An Interview with Poet Patricia Smith
“In the US poets are kind of marginalized”
On September 8, City of Asylum Pittsburgh hosted the 8th annual Jazz Poetry concert at the New Hazlett Theater on the Northside. The concert featured performances from artists including T.J Dema (Botswana), Luis Bravo (Uruguay), Khet Mar (Burma), and Israel Centeno (Venezuela) who were backed by the Oliver Lake Steel Quartet with Meshell Ndegeocello. An extended performance by Patricia Smith capped off the evening.
Smith is a poet, playwright, and short story writer. She is a four-time winner of the National Slam Poetry competition and has been featured in the 2011 editions of Best American Poetry and Best American Essays. Her most recent book Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah features poems about her parents involvement in the 2nd Great Migration to Chicago and her book Blood Dazzler was nominated for the National Book Award in 2008. She is currently an assistant professor of English at CUNY Staten Island.
On the day of the concert, Dr. Tameka Cage-Conley spoke with Patricia Smith on behalf of Sampsonia Way. Dr. Cage-Conley is based in Pittsburgh and calls herself a literary artist who writes poetry, fiction and plays. She is a former August Wilson and current Cave Canem fellow. Her play Testimony debuted at the August Wilson Center in 2011.
In this interview Smith discusses what inspires her performance, how she explores history through a poetic lens, and what role the poet can play as an activist and a teacher.
“Mad Rappin” was the first poem I saw you perform. As you read you seemed to be overcome with this conviction and power. As a spoken word poet how do you enter that space where you are not just making music, you’re actually becoming it?
Usually when I enter that space it’s because I think the story has some urgency to it. I have to think that in every audience there’s one person who is going to be moved by the poem but I don’t know who that person is so I have to assume that it’s everyone. I can move into a singular space for two reasons: One is because I can get carried away in the music of things, like I’m at the core of the song. I’ve had a number of bands back me up on “Mad Rappin” and when they’re not there I can hear them. When I get in that space it just feels right sometimes to sing a little bit and to speak.
And the other reason?
The other reason I can enter that space is that there’s some personal parallel to the narrative that I’m doing. I have a poem that’s about a group of 6th graders. I was at a poetry festival and this woman from a public school in Liberty City, Miami came up to me and said, “I would love for you to talk with my kids, but we don’t have any money.” I said, “Well can I sleep at your house?” and she agreed so I bought a ticket. She made me so curious: Here was this white woman with tears in her eyes, and she wanted me to talk to her kids. I went back there for years. I did it because I went to the same kind of school. The teachers would come in, open newspapers, put their feet up on the desk, and give us mimeograph papers to keep us busy. I went through my entire school career without anyone coming into a classroom and saying, “I am a writer, this is an option available to you. I live in a realm where every story I tell belongs to me and I decide how to tell it.” Half of your time there will be spent convincing the children that their voices are legitimate. That’s much harder work than you think because they’ve been told so much, “You can’t spell, you’re not speaking right,” and they just shut down.
“It’s very fashionable now to stick a poem in the hole of the dam to stop the water.”
To answer the question—it’s very fashionable now to stick a poem in the hole of the dam to stop the water. There are stories that we are not talking about and I think it’s up to the artist to talk about them. When it’s a narrative like that, I’m constantly putting myself in the audience and saying there was a time in my life when I really needed to hear something or get these words out. The space that I may be in when I’m doing the poem comes from one of these two reasons.
In the poem “Building Nicole’s Mama” you paint the picture of brilliant child voices who’ve witnessed their beloved die around them. In that same poem you issue a call to poets: “so poets/ as we pick up our pens and we flirt in sin/ as we rejoice behind microphones/ remember Nicole/ she knows that we are here now/ and she is an empty vessel waiting to be filled.” What inspired this charge to poets?
That came out of the work I did with those sixth graders in Liberty City. As poets we need to know that we have listeners outside of the venue for that night. It’s important for us to take our work to places where people don’t know we exist. You can spend an entire career reading to other people who write poetry, or you can ask yourself, “How would my life have changed if a poet came to my classroom in 4th or 5th or 6th grade?” It might just be one kid; they might just sit, looking at you the whole time without giving you a response. But then when you’re outside, going to your car, leaving that school, some kid comes running up to you with a little folded piece of paper. All you need is for that to happen just one time and you’ll say, “My poetry almost belongs here more than in that poetry venue, because this is where it starts, or where it should start.”
How would you say your experience in the classroom has influenced your poetry?
At one point I’d have new poems that I’d be dying to do. There’d be 500 white kids that morning, trying to see me. I’d think, “Oh I can’t do these poems I just wrote; I have to read the things I think they can relate to.” The next day I’m in the inner city and I’m looser. Then I realized what was wrong with that. To be powerful to the audience I have to read what’s important to me—my job is to make that important to whoever is out there.
The concept of challenging the audience is important in teaching. I’ve gone to a lot of schools where I walk in and the teacher walks out. It’s a free day for her. She hasn’t told me anything about the class and I know nothing about the school. Half the time the students don’t know who I am, they just know some person is going to do something. I teach college students now and it’s pretty much the same thing.
