The page and the performance, the personal and the political all merge in the crucible of Patricia Smith’s poetry.
Earlier this month, Smith gave a mesmerizing, moving reading at the University of Tampa from her latest collection of poems, Incendiary Art. She was in town for the 2018 Association of Writers and Writing Programs convention. I don’t often cry at poetry readings, but Smith’s incantatory performance of her poems inspired by the deaths of young black men, from Emmett Till to Michael Brown and beyond, moved me to tears.
If you missed that reading, you’ll have another chance. Smith will read from her work Monday night at the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg. Her reading is presented by the Plume Poetry Series and St. Petersburg College. She will also read for several SPC classes during her visit.
The Plume Poetry Series, directed by Danny Lawless of the SPC English department and now in its sixth year, has a history of presenting extraordinary poets, such as former U.S. poet laureates Juan Felipe Herrera and Robert Pinsky, and presidential inaugural poet Richard Blanco.
Smith fits right into that pantheon, as the recognition for Incendiary Art has made clear. Published in 2017, the book has won the NAACP Image Award and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, at $100,000 the world’s largest cash award for poetry.
At 62, Smith has earned a plethora of honors. She is the only four-time individual champion of the National Poetry Slam. She has published eight books of poetry, a children’s book (Janna and the Kings) and a book of history, Africans in America. She has also written everything from newspaper columns to crime fiction — her short story When They Are Done With Us won the 2013 best debut story award from the Mystery Writers of America. Born in Chicago, she lives in New Jersey and teaches at the College of Staten Island in New York.
Smith talked with the Tampa Bay Times about Incendiary Art, awards and thinking about poetry in print and in performance.
At the heart of your poetry collection Incendiary Art is the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was abducted and killed for allegedly making advances to a white woman in a small town in Mississippi. How did Till’s story first enter your consciousness, and why did you choose to make his death the basis for the book?
The story first entered my consciousness when I noticed that both my mother and father had the picture of Till in his open casket, torn from the September 1955 issue of Jet magazine. The picture, which I learned later was a mainstay in many of the households in our Chicago neighborhood, was meant as a warning to children who dared think they were "free" somehow — this is what can happen to you if you speak too loudly, walk too boldly, if you assume that your root in the world is the same as everyone else’s.
I was fascinated with Till’s story, because to me it represented the horror of the South my parents had left behind. But gradually I learned that much of the horror had followed them north.
While gathering promotional material for Incendiary Art, I was surprised to learn that my publisher — along with other people who had reviewed the manuscript — thought that Emmett Till’s death is the impetus of the book. I didn’t think about it that way during its creation. I think my focus was larger than that — it was disregard and dismissal of the black body, its general lack of worth in the eyes of so many. Emmett’s story, of course, had to be a part of that. I think maybe it’s emerged as the book’s focal point because of the structure I adopted for the poems — the terse sonnets sprinkled through Incendiary’s pages. Also, the Choose Your Own Adventure format introduces the element of change — how could this not have happened — and that reverberates through the other stories.
Five of the poems about Till are Shakespearean sonnets that employ, to deeply emotional effect, the format of the Choose Your Own Adventure children’s books. What led you to that form for the poems?
That did begin with Emmett. When I learned that his mother had wanted him to travel with her to Nebraska, instead of letting him visit his cousins in Mississippi, I thought about how the whole tragic story almost didn’t happen. If he’d made one choice instead of another. If he’d gone to Nebraska instead, if he’d never ventured near the Mississippi store or whistled at Carolyn Bryant, maybe he’d still be alive. If his mother hadn’t chosen to leave his casket open, the world wouldn’t have witnessed the brutality of "Southern justice" and we probably wouldn’t be talking about his death right now in the same way. I was a big fan of the Choose Your Own Adventure books when I was a kid, and as I mused on the facets of Emmett’s loss, the haunting idea of one story with several possible endings fit perfectly.
Can you talk about the title of Incendiary Art, which seems to have multiple meanings?
During the riots following the death of Michael Brown, I heard someone asked what good it did for African-Americans to burn down their own neighborhoods — someone who obviously didn’t understand the ragged nature of collective grief. I remembered living on the west side of Chicago, which was decimated after Martin Luther King’s assassination. And, during a campaign rally for the man who later became this country’s president (I can’t say his name), one of his supporters wondered aloud what it would be like to burn someone alive. It was clear that he meant someone black.
I began to think about the role of fire in so many defining moments of both protest and loss. I thought about the idea of torching a landscape clean in order to start over. I thought about how fire can be both beautiful and horrifying. And the name came to me.
You are acclaimed not only for your poems in print but as a performer. When you write, do you think of your poems primarily on the page or as performance?
There are two distinct "eras" of my career. I was introduced to poetry by getting up on stage and doing it — so I was first heralded as a "spoken word" poet and a poetry slammer. At that time, I wrote primarily for performance. The performance poetry scene was my social circle, and I thought that poetry, live and person-to-person, was the "purest" way to give and receive the word. But once I began to study poetry — meter, structure, history, etc. — I realized that craft on the page was of the utmost importance, and that a well-crafted poem should work either on the page or stage. So now I simply think about the story I’m trying to tell and then I look for the best way to tell it.
You’ve garnered many awards, but Incendiary Art stands out for winning the NAACP Image Award and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the largest cash prize for a poetry collection in the world. What impact do awards have on your writing?
You really can’t write effectively while thinking about the possibility of winning an award or basking in the afterglow of winning one. After all, I write for readers, not judges. I write for that person who happens upon one of my poems and thinks, "I’ve never thought of that particular story in that particular way. I’ve never heard those particular rhythms beneath the words. I can do that. I can do that." I never want poetry inaccessible, like something anyone can’t do, and sometimes awards can have that effect.
However, the attention to awards can broaden audience, piquing the curiosity of people who don’t normally read poetry. And monetary awards in particular can help me clear out time to create — by allowing me to take leave from work, etc. But I think that writing with the awards in mind could change my work in a way that ultimately wouldn’t be productive.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.