Patricia Smith’s voice reverberates through the narrow, dimly lit room in the basement of the Cornelia Street Cafe, a charming French restaurant in Greenwich Village that tonight is transformed into a hub of poetry. The evening begins with an open mic reading in which a series of poets deliver works varying in caliber and style. Whispers and the clanking of silverware can occasionally be heard throughout the room. But when Smith takes the stage, the audience is captivated, sucked into the vortex of her poetry, drawn in by the power of her words and performance. "Can you teach me to write a poem about my mother? / I mean, you write about your daddy and he dead, / can you teach me to remember my mama? / A teacher tells me this is the first time Nicole / has admitted that her mother is gone."
Smith begins every reading with these verses about how poetry helped 6th grader Nicole process her mother’s death. Tonight is no exception, even though she considered devoting her brief 20-minute reading exclusively to newer pieces. She doesn’t feel grounded if she opens with another work because this poem is her manifesto; it is a bold declaration of what poetry can do for others and, of course, what it has done for her.
As the winner of the most prestigious awards in the spoken and written word, Smith has also done a lot for poetry. In her early career, she was crowned the National Poetry Slam champion four times, and her spoken word roots continue to be evident in her heartfelt poetry readings. Later, she garnered the coveted Pushcart Prize for the best literature published by small publishing houses, the very first Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in the poetry category, a National Poetry Series award, and a National Book Award nomination.
But for Smith, poetry is not an esoteric pastime to be used as a backstage pass into elite inner circles. She believes in the profound power of language, and she shares her poems because she knows there are people like Nicole who are waiting to hear them, who need to find a way to come to terms with something intensely personal. "You will always find at least one person in every audience who is there for a reason," Smith says. "And it might be a line that’s inconsequential in a poem of yours that will get them to sit up and go, â€˜You know, I’ve felt that way; I just didn’t know there was a way to express it.’" In this moment of connection between speaker and listener, these audience members realize "they have a second throat that they’re not using," Smith says. "Poetry is a responsibility and not just an art…You are responsible for how your words are going to reach other people…You need to know that they will have an effect."
This audience connection is so important to Smith that she makes a point to present her new poems to live audiences as soon as possible. The audience’s response and emotional tenor guide her revision process. For example, audiences often have very strong reactions to selections from Blood Dazzler, her book of poems about Hurricane Katrina. She explains, "If I see somebody who’s a little jumpy when I’m doing the [Blood Dazzler] poems, I think, â€˜That might be someone from New Orleans; that might be somebody with something to teach me.’ So you can never put a period at the end of the last line of a poem and think, â€˜That’s it; I’ve got it; I’ve done it.’ It’s got to be a conversation." The interchange between audience and poet doesn’t even need to include words. "You can actually feel whether or not a poem is working," Smith says.
Smith’s dynamic relationship with her audiences is one of the reasons her poetry appeals to such a wide array of people. She has shared her work 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 lifeâ€”age, race, class, sexual orientation, educational backgroundâ€”gather together to hear her and possibly discover the words they’ve been waiting for.
The Birth of Slam Poetry
The first audience Smith captivated with her poetry was a community of spoken word poets from her hometown of Chicago. Their brand of poetry was imbued with the sound and the fury of language, and they loved the feel of well-crafted, rhythmic words in their mouths. The excitement of their performances escalated when they instituted poetic duels known as poetry slams. In these competitions, a handful of poets deliver poems of three minutes or less. Audience members are selected to judge the poems and eliminate about half the poets each round. After three rounds, the last poet standing is the winner. The amateur judging process means that audience connection is the lifeblood of slam poetry.
As a journalist for the Chicago Sun-Times in the 1980s, Smith discovered slam poetry when she reported on the city’s first Turf Poetry Festival, little knowing that she was destined to become a defining figure of the movement. She gave her first performance during an open mic night at the Green Mill, the cocktail lounge that hosts the famous Uptown Poetry Slam. Her thrilling performances and moving narrative poems quickly won her the respect and admiration of Chicago’s slam community.
In the beginning days of slam, Smith says, "we had no idea, really, what was going on. It just felt really good and a social circle was building up around it. We were all very nurturing and supportive." The poets thought carefully about each others’ work and offered suggestions for perfecting a phrase or rearranging lines for maximum impact. But, says Smith, "it wasn’t just poetry that connected us…We know each other on a deeper level than just, â€˜Hi, what’s your sign?’ If there’s something bugging me, I’m more likely to turn to a member of that community than I am to my own family, just because they know more about me in a deeper way. I’ve said things in poems that I haven’t said to a lot of people."
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. Initially, Boston was wary of the unpredictability and competitiveness of slam. "Chicago was pretty much ready to try anything," remembers Smith. "When I came to Boston, it was like backtracking…We just had to change our expectations and get people excited about things we were already doing."
Smith and Brown initially introduced slam at the Stone Soup poetry reading, which was then meeting at T. T. the Bear’s Place in Central Square. However, "the staunch Stone Soup readers…didn’t trust where the performance was going," says Smith. They had spent a long time gathering an audience of traditional poetry readers and weren’t prepared for what Smith calls the "crapshoot" of slam performances. She acknowledges that some slam performers "continue to be clowns year after year because they think that they’ve learned what poetry is and how to push buttons." For these performers, the slam is all about finagling laughter, groans, and applause during their three minutes in the limelight. Many of the highly educated Stone Soup crowd were appalled by these types of poets and consequently believed that slam poetry had very little of the linguistic value found in conventional, printed poems.
However, plenty of slam poetsâ€”including Smithâ€”were just as entranced by the written word as any Stone Soup writer. Their performances were so thrilling precisely because they had spent hours laboring over their poems, granting life to their beautiful creations through the birth pangs of thoughtful writing, editing, and preparation. One of Smith’s greatest contributions to slam poetry was that her well-crafted verse legitimized the movement in the minds of the literati who were open enough to listen. Her words cut through the "page versus stage" debate and demonstrated that good poetry can succeed in both arenas.
Though the Stone Soup readers rejected slam poetry, Smith knew she could find some Bostonians who would share her passion for it. And she was right: Boston eventually became one of the first cities to adopt slam outside of its Chicago birthplace. When she and Brown moved the slam to a bookstore called the BookCellar, large crowds began to flock to the competitions. In fact, there were so many people crowded on the stairs inside and trying to listen from outside that, for the first time in Boston, poetry became a safety hazard. Slam soon found a permanent home at the Cantab Lounge and, a few years later, spread to the Lizard Lounge as well. "The slamâ€”if you give it airâ€”will work exactly the way it’s supposed to work," Smith says. Fanned into flame by the frigid air of Boston, slam soon became a national phenomenon.
At the forefront of this exploding movement, Smith was quite a rising star herself. She won the individual title at the very first National Poetry Slam championship 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 championship, "Undertaker," was turned into a five