“I really like to write about women,” Smith said, “because most history is written by men, for men, about men. I focus very much on the women of medieval time.”
Though Neville’s thoughts and feelings are all imagined by Smith, their historical context is not: Smith spends months before each book tracing the real-life paths of her characters through history to understand their lives.
“I go to all the castles and villages that I’m going to write about, I walk where my characters have walked,” Smith said. “I don’t put anybody in the wrong place at the wrong time if I can help it.”
Smith will be joined by Espaillat, winner of the T.S. Elliot Prize for Poetry and the Richard Wilbur Award. Espaillat’s 11 books and chapbooks of poems, short stories, essays and English/Spanish translations have appeared in more than 60 anthologies.
She will read from her yet-unpublished works: poems about the feeling of Christmas and her grandson, as well as one that she referred to politely as a “conversation” with God.
Espaillat, a Dominican-born writer who moved to America in 1939 at age 7 and settled in Newburyport in 1990, says that her recent pieces have grown increasingly political.
“What I write is poetry about whatever strikes me as important,” she said. “Some of it is a bit edgy right now. ... There’s a lot of injustice and inequality going on.”
Espaillat is particularly interested in feminism and inequality of opportunity, a problem she sees in the struggles of today’s youths to find well-paying work. Her poetry also attacks what she sees as a wave of privatization of public goods like education. She credits education with “saving her life,” and integrating her and her fellow immigrants into American life.
Espaillat’s speech gives her poems a life of their own: Each work comes to life only when it “wants to” and directs her to the proper words, meter and even language — she often writes in her native Spanish.