Heather Derr-Smith was born in Dallas. Texas. She spent her early childhood sitting under an orange tree, zillions of hummingbirds buzzing around her head in her backyard in Los Angeles (or at least, that’s the way she remembers it). She spent most of her childhood in Fredericksburg, Virginia roaming the woods with civil war ghosts. She earned her undergraduate degree in Art History at the University of Virginia, where she also took poetry workshops with Rita Dove, Charles Wright, and Greg Orr. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with an MFA in Poetry. Her first collection of poems,  Each End of the World (Main Street Rag Press, 2005) was about the war in Bosnia. Derr-Smith volunteered in a refugee camp during the war in Gasinci, Croatia. She continues to travel to the region, most recently to lead poetry workshops in Sarajevo and Tuzla, Bosnia. In 2008 Derr-Smith went to Damascus, Syria to interview Iraqi and Palestinian refugees, which led to her second collection of poems, The Bride Minaret (University of Akron Press, 2008). These poems explore boundaries and exile, geo-political and psychological. Her third collection is called Breath Hold Break Point, poems about floods in Iowa and fires in L.A. and the way desire reasserts itself out of disasters, both environmental and personal. Her poems have also appeared in numerous literary magazines such as TriQuarterly, New York Quarterly, Crazyhorse, Fence, Nashville Review, Phoebe, Sycamore Review, Valparaiso, and Diode among others. 

The Pelican
My father, whom I did not know at the time,
Was at Yelapa Bay, Mexico.
He had been missing since I was seven. One day
He came around a bend and found a wounded pelican,
Caught on a fishing line, tangled and hooked.
Every time the bird thrust its head back,
The pouch tore,
The hook ripped a little bit more, an episiotomy
That birthed only fear.
It wasn’t the first time. Once, he’d led a deer
Just like the father in Arabian nights with the gazelle,
Who bought a third of a life for a stranger.
My father sat near through her labor
Until she gave birth.

The pelican would die. About this time I would have
Wondered where he was, if near.
My father, whom I was beginning to forget
Crept low to the ground in a gesture of humility the bird recognized,
Beyond all believability, and calmed.
My father, who left when I was very young, cradled the pelican in his arms.
My father was a ticket agent for Braniff airlines
And always carried his sewing kit in his pocket.
He was prepared for anything but fatherhood.
But at the bend in the bay he mended the hurt bird.    

(From The Bride Minaret, University of Akron Press, 2008)

Owen smells of gardenias tonight,
Preteen vacations in Hawaii
With my mother the Braniff girl,
Swirled breast to thigh in Pucci,
Her orange go-go boots and clear,
Plastic astronaut-inspired bubble
Encasing her red hair in case
Of inclement weather. Womanhood

Begins with Esteé Lauder Christmas
Gift sets and gardenia perfume:
                        Amerige de Givenchy.

Owen is curled under my arm
Like a nautilus, the corners
Of his mouth turned down in a deep
Frown of sleep.
    His ear, open to my breath, cups
The fluid dark of the room into it.
His eyes glow like coins; his nightgown
Is a swatch of moonlight. In his bed
In Iowa, we are far, far from the sea,
Infibulated against water’s penetration.
My little boy, a dark shadow
Of that tropical flower, now blooming,
A piece of woman, of mother, and me.


(From The Bride Minaret, University of Akron Press, 2008)


From the mountain, Jabal Qasiuon,
Above Damascus, God sees everything.

Not a hand over me, God says.
Sometimes he becomes Innana, Mistress of the Me.

His breasts swell at night with the lights of houses, asterisms
Scattered against the hill, a mirage of starry sky.

Below, on a rooftop in Yarmouk camp, a Palestinian boy
Washes his green and pink bicycle.
Down the broad traffic-choked avenue, the leaves of the trees
Recant all their summer promises.

The little rooms grow cold. Space heaters crackle to life.

A man in a shop smoothes velvet baby dresses
With his rough fingertips.

The Laurel leaves, elderberry,
And arbors of jasmine are virescent memories, suspended.

God sees everything over ash-Sham, which is the real name
For Damascus, the ones who know will tell you—

And farther still, farther God looks with her necklace of eyes,
To where the call to prayer overlaps with other calls
From other directions,

Farther than the call to prayer can reach, to where in a cell, a man
Has written poetry on a Styrofoam cup with his fingertips,

About paradise:

The roar of music there, unceasing—

The light’s execration—
The water, irremissible as it pours into breath—

Heather Derr-Smith ~ Poet at Moonday Poetry

© 2010 Heather Derr-Smith

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