An Interview with Virginia Smith Rice

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Early in my conversation with poet Virginia Smith Rice, she revealed that she has four children. I was surprised by the number—four being, well, a lot. “When I decide to do something,” she said, “I don’t do it half way.”

Once you read Smith  new poetry collection, When I Wake It Will Be Forever, you’ll understand this declaration as pure fact. When I Wake is a diverse collage of voices, forms, imagery, and obsessions. There is no single narrator, no one theme, no sense of omniscience or rightness. As diverse as the collection is, these are poems unified by intention—stories vividly imagined and well told.

Some of this is due to Rice’s job as a middle school art teacher, where she witnesses the art of self-description on a daily basis. “Students so often use passive language when they speak,” she said. “They often feel like they are bystanders of their own lives. I want them to be more active in their own stories.”

Rice’s story is one of action and reinvention. She began her academic career as a visual artist, but shifted focus once her children were born. As a committed stay-at-home mother, Smith found that her creative impulses didn’t wane—they actually became stronger and harder to ignore.

“I was always jotting down lines and ideas, waiting for a few moments where I could create something. As a visual artist, I had a tough time finding the space and money to do this. Materials were expensive and I didn’t have a lot of time, either.”

Her sisters—both writers—encouraged her to attend a few summer workshops at The University of Iowa. It was there that she started writing abstract prose pieces and decided to attend graduate school at Northwestern University with a focus in literature.

“Poetry really took me by surprise. I didn’t intend for it to happen that way—it’s the way my art wanted to go. I enjoyed my classes,” she said, “but I found myself wanting to talk to my professors about the poems I’d been writing. That’s all I wanted to do.”

On the advice of those professors, Rice joined the MFA in writing program, where new relationships formed between her experience as a visual artist and her emerging talents as a writer.

When I Wake is filled with references to Rice’s first passion. Part III is entitled Curiosity Boxes, a nod to Joseph Cornell’s boxed assemblages. These works, created from found objects, are not unlike centos, poems assembled from the words, lines, and phrases of other sources. This form is found throughout Rice’s collection.

“You look at poems you’ve loved for so many years and you see them differently. It’s often what you decide not to use that is most instructive. It’s always surprising to see what resonates with you at the time.”

Through the guidance of her professors, including Simone Muench and Ed Roberson, Rice began to repurpose lines from her own work into centos. This approach allowed her to write with a newfound freedom. “I recognized that I didn’t have to bring a poem to closure each time I sat down to write; every line could move the poem in a different direction,  and the poem could eventually arrive somewhere entirely unexpected. I started just writing and collecting. It reminded so much of collage and the visual arts.”

The cento could also be the perfect form for Rice’s life. She is a mother and a teacher, an artist and a poet, seemingly disparate elements brought together in one curious box.

“If there’s a theme to my work, it probably includes the impulse for connection,” she says. “That need to be active in our own stories and to have someone listen to us.” (That’s what it’s about.”)

You can purchase her debut collection at Sundress Publications.

Sara Lovelace received her MFA in Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2004 and is an editor at Sundress Publications. Her work is published in the Smith Magazine anthology, The Moment. She also writes for various online publications, including a weekly blog on elephant journal. She is currently working on a project about the healing effects of yoga on victims of sexual abuse.

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