The Common Thread
Poet Patricia Smith charms the slam community, the elite literati, and audiences around the world.
by Jessica Colund
"They call me skinhead," says Patricia Smith, defiantly speaking in the voice of a white supremacist, "and I got my own beauty."
The audience is no longer seeing and hearing an African-American female poet; they are only seeing and hearing a bitter, prejudiced white man whose face "is huge and pockmarked, / scraped pink and brilliant, apple-cheeked." By the end of the piece, the audience—individually and collectively—have briefly taken on the persona of this man and seen the world through his eyes.
Smith was inspired to write "Skinhead" because she has always been interested in exploring the fundamental similarities between people who seem to be polar opposites. When she heard an interview with a neo-Nazi who painted a swastika on Plymouth Rock, she wondered what she had in common with him. "This guy is spewing all this hatred," she explains. "I thought, at some point, we started at a common point. He moved in that direction. I moved in another direction. So I wanted to write a poem that would bring us back to a common area."
Entering the mind of such an angry, twisted person is uncomfortable for many people, including Smith herself. When she first started to read this poem for audiences, a distinctive, unplanned accent developed. "I didn’t know where it came from," says Smith. "I think I got a little bit more into his head than I wanted to...I found myself having a hard time pulling out of the poem when it was done."
Nevertheless, Smith’s persona poems connect with many people because they find points of common humanity between the audience and the speaker in the poem. She says that these poems "force us outside of ourselves—which we should all in a perfect world do naturally anyway. We should strive to relate to whoever it is that we meet, or we don’t meet, anyway. I mean, that’s what the human race is supposedly all about."
Smith has presented her poetry everywhere from hole-in-the-wall Chicago bars and a train platform in Berlin to Carnegie Hall and Rotterdam’s Poetry International Festival. People from every walk of life—age, race, class, educational background—gather together to hear Smith and be caught up in the vortex of her poems as they take on personas that are simultaneously familiar and alien.
The Slam Diva
Smith began her poetry career delivering spoken word poems in slam poetry competitions. She grew up on the west side of Chicago, which is known as "ground zero" of the slam poetry movement. Poetry slams are three-round competitions in which five amateur judges eliminate about half the poets each round. The last poet standing is the winner. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Slam Poetry describes the stage presence of these early slammers:
"The experimenters in this new style of poetry presentation gyrated, rotated, spewed, and stepped their words along the bar top, dancing between the bottles, bellowing out the backdoor, standing on the street or on their stools, turning the west side of Chicago into a rainforest of dripping whispers or a blast furnace of fiery elongated syllables, phrases, snatches of scripts, and verse that electrified the night."
As a journalist for the Chicago Sun-Times in the 1980s, Smith was first introduced to slam poetry when she reported on the city’s first Turf Poetry Festival. She gave her first performance during an open mic event at the Green Mill, a Chicago cocktail lounge that hosts the famous Uptown Poetry Slam. Her thrilling performances and powerful narrative poems quickly won her the respect and admiration of Chicago’s slam community.
One member of this close-knit artistic group, Michael Brown, eventually became her husband. The pair of sizzling slammers moved to Boston in 1990 and brought the spoken word revolution with them. They co-founded the Boston Slam, which meets at the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge. Slam’s growing popularity in Boston helped it spread to other parts of the country, and it soon become a national phenomenon.
At the forefront of this exploding movement, Smith became quite a rising star herself. She won the individual title at the very first National Poetry Slam Championships in 1990, and she went on to reclaim her crown three more times in 1991, 1993, and 1995. One of the pieces she performed in the 1996 championships, "Undertaker," was turned into a five-minute independent film that won awards at the Sundance and San Francisco Film Festivals.
One of Smith’s greatest contributions to slam poetry was that her well-crafted verse legitimized the movement in the minds of the literati. Many of these highly educated individuals—some might call them snobs—believed that slam poetry was only about passionate performance and that there was very little linguistic value of the kind found in traditional, printed poems. Smith’s powerful voice cut through the "page versus stage" debate and proved that good poetry will succeed in both worlds. Just as her persona poems bring together people of various backgrounds, so her artistic style appeals to people with widely differing poetic tastes.
