Author: Marc Schuster

Not a Typical Journey: Curtis Smith Interviews Merril D. Smith

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 or on her blog, You can find

River Ghosts on Amazon:

or through the publisher, Nightingale & Sparrow:

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.

Frankie Lumlit’s Janky Drumkit

When his parents tell him that he can’t have a drumkit, Frankie Lumlit builds one out of containers he finds in the family recycling bin. Frankie’s excitement, however, is dimmed when his friend Alfonse laughs at his creation. But then Frankie’s favorite band overhears his drumming and asks if they can borrow his drums. As a token of appreciation, they invite him to that night’s concert where Frankie Lumlit’s janky drumkit takes center stage.

Rife with Ghosts: Curtis Smith Interviews Maya Workowski

Maya Workowski’s work has been published by Wingless Dreamer Press, Polaris, and New Voices, among others. She graduated cum laude from Franklin & Marshall College with Departmental Honors in Creative Writing. Her debut book is out now. You can find her on TikTok at @thatbipoet. To find out more, you can visit her website here

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Quiver. I really enjoyed it. This is your first collection, and many first collections come with their own backstories. Can you tell us about the journey from your desk to publication?

Maya Workowski: Thank you! I feel like the journey began when I first started going to Catholic church as a kid. It began again when I had a spiritual awakening after a long period as some cross between agnostic and atheist (about seven years). It began for the final time when I started writing these poems, about three years ago. It’s strange; I wouldn’t raise my own kids Catholic, but I’m happy I personally had that experience. Have that experience early on has allowed me to see growth in myself revolving around conceptions of divinity. Now I see divinity as a much more inclusive framework that includes Tarot, pendulums, spirits, reiki, psychics, witchcraft, the human body and disabling oppressive social systems.

CS: Your epigraph is from Anne Sexton. She’s one of my all-time favorites. When did you discover her? What about her work speaks to you? She’s been gone a long time—yet I find her poems still resonate with my students. What about her work feels relevant all these years later?  

MW: You actually introduced me to her! I didn’t know of her work or her friendship with Sylvia Plath until I read her anthology of life’s work. I feel like that quote of hers was perfect for what I wanted to convey in this book. It was a perfect starting point to get the reader in sync with me and the pages that followed. I even like how she weaves together love & prayer so simply; they really are one in the same and I loved seeing another person express that. So it was a moment of identification for me, and a chance to sync-in for the reader.  

I think that her work still feels relevant because she writes on classic conundrums of the human condition. Yet she does it in her own way. I feel she uses the personal to express the universal, and that by nature is appealing.

CS: I felt myself very grounded in these backdrops—and while setting might not be as elemental in poetry as in fiction, I still felt a strong pull of place. Can you discuss setting and its role in your work? 

MW: For me, places in real life are always rife with ghosts. I can’t look at a setting and not see, feel, hear memories—everywhere. So I wanted to really have the reader feel memories via place in this collection. So much of the collection is about loss and renewal. What better way to express that than through the amazing thing that is object permanence and personal attachment?

CS: The manuscript features a number of very cool photos. Can you discuss the relationship between the poems and these images and your decision to use these photos?

MW: Thank you! I’m always very interested in multimedia art. Stories can be told so many different ways, and I felt like the photographs enriched the story. Added a bit more whimsy and sparked more ways the poems fit together. I kind of wanted to make a film inside a book. I’m also really inspired by the ethereal nature & aesthetic of bedroom pop, so I wanted to include that in my own way.

CS:”The American” is based on “Call Me By Your Name” by Andre Aciman. I’m always interested in how a writer views this kind of structure. Is their work a kind of leaping off point? Do you view your piece as an homage? A companion piece? A kind of conversation?

