective cities. She is writing her fourth book, and still exchanges poems weekly with her closest friend from the program, Catherine Pierce, who now teaches at Mississippi State. “She has always been my first reader,” says Smith.