River Ghosts cover

Interview with Merril Smith, author of River Ghosts

Interview by Candice Louisa Daquin

I first knew of Merril Smith through some writing prompts on WordPress. Smith often posted at the same time a friend of mine did, and I found myself reading her responses (to poetry prompts) regularly. Aside from her obvious love of the natural world, Smith also possesses an abundant curiosity and compulsion to translate a prompt into poetry. She does so artfully and with careful attention to language and this distinguished her writing from many others. 

Following on from my early introduction to her work, I purchased her edited volume The Encyclopedia of Rape for my Psychotherapy practice, where I specialize in working with adults, sexually molested as children. The sheer dedication and effort it took to edit this, was staggering and further engendered a respect for both Merril Smith the academic, and Merril Smith the poet. 

The duality of her abilities adds to both mediums and soon it became clear Merril Smith was a graceful, inquisitive poet I wanted to read more of. Whilst working on the anthology We Will Not Be Silenced, (about the #metoo movement and sexual assault) it occurred to me Merril Smith would be the ideal choice to write the Foreword. Her knowledge of the subject and academic prowess made her insight invaluable. Graciously she accepted and wrote a powerful, hard-hitting Foreword to this best-selling anthology. 

We kept in touch and I have continued to be impressed by the breadth and depth of her insightful work in the poetry community. It seemed a natural transition to sit down with her and ask some questions about her poetry collection River Ghosts, published by Nightingale & Sparrow Press. This book was compiled after the author’s mother died of COVID-19 in April 2020, although some of the poems were written before the pandemic and lockdown. The compilation is a tribute to life and love, and an exploration of mourning and remembrance

Reading through the collection, I was repeatedly struck by the eloquence of her writing, how she seems to literally and metaphorically, shine a piercing light on an array of subjects, enabling us the reader to enjoy what she finds. Her background as a Historian serves her well because she’s unafraid to tackle a wide range of subjects and I have always felt, educate us on those we are unfamiliar with. It is with great delight that I share our conversation on this, her latest collection.

CLD: You dedicate River Ghosts to your mom. What influence does she have on your poetry specifically? 

MDS: Hi, Candice. Thank you so much for the interview.

I don’t think my mom has, in general, been an influence on my poetry. She had macular degeneration and could no longer read by the time I was seriously writing poetry. I sometimes read her a poem, but I’m not certain how much got through or if she remembered them. However, for the final years of her life, my siblings and I had a care-taking schedule for her and were deeply involved in her care—so she was on my mind constantly. Shortly before the pandemic began, my mom was moved to the nursing care part of her facility. And then came the lockdown when we couldn’t be with her at all. She died of Covid, soon after that. I compiled River Ghosts in the months following her death. 

CLD: You are a controlled, precise poet, not a confessional or sloppy poet and as such, it could be said you are a professional writer not just a writer. Given how many people claim the moniker ‘writer’ how do you view that definition? Is it important to you to be professional in how you write or just the result of also being an academic? I have found many academics have duality in their writing, they may be very uncontrolled in their poetry, but your writing has a lot of conscious structure and consideration, it can never be accused of being uncontrolled and I believe that’s a reason people respect you deeply in the poetry world. 

MDS: That’s such a fascinating analysis and interesting question! I’ve never thought of myself as being a controlled poet, but yes, it’s true. I’m very conscious of word choice, punctuation, and line breaks—and also how the poem sounds (both in my head and when read aloud). Even in my academic writing, I’m conscious of how the words sound, how my sentences flow, and how a paragraph looks on a page. I recently learned that not everyone sees scenes like movies in their head when they read or write, but if I write a test item, for example, I see a scene in my head. In that way, too, I think if all my writing shares a precise or controlled element, it also carries some personal Merril quality. [ I’m smiling as I write that. ]

As far as professionalism and definitions—anyone who writes is a writer. And it’s not up to me to judge. I’ve read what I consider to be not very good writing by both non-professionals and professionals.  Creativity doesn’t require a degree—and there are many famous poets of the past who did not have university degrees.  My first attempts at poetry were not very good. Some were awful!  I think I’ve improved by reading others’ work and by consciously crafting my poems. I suppose I’ve put myself through a sort of course on how to write poetry.  Having my poetry published by journals and presses does make me feel professional. 

