Patricia Smith Headshot

“Can Poetry Hurt Us?”: An Interview with Patricia Smith

Patricia Smith is an award winning poet, essayist, and spoken-word performer. She has published seven poetry collections. Her debut book, Life According to Motown won the 2014 Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt Award. Her poetry collections Teahouse of the Almighty (2006) and Blood Dazzler (2008) were respectively selected as a National Poetry Series winner and a National Book Award finalist. Her most recent collection, Incendiary Art (2017) won the 2018 Kingsley Tufts poetry award and the NAACP Image Award.   

Note: The following transcript has been edited for clarity.  

Catherine Valdez (CV): During a Q&A at the University of Michigan, you began by reading the poem “Building Nicole’s Mother.” With an archive of work as rich as yours, there are so many places you could have taken us to. 

This particular poem has existed for over a decade now, yet its messages are just as impactful. And as someone from the Liberty City Area where the events in this poem transpire, I see this work as especially relevant.

My immediate response upon hearing your performance yesterday and reflecting on videos of you performing this poem from years prior, was “what makes a writer return to an old work?” 

And I realize that slam poets often have these keystone performances that they re-engage with for years. Poets that only engage with print also have poems that they return to, but with slam, there is this added expectation of repetition, and the repertoire one creates for the competition circuit. 

What makes you want to perform a poem for so long? And how do your performances of these poems respond to the here and now? In terms of your poetic playlist, are there works of yours that are always there ready to play? 

Patricia Smith (PS) Doing that one doesn’t really have anything to do with it even being a poem written when I was still slamming. The reason I perform it is to remind myself sometimes, especially when there’s a lot going on, of why I’m doing this.

When I first went into that classroom, the main problem was convincing a lot of the kids that their voices were legitimate, and that never ends. You know, there are a lot of people telling them: you live in the wrong neighborhood; you go to the wrong school; you’re the wrong color; there are these things that people live their lives to access that you will never be able to. It’s a situation that never really changes. We can change it by telling children how much they own their stories. Poetry is one way that they can put their stamp on [these stories] and make it theirs and no one else’s.

So, when I feel like things are kind of getting away from us and the world is moving a little bit too fast, I perform it to kind of ground myself, and also to remind people that these children are waiting for us to help them ascertain their own voices. And those are the stories that we really are going to need.

So it doesn’t really have anything to do with performance. There’s a lot of poems that I know by heart simply because I’ve done them for so long, you know. And I’ve moved from being really concerned about the performance of something to being concerned about staying

interested and involved in my own poems. I don’t ever want to get to a point where I’m on stage, and I find myself in the middle of a poem and don’t remember beginning it because things become automatic. And I don’t want to forget what led me to write the poems in the first place, and I had not done that poem in a while.

I had also been asked to turn in the poems that I was going to read well before the reading, and that always kind of shakes me because I can find myself at the reading in a different mood, or something could have happened in the world that calls for another poem. That poem had enough of a universal theme, so that was that one. 

The other thing is that I realized that every time a new book comes out, you concentrate on reading it for the next year or so both to promote it and because that’s what people are interested in at the time. And at some stage, I realized that not only do you begin to think of your other poems as older poems, but of poems that have not been perfected because of the place where you were when you wrote them. Every book supposedly gets better, but I’ve made myself start to fold a lot of the older poems back into my readings, especially when I’m reading for students. And I don’t change them, because I think they’re a really good snapshot of where I was at the time. There’s a lot I’d change about the poems if I wanted to change them, but I think it’s important for people to see the evolution and the vulnerabilities and the faults in the poem sometimes. It puts a real-time stamp on them and also reminds me of what I’ve learned since I wrote the poem.

CV: Thank you for sharing your process. I found you bringing this poem forward, especially in this current social climate, to be particularly informative.

So further reflecting on this poem. In “Building Nicole’s Mother,” children cautiously asked the speaker, “can poetry hurt us?” 

And because I had Incendiary Art on my mind, I immediately wanted to put the question in conversation with the collection. I found this question to be haunting, and I wanted to know how Incendiary Art, which focuses so much on trauma, responds to it. 

