Merril D. Smith is a historian and poet with a Ph.D. from Temple University in American History. She is the author/editor of many works on history, gender, and sexuality. Her poetry has appeared in Black Bough Poetry, Anti-Heroin Chic, Fevers of the Mind, and others. She one of the hosts of the online dVerse Poets Pub. Her first poetry collection, River Ghosts was published in April 2022 by Nightingale and Sparrow Press. She lives in southern New Jersey near the Delaware River with her husband and cat.
You can find her at merrildsmith.com or on her blog, merrildsmith.wordpress.com. You can find
or through the publisher, Nightingale & Sparrow: https://nightingaleandsparrow.com/river-ghosts-by-merril-d-smith/
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on River Ghosts. I really enjoyed it. I’m always interested in the journey of a first collection. How did you end up working with Nightingale and Sparrow? How has the process been?
Merril Smith: Hi, Curt. Thank you so much for the interview.
My journey is probably not typical. I had had poems published in the N&S magazine. Then I submitted to their call for chapbooks. My book was shortlisted, but it didn’t make the final cut. I received some feedback that encouraged me to submit when they had a call for full length manuscripts. Unfortunately, the EIC has had some severe health problems, which seem to be ongoing, so there were long periods when I didn’t know what was happening with my book, or even if it really was going to be published. I do love that they accepted my older child’s beautiful artwork for the cover.
CS: Your previous books have been on the research/academic side of things. Was writing poetry always on your radar—or did it evolve from your other work? Do you find the academic/research side of your brain influencing your creative work? If so, in what ways does that manifest itself? Or is your poetry created under its own unique lens?
MS: Writing poetry was not on my radar years ago. It began after I started a blog, which has evolved into a poetry blog. Writing nonfiction prose and test writing is very different from writing poetry, but I do think everything is connected. For example, even in my academic writing, word choice is very important. Also, I do sometimes research topics for poems because I feel the need to have the background information on a historical event or astronomical phenomenon—just to have it in my brain though the details might not appear in the poem.
CS: There are a lot of poems here—and whenever I talk to a poet or story writer, I wonder about the process of ordering the pieces for the book. How was this process? Was there some kind of structuring or thematic element that you used to put this together? Or was it more intuitive—a feeling out of the pieces’ rhythms?
MS: Some of the poems in this book were in the chapbook manuscript I submitted. By the time, I was seriously working on this book, we were in the first wave of the Covid pandemic, everything was shutting down, and my mother died. I created my own mourning ritual, and nearly every morning, I’d walk down a nearby street to the Delaware River and toss a stone in the water. So, the river and ghosts became the theme, and I wrote or revised some poems to fit that theme, but I also used some of the poems I had submitted earlier. As far as ordering, I knew I wanted to begin and end with poems that fit the theme. In between, I tried to group poems by subject and/or size—like a few short ones together.
CS: I know you live near the Delaware River—and you often take walks along its shore. Did this come into play with giving your book its name? What do you like about being riverside? What inspiration do you find there?
MS: Yes, the river was and is a source of inspiration and came into play with the name. I don’t know why—I’m not a swimmer—but I always seem drawn to water. If I go anywhere and there’s a pond, river, ocean—that’s where I want to walk. I’m fortunate to live close to the Delaware. We have a park in my town that is located by the river, and it was the site of a Revolutionary War battle. I’ve never seen a ghost, but others claim to have seen them there. I’m trained as a historian, so I think of how important rivers are—centuries of people and animals following them inland to the sea or across continents.
CS: When does form come into play? For some the whole process starts with form—and for others, it arises from the page once things are in motion—do you find yourself in one camp more than the other? In the end, what do you want from the forms you choose?
MS: I have written to prompts where there is a particular form. Generally, I just start writing, and see how the poem wants to be formed. Sometimes, a word/line will demand a line break or space. Poems can be bossy.
CS: I also talk to my students about understanding what inspires/fascinates us—and once recognizing these, using them instead of working against them. In these pieces, I see a gravitating toward memory and family. Do you think this is accurate? What other themes do you find yourself drawn toward—and how do you handle these in your work?
MS: Yes, I think you’re right, Curt. I think the poems in this book do gravitate toward memory and family. I would say in general, I’m fascinated by time, and perhaps historical memory, as well as personal memory.
CS: There are also a number of ekphrastic poems here—and others that were inspired by outside sources/quotes. I’ve talked to a number of poets about this—and I’m interested in how you view this structure. Do you consider your pieces a kind of complement—an echo—or perhaps an homage? A splintered narrative that addresses how this original piece resonates in your sensibilities?
MS: Some of the poems in this collection began as responses to prompts. Perhaps all the ekphrastic poems included here, as well as the one inspired by quotations. That said, I really do enjoy writing ekphrastic poems. This past April for Poetry Month, I wrote a poem a day responding to the art of three artists. I think it depends on the art. I’ve written some as narratives inspired by the art, and others might pick out one element from a piece of art and spin that into something in the same way that one might take a word prompt and go off in some other direction. I like for the poem to be able to stand alone, but if seen with the art for someone to understand the connection, even if it’s somewhat tenuous.
CS: What’s next?
MS: I’m working on a chapbook that delves more into time and historical and prehistorical memory. Unlike River Ghosts, I’m writing all of the pieces with this collection in mind.