MW: I personally view it as homage. That film was so meaningful to me, aesthetically and thematically. There’s one scene specifically that did such a great job of portraying the quickened pulse & softness of first queer loves; Elio & Oliver are sitting in Oliver’s room at midnight, not really talking but letting their energy communicate. I was thinking of that scene as aesthetic inspiration for lots of different poems in the book, especially “The American.” Another really meaningful scene is when Elio enters the bedroom that he and Oliver kind of shared for the first time since Oliver has left. He’s just standing in the doorway looking at all these “ghosts” before him: the sand that was shaken out of both their bathing suits, an askew chair that was touched by someone no longer present, the smell of Oliver, the memories. The nothingness and the everythingness all at once. It was the first time I saw a visual representation of ghosts that felt really right—because as a viewer, we get to see how much there was before there was nothing. In that sense, I really drew on the feelings of that movie as a permission slip for the kind of ghosts in my book. I think that art inspired by a different work then enters this larger conversation, both as products and with those who engage with the material.

CS: I loved the flow and images of “Cupid’s Orchestra,” and as I revisited it, I thought again of form, and I wondered when form comes to you? Do you start with it then bend your words to fit? Or do you just let things flow and then find form rising organically from the page? 

MW: I actually wrote that one in like 5 minutes! It’s funny, the poems of mine that I view as best-executed in their form are usually the ones that take the least time. I don’t really know why that is, but I know that that can’t be the process all the time. There are poems in the book that took me weeks to write, and they make up the majority of the content. That’s just the way it is.

Those quick ones are the gems of the collection, though. Their birth is quick and I feel like that carries over to the pace a lot of the time, and how the reader ends up physically breathing through the poem. In Cupid’s Orchestra, for example, it moves very quickly because the poem is quite vertically-oriented and you end up out of breath while reading it as a result. Usually form comes intuitively for freeform work, so it works in tandem with the words. I would say it usually leads the words and let it flow organically.   

CS:I often talk to my students about access points. Do you have a go-to access point–image, rhythm, tone? If so, how do the other elements fall into place?

MW: I love access points! It’s how we connect with our divine ability to experience art, and how interpretation is formed. Access points for me include meditation, visualization, songs, photography. I will also sing the praises of writing exercises until the day I die, which is another great access point—especially when they are guided by other people. They are different than writing prompts. Writing exercises are a nice glass of dry, red wine whereas writing prompts are a long island iced tea or something. Writing exercises will always be my favorite form of access point.

I would say the constant in my access points is that they change every time I sit down to write. And that’s what I love about poetry. It’s different every time, and it keeps me guessing. It becomes its own entity that can guide the creator.

CS: You wrestle with some weighty currents here—sex, religion—can I pose a similar question as I did about form and ask when theme comes to you? I work from the fiction/nonfiction end of things—and for me, theme is something that often hits later in the process—but I’m wondering if it’s different for poets?

MW: I do wrestle with some weighty topics here. Theme comes to me when I can’t stop thinking about something. When I have an obsession, I know that’s the theme to write about. One of my favorite mentors said to always write about your obsessions. It made me embrace a part of my mind I had always viewed critically before. But now, I see obsessions as something to investigate further, with curiosity. So, theme is the basis upon which everything else rests. Because poetry is such a short medium, you have to know exactly what you’re trying to say, and then say it the most elegant way you can. With this collection specifically, I didn’t know I was obsessed with Catholicism & my departure from it until I started writing and it poured out organically.

CS: What’s next?

MW: Sharing poetry on tiktok and hopefully another collection in a few years. 🙂

“Black Boots”


As you may have noticed, I’ve been releasing a decent amount of music lately. In part, this is because I’ve been collaborating with other musicians like Timothy Simmons, The La-La-Lettes, and my cousin Vince as part of The Ministry of Plausible Rumours. Meanwhile, I’ve also been recording a few songs on my own, and the latest is a somewhat long song with a country & western lilt called “Black Boots.”

The earliest version of this song came to me many years ago with the phrase “I’m wearing my suit to the steakhouse tonight.” One of the couplets went something like, “I’m tired and lonely and looking to fight. I’m wearing my suit to the steakhouse tonight.” But sometime in 2020, I started playing with the idea from a different angle and it became “Are you promising to hold your tongue but looking for a fight? Are you wearing your black…

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