CLD: How do we carry ghosts in our DNA or is it the other way around, our DNA carries our ghosts? 

MDS: Hmmm. . .I think to me, it means the same thing. All the traces of before our existence, perhaps from before time—all these ghosts and ghost traces are part of our DNA. 

CLD: How do ghosts play into your awareness of the past, present, and future? As a Jew, do you find ghosts are literal, figurative, or metaphoric? Or all of the above? What part do they play in your understanding of death?

MDS: I would say all of the above. I’m not sure I believe in literal ghosts, but I also don’t not believe. I’ve never seen a ghost, but I have experienced feelings in particular places as if they’re held in the walls. When my husband and I were first looking at houses to buy, there was one house that gave me such a bad feeling I had to get out. And there was a house we lived in briefly when I was a teen. The room that became my bedroom seemed to be infused with happy feelings. I felt like it was always glowing. 

I don’t know how or if being Jewish has any bearing on how I view ghosts. I didn’t grow up with any religious training. My parents were culturally Jewish without being religious. Their parents were immigrants who came to the US in the early 20th century to escape religious persecution.

As a historian by training, I’m conscious of the past, and so I think of those who came before still exist on some level, and perhaps they are asking us to remember them. The park where I often walk was the site of a battle that took place during the American Revolution. There were many casualties, especially among the Hessian soldiers. It’s set on the Delaware River, and over the centuries there must have been many animals and people who died there, or bodies that were washed ashore there.  As a Jew, I think of the possible ghosts created by events such as pogroms and the Holocaust, as well as my own personal family ghosts. My children and I have all thought we felt ghost cats. We also have very active imaginations, so who knows? 

CLD: Could you have written this book at any other juncture in history or is this a very ‘of the moment’ book? I would say, given it harkens to your parents a great deal, and the recent loss of your mom, it is ‘of the moment’—but how do you view its birth? 

MDS: Yes, I agree the book is very of the moment, as it was compiled after my mom died and we were in the midst of lockdown from Covid-19. 

CLD: What poetic observations do you feel lend poetry an insight that prose does not possess?

MDS: Prose can be poetic or lyrical, but I think poetry is sort of a compression of images. Sometimes I write a sentence or two and then see how I can condense that image or feeling into a few words. Depending on the type of poem, poems can evoke other senses by their rhythms or sounds. Prose can do that, too—so sometimes there is a fine line between poetry and prose. 

CLD: Being an accomplished academic with a great deal of fine work in academia and publishing on your resume, what did it feel like to begin to write poetry? Was there a genesis for this or had you always written poetry? What started your blog? 

MDS:  Poetry is a fairly new creative outlet for me. I began the blog with the idea that it might be a sort of history blog, or personal history mixed with food history and history. I wrote a couple of posts about family get-togethers that just wanted to be written in verse. My muse pointing the way perhaps.  Somehow, I discovered some poetry blogs, and after I got my courage up, I started trying some prompts, and after a while, I became a poet.

CLD: Your poem Observe, And Again—seems the crux of how you write. Do you find writing helps with fear and the unknown? Can it ever solve anything? Or elucidate things we do not understand (about the unknown).

MDS: Oh, that’s an interesting question. I wrote Observe, And Again several years ago, and I really don’t remember where it came from. The glove is sort of like the girl in the red dress in Schindler’s List—something we focus on in the middle of extreme horror. When I read it now, I can see it’s rather an imagist poem, though I didn’t know the term then. I think writing can help me sometimes. There are times I’ve just written a complete rant—let it out—and then go back to make it more “poetic.” I think of all the war poets—both letting the world know what’s going on, but perhaps also giving them some ease. Can it solve anything? I don’t know. But authoritarians ban books, and assassinate writers, like Lorca, so there must be some power in words.

CLD: How much of your love of history plays into your core poetry writing? 

MDS: Well. . .it’s part of who I am, and I love finding connections. I’m a bit obsessed about time, too, so I suppose history is in some way often a part of my poetry. Then there are a few poems that are definitely “about” history or a historical event or person.

