Poets of Franklin County: Maya Smith Janson
Florence poet Maya Smith Janson recently took some time between her end-of-the-day office hours and an evening poetry group to talk about her first full-length collection of poems, “Murmur & Crush.” Janson’s is the fourth collection from Hedgerow Books, the poetry imprint of Levellers Press in Amherst.
Janson works full time as a mental health nurse, visiting patients at their homes in Hampshire County and, in the fall, teaches one class — “Reading and Writing Short Poems” — at Smith College. It’s a busy life that doesn’t always offer much free time, yet, Janson says she can’t imagine not writing: “It’s sort of like oxygen,” she said. “I don’t feel well when I’m not writing.”
For Janson, writing is exploration. “I never sit down to write with anything like intention,” she said. “The poems are very much rooted, for me, in a memory or memories. Any given poem can sometimes be a collage of different points in time and different memories.”
For example, one of the poems in the collection, “So Much Potentially Lost in Transmission,” Janson wrote in 2001, after the attacks of Sept. 11, though readers might not see “even a shadow” of those events in the poem, she said. Yet for her, the poem is a “personal reckoning, I guess, with being alive and experiencing trauma and how to come through that.” In its simple diction and restrained images, the poem conveys her mood and emotions, even the small road she drove home on, after hearing of the attacks.
“I remember, as we all were, just being completely covered with the images that were surfacing. And the term ‘operatic wreckage’ came to mind. That there was something so extreme — it’s hard to talk about,” Janson said. “A great sorrow like that is hard. And to write a poem about it is hard. So I think this maybe speaks to my process of writing … There have been some poems written about Sept. 11th where it’s clear that the poem is dealing with that event. But that’s not how I write.”
Another poem, “Every Day a Deep Drink from the Hollow Gourd,” was a response to reading Wordsworth’s classic poem, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” Janson said, though readers won’t find direct references to it within her poem. An earlier version did include Wordsworth’s title but that “fell away,” as Janson put it.
“I think a lot of the poems are that way, that the origin of the poem is kind of like the part of the rocket that gets it launched but then falls off into the ocean and is completely gone.”
Still, the spirit of Wordsworth “infiltrated” the poem, Janson said. “I think in an unconscious way, I found my way from ‘wandering lonely as a cloud’ to wandering through this poem.” The poem includes “recollections of being a younger woman, making my way as a poet,” Janson said. Wordsworth’s sense of amazement at nature is echoed in Janson’s lines, “These days I stand beneath an oak so big it calls for/ a different unit of measure.” And in the poem’s final lines, a “concentrated, canary-yellow light,” conjures the intense color of Wordsworth’s iconic daffodils.
Yet, in a departure that Janson describes as “very anti-Wordsworth,” she included modern details in the poem as well. The narrator feels “Hen-pecked/ by my watch, my heels nipped at by the small, vigilant/ collie of my cell phone.”
“Remember when you had one phone and it lived in your house?” Janson asked. “And you only got calls when you were there?”
The incredible opportunities to link and connect with others that cell phones and the Internet offer come at a cost, Janson said. “I don’t know about you, but I feel ridiculously busy. Everyone I know is ridiculously busy. And maybe that was some of the appeal of the Wordsworth poem: ‘What a different time!’ I don’t get to ‘wander lonely as a cloud’ much!”
She added, “I guess we could say it’s quite a time to be writing poetry, which requires being relaxed and paying attention when we have no time to be relaxed and pay attention.”
“Maybe poetry is even more important for that,” I suggested. “As a reminder of that.”
Relax. Pay attention.
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She has a studio in Greenfield. She can be reached at email@example.com