The Fall from Grace
While Smith’s career as a slam poet was taking off, her day job was writing columns for the Boston Globe. She had almost as many fans of her journalism as of her poetry; many readers were touched by the way she made her subjects come alive. Smith tried to express the full humanity of the people in her news stories, much as she did when writing poetry. In fact, she got into writing her persona poems because of her career as a journalist. Writing poetry was an important way for her to process the troubling events she reported on every day.
In both her poems and newspaper articles, Smith recognized that she was describing only one moment of many in her subjects’ lives. Each person’s life is far longer and more complex than the one event described in the piece, and she tried to make that richness evident in her writing. She explains, "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."
Smith’s poignant and incisive stories earned her a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize. And that’s when the ugly truth came out: Smith had fabricated sources and quotes in a few of her columns for the Globe, violating the first rule of journalism ethics. She says that she did it "to create the desired impact or slam home a salient point." But while her journalist’s voice and eye often enriched her poems, her poet’s imagination never should have entered the fact-filled world of reporting.
To her credit, Smith admits that her actions cannot be justified by her lack of time, by her drive to succeed, by her desire to produce a shining column every week. She says that these hollow excuses "point to the cursed fallibility of human beings, our tendency to spit in the face of common sense." Some of Smith’s colleagues and readers relished the downfall of a heroine while others felt betrayed, disillusioned, and disappointed. But despite her immense ability to stir readers’ thoughts and emotions, Smith never was a heroine. She was only a human being like the rest of us.
Smith’s life began to spiral downhill at a progressively faster rate. She lost her job at the Globe, as well as her American Society of Newspaper Editors Distinguished Writing Award and her Pulitzer nomination. At the same time, her marriage went from bad to worse and eventually disintegrated completely. Her health deteriorated to the point that she could not leave her house for several weeks.
But like an arsonist phoenix rising from the ashes of her own making, Smith refused to let these events be the end for her. Not knowing where else to go, Smith returned to her hometown of Chicago and to her last remaining source of strength—slam poetry. She gave the most memorable performance of her life at the Chicago Cultural Center in front of the community she had always been real with, the one group who would not turn aside in disgust because of her professional sin and her personal despair. To thunderous applause and a standing ovation, Smith laid bare her soul.
The Voice of Humanity
Smith continued to pour her heart into her poetry. Before the incident at the Globe, she had already published three books of poetry, and her work had also appeared in literary journals such as The Paris Review and TriQuarterly. But the applause from critics grew increasingly louder. Teahouse of the Almighty, her first published poetry book in over a decade, was a 2005 National Poetry Series winner. Smith also won the very first Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in the poetry category. Perhaps most notably, Blood Dazzler, her book of poems about Hurricane Katrina, was a National Book Award finalist.
Blood Dazzler combines news headlines with deeply personal stories. Smith decided to write it when she "realized that there were quite a few people who wanted to file Katrina away and have it be done so they could get on with their lives...[but] we can’t fold this away; it has to be something that remains in the public consciousness." In the midst of her literary success, Smith’s goal remains the same as when she was first starting out as a slam poet: She hopes her poetry will lend a voice to those who are often overlooked or forgotten and help people see the common thread of humanity that binds us all together despite our differences.
Though Smith no longer competes in poetry slams, her spoken word roots are evident in her heartfelt poetry readings in which she captivates audiences the minute she opens her mouth. But her strong appeal to so many different people does not depend solely on her stellar performances. Bursting with passion, grittiness, heartache, and redemption, Smith’s poems are a rich tapestry of what it means to be human.
Group photo of Boston-based slam poets and musicians: Jeff Robinson, Blake Newman, Iyeoka Okoawo, Richard Cambrige, Askia Toure, Patricia Smith, Regie Gibson, & Quincy Troup at Hi-N-Dry Studio. (I've actually heard several of these people at the Lizard Lounge! Iyeoka Okoawo has such powerful poetry and her delivery is so moving.)
Patricia Smith's Website
University of Illinois--Patricia Smith Site
Interview about Persona Poems
Interview about Blood Dazzler
A Note of Apology (Patricia Smith's final editorial in the Globe) Note: I accessed this through Emerson's subscription to ProQuest.
One of the benefits of online publication: Watch videos of Patricia Smith's poetry performances!
Patricia Smith at the Uptown Poetry Slam in Chicago
Patricia Smith performing "Skinhead"
Patricia Smith performing in the Lizard Lounge's poetry jam (After the traditional slam competition, the Lizard Lounge features one poet who performs with music in a "poetry jam." It's so fun!)