It’s one thing to go into a classroom and teach and it’s another thing to have your poems teach. You have to have poems that not only tell the story but also poems where people can discern something about your process just by listening. Coming in and filling up the space with sounds for 50 minutes isn’t going to work if you don’t give your students the chance to display their own voices. It’s just as important to ask your students, “Where are you coming from, what do you want to talk about?” They have to leave knowing that their stories are legitimate, no matter if some of the words are misspelled or they’re using double negatives. It has to be a safe space where they can write about anything. It’s teaching my poems to teach.
Talk about using history in the process of making these poems.
The best way to get people to pay attention to history is to personalize it. My students and I were talking about the Vietnam War one day and they were woefully uniformed. I was getting that “please don’t ask me anything” deer in the headlights look from about three quarters of the class. I asked, “Do you know what the Vietnam War is?” Most of them had no idea.
Then I changed the way I approached it. I decided to go from the war, to a particular engagement in the war, to a particular day, to a particular battle, to find the story of a particular soldier. Find where that soldier came from, his parents, and what happened in that day to make it a story they could easily walk into. We can sit back and talk about these big events as big events but I need to feel like I’m someone who can be in that situation.
“To me, history is a mystery that needs to be cracked.”
Usually when there’s some sort of event that I’m trying to wrap my head around I try to write my way into it as opposed to going on a blog or soap box. It started when I was writing about Hurricane Katrina. There were so many things happening during Katrina so quickly that we weren’t getting to know faces, we were getting used to statistics. The idea of grown women being lifted up in baskets with their families, we blocked that out. I wanted to put some human faces back on it.
To me, history is a mystery that needs to be cracked. There’s a lot of history that’s been passed down and said, “This event has been studied and this is the conclusion we came to.” I don’t believe in those things. I’m always looking to see if there’s an alternate conclusion.
Take me through the journey of Blood Dazzler. When did you know you would write that book, what was the process, and how did you push past the absolute horror of what America had done and endured to write a poem like “34”?
Blood Dazzler did not start out as a book. It was a personal connection that I built upon. The story that kept pushing at me was the story of the 34 nursing home residents and the personal connection that I felt to that, as my mother’s sister died in a nursing home.
She was in the latter stages of Alzheimer’s and the nursing home had portioned out her care to different members of the family. I was a teenager at the time, and there was no preparation. It was just, “You stay there from 3-5, sit in a room, and make sure she’s OK.” So my formally god-fearing aunt was just a totally different person. She was cursing like a sailor and throwing her food. I don’t even think she knew. But there was a yellow button on the side of her bed and whenever she pressed it, somebody came.
So when I read the story about the patients in St. Bernard parish, I imagined the lights are out, the water’s rising, they can hear the sound of the water coming in, and they’re pushing the button and but no one’s coming. I had to do something with that image.
I also wanted to spark a conversation with the audience.
I did it at a poetry festival in Palm Beach. There was this woman in the audience, fidgeting a lot. Afterwards, without being confrontational, I asked her if something bothered her about that poem. If she wasn’t in the center of the audience she would’ve left. She said, “Well they had Mardi Gras didn’t they?” This happened at the stage where some people were really tired of hearing about Katrina. They saw this false deity Mardi Gras on CNN and thought they could let it go. But around it was devastation: No lighting, no power, nothing. There are a lot of people who just want to file it way, they’ve seen enough, they don’t want to be nudged in that way.
“So I decided to keep writing. I thought there was a danger that Katrina was going to disappear.”
At that point I decided that I had internalized much more of the imagery and the stories than that one poem. So I decided to keep writing. I thought there was a danger that Katrina was going to disappear. People really wanted it to be over. So I thought it would be great if someone could pick up this book, 10 years from now and say, “That’s right, Katrina happened.” That might be all you can hope for at that point. Coming out of that experience, I felt like my mission was different. I don’t think the things that people said to me would have been said in public if it hadn’t been for those poems. After that I thought my stories had to be deeper than the ones I’d been telling so far.
Do you want more poets to think outside the traditional box of being a poet in America?
I did a reading in Berlin once, and they had a train that traveled through the German countryside, filled with poets. The train would pull up to a small town where there would be a gazebo with bands playing and people dancing and laughing. The poets would get off the train, read, be fed, and get back on the train and go to the next place. I was in Berlin when the train pulled in for the last time. There were so many people there they had to shut the station down. People had signs, with pictures of the poets. Women were weeping, kids were screaming, and people were like, “The poets are back, the poets are back!” It got me thinking: There are a lot of countries where you read the news and then you find out what the poet says, because they’re the truth tellers in society.
In the United States poets are kind of marginalized. More of us need to be in places where people don’t normally encounter poetry. We need to make ourselves more visible to children, like the New York based group Louder Arts. If we were doing more looking back at history and current events, and saying here’s another take on this, we could begin to approach a more official stature as opposed to being just the entertainment.