I had the privilege of attending a book talk and signing for Maggie Smith’s memoir You Could Make This Place Beautiful at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena recently, with the discussion led by fellow poet Jennifer Pastiloff. I was struck by an overwhelming sense of female camaraderie in the room that evening that was so beautiful, it made me ache. (In no small part it was also thanks to my dear friend Molly who accompanied me.)
Guided by Pastiloff’s excellent questions, Smith touched on several topics, starting with being “bored with genre.” “I don’t need to classify something to make it,” she stated, setting her memoir free from genre in that quietly confident way of hers. It is a memoir, yes, but also a meditation of sorts. An unspooling. And always, always poetry.
On boundaries: “I built it my way and then I needed to be able to shepherd it into the world my way as well, in a way I could make livable.” Smith was touchingly open about her struggles with being seen as her memoir debuted. It chronicles a difficult period in her life that included — but certainly was not limited to — her divorce, and the reckoning in it’s unfurling and aftermath. For a poet who is used to the distance afforded by being The Narrator, being herself in all her raw glory was a new and painfully exposed way to be seen. Thank you, Maggie, for your courage and your willingness to be vulnerable. We have this beautiful unspooling corkscrew of musings thanks to your willingness to share, be open, and give us your “tell-mine” of a book.
On being ‘good’: “Part of being good is being liked, so what happens when you do something that makes you unlikeable?” Smith and Pastiloff both posed this question, one the question of being “bad” and the other of being “good,” both asking the same thing in the end. Are we bad people when we try to find our way to something different? What does being “good” mean for us? For women it means being likeable. Pleasant. Pliant. What happens when we choose not to be?
On perspective: “How did I let myself become so small? How did I let my writing become so small?” As women, it is almost as though we need permission to make ourselves and our work — our true creative work, not just our jobs — priorities. It is sinuous and slippery, this insidious expectation that we often don’t realize is there until a sudden shift in perspective allows us to see how small in our own lives we have truly become. It is a reckoning, but also, a light if we let it be. “I was looking for permission to do something a different way,” mused Smith. What if the only one we need permission from is ourselves?
Smith’s memoir is as poetic as you’d expect, lyrical and sharply observed by turns, musing and marvelous. Pick up a copy today, pick up a metaphorical lantern, and walk with her a while. You won’t be sorry you did.