Summary:Renowned poet and poetry slam performer Patricia Smith explores urban life and history by getting into people's skins and speaking their words. In this powerful and inspiring keynote for NWP's 2010 Urban Sites Network Conference, she reflects on her teaching experience and the incredible power of language to unlock an interior life.
Patricia Smith’s words aren’t like most poets’ words. Even when they’re printed on a page, they don’t just rest there, waiting to be read, content to reside in a literary journal or book.
You might say that the words on a page are just one part of Smith’s poetry, and perhaps not even the most important part, because Smith’s poetry is written with a voice in mind; it’s written to be spoken and performed—whether it’s in a poetry slam, a modern dance, a play, or a classroom.
Smith began her career in the late 1980s in her hometown, Chicago—which has been called “the cradle of poetry slam”—and she went on to become the most successful competitor in slam history, winning the US National Poetry Slam competition four times and appearing on the award-winning HBO series “Def Poetry Jam.”
Smith’s performance skills are obvious, but it’s the words of her poems that leap, bite, twirl, snarl, dance, spit, and scream off the page. She’s a master of the “persona poem,” a poem written in the first person in which a writer imagines she is an animal, an object, another person—anyone or anything she is not.
Smith’s personas often reside in dangerous or challenging circumstances: poor urban neighborhoods, nightclubs, street corners, late-night taxi cabs. She’s written poetry through the persona of Medusa, a skinhead, Little Richard, and Emmett Till, to name just a few.
“I take on difficult personas because it’s like solving a puzzle. It’s like, how close can I get to this person? How dead-on can I get to them until they start to speak to me and tell me where they want the poem to go?” Smith said in an interview with Torch Poetry.
Exploring Perspectives Through Personas
Smith’s personas cross racial, historical, and class boundaries, creating a skein of perspectives. Her personas aren’t isolated people delivering soliloquies, but characters immersed in the conflict of the everyday drama of their lives. In fact, Smith, a former journalist, gets much of her inspiration from news stories.
“I would see a news story and I would think, ‘Well, where was the person in this story before the instance of this story. Where did they go after the story?’ It’s like you place yourself at a prospective place in the story and try to write your way out of it,” she told Torch Poetry.
It’s through these personas that she’s able to explore and uncover the hidden truths and unspoken voices of this world that people often don’t want to hear. “I made the commitment that there was nothing that I wouldn’t write about, because it’s not just the recreational act, it’s the way you move your life forward,” she said.
Taking On Life in the Street
Consider Smith’s poem “The Undertaker,” one of a series of poems she wrote for her son, who had been flirting with involvement in gangs, as a way to help him reflect on the consequences of gang violence.
An undertaker narrates the poem, and his searing voice tells the unheroic version of the supposedly glorious gun battle that has taken place. He sees the bullet holes in dead flesh in a way that the gangsters can’t even imagine, and then a mother asks him to recreate her little boy’s face just as it was in a high school photo.
I plump shattered skulls, and paint the skin
To suggest warmth, and impending breath.
I plop glass eyes into rigid sockets,
then carve eyelids from a forearm, an inner thigh,
I reach into collapsed cavities to rescue
a tongue, an ear. Lips are never easy to recreate.
You can sense in Smith’s reading the undertaker’s frustration, anger, and disgust at the number of bodies he’s had to restore. He tells the mother the high price that it will cost to restore her son—almost as a warning, that restoring dead flesh isn’t where her energies should be placed. Then when she cries that she’ll get him the money no matter what, his words seethe.
Suddenly, I wanna take her down
To the chilly room, open the bag
And shake its terrible bounty onto the
gleaming steel table. I want her to see him.
You can’t help feeling the world through the undertaker’s words, especially in Smith’s aspirated rendition. But as critic Martina Pfeiler points out in her book Sounds of Poetry: Contemporary American Performance Poets (2003), when Smith performs the poem, “she does not only speak in the voice of the undertaker but also in the voice of the anguished mother and the young black man who lost his life in a violent street clash. Such extreme narrative tension can never be created and felt by reading the poem silently.”
Words on the Page, Words in the Classroom
It’s easy to focus on the vigor and charisma of Smith’s performance skills, but that shouldn’t take away from the power of the words on the page. She was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for her collection of poems about Hurricane Katrina, Blood Dazzler, which chronicles the human, emotional and physical toll exacted by Hurricane Katrina.
Again, personas speak the “truth” of the event, as in her poem 34, about the 34 nursing home residents who were left behind and eventually died.
“I want people to keep talking about it [Katrina],” she told the National Book Foundation. “I also want people to be aware that the country we live in is capable of much.”
The spirit of Smith’s poetry informs her work as a teacher. She offers lectures and writing/performance workshops for all ages, from kindergarten to senior citizens—in schools, shelters, prisons, senior centers, libraries, and community centers. She specializes in innovative ways to bring poetry to underserved communities, and has designed workshops for teachers looking for ways to incorporate poetry into their classrooms.
As much as her poems show life, they teach.
“I go into a lot of middle schools, and I will talk about events like the Vietnam War, and kids are all staring at me like, ‘That would be what?’ I find myself having to do a lot of backtracking before I can do a reading. I like the vision of students 20–30 years from now holding that book [Blood Dazzler] in their hands and at least having the questions formed, where they would look and say, ‘What did this mean to the country?'”