Carolyn Smart on the real story of Bonnie and Clyde

Carolyn Smart talks about how the true story of Bonnie and Clyde inspired her latest collection of poetry.
Carolyn Smart's latest poetry collection was inspired by her research into the real story of Bonnie and Clyde. (Brick Books)

For many of us, a cultural awareness of Bonnie and Clyde comes largely from the 1967 movie with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. In that film, the Depression-era bandits are glamorous, sexy and larger than life, even when the law catches up with them and they famously die in a hail of bullets. The poet Carolyn Smart saw that movie too, and it sparked a fascination that lead her to research the real story, which she discovered was very different from the Hollywood version. The result is Careen, Smart's seventh collection of poetry. It's a chorus of voices, from Bonnie and Clyde themselves to the Texas ranger who lead the ambush that killed them, and it gives a much fuller and more poignant sense of the real people behind the folk legend.

Carolyn Smart joined Shelagh Rogers in Toronto to talk about the book.


One of the things that struck me in the research I did for Careen was how very young Bonnie and Clyde really were. In the film that's not even suggested — they're played by older people. But when they first met each other, Bonnie was 17 and Clyde was 18. The lives they were living were so desperate and so sad, and they were driven to have more out of life than they found themselves with, which was just bloody nothing. The Depression didn't even occur to them. They had been born, particularly Clyde, in such deep poverty that the Depression made no difference whatsoever.


It was stunning. Donald Elliott, who owns and has maintained [the 1934 Ford flathead V8], drove me and my friend extremely fast down the back roads of Ontario. I sat in the front seat with him, and I closed my eyes and just imagined what it must have been like for Bonnie. And then I sat in the back and I imagined Bonnie loading the guns and cleaning the guns in the back seat. The car is relatively small, so the idea of the seven of them who packed in after the Eastham breakout — some of them in the trunk and some of them piled in the back and some of them bleeding — was remarkable for me. So the whole experience was a treat.


I was interested in directing the narrative more clearly, so I did this through the newspaper reportage. Also, of course, I wanted to underline the fact that Bonnie and Clyde really were made famous by the press, so it's here again that the press are telling their story.

Carolyn Smart's comments have been edited and condensed.

Read "I love the car," an excerpt from Careen, below!

I love the car         

because within its scope there is both gratitude and anguish.
It has saved my life and stolen my ability to run.

It has let us ride together, knee to knee
and thighs pressed close beneath the pig-blood dash,

world flyin by and we could let it go.
Because deep within the soft back seat the revolver

smiles and winks, ammunition calls out to be housed,
rifles lurk. Forget about the typewriter, all its keys and promise.

There is no end to work that can be done. Because we rolled along
with eight after the Eastham break and we were soarin then,

the car could've run on nerves and fear alone, four thin tires bouncin on the rutted earth,
yet freedom's what we knew that day,

all Clyde had promised and he never broke his word.
Because it took us on a holiday or two, cruised us past some likely marks,

left every other damn car chokin in its dust, offered up
a welcome bed where drunk or sober bones could rest, a carpet floor

both merciful and thirsty, a space where we felt safe enough to sleep.
It made us look like winners in this life.

From Careen by Carolyn Smart. Reproduced with permission from Brick Books.