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.

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. 🙂

Making a Book By Hand: Curtis Smith Interviews Erin Dorney

Erin Dorney is a writer and artist based in Pennsylvania. She is the author of I Am Not Famous Anymore: Poems After Shia LaBeouf (Mason Jar Press) and her writing has appeared in various publications including Hobart, HAD, Passages North, and Juked. Erin’s literary artwork and installations have been exhibited at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art; Hennepin Theatre Trust; the Minnesota Center for Book Arts; and Susquehanna Art Museum. She is a co-founder of Fear No Lit, home of the Submerging Writer Fellowship and Notebooked.

Curtis Smith: What a beautifully packaged collection. I could feel the love behind it. I’m guessing you produced these yourself—can you talk about that process—the physical making of it and the motivation behind it?

Erin Dorney: I made 100 copies of Accept/Reject by hand, all during the month of January 2021. I had been working on these poems for a few years, and I needed a social media break. I planned this project specifically to keep my hands busy and get offline, something that’s been difficult for me to do during the pandemic. I had learned about zines, handmade books, and artist books a few years ago, but this was the first large, editioned project I have tackled.

I think all writers should experience making a book by hand. There’s a self-publishing stigma we’re up against, but zines (and historically, pamphlets) are one of the most accessible forms of publishing. The creator has control of every aspect, from the content to the typography, cover design, number of copies, assembly, and distribution. It can be done cheaply (or expensively), with a lot of forethought or relatively little. To look at a book and know that you did every step yourself—to remember that feeling of pushing a needle through paper—is an incredible thing. I value Accept/Reject just as much as I value my full-length, perfect-bound book of poetry (perhaps more, even).

CS: So not to give too much away, but these are erasure poems—and the structure is a split zine—one half acceptances for your own work and the other half rejections. Each side starts with its own epigraph from Anne Truit—and each ends in the middle where you have an author’s note. Can you tell us about the content? Were you already writing these poems and the idea came to you to bring them together in this way? Or did the idea of the whole project come to you first?

ED: This idea was actually sparked by the Kickstarter Fear No Lit ran back in 2019. We were fundraising for the Submerging Writer Fellowship and one of the rewards we offered was called “Fear No Poem.” For $50, I would write backers an original blackout poem from the source text of their choosing. Two people picked this reward, and one of them asked me to write an erasure poem from an acceptance or rejection email I had received. I loved it and just kept on writing them.

I didn’t know until much later what the final form would be, but I did keep the acceptance poems separate from the rejection poems as I worked. As every writer knows, getting a rejection email feels drastically different than getting an acceptance email—I was curious to see if that energy would carry through into the poems. Accept/Reject really helped me transform that gut-punch of a rejection. I printed them out, re-read them a bunch of times, and tried to find something of value inside them. Some people might consider that masochistic, I guess, but for me it was more motivating than anything.

CS: What about the erasure form intrigues you? In the form you use, there’s a single word on each line—but there are other forms of erasure that use blackout—so it looks like a redacted document. Have you used that form before? If so, what about the form you use in this collection appeals to you more?

ED: I tend to re-write most of my erasure poems, but they always start on paper. My process is to print out the original source text, and then use a pencil to circle words, draw lines, and make notes. If I go right in with a Sharpie to redact, I mess it up right away—going over a word I need or something like that. Retyping the poems after I’ve gotten messy on the page gives me a little more control over the poem—I can add line breaks, punctuation, etc. It also helps get me off of my computer. Once I have the source texts printed, I also bring them places with me to work on, compile them in a folder. It’s very hands-on.

CS: I read this in one sitting—I’m guessing that’s your intention—and then I read it again—and I don’t know if I can properly explain it, but there’s a certain feeling in experiencing it back to front in its totality—almost like I’m overhearing parts of a conversation—or like watching boulders in a stream. I’m not explaining it well, I’m afraid—but I’m wondering if that was in your mind from the start—creating a kind of overall mood when the pieces were read together rather than just reading a piece here and there?

