Talking Poetry, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Life with Poet Patricia Smith

Patricia Smith is a clarion poet, uniting with passion and finesse the personal and the political. Her six acclaimed poetry collections include Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), winner of the Rebekah Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy American Poets, and the Phillis Wheatley Award in Poetry, and Blood Dazzler (2008), a National Book Award finalist. Her most recent collection is Incendiary Art, which Booklist describes, in a starred review, as “acutely visceral, empathetically inhabited, and intimately detailed.”

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Patricia Smith

As powerful as Smith is on the page, she is also a legendary performer who makes appearances around the world, as well as a record-breaking, four-time National Poetry Slam champion. Smith brings her deep poetic knowledge to her role as editor for an exciting new volume paying tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks on the great poet’s centenary: The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks.

Booklist was elated when Smith so generously made time during her very busy National Poetry Month schedule of appearances to answer some questions.

 

DONNA SEAMAN: You are a coeditor and contributor to The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks, one of several books appearing this spring in celebration of the centenary of the poet’s birth, June 7, 2017, now known as Brooks Day. Like Brooks, you lived in Chicago, and you frequently write about the city in your poems. Was Brooks an early influence on your work?

PATRICIA SMITH: When my mother came up from Alabama to Chicago during the Great Migration, she fully intended to scrub all traces of the South from her life. She was ashamed of her background, ashamed of what up-north whites would surely consider a ragged upbringing, characterized by deplorable diction, ill-stitched homemade clothes, and a gaping ignorance of what it truly meant to be civilized. She was determined to give birth to a “city child” whose links to that pitiful Delta backdrop would be severed as soon as possible—because she was convinced that was the only way I would ever be successful.

In the process of severing those ties, she effectively cut me off from my history. She didn’t tell me stories about her tiny hometown of Aliceville, didn’t connect me with relatives who were still there, didn’t give me any sense at all of a Southern lineage. So I spent my childhood years essentially rootless, waiting for the big city to give me a shape. But so many things seemed designed to take away my voice, not to help me find one. I was enrolled in a school system designed to celebrate failure, living in a neighborhood that the rest of the city looked down upon, and subjected to a racism that was even more insidious than the one my mother had left behind in the South.

When I found Gwen, I found my soundtrack. She was colored and bookish, knew tenements and the clanging music of the ghetto. She was a quiet and unapologetic witness to a world that constantly threatened to overwhelm me. She taught me to see around, beneath, and behind what was being served to me as truth. I realized that my own people held my lessons and knew my direction. We had a shared language, and not a single syllable of it was shameful. I listened to her until I learned to hear myself.

When I seriously began writing poetry, I knew what I was striving for—that gorgeous meld of story and structure, while remembering that the most difficult stories to tell were my own.

 

Traumatic events both past and present infuse your work, raising questions: Why write poetry about such historic subjects as Emmett Till’s murder? Or the fatal shooting by police of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri? What does a poem accomplish that prose does not?

I often tout the supreme talent of poets; I tell my students over and over again that our genius lies in our ability to take huge, unwieldy stories and cram them into tight, controlled spaces. And if you peek into that space—those 5, 14 or 20 lines—the whole story is still there. Every syllable has to do work, every line break has to push the reader further into the narrative.

The most anarchic stories are those that are forced to witness violence to the human body. When that body is black, the stories stubbornly refuse boundaries. And boundaries in prose can be slow in coming. There’s no rush—there’s room to stretch and muse. That damned complicated history seeps in, there’s space for anger and more anger and analysis and exhaustive description and despair and even justification. I don’t want all that room.

The poem forces me into the essence of the story, until there’s nothing left but THE sense and THE substance. I want my reader to walk away with the story as I’ve lived it.

Can you talk about a recurring, wrenchingly ironic and poignant motif appears in Incendiary Art, a series of poems titled “Emmett Till: Choose Your Own Adventure?”

SMITH“Choose Your Own Adventure” was a wonderful series of books I loved as a child. You’d get pulled into some mild mystery before reaching a point where you were given two choices that would determine the direction the story would take. For instance: “If Jimmy finds help in the old farmhouse, turn to page 15. If he runs and runs and there’s no help in sight, turn to page 23.” I was so hooked on those books. I’d change and change the directions of the story until I’d exhausted all the possibilities.

