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Carmen Giménez Smith

Carmen Giménez Smith is an assistant professor in the English department at New Mexico State University, editor-in-chief of the literary journal Puerto del Sol, and publisher of Noemi Press.


"Carmen Giménez Smith elevates the motherhood memoir to pure poetry. Who are we, beyond somebody's mother and somebody's daughter? Bring Down the Little Birds dives into all the rich and irritating questions with heart, guts, and humor."

– Ariel Gore, author of Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness

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Bring Down the Little Birds: On Mothering Art, Work, and Everything Else

A Conversation with Carmen Giménez Smith


The first thing I need to say is that after reading this book I felt like I totally needed Carmen to be my best friend. Not in a silly BFF way, but in a professional way — because it is really, really difficult to make 30-year-old life decisions (dating, marriage, children) when all I’ve got so far is an MA and one book from a small press (not that I’m complaining). Still, if I were to apply next year to PhD programs, I’d be in my mid-thirties by the time I even thought about going on the job market — and even if I did get a job, I feel like those first few not-tenured-yet years are no time to have babies. So, my first question for Carmen is below:

Molly Gaudry: What’s a woman to do?

Carmen Giménez Smith: A woman should do what she can to ensure that she achieves her ambitions, and ensure that she has agency in the world. My life often requires nips and tucks to achieve this, but I’m a much happier person than I would be if I operated under the cultural assumptions about womanhood and motherhood. I find fulfillment in the insane range of experience in my life, including my job, my creative work, my curatorial work and my mothering. I can’t say there are tried and true strategies for fulfillment though. I try not to compromise and I try to compromise. I try not to do too much and I do too much. I try to be mindful, but I am often mindless.

Ugh, but I don’t want to seem like I have some kind of answer because in so many ways, my life constantly feels precarious. At the moment, I owe two essays that I can’t seem to end, I’m waiting for an important phone call that’s stressing me out, my daughter might be coming down with a cold, my house looks like it’s been robbed and I have a lot of grading to do. I still wouldn’t trade it. I think you probably know what to do, in fact, you have a plan. When I was in my early 30s, I was a hot mess. I didn’t have a book, and I was phoning it in lifewise. I think you’re doing quite well!

MG: “Hot mess” is awesome. Also awesome is your book, and the language you use, the moments of meditation and revelation that unfold and unfold as your narrative progresses. While we’ll definitely talk about language more, I wonder if you would be willing to unpack the following excerpt for us and maybe also tell us more about these specific (or abstract) dreams:

“The days divided into two: working and mothering. The third part, which is me, lives in my dreams.”

CGS: I think there’s a weird thing that happens to time when you don’t have much time to yourself. I feel like I’m constantly writing and thinking about writing throughout the day, and that’s the third part of my day, and it’s simultaneous.

MG: What role do notebooks play in your daily “writing and thinking about writing”? And when did you start keeping them?

CGS:  I have tons of notebooks, and I use them a lot. I started keeping them about ten years ago. I write whatever comes to my mind and I do a lot of revision in them, but I also write directions and to do lists and recipes in them, so they don’t have any clear narrative or system at work. In fact, I carry three notebooks at a time, so I’m often digging around looking for where I wrote something down. The reason I carry three is that they each have a nature or a quality. I guess I don’t want to not write something down if the notebook isn’t right for it. Unfortunately, that’s not the weirdest thing about me.

MG: Structurally, your book reminds me of Carole Maso’s AVA. I’m interested to know what books or writers influenced, inspired, or otherwise impacted Bring Down the Little Birds

CGS: I love Carole Maso, and I think she probably was in the backdrop of influence, but also Eula Biss’s The Balloonists, Lia Purpura’s Increase, Jenny Boully’s The Body and John D’Agata’s Halls of Fame. Another big influence was Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work. Her frankness about the complex feelings she had about her mothering gave me the courage to really put it all out there.

