In the Poetry Library With Patricia Smith


– I think what’s happening, really, is that the socially concerned poetry is what people are talking about mostly. It’s not everything that I write. I started out by getting up
on stage and doing poetry, and so right away, I was kind of stamped, oh, she’s a performance poet,
and then you take the stage, and they go, oh, she’s an
African-American performance poet, and it makes people think that they know what you’re about to do or what most of your poetry is going to be like, and I fight against that a lot. I turn toward whatever I’ve witnessed that I think I want to make
other people be witness to, and often because there
are things that saddened me or make me angry, it’s often something
with a political bant, but I wouldn’t label
myself a political poet. I feel like I’m delivering
another version of the news. I look at what’s happening. I lift it up. I look underneath it. I go behind it. I look to see what’s behind it. I try on all the shoes in a story, and when I find a pair of shoes that are really uncomfortable, I say, “Maybe this should be where
I start writing from.” I remember one time I was in Berlin, and they had had a train that traveled across the German countryside with poets, and it would get out at these small towns, and music would be playing, and they’d paint the kids’ faces, and the poets would do their
thing, get on the train, go to the next town, and I was in Berlin when the train came
back for the final time, and there were so many people there to greet the poets they had
to shut the station down. People were carrying placards
with their pictures and flags, and there were opening doors, and the poets couldn’t
get out of the train. So they passed them over their heads, and I’d never seen anything like that, and I said, “This is what
it’s like when people go “to a certain place for the news, “and then they look at the
poets to get the real news.” I had done a book previously
about Hurricane Katrina, and the reason it became a
book and not a single poem, is what I thought it was going to be, is because I saw that
people were tired of it. They didn’t want to hear about it anymore. They didn’t want to see any
more pictures of people being, you know, piling into
baskets and being, you know, carried down from their roofs. They didn’t want to hear anymore anguish, and I think a lot of these
things need to stay in front of our faces for much longer so that we can have a real
conversation about them and not be looking past them to say, “Oh, and what else is happening?” I can see that same thing in my own book because there’s a whole
segment of the book that deals with people who are losing
their lives at the hands of the police and the people
who love them, you know, I and so I think I need to keep that out in the forefront somehow so
people don’t stop talking about it or don’t stop
being aware of the fact that it’s like a drumbeat
behind all these other things. It just keeps happening. With my writers, I want
them to see the beauty in terrible things and the
terrible part of beauty. When I’m talking to
people about being poets, I say, “Get ready. “You’re gonna look behind you, “and that pavement where you
think that you’ve, you know, “stored everything, it’s
gonna be cracking, you know, “because now you have the tools you need “to readdress those things.” That’s why I’m often
going back into things that I have a series of
Emmett Till poems in the book. That was something that was
such a big part of my childhood and something I really wanted to forget, but then once I have the tools
to re-examine those stories, the stories come back and say, “Now what?” You know, “Now how do you feel about this? “Now how are you going to address it?” Most of my poems begin with a line, and the line might live for a long time before it attaches itself
to the rest of a poem. I don’t sit down from two
to five every day and say, “Oh, time to write poetry,” because a lot of times nothing is there, but the line lives with me,
and then one day at about three in the morning when I’m in bed, another line attaches itself
to it and another line, and I have to get up and write. In the interim, when the faucet’s not on, and the things I tell my
students, and they think I’m nuts, and I tell other poets this. I write 10 pages a day, and the 10 pages don’t have to be poetry. They don’t have to be finished poems or anything like that. 10 pages toward my art. So if I am writing about
firemen, and I want to know what it’s like for a
fireman to run into a fire, I look and an interview with a
firemen, or I look at some… And I take notes, and
those notes become part of the 10 pages. You know, because you can’t
go to year nine to five job and say, “You know, I’m not
really feeling this today, “so I’m just gonna take this day off.” One of the most revelatory
moments for me is when I said this is not
a recreational exercise. This is my job, so I have to check in for it somehow every day,
and at the and of the day, I have to look back on
something that I’ve done that got me closer to, you know, what I feel my job is
supposed to accomplish.

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