Interviewing Maggie Smith, and the editors of Waxwing Magazine, about the poem "Good Bones" going viral

After looking into why poems go viral, Kelli Russell Agodon was not done. She wanted to talk to the people involved, too. Here's her interview with poet Maggie Smith, and Waxwing Magazine editors Justin Bigos, Erin Stalcup, and W. Todd Kaneko.

The Poet of “Good Bones,” Maggie Smith

Kelli Russell Agodon: Can you trace back to the first person(s) who shared it or when it took off for you? Can you figure out (besides Waxwing) where/how it began to spread?

Maggie Smith: It was shared a lot among poet friends here in the US, but then somehow it started taking off in the UK, and that’s when it really caught fire. I think it was a combination of Times writer Caitlin Moran and singer Charlotte Church retweeting it that really got it rolling, and Guardian cartoonist Stephen Collins shared it on Facebook, I believe. But I don’t have a clear sense of how those folks came across it in the first place. This whole thing is a mystery to me.

Did it spread more on Facebook or Twitter?

Is it being shared on any other platforms? It’s spreading on both, though I think the global response has been through Twitter. I think I gained 1000 followers in just a few hours. I had to put my iPhone away.

When you wrote the poem did you think, "this is one of my best poems?" Or did it just feel like a regular good poem to you that readers may like?

No, that’s one of the funniest things, for me: I wrote the poem and was happy with it — I mean, I think it communicated what I wanted to say, and I believe it was a “good” poem, whatever that means — but I didn’t think it was the best poem I’d ever written. Not at all. And I certainly could not have imagined so many people reading it and relating to it. I’ve received messages, tweets, emails, DMs, and texts from people all day — some of whom live in places I’ve never seen and whose first languages I can’t read or speak. It’s just incredible.

What has been the most surreal moment of this viral poem (celebs following you on twitter, translations, something else?!)

Maybe tweeting back and forth with Caitlin Moran; I’m a fan, so her kind words meant so much to me. Or learning that writers and translators I admire will translate the poem into French, Italian, and Spanish. What an honor! But really, the most surreal moment has been every moment. It’s been overwhelming to hear from pregnant women, new parents, people grieving, and people like me who are sad and confused about what’s happening around the world, and to be told that something I wrote meant something to them.

The Editors of Waxwing Magazine: Justin Bigos, Erin Stalcup, and W. Todd Kaneko

Kelli Russell Agodon When you chose that poem, did it stand out for you in any way besides being an outstanding poem? Did you have any ideaor inkling that this poem would be shared so generously? And has any of your other poems been shared so widely?

Editors: We came upon the poem as part of an unsolicited submission from Maggie. We were reading the slush pile and suddenly there were these stunning poems, each one generous and beautiful and crafted with such great care and precision. We especially love how the poem is so restrained and so careful until the end when it breaks and the only appropriate word is “shithole.” It’s a poem that makes us understand how a vulgar moment is effective and lovely. The poem breaks and we break along with it. We knew immediately that we wanted “Good Bones” in Waxwing, and are incredibly grateful that Maggie wrote it and trusted us to publish it. We had no idea that it would “go viral” like it has, but really — it’s such a timely, beautiful, painful poem, so how could it not? Before “Good Bones,” our most-read piece was the poem “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude”, the title poem of Ross Gay’s latest book, which went on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award. It’s also a poem that feels very much of our time and, in the best way, uplifting.

It’s interesting that this particular poem has gone viral so quickly after the mass shooting in Orlando last weekend, and that people have cited the shooting as a reason they appreciate the poem. “Good Bones” was written and accepted for publication months before the Orlando massacre. While we agree the shooting lends this poem extra poignancy, we also feel this is a poem that speaks for our time, our daily experiences with violence and hate and death, and also of our human resilience. As the writer Kyle Minor wrote on Maggie Smith’s Facebook wall, “this is a poem people will be passing around and posting on their doors in a hundred years and also today and tomorrow.”

The voice of “Good Bones,” is female, a mother. A parent worrying about children — that does speak to much of the pain felt during and post-Orlando. Interestingly, all three Co-Editors of Waxwing have very recently became parents. But — and we don’t think saying this takes anything away from the beauty and necessity of a poem like “Good Bones” — we also feel that the voices of queer people of color need to be broadcast if we are going to heal and grow after Orlando. There are poems being written in direct response to, out of the immediate grief of, Orlando. Those poems need to be read, too. One of those voices is Christopher Soto’s (a.k.a. Loma’s). And there are many, many more. We hope they go viral also.

How has this affected your literary magazine? I'm assuming there are a huge number of hits to her poem. Is there anything you want to share about how this viral poem has been a positive for your journal?

Our readership increased by 50% in three days. That’s huge. The poem has been read almost as many times as people have visited our homepage! And many people shared the poem online as a screen shot, so many more people have read it than have visited our magazine. Waxwing is not yet three years old, and so it feels great to get increased readership, of course. Our mission at Waxwing is to promote “the tremendous cultural diversity of contemporary American literature, alongside international voices in translation.” We’re immensely grateful that this beautiful poem was broadcast so widely, reaching tens of thousands of people just in the first three days after it was published, and we hope it will help us accomplish our mission by sending us readers and writers who didn’t yet know about us.

I'd love to hear your thoughts about online journals and their value, mission, etc. in the literary community and in the world. In the early days, I was a big supporter of online journals when a lot of people were saying print was better--for me this is a HUGE reason why we need to support our online literary journals because they can get poetry out to a larger audience. I'd love any of your thoughts on viral poetry, the online world and sharing of poetry, etc.

A lot of people didn’t believe online journals could have the impact of print. We love how tangible print literary magazines are, and we hope the good ones survive, but you’re so right that online magazines have a much broader reach. Waxwing has been read in 154 countries, out of the 196 (or so — people don’t agree on the number) countries on the globe. We wouldn’t mail our journal to all those places, likely — people wouldn’t know about us in all those places without us being online. We’re grateful that our dear friend, Jason Robinson, is a web designer, and he made us a beautiful journal that feels as close to reading on the page as anything we’ve seen — the writing is primary, at the forefront, but with the bonus of being able to include music and videos, and to learn about the author if you want to, but not have that distraction. We find the journal elegant, but it also feels almost homemade, like the best magazines we hold in our hands.

We think what has happened with Maggie Smith’s poem confirms what we’ve known all along about online journals. The potential for a large readership is only a few clicks away, and with that readership comes a greater ability for a story or poem or essay to affect people. That’s a lot of power and a lot of responsibility to curate good work. And we also think, when a poem goes viral like this, it’s great for the writer and the journal, as the poem becomes a doorway to more material from that writer or in that journal. But more importantly, we think that the viral poem becomes a doorway to our shared experiences living in this modern world, delivered in that way that only poems can deliver them. People will read this poem and then go out and read more poems, and the world takes a tiny step toward being a better place — that’s a good thing.