I read so many books about mothers, mothering, but every book that I read ended up through the filter of my mothering, of the book. I have pages and pages of notes from other texts that I read at the time that didn’t make it into the book.

The book started as a lyric essay, my first real attempt, and I realized that I wanted to keep going with it, and I wanted to write about my mom and everything she was going through. The book was very much written in the moment, so it was cathartic. I had notebooks and notebooks of stuff that I thought might end up in the book. I have a file on my computer called “Mothering Fragments (the original title of the book) Orphans,” and its pages of passages that I cut out of the book.

At a certain point, I began to juggle the different fragments so that there was resonance within the shorter moments and in order to create more chronology and more arc. The idea for the imaginary notebooks was a suggestion from both my husband and from Kevin McIlvoy.

I learned a lot about structure writing that book, and there are a few things I’d have done differently, but I suppose that’s the life of a writer. I’ll do it better the next time.

MG: Can we talk about lyric essays? It seems that they’re a sort of hybrid form, in that they are both poetry and essay. Do you consider yourself a poet mostly? Will you write more lyric essays in the future? 

CGS: I’m at work on a couple of projects with a lyric essay component, although I’m also trying my hand at straight NF. I’m trained as a poet, so I think of myself primarily as a poet with a deep curiosity and respect for what can happen in NF. When I was young, I wanted to be a journalist, and I got derailed into this stuff!

One of the books I’m working on is about television and the other is about failure. There’s a lot of intersection there. I also want to write about body weight, like an Arcades Project about fat asses, but that’s in the conception phase.

MG: What about the structure? What did you learn? Or, what did this book teach you about structure that your previous titles didn’t? 

CGS: Bring Down the Little Birds was the first book with a large-scale structure I had to deal with, and after I wrote it, I was able to return to a book of linked poems that I had been working on for ages and knew a lot more about how to order it.  I can’t describe exactly what it is I learned except maybe being very aware of how a writer gives and withholds and how this pattern can be really exciting and dynamic. The first book I wrote was a collection of poems, and I really relied on other people to help me order it, but BDTLB was such a huge undertaking, I really had to do a lot of the work on my own. I had to learn to define what felt instinctual so I could apply it throughout the book.

Although each book is unique, I do find myself, as I’m working on new NF books, returning to some of the strategies for writing that I used in writing BDTLB. I really resisted the fragment, but now I’m going with it because I can remember that the fragment was a great drafting strategy. I’m writing shorter passages or sections that may or may not become longer because this can be generative. And I’m trying not to worry about structure or redundancy at earlier stages, which helps me just generate, something I really struggle with.

When all is said and done, the book is chronological, a really traditional narrative form. Maybe the chronology has a little more in common with Mrs. Dalloway than with War and Peace, but by laying down that structure as a scaffold, I had latitude.

MG: You have a new book that has just been released, right? Can you tell us about it? 

CGS: My book, The City She Was, was recently published by the Center for Literary Publishing. I’ve been writing nonfiction lately and thinking a lot about the books that make a book, and The City She Was’s bibliography contains Ovid, Mandelstam, Coeur de Lion by Ariana Reines, Grimms’ fairy tales, Francesca Woodman and Allen Ginsberg. The book began as an homage to Ovid’s poems of exile. Later, I began to think about an exile within an exile, about what living in a city can be like and how much I miss living in the Bay Area, specifically San Francisco, so it’s a bit of a love poem to home.

I just received the galleys for my next book, which won the Juniper Prize last year. It’s called Goodbye, Flicker, and I’d been working on the book for ten years before I sent it out, so it’s surreal to see it finally come together. University of Massachusetts brings it out in April of this year.

MG: What’s next for you? 

CGS: Right now, I’m working on two nonfiction projects, a collection of essays (many of them about squander and decision theory) and another one about TV. Poetrywise, I’m working on a final draft for a book of poems University of Arizona is publishing in 2013, a bit of a tribute to second wave feminism called Gender Fables. I’m also starting a new book about memory and family, and Alzheimer’s.

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