Last Thursday night, Macalester welcomed award-winning poet, writer and editor Carmen Giménez Smith for a captivating and thought-provoking poetry reading.
Smith began with a short reading of three poems, “Radicalization,” “The Daughter” and “When God Was a Woman.” They were all from her 2013 book Milk and Filth, which she humorously described as a “second wave [feminist] tribute album.”
She then read “Beasts,” a poem from her new collection about her mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Smith ended with a reading from a 60-page epic poem from the collection she is currently working on. The politically-charged poem centered on the recent election and was written in a lyrical style. She began the epic in 2011 as a short poem, and described it as “its own animal” that is continuously growing and changing in the wake of the Trump administration.
During the readings and subsequent Q&A session, Smith spoke about her inspirations, her writing process and the tensions she grapples with when creating politically-themed works. In discussing her poem, “When God Was a Woman,” she explained her interest in matriarchal societies, both acknowledging the problematic nature of such a world and asking what a canon of literary works would look like within this alternatively gendered society.
In fact, in a current project inspired by Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the America’s, Smith is exploring this idea by asking a wide variety of women what kinds of works and subject matter they would expect to see in an entirely feminine universe; she jokingly added that choosing the entire canon herself would be patriarchal.
Smith also discussed the mix of feminine and violent language in her poetry. She cited Cuban artist Ana Mendieta—who used performance art, sculpture and painting to examine violence against women—as an important influence. Smith described the woman’s body as “a historical site of violence” used to “colonize countries,” examining and critiquing the ways in which poetic language can be used to reflect this reality.
Smith’s poetry was powerful and, according to English professor Penelope Geng, “incredibly timely in this political climate.”
“I love that she’s combining different styles of poetry: the lyric, the epic,” Geng said. “She’s talking about the pain and the history of violence on the female body, and I think that’s such an arresting topic.”
First-year Race Cleveland found Smith’s presence at the reading compelling as well. “She’s so personable,” Cleveland said, “but then she gets into her writing and she’s just really fierce and sharp and critical about what she’s saying.”
Smith has published four poetry collections — Odalisque in Pieces (2009), The City She Was (2011), Goodbye (2012) and Milk and Filth (2013) — along with her memoir, Bring Down the Little Birds (2010), which received an American Book Award. Smith currently teaches in the creative writing department at New Mexico State University and serves as the publisher of Noemi Press.