How Poet Maggie Smith Cooked Through the Pandemic
Name: Maggie Smith
Location: Columbus, Ohio
Who eats with her? Her two children, Violet (12) and Rhett (8).
Avoidances: Maggie is vegetarian but her children are not.
The project of The Way We Eat is to explore how people across various professions — truck driver, sanitation worker, paleontologist, beekeeper — cook, eat, and use food to nourish their work and their families. April is National Poetry Month so we thought, why not give a poet the spotlight? And I didn’t have to go far; Maggie Smith is a poet here in my hometown of Columbus, and someone I’ve looked forward to interviewing for a long time. She’s the rare poet who has reached a level of household fame, thanks to her poem Good Bones. You’ve almost certainly read Good Bones; it rang a deep collective bell when it was published in 2016, giving words to the dread and anguish following the Pulse nightclub shooting.
Shortly after that poem’s meteoric success, Smith found herself at the end of her marriage. She began posting short, bracing encouragements to herself on her Twitter account — always ending with the phrase keep moving — and eventually, she created a book by that name, of tweets interspersed with essays and meditations on endings and growth, a rather different sort of book albeit one still characterized by her lucid, candid humanity and precision of emotion.
We talked about the surprises that this year of pandemic cooking has held for her, what it has meant for her writing and her upcoming book, and the single mom’s dream meal (Hawaiian rolls are involved!).
So — what does a poet eat?
I’m a vegetarian, but my kids are not vegetarian. When we go out to eat or if we eat at my mom’s house they’re always really excited about the prospect of Mimi’s meatballs or, you know, a hamburger on the grill. The kids are eight and twelve. They have really, I would say pretty sophisticated palates and have always because they had to eat different things.
I do have to cook, because I’m a single parent, so I’m feeding them every day and they get bored of the same thing over and over. But they would probably say they think of me more as a baker than a cook. The joke around here is that you can tell how stressed Mom is by how involved the baking is. If I’m not that stressed I’ll just make boxed brownies. But if I’m really stressed, it’s going to be like hand pies or something that takes more time, because it helps me get out of my own head and use my hands and follow directions. You know, do something that has a clear beginning, middle and end, and you have something to show for it, which is not always the case in poetry.
Well now you have to spill your baking favorites.
There’s one chocolate cheesecake I make out of Alice Medrich’s Bittersweet. That is like the best thing on earth. Both of my kids tend to choose that chocolate cheesecake for their birthdays.
We’re big on breakfast, like French toast, and the America’s Test Kitchen recipe for buttermilk pancakes — I haven’t found one better, and now it’s ruined me for restaurants.
We started making these — we call them French toast sliders — but they’re the single mom’s dream because they’re so easy.
Do go on!
You buy Hawaiian slider rolls, those little dinner rolls that are sweet, and slice them open, and you smear cream cream cheese and put some sliced bananas inside, and then you shut them and smush them to seal them. Then you batter them, and then you cook them on all the sides, like little cubes. Stuffed French toast cubes that you dip in syrup.
At the end of a long day, I’m like, how about French toast sliders for dinner? and everybody cheers. Add a side of veggie bacon, some veggie sausage, and everybody wins.
I just wrote this down and my children thank you. So when you’re in the groove of writing, what’s fueling it?
When I’m working, honestly, the goal is to be so engrossed that I’m not really thinking about food. If I’m really on a writing jag, I forget to eat. Or I end up just eating cereal and almond milk out of a coffee mug because I realize it’s one in the afternoon and I’ve been working all morning on nothing but coffee and I’m like, why do I have a headache?
What does a typical day of writing look like for you?
This past year has thrown my balance way off. In an ideal situation, I would get the kids off to school in the morning, and then I would have until three in the afternoon to work. That might look like any combination of things. It might look like spending a couple of hours at Kittie’s Coffee on Main Street, sitting at the bar, having coffee, wearing my headphones. Just pouring a bunch of stuff out, trying to get some stuff drafted. Then it might look like walking home, having a quick lunch and then revising some stuff or having a phone meeting or sending some work out.
So my days are typically not very structured and yet over the past year, just with having kids on homeschool and then hybrid and now sort of all in — but I’m still picking them up for lunch so that they don’t have to eat in the building — I don’t really have the chunk of time I need, that uninterrupted time and space.
So time you might have been writing in the past, you’re cooking now.