CLD: Is your mom the ghost in this book? As evidenced by the yearning in the poem ‘Handprint’ where you say: “I wish I could see that light – “

MDS: No, my mom is not a ghost, but she’s like a ghost in that she only exists to me in my memory now. “Handprint” though is not about her at all. It’s about cave art handprints. I’m also fascinated by prehistoric art and artifacts. My older child and I had a long discussion about this the last time they visited.

CLD: How does your family respond to your creativity? 

MDS: My mom would be proud of me on having had a book of poetry published. My children are proud of me, too. I don’t think they read much of my poetry, but they’ve read this. My older child designed the art for the cover of River Ghosts. We all have creative outlets. My mom painted, and my older child is an artist. My younger child writes, and she is also artistic.

CLD: In Memorium is an exquisite poem about loss. It is stark and devastating. The lines: “so here, my small tribute / that in some future time / one may see their names.” This is not literally about your sisters but the way it is written, you’d think it were. It has such an immediacy and intensity; do you feel you are writing about much more than a story of sisters from hundreds of years ago? What were your thoughts when you wrote this or afterward? What did it provoke? 

MDS: Thank you! I’m fond of that poem. I had read an article about the graffiti and I just tried to imagine who had written it and their feelings. I’ve read some novels and historical accounts of people during plagues and epidemics, and it’s always affected me. Of course, now we’ve lived through our own sort of plague in Covid.

CLD: In your poem Grandpop Jack, you write: “surfacing briefly in a memory.” I see a connection between memory and the sea, mentioned often, do you find when you imagine the sea that you also link memory or having memories with the sea or the natural world? How does that work in your imagination?

MDS: I’m not sure that I can explain my mind.   But I do love to make connections. Memories roll like waves. We—as in life on Earth—come from the sea, and in some way return to it. And my grandpop lived in Miami Beach after he retired. He took long walks every day, and he “bathed,” as he said, in the ocean on most days.

CLD: As a Jew, I was really affected by your poem The Pogrom. Do you feel as much as things have changed; they remain the same for Jews today? 

MDS: My father’s mother witnessed a pogrom when she was a little girl. But the details are hazy. She died when I was very little, so it’s not a story I heard from her, and everyone seems to have different versions of what happened and what she saw. I know there were pogroms in the year or two before her family immigrated. My parents had a cultural connection to Judaism that I didn’t grow up having, and they grew up when there were still restrictions against Jews in certain places. But now—yes, it’s getting scary. The former president gave permission for the buried things to come out in the open again.

CLD: How much stock do you put in generational wisdom and what does that mean to you? 

MDS: We can learn from elders. I was watching the Jan.6 Committee hearings, and Shaye Moss, the former election worker in Georgia, who was targeted by our former president, said she was inspired by her grandmother to be an election worker because her grandmother had fought to have the right to vote. That’s a lesson that people should take to heart. We should listen to the people who saw the signs of WWII approaching, too.

That said, generational wisdom can also be full of ignorance. The old ways are not necessarily the best ways.

CLD: Does it concern you that men still decide our fate? In relation for example to the awakened battle over reproductive choice? 

MDS: Of course it does! I’m outraged, horrified, upset. . . and I don’t understand the women who go along with being oppressed. 

CLD: Do you claim feminism? How does that affect your worldview and your writing, especially in relation to being a woman and the women you love in your life?

MDS: Yes, I’m a feminist. I don’t really understand how someone could not be. I think some people think it means radical, but how can anyone not believe men and women are equal?  All the women I love in my life are feminists. 

CLD: When you say ‘why not me?’ In the poem Until – Why? I was struck by the way the poem seemed to reach out and speak to me in the first person. This poem reminded me of the Jewish saying “if not now, then when?”  

MDS: I’m pleased you felt the poem reached out to you. I don’t recall what I was thinking or if I thought of that saying when I wrote the poem. Our local NPR station says that often during fundraising!

CLD: What is the connection with the sea? Why does it enter your poems so often? You grew up in TX so do you feel since moving away from that sea-less place (Dallas) that you have compensated for the lack of sea in your early years or?