ED: I like the image of boulders in a stream. I’m so glad you said this because it makes me feel better about something I find extremely difficult—ordering pieces in a collection. I had a really hard time ordering in my full-length collection, and ultimately left the final decisions up to my (amazing) editor Michael B. Tager. Since then I’ve been trying to get better at creating that overall mood through ordering. What helped with Accept/Reject was that I had a lot of poems to choose from. I had upwards of 30 poems and ultimately picked 16 that I thought worked best together for this collection.

CS: May I ask about the erasure process? You don’t change word order, correct? As you go through, are you looking for certain kinds of words in a certain sequence, or are you playing it by ear and seeing what strikes you?

ED: Correct—all of the words are still in the same order that they showed up in the original source text. There aren’t a lot of hard and fast rules with erasure (beyond the very important ones of citing your source text and considering your privilege when erasing other voices) but I find that many of us adopt certain stylistic choices. This is one of mine. What I’m always looking for when writing erasures are interesting word combinations and unique language. That’s the beauty of using a source text—you never know what you’re going to find.

CS: What’s next?

ED: I’m looking forward to attending some zine fests, where I can share Accept/Reject with other people who make their own books. It’s also available for sale on my website. This summer I’m working on the first draft of a creative nonfiction book about the Goo Goo Dolls and I’ve also got a hybrid project that relates to Adriene Mishler of Yoga By Adriene (some poems from that manuscript can be read at HAD). Ultimately, I’m always accruing more acceptance and rejection emails (usually more rejections than acceptances, as my personal policy is that everything is worth a shot), so maybe there will be another installation of Accept/Reject someday.

An Important Antidote to Stress: Curtis Smith Interviews Carol Sabik-Jaffe

Carol Sabik-Jaffe’s scripts have been recognized in numerous screenwriting competitions and optioned by producers. The International Family Film Festival awarded her three Best Screenplay prizes. #BCarefulWhatUWish4 and The Devil’s Due won Best Comedy honors and Living Again, Best Drama. The Pennsylvania Council on the Arts granted Carol a Fellowship in Theatre/Scriptworks in 2008.

Carol holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College and a BFA in Communication Design from Kutztown University. Her previous career was in advertising as an Art Director. She has taught Screenwriting at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia and Screenwriting and Writing for TV at Rowan University in New Jersey. She served on the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference Board of Directors from 2009 – 2019.

Carol is currently working with Nancy McKeon (The Facts of Life) to bring Victory Lane, a 1hr family drama to TV. In addition to seeking homes for several of her scripts, Carol is also at work adapting a few into books. FIRST NIGHT is her debut novel.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on First Night. Can you tell us about the novel’s origins? Did it start with an image? An observed moment? An imagined scenario? Once you had this starting point, how did the narrative unfold?

Carol Sabik-Jaffe: Thank you! And thanks for the opportunity to discuss this project!

Originally, I wanted to attempt to tell a story that took place, start to finish, in twenty-four hours. (Yikes!) And, for my first pass at writing this concept I decided as an exercise for myself I would try to write this as a screenplay AND a novel at the same time. I probably wrote the first fifteen or so pages of the script and the beginning of the novel, switching between the two forms. But each is such a very different way of writing I found it incredibly hard to do both at the same time! I quickly abandoned that idea and finished the script. The script received some positive feedback from Hollywood folks as I shopped it around. As some stories and characters do, these characters always stayed with me. I came back to this idea and finished adapting it to a book much later. As I was writing the novel, the script became a very helpful “outline.” (Just add words they said!)

The narrative itself came together as I explored the twenty-four-hour restriction I’d given myself. New Year’s Eve for many is usually fraught with grand expectations and some disappointments, and New Year’s Day in Philly is completely unique… so the setting and time frame became especially intriguing to me.

The importance of midnight and the tie in to the Cinderella trope evolved as I explored the relationship Maria had to her family, the family’s tradition of Mummering, and her wanting to live her own life. The Mummers Parade and the chaos that the characters are challenged with, and overcome, gave me the plot to keep them tenuously moving through predicaments. The common goal to save the day propels them through to the resolution of the story…  of course, it’s a ridiculous twenty-four hours filled with dilemmas and madcap moments that (hopefully) keep you laughing as they reach their triumphant conclusion.