In some ways with the divorce, but more so with the pandemic, I found myself cooking a lot more. I think pre-pandemic, when married, my kids would’ve said Mom is more of a baker than a cook. The weeknight meals I’d make were often very fast — grilled cheese and soup or chicken nuggets or, you know, pasta. I would have much rather gone to a restaurant, but that’s not on the table anymore, no pun intended. I had to find my way into cooking, which I have over the past year, and now I really enjoy it. I don’t think my life was necessarily built for it earlier, but now even as things kind of get back to normal, I won’t go back to the way that I did things before. I think this is just the way that we’ll do things.
It’s so interesting to hear you say that, as I think cooking has felt like a chore for a lot of people over this past year, and I see a lot of burnout. Do you feel that at all, especially in the times it competes with your creative work?
It’s been a really stressful year for my kids and I felt like it was something I could offer them, something I could do for them that they can’t do for themselves yet. And at the age they are there’s a lot of stuff they can do for themselves; they don’t need me to bathe them; they don’t need me to dress them.
But helping my son with his schoolwork and then making the meals — those were the two things I felt were nurturing things that I could offer them that would maybe help offset some of the mayhem and the feeling of just, things aren’t normal. It’s been a long day, what can I make you for dinner that would be comforting.
And so, it’s funny: what do you do religiously? Cooking was not one of those things until the past year. And now I really enjoy it, whether they’re in there with me helping or not.
One of the things I write about in the book is thinking about the life you envisioned for yourself: like, what do you want your life to look like? And when I think about it now, I like the relationship I have with food and cooking better now. It’s actually, I think, healthier and more functional now than it was pre-pandemic. And so many things have become dysfunctional over the past year, but this has been one of the real gifts for me. You know, how do I want my life to look going forward? I want it to look a lot like it looks now. I’d like to get out; I’d like to see my friends, to hug my mother. But as far as the life that we’ve made for ourselves within these walls, it’s pretty good.
I love that; what a gift to find something for the future in this hard year.
I come from the food is love school. Most of my happy memories from my childhood, I can tie to something that my mom made or my grandmother made or even just, you know, eating popsicles outside. I want my kids to have that same relationship to food where they have happy memories around it.
And clearly all this cooking isn’t inhibiting your work too much — you have a brand-new book coming out in July, right? Can you talk about it?
I think for people who read and liked Good Bones, and people who read and liked Keep Moving, Goldenrod feels like a continued conversation. The poems in the new book really are from right after I stopped writing the poems for Good Bones, so while there are a couple of poems in the book that I wrote during the pandemic, it will feel like my work to people — grappling with the same issues: parenting, and solitude, and forgiveness, and memory, and just being a human in the world.
As someone who loves poetry, it has been so cool to watch the success of Good Bones, this sense of a poem going viral. But how has that been for you?
Strange. I wrote a poem at a coffee shop in my neighborhood and sent it out in a batch of other poems, just like I do every single time, but this time something different happened. It scared me at first because I wasn’t sure how to keep going after that. It was like having a hit song and wondering well, all the songs aren’t going to sound like that one after this. Is that OK? Because it has to be OK. There’s no way to recreate that, and I wouldn’t want to. Every poem is a one-off. Every poem teaches me how to write that poem. So once you’re done with something the joy is getting to do something completely different. I basically just had to pretend like it never happened.
But having a wider readership is a really beautiful thing, because I think people who find comfort or hope, or just an articulation of something they weren’t able to articulate themselves, in Good Bones, then have the appetite for more poems. And not just my poems. They then have an appetite for poetry because it’s like, Oh this thing did this for me. What else is there that might do that?
And so I think it’s good for poetry when poems go viral. Even if it can be a little bit complicated.
I find it delightful; you just don’t have a lot of rock star poets out there.
My kids are rolling their eyes right now. They don’t know why; they just had the feeling of like, I need to roll my eyes right now.
Last question: has your cooking ever prompted a poem?
I don’t think I have any cooking poems, but I do in Goldenrod have a poem that uses bread proving as a metaphor for the creative process. It kind of cracked me up that so many people were posting about their sourdough during the pandemic. And I was like, OK, I’m not doing any of that — but what I do when I’m trying to write a poem is I might go to bed with an idea in my head, and I hope that it doubles in size and becomes something.
The Way We Eat is a series of profiles and conversations with people like you, about how they feed themselves and their families. We’re actively looking for people to feature in this series. You don’t have to be famous or even a good cook! We’re interested in people of all backgrounds and eating habits. If you’d like to share your own story with us, or if you know of someone you think would be great for this series, start here with this form.