MDS: I’ve commented to others that I’m always drawn to water, even though I’m not really a swimmer. I will seek out rivers, ponds, lakes, whatever, but oceans have a power that smaller bodies of water don’t have. And again, there’s that sense of history—people migrating and exploring by crossing oceans.  

I did live in Dallas when I was a child. We moved back to the Philadelphia suburbs when I was in 7th grade. However, my parents took us to visit family in Philadelphia every year—and Miami a few times, too. Since before I was born, my family went to the Jersey shore every summer, and that continued after we moved to Dallas. So, I’ve never lived permanently by the sea, but visiting has always been a part of my life.

CLD: How much does the natural world influence your poetry? I find it is carefully curated throughout your writing and your imagery is always potent. Does it help when you are in the natural world to inspire you to write? I note you are really adroit at meeting daily writing prompts so I assume you don’t suffer from writer’s block? What gets you writing?

MDS: The natural world does influence my poetry. It’s become more important to me as I’ve gotten older, and especially so, since the pandemic. Sometimes nature inspires me; sometimes it’s the act of walking. When I get stuck in writing (more so for something like test writing than poetry), I’ll walk around inside my house, and the phrasing will usually come to me. I’ve never had writer’s block. I’ve had a difficult time sometimes motivating myself to get started on an academic type of project, and when I’m tired, I can’t write. For poetry, if I need inspiration, a painting or a word prompt will sometimes get me started.

CLD: Your titles are electric. One is Ghost Tapestry, which I thought was a terrific combination of the tapestry of family and their ghosts. Do we all live in our own ghost tapestries? How do we bear this? 

MDS: Thank you! I have a difficult time with titles, so I’m pleased they resonate with you. Ghost Tapestry is one of my favorite titles. It’s quite an old poem. In this poem, I envision us interwoven with our ghosts. I think it’s the whole world, we sort of carry these ghosts in our genes, but how one perceives it, I imagine is individual. I’m not sure about bearing it. I find it kind of comforting.

CLD: Your line: “Generations / of women (in my heart) beats.” (Hearts) This slayed me. That absolutely IS how women live – with those generations of women in their hearts. Was this inspired by your loss as much as by those who still live? 

MDS: Thank you! I’ve very close to the women in my family.  Both of my grandmothers died when I was young, so I never got to know them, though I did have aunts, as well as my mother. I think it was inspired by learning more about my ancestry and feeling a connection to them that has been passed down to my children.

CLD: When you read this book in a few years’ time, do you think it will still speak to you the way it does now, or do you think it’s a book that you have had to write by way of homage, eulogy, and remembrance and you will be in a very different place in a few years’ time? 

MDS: I hope the poems will still resonate and that I will find them meaningful. I think my style has changed some even since the book was compiled, and some of the poems were written years before. 

CLD: Why are books of loss and mourning and remembrance so important? And how it is that we can enjoy them even as the subject is often sorrowful? Is it our joint awareness that we are all going to be that person who has died, one day, or our ability to empathize with others loss and thus, prepare for our own? 

MDS: I can’t speak for everyone. I think there is a shared empathy. Most people can imagine what it’s like to lose a loved one, and of course, we know it’s part of the life cycle that all things die. Few people practice mourning customs anymore, so perhaps that plays a part, too. We take a few days to grieve, and that’s that—only it isn’t really. When my mom died, I couldn’t be with her, none of us could be because of Covid. It was a horrible week that began with the death of one of our cats on a Monday night and ended with hers on a Saturday morning. I practiced my own ritual by tossing a stone into the river as I thought of her, nearly every morning for a year—sort of my own Kaddish. Maybe books/stories/poems/movies about grief and mourning simply strike a human chord in all of us, and also give us a way—permission perhaps– to release our emotions. 

CLD: What does family mean to you? Has it changed as you have got older? If so, how? 

MDS: Family is very important to me, and yes, it has changed since I’ve gotten older. When I was young, I didn’t think so much about past or future. I wish I had asked my older relatives about their lives when they were young. Now it’s too late. 