When it came to the story of Emmett Till—actually so many stories that end in tragedy—I was obsessed by the knowledge that one different decision, one small change in direction, could have saved a child’s life. If Mamie Till had convinced her son to accompany her to Nebraska, he might be celebrating his 76th birthday this summer. If Trayvon Martin hadn’t succumbed to his hankering for sugar, maybe he wouldn’t have taken that fateful stroll. “What Could Have Been” is a chilling space because it’s so briefly possible—and because we already know what really did happen.

Emmett Till was killed the year I was born. I wanted to see how many directions I could give his story. What if he had summered in Nebraska instead of Mississippi? What if he’d never gone past that candy store?

But the adventures don’t all end with him avoiding his fate. In one, his casket is closed instead of open—which means there would have been no horrific Jet magazine photo for our parents to use as a warning. In another, his body is never found at all.

 

Your language is so powerful, so vibrant, so precise. How do you use this heightened language to deepen the narrative you want to tell? From where do these words arise? Where does their beat and lyricism come from?

When my father came to Chicago from Arkansas, he brought with him something I like to call “the tradition of the back porch.” He was a storyteller very much in the way I think of Native American storytellers—pulling in whatever happens in the environment (such as a plane suddenly passing over) and crafting a sound for the moment. That means verbs as nouns, nouns as verbs, colliding syllables, the unexpected, the ungrammatical, the metrically unpredictable. Because of my daddy, I take the title of “creative writer” seriously. I have an unflinching faith in the English language. If it can’t do anything I need, then the “creative” means absolutely nothing.

In terms of rhythm, I studied prosody relentlessly for two years, so that I could fold the beat of words into my body. And Motown. Yes—always and forever, Motown. Little stories you can dance to.

 

Your newest collection has an intensely provocative title, Incendiary Art. How did this title come to you, and what does it signify?

The title had its start during the riots protesting the murder of Mike Brown. I heard, yet again, someone wonder why “they burn down their own neighborhoods.” Then, during the presidential campaign, a Donald Trump supporter admitted that he would love to burn a black man alive.

It was then I realized how often fire has lapped at the edges of our lives and threatened to consume us: The Birmingham church bombing. The L.A. riots. Philadelphia and MOVE. Tulsa in 1921. The And then, finally, back to that singular black body and how its burning is still a dream for some.

 

You are a National Poetry Slam champion. Can you talk about poetry out-loud in contrast to poetry on the page?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I think my work all these years has been moving toward blurring and obliterating that contrast. When I first got started in slam, I felt that chasm between performance and page—it was probably mostly in my head. It’s all about that heightened language you mentioned before. It’s about the power of prosody. It’s about realizing that words are meant to ride on the open air, and that everyone—EVERYONE—likes to hear a good story, whittled down to its essence, breathing in its tight, controlled space.

I no longer think I can write a poem that exists solely on the page. There are some I enjoy reading aloud more than others, but I don’t want any of my poems to sit still without a current beneath them. I want everyone’s first instinct to be speaking the poem, to see what new things the words might do.

 

You’ve been writing poetry for a good long time. Have you observed any change in the public perception of poetry? In our receptivity to poetry? Poetry’s impact?

I thoroughly enjoy the spirited annual “Is poetry dead?” debate, which always dwindles dramatically down to absolutely nothing. The worst the world gets, the more I think we need that “second throat” that poetry gives us. It’s back where it belongs—as a succinct and lyrical source for news, an answer once we turn from a stream of relentless televised babble to ask “But what could it mean?”

I’ve watched the poetry slam reviled and revised as it was grudgingly accepted as essential to the genre. I’ve watched people of color embrace formalism as they realize that no crevice of the canon is beyond them. Cave Canem and VONA and Kundiman provide safe, energizing spaces for communities that were marginalized for so long. Organizations like Urban Word in New York and Young Chicago Authors instill young writers with a reverence for both what’s cutting edge in spoken word and for the craft of more traditional poets who came before them.

I remember when Poetry magazine felt inaccessible, the bastion of white men with grant money, and now it’s a cultural patchwork searching the landscape for electricity. I’m sure some folks are groaning about how the journal has gone to pot with all that opening up to colored and queer voices. That groaning is just a sad, sad sound.

Poetry is here to stay. In fact, it never went anywhere. I think the only difference is that more people are realizing how much they truly need it.

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About the Author:

Donna Seaman is adult books editor at Booklist. Her radio interviews are collected in Writers on the Air: Conversations about Books (2005). Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Donna.

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