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Patricia Smith

“Patricia Smith is one of our best poets and has been for a long time…”
Terrance Hayes


Greatness has been uncommonly generous to Patricia Smith.  While in her 20s, slam poetry swept the nation and she found herself possessed of the twin talents needed to compete as a slammer – the ability to compose emotionally raw and funny poems and to perform them with an actor’s power and comic touch.  Widely regarded as the foremost slam poet, Smith still holds all major records, including as four-time individual champion of the National Poetry Slam. Her electrifying performances were featured in the documentary film SlamNation, and short films of her performance work won prizes at the Sundance and San Francisco Film Festivals.  She also starred at Carnegie Hall and at poetry festivals around the world.  

But early in her slam career, important literary poets began to counsel her that she had the talent to write poems for the page. So, putting her slam laurels behind her and after stopping off for an M.F.A., she remade herself as a poet whose work continues to storm the gates of the pantheon of greatness. Through nearly four decades, Smith has become one of America’s most honored poets.  Her recent book (2017), Incendiary Art, received the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, Los Angeles Book Prize, NAACP Image Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her seven previous books received a boatload of coveted honors, including the Leonore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets, the Wheatley Award, Carl Sandburg Award, Pushcart Prize, Paterson Prize, and a finalist for the National Book Award.  

In part, what makes Patricia Smith’s poems special is her word-drunk love of language and poetic form.  With so many of her contemporaries opting for a plain-spoken, free-verse sensibility, she embraces a tradition that connects her to the great poets of our language and to the great preachers of the African-American pulpit.  

…them nasty girls 
with wide avenue hips stomping doubledutch in the concrete courtyard…

Smith is also a powerful moralist. Her poems take on the seminal moments and salient issues of the day. For example, her celebrated Blood Dazzler, which Terrance Hayes termed a “major literary event,” chronicled the human, emotional, and physical toll of hurricane Katrina. Her newest book Incendiary Art considers the incidents of violence against young black men in America, which thread through our history from the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction to the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Smith’s poetry also considers the received and lived history of family and community.  Her parents were part of the post-World War II migration of blacks from the Deep South to the cities and factories of the North.  Smith was born and raised in Chicago, and though she is possessed of an urban edge and sophistication, she retains a pitch-perfect ear for the argot of her mother’s rural Alabama, as in ‘Ain’t But One Way Heaven Makes Sense or Annie Pearl Smith Explains the U.S. Space Program’:

First of all, y’all fools.  See what’s right in front of you,
then got folks telling you you ain’t seeing what you
just saw, other folks saying you saw more than you did.
Heaven is where my Jesus live.  Just one way to get there,
no great big shiny ship can rise up on that sacred…

Even the music of Motown factors prominently in Smith’s histories, as in her Motown Crown – the crown referring to a crown of 15 sonnets, among formal poetry’s greatest challenges -- the first of hers begins:

The Temps, all swerve and pivot, conjured schemes
that had us skipping school, made us forget 
how mamas schooled us hard against the threat
of five-part harmony and sharkskin seams.

There is an urgency in this poet’s voice -- her poems matter.  With joy and fury, humor and sadness, she tells it like it is.

Hip-Hop Ghazal

Gotta love us brown girls, munching on fat, swinging on blue hips,
decked out in shells and splashes, Lawdie, bringing them woo hips.

As the jukebox teases, watch my sistas throat the heartbreak,
inhaling bass line, cracking backbone and singing thru hips.

Like something boneless, we glide silent, seeping ‘tween the floorboards,
wrapping around the hims, and ooh-wee, clinging like glue hips.

Engines, grinding, rotating, smokin’, gotta pull back some.
Natural minds are lost at the mere sight of swinging true hips.

  Gotta love us girls, just struttin’ down Chicago streets
killing the menfolk with a dose of the stinging view. Hips.

Crying ‘bout getting old – Patricia, you need to get up off
what God gave you. Say a prayer and start slinging. Cue hips.