PS: With Incendiary Art, I had in mind throughout the writing that there were a lot of stories that people were tiring of. They might affect you, but when you’re being pummeled from all directions with things. Sometimes you just want to shut down, and keeping those things in the spotlight can be a painful thing. It’s like someone just propping your eyes open and saying, “you will not learn until you see this.”

Even when I was writing the book, it was pretty much coming out to be a bad news book. I couldn’t figure out any way to insert any light into it, and then I realized that I didn’t really want to. I have a set number of readers that I give my books to. And in that instance, I had a couple of them tell me that it was difficult for them to read all the way through. My husband, who’s one of my most trusted readers, afterward, he was just kind of, “honey, it’s really heavy.” And for a while, I was second-guessing myself, thinking that I should find some ways to work some light into the pages.

But that’s what we always do. We try to find some way to temper the impact of things, so I decided that I really didn’t want to do that. And so, yeah, I think by keeping us in the midst of something that we would much rather run away from, poetry can hurt us. But it’s not a damaging hurt. You know, it’s a  kind of a necessary pain sometimes. We have to relive things to realize why we keep coming back to them. When you’re a writer, you’re a witness. You can’t choose what you’re witnessing, and the poems that are painful are consequences of that. But you also kind of owe it to yourself to at least attempt to address these things because you’re not just writing for yourself.

CV: Alternatively, in the past, you have also spoken about the concept of safety and how poetry is used to arrive at a safer place from where one, the poet or reader, may begin. Can you talk about how the concepts of harm and safety cohabitate your poetry? 

PS: Well, I think it just comes back to the whole idea of learning from the past, and arming yourself with those lessons, and not allowing things that you have already seen and experienced to come back and do damage. So if we can look deeper into things that we usually have a surface response to, things that we fear, or things that are painful for us, or things that are painful for other people that affect us, we can learn the source of that pain that often comes from outside of the story.

 [These sources of pain] come from individuals, factions and establishments whose primary business is black pain, initiating it, and making sure that pain is ever-present. And the more we can identify and stand up against the sources of the pain, the safer we become in our own community—  and I use the community as both the physical community and also the psychological community. You know, just knowing where the shots are coming from allows you to dodge the gunfire and keeps you safe and alive to fight. So, I think that you kind of have to wallow in the pain enough to know that you did not create it, and to identify the source of the pain so that you can learn ways to avoid it.

CV: I can see how acknowledging the pain is one way to classify it and learn from it. When thinking about this interaction safety and harm, one poem that immediately comes to mind is “Emmett Till Choose Your Own Adventure.” It’s impactful in so many ways, such as form and how you’re accessing this source of pain through revisualized elegy. I hope that you could talk a little bit more about its creation.  

In the poem you play with the format of text adventures. Informed readers are aware of the imminent tragedy that the name Emmett Till raises. They know how this story ends, but you’re offering the readers a branch in the story: “Turn to page 14 if Emmet travels to Nebraska instead of Mississippi.” Unlike typical text adventures, there is no real choice in this poem. The choice leads you back to the same page. The reader is either stuck in a perpetual loop of avoidance, or they have to segue from that avoidance and confront the death that is historically and will always be true. The false choice here kind of highlights the limit in witness, where you can retell tragedy and do transformative work by offering a new analytical eye, but you cannot undo what was done. I’m wondering what statement this poem is making about witnesses.

PS: I was trying to go back into the story to find a new entry point, and then when I read about Till’s mother trying to convince him to come to Nebraska instead. There was something else going on at the time. I don’t know if it was some sort of national tragedy or local or something, and I started to think about the element of chance. How, when there’s a plane crash, there’s always somebody who was supposed to be on that plane, but they woke up too late. Or somebody avoided a massive accident by turning right or turning left and how that name isn’t recognizable at all. What if he had gone to Nebraska?

So, I was trying to create the effect, the illusion of choice where there wasn’t one, to get the reader to briefly celebrate the possibility of another Emmett. And you’re right about the ideas— The hardest thing about writing about a known tragedy that way is that the ending is so ingrained that you really have to work at ways to pull the reader out of it even for a moment. And there are so many people who we witness who just kind of go on with their lives. You don’t know someone who passes you by on the street, if they’re going to get to the corner and be hit by a car or make their way safely home But the idea of knowing the story doesn’t mean that the gone person or the reader has to be defined by the story as we know it. And that’s what I was trying to get away from.