There have been literal changes in my family—and stability, too. I’ve known my husband since we were in 9th grade. We have some dear friends that we met in college and in my husband’s first year of teaching. But of course, we’re all growing older. My niece who was born when I was in college is like my sister. My younger sister and I think of her that way, and two of her children have graduated from high school now. My parents have both died. My children are grown and married. I love the people they’ve become, and I love spending time with them. I think we’re very close, but of course, I also have beautiful memories of when they were children. 

One of the few positive things that came out of the pandemic was that we and our children started doing Zoom Shabbos. While we were all stuck at home, we celebrated it nearly every Friday night. Now it’s an occasional thing, but it’s great to get together and share how are week has been. We light the candles, bless the wine (or whatever) and bread (or whatever), and eat our dinners together. I didn’t grow up lighting Shabbos candle, and my husband isn’t Jewish, nor are my children’s spouses, but I think we all love this tradition.

CLD: Losing your mom completes the loss of both your parents, which is tremendously hard for most people. Do you feel it has closed a chapter in your life? And if so, are you opening another or looking to? 

MDS: Yes, it closes a chapter. I mean, she was 97, we knew she would not live forever, but I’m still sad, and I think her death coming as the world was reeling and grieving wrapped me in grief. My sisters (that’s younger sister and niece) and I sat a vigil with my dad when he died, and we couldn’t do that for my mom. We couldn’t even be with each other. But yes, I’m alive, my husband and children are alive; I’ve just had a book of poetry published—so yes, new chapters!

CLD: You talked of ‘past echoes’ how strongly do they play in your day-to-day and affect you as a writer? 

MDS: I wouldn’t say I think about it every second, but it probably plays a strong part in both my day-to-day life and as a writer. As I mentioned earlier, the park where I walk most mornings was the site of a Revolutionary War battle, and when my husband and I walk around in Philadelphia we walk on streets where generations of free and enslaved people have walked, including my own ancestors. And watching now as people are trying to destroy my country—the past is definitely echoing!

CLD: You wonderfully write there are ‘scents of memory’ and your evocation of memory in all forms, is palpable and bewitching. Would you say we are the sum of our memories? Does this mean if we lose those memories, we lose a sense of who we are in relation to (those memories)? 

MDS: I have some synesthesia, I think, and my senses sometimes mix.  I also see movies in my head of things I’ve read and things that might have happened. Memories are tricky, aren’t they? I think our memories and/or what we think we remember are part of who we are. I imagine if we lose the memories then we do lose that part of ourselves. I’ve read stories of people with amnesia who become much different people than who they were. I suppose that makes sense. 

CLD: You wrote ‘as if always lives’—which I found a really stirring description of a wish many of us have since children, for things not to change, for always to be alive and never go. How do you understand those words you wrote? 

MDS:  I think pretty much as you described. It’s sort of the what if of fairy tales and the hopes that we carry inside, or Emily Dickinson’s “hope is the thing with feathers.”  I imagine “if” floating out into space and dancing with the stars.

CLD: You wrote ‘half concealed, half revealed’ do you think this is the crux of poetry and perhaps its greatest appeal? That it can both conceal but reveal, in measures, so much of what we do not always seek to reveal. 

MDS: Yes, exactly that! But in terms of this poem also the mysteries of life and the universe.

Merril D. Smith lives near the Delaware River in southern New Jersey with her husband and cat. She has a doctorate in American history from Temple University in Philadelphia. Her nonfiction books focus on history, gender, and sexuality. She turned to poetry as a creative outlet several years ago, and her poetry has been published in a variety of literary magazines. River Ghosts is her first full-length poetry book.

River Ghosts is available widely and via Amazon 

Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor. Former Senior Editor at Indie Blu(e) Publishing, she is Editor with Blackbird Press and Poetry Editor for The Pine Cone Review, Parcham Magazine, Inspire Magazine, and Writer-in-Residence with Borderless Journal. Her co-edited anthologies SMITTEN and The Kali Project are both National Indie Excellence award-winners. Daquin’s latest full-length collection is Tainted by the Same Counterfeit (Finishing Line Press).