In this story I also wanted to explore the idea of two lives colliding — the idea that people are destined to meet at certain times — Maria and Hunter’s paths crossing seems “serendipitous” but what if it was destiny?

Curtis Smith: The Mummers are in here! It doesn’t get much more Philly than that. I talk with my writing students a lot about place—its importance and what it can bring to a story. So why Philadelphia? What unique aspects of the city and its culture made their way into the novel—and what did these things bring?

Carol Sabik-Jaffe: Well… I live in the Philly suburbs, worked in Center City for years, and have spent all of my adult life here. Almost all of my stories are set in Philly or the surrounding area. As a screenwriter I was always looking at place as both character and setting. If truth be told, I was also scouting for locations – mostly because I wanted to shoot in my backyard if I could — so the visuals were important!

The idea of incorporating the Mummers into this story was propelled by the NYE/NYDay time frame. FIRST NIGHT is also about family and tradition and is hopefully relatable on those levels to readers. In addition to Mummers, much of the story is very specific to Philadelphia — Broad Street, South Philly, competing cheesesteak joints, restaurants, and bars, etc. — maybe it’s a way to visit the city right now without leaving home. And, as it turned out, the Mummers could not have a parade this year due to Covid, so a bit of Philly New Year’s Day flavor (maybe) served another purpose unbeknownst to me when writing and publishing.

Curtis Smith: I’m all in on the updated Cinderella vibe—and that brings me to a question about structure and form. I admire works that breathe new life into old stories. Was the Cinderella angle there from the beginning—or did it come later, as you got to know Maria? What were the challenges of using and updating this framework?

Carol Sabik-Jaffe: The New Year’s Eve setting and the significance of midnight became a way to “loosely” incorporate a reimagined modern “Cinderella” into FIRST NIGHT. So, yes, the Cinderella angle was there from the start. Her life-of-the-party cousins (a twist on the evil step-sisters trope) talk Maria into attending the NYE First Night Ball where she crosses paths (for the second time) with a handsome “Prince” that she dumps at midnight when an emergency arises.

Her overwhelming responsibilities as the team’s solo costume designer (in addition to her real job) and her promise to salvage her family’s Mummer Parade performance further served the “Cinderella” as overworked character. Maria, though reluctant, takes the situation in her own hands without the use of a “fairy godmother” to solve her problems (though there are a few magical moments and people assisting in the background). So admittedly, I was influenced by the parts of fairytale, but did not stay precisely within the original framework. Maria is her own Cinderella.

Curtis Smith: Can I ask about the general vibe here? I admired the humor and the eventual winning of love, but this kind of positivity can be tough, especially given the shape of our nation and the world. Was this a challenge as you wrote First Night? Or was writing it a kind of catharsis?

Carol Sabik-Jaffe: I began FIRST NIGHT long before Covid-19 and the current challenges we are facing. I believe people always need an escape from their day-to-day and a reason to laugh. Humor is such an important antidote to stress… that said, I especially think it’s crucial right now. We all need a little positivity and an escape once in a while in our lives. I am also happier writing comedy or dramedy in general. Life is dark enough. I don’t necessarily want to swim around in bleak subjects for too long… though I have a psychological thriller I’m shopping around…

Curtis Smith: What’s next?

Carol Sabik-Jaffe: I’m currently working on the sequel to FIRST NIGHT, titled “A SECOND CHANCE at a FIRST DATE.” I want to explore these characters again… and they’ve been telling me that they have more to say and do.

I’m also working on revising a ½ hour tv comedy titled, MERMAIDS OF MEDIA, PA. — that script has gotten a little attention and I’d love to find a team for it. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu… can you hear me? (Haha.) Additionally, I’m in the process of searching for homes for my other TV and film scripts while deciding on the next one to adapt into a book.

As always, I have numerous ideas in various stages of development!

Interview by Curtis Smith