Michael V. Smith | Issue 7
Micro Interview with Michael V. Smith
Kathryn Mockler: What is your first memory of writing creatively?
Michael V. Smith: The first memory is trying to write a little story to be made into a book. Grade 5. Only Chantal Theoret finished one, and I remember being very envious. “Who is she to be finishing a book? I’m the writer here.” That’s, uh, pretty par for the course in Canlit, ain’t it? But I think the more interesting story is Elaine MacDonald, my grade 10 high school teacher, who gave me 50% on two poetry essays. I wrote a second because I knew the first wasn’t very good, and handed them both in because I didn’t have confidence in either. I remember telling her I was so bummed because I wrote poetry, so how did I get it so wrong? She stayed after class to teach me how to make those essays better. So I wrote a third, and got a 90%. When she handed that last essay back to me, she asked if she might read some of my poems. So I gave her about 4 or 5. From that point forward, Ms. MacDonald gave me feedback on my work all through high school. She helped me meet my first poets from the Writers in the Schools program, and sent me high school contest info (which I won!). I think she changed my life, by simply being interested. I believed in myself, and this wild idea that I could be a writer, thanks to her. I dedicated my last poetry book to Elaine. A true hero in my life.
KM: How has the pandemic impacted your writing or creative life? Or what has writing in the pandemic been like for you?
MVS: The pandemic has been super hard this spring. I think I got really really really run down after teaching two terms online. But I’ve been trying to focus on the small and the local and the immediate and the positive. I’ve never been home so much in my life … and also enjoyed being home. The last sixteen months, I’ve been prioritizing my mental health, and doing less, and/or working better, working more smartly. For the first time since I started teaching 13 years ago, I actually wrote during term. Tinkering away at stories, or poems, one hour or so a week. That did wonders for my mental health. And, I think being more still, less busy, meant I was able to listen better. I noticed things in my surroundings I wouldn’t have otherwise. That includes ideas. I had a lot of great ideas for new projects, three of which I started: a feature film, a thematic collection of poetry, and a storytelling queer oral history show.
KM: Tell me about your new chapbook Grandma Cooper's Corpse! How did you come to write this poem?
MSV: When everything got shut down, I began a storytelling show on YouTube, as a live broadcast, that ran nightly for a few months. (Eventually I invited brilliant guests on, because I only had so many stories in me.) The archive is still up there. Grandma Cooper’s Corpse was one of the stories I told. This fall, I transcribed a few of the stories, turned them into poems, and did a little tinkering. Mostly they’re verbatim. Like, 95%. I’ve been interested in how we transcribe the oral to the page—even in my undergrad, I was tackling this question while writing lousy plays—so this was a good practice for me. I think the line breaks and use of the page hold an interesting rhythm, and capture some of the emphasis and dramatic tension that is in the delivery. I love trying to capture nuance in the shape of the poem, and the break of the line. How it pours out, like Bronwen Wallace’s work, which is so much about story, but also the drama in a sentence, and how it turns. Anyhow, I pitched the poem to Clare Thiessen, a 22-year-old chapbook maker, starting up her own press here in the Okanagan. Broke Press. She likes funny stuff—and GCC has some yucks in it—and she makes beautiful objects. Luckily, she took this on. I gather this is the first long poem she’s published, and the longest chapbook she’s made. I’m super grateful to her. And thrilled to be one of the first chapbooks on a new press, started by a keen and brilliant publisher and writer at the start of her career.
Michael V. Smith is a writer, filmmaker, and performer living on the unceded territories of the Syilx Okanagan Peoples. He teaches Creative Writing at UBC Okanagan Campus.
Grandma Cooper’s Corpse is a narrative long poem — or lyric memoir — chronicling the unfortunate events surrounding the death of the author’s grandmother, in a small town in the Ottawa Valley. Published by Broke Press, 2021.
Michael will be reading September 15, 2021 at Lunch Poems at SFU at 12:00pm (PST). Register here.
Check out Michael’s YouTube Channel Have I Told You the One About where this story originated!