There’s a whole lineup of “woe is me stories” and things where we begin to be defined by our tragedies instead of our possibilities. I was trying to say “yes, yes yes,” we know how this story goes, but what does possibility mean in a story that we already know. There’s something that I probably will bring up during the craft talk: looking for unexpected entry points into stories, especially stories that are well-known. Often when you’re looking into a tragic story, the unexpected entry point is often not tragic. It’s infusing the story with breath again somehow. 

So one of the students I was talking to yesterday, is writing a series of birth elegies, and he’s done research into the lives of Michael Brown and Sandra Bland and found these wonderful details, like Sandra Bland used to play the trombone. And he stands them up again. He finds her before she is stopped by that policeman. And it’s startling to realize how seldom we think of reentering someone’s life at the point of life. They’ve been defined by the way they were lost, and that’s a very, very odd way to do things. 

CV: I can truly see how the concept of joy and life is brought into this format, even though the subject is death. With this choose your own adventure story, which is so reminiscent of childhood, you’re physically bringing this childhood frame back into this retelling of Till’s life.

You mentioned thinking through the different ways from which to enter into the unexpected. Are there any other formats that you alternatively thought of when trying to figure out your entry point? 

PS: Oh, no. Because that idea came pretty early, I was determined not to write those sonnets until I had come up with the idea. As soon as I saw that detail about his mother trying to convince him to go somewhere else, it came relatively easily. So in that instance, I didn’t consider anything else. I thought for a while about his father, who was also a tragic story, but I wanted to keep people in the realm of the characters that they already knew. I didn’t want to introduce a whole other, but that might come in the future. I might look back at it. 

CV:  I also wanted to discuss another poem, “Sagas of the Accidental Saint.” So, in this long poem, the form is continuously evolving. There’s a lot of things going on here with the spacing, layout, and headlines preluding each section. And one of the most shocking parts of this poem occurs when the reader arrives at the line: “The gun said, I just had an accident”, which repeats across multiple otherwise empty pages. The room you are giving this line feels very much needed considering the gravity of this proclamation.

So, I wanted to know how form developed in this particular poem. How did form guide your inciting questions?

PS: I think the form of that— it was suggested to me in the performance of the poem when I was reading before the book. I would pause when they were [written] on the same physical page. I wanted the listeners to feel the impact of those many shots, so the way to do that was the repetition, but when I put the book together, I wanted the actual turning of the page to represent that time between the shots. And because you’re doing it that way, it seems like they’re never going to stop. And really, it’s just ten of them, but a lot of Incendiary Art was about repetition, about these things happening like drum beats, you know.

Every once in a while, we’ll see a video, or we’ll have a recording, or somebody will be a witness, and that becomes the case that flares and comes to the surface, but we all know that so many of these things go unseen. And that march doesn’t stop, it just happens and happens and happens and happens, so I was trying to get the idea of that repetition, even within the idea of the repetition of the gunshots.

I talk a lot to my students about how much power they have when they approach the page, how you have an opportunity to control the way the reader receives the poem. It could be how the poem is placed on the page, where the standards of breaks are, whether you’re giving the poem air on the page or giving it a tight appearance. You can make the reader read in a breathless way or you can give them room to crawl into the poem and live for a while.

And so, because this was purposefully such a hard book to read, I was very aware of how I was telling the reader to receive each poem. The space that I wasn’t giving them in terms of topic, I could give them within the reading of a single poem. And that’s not something I have mastery of at all. I’m still learning.

And by getting up on stage and doing it, I want my readers of the book to read the poem the way that I hear it in my head. And so I have to make whatever adjustments I can make on the page. To have them read it how I need them to read it for maximum impact and meaning, I consider the page. 

With “Sagas of the Accidental Saint,” it was important because I’m trying to take the reader through the experience of a mother. When I tell my students to always listen to the voice you’re not hearing, I have to do that myself. And in the case of the people that were lost, often at the hands of the police, the mother’s voice was the one that you didn’t hear often. You hear [her voice] twice: [She’s] at the beginning of the story when they tell her that her child is gone and then at the end when they say that the person responsible for her child’s death is not responsible. Then she goes away. So I’m trying to keep the reader with her for a while, to stand with her, as she tries to fold herself back into some semblance of a normal life. And what happens on the page, visually and sonically, always has to be a part of that.

CV To still focus on this poem, there is a lot of strength and gravity in the headlines you use. These stretch from earlier in the 2000s to more recently. What type of labor went into curating these headlines? How long have these moments been waiting to find themselves into your poetry?

PS: I wanted people to know that the more recent incidents that everybody knows about are not the only ones. So there were things that I remembered from before, but I was also looking for names that weren’t recognizable, that didn’t pop out in any particular headlines. I mean, there are a couple, but I want my reader to go, “well, who’s that? I never heard of them.”  I wanted some people that I didn’t personally know either and just thought, well, each one of these people has a mother who may or may not still be with us, who may be forced to still live in the area where they lost their child, someplace that they walk past every day. And they’re out of our hands. We’re not there to help anymore, if we were indeed in the first place.

A lot of things pop up in my notes, and then I start to see all things that are related over time even though I didn’t take them down that way. You look at something from four or five years ago, and it reminds you of something that you just wrote. That’s how “When Black Men Kill Their Daughters” came about. I had one case, and then not too long after that, there was another case, and I started to think, well, what is that dysfunction? What’s going on? What would make a man think that his daughter was expendable?

Sometimes, I’m looking over my notes, and I might start to see the beginning of a pattern. Or I might want to connect something that happened ten years ago before writing about it. It might be just the perfect thing for the problem.

CV: An element in this collection that grants it so much gravity and urgency is the act of drawing  from these real headlines, from real names and events. Readers can step away from the book when they have to, and they can look up these moments of grief and violence if they so choose as a way to kind of continue on what’s on the page. And I feel that in the case of persona poems, more so than writing generally about events, poets often have this fear of doing a name and its associated history justice, the ethics of it all. 

In the creation of this collection, are these concerns that you tackled as well? What tips would you offer poets who are fearful of entering that persona space?

PS: I wasn’t as concerned with the names themselves as I was with the people around that name. You know, it’s the idea. And I was focused on ways a mother might feel, so I was looking at the different ways they had died and the different ways the mother has into that story. And I was more concerned about recognizing and acknowledging their grief, that  collective mother grief. I thought by seeing all these things through new eyes, through a mother’s eyes— myself as a mother and imagining their actual mother—that by recognizing the people who grieve them the most, I was doing justice to the person. I’m not saying, well, this is what the mother actually felt, but I’m [writing] the many ways that mothers of color have been asked to grieve and receive their child’s bodies. Since she’s so often missing from the picture, I thought that just bringing her back, to be able to acknowledge and have other people acknowledge her pain, was doing justice to the people who were lost.

CV: In reading a collection where so many stories come together, what didn’t make it in the final product? What was left out of this collection? Was there anything that was just too painful or needed its own space to develop, that you ultimately decided not to put in Incendiary Art?

PS: Oh well, the book initially was centered around the “When Black Men Drown Their Daughters” poems. I had this strange weird idea about examining ways, just not violent ways, but ways fathers drown their daughters psychologically. But I was off on this strange tangent and then realized that that was  so dark and weird that I said, no, I can’t do that.

The only other thing was that there were so many of the news items and stories that I had to leave out. I mean, I could have made it the whole book. But while the book was in process, something else would happen. You know there was for Philando Castille, and I want to write another poem about that, the whole element of having the child witness everything and having the child’s mother be there during his killing. It would have probably made it into the lineup of news items and stuff, but [the collection] had to be finite somewhere. I had to cut it off somewhere.

But there wasn’t anything that I thought of as too painful or too graphic. I pretty much decided halfway along in writing the book that it couldn’t be a book that was censored that way, you know, couldn’t be, it had to, if I was going to do it and have the reader walk away feeling like I wanted them to walk, you know, the way I wanted him to feel. I couldn’t keep anything away from them. That’s not the kind of book that I want it to be, so the things that sort of scared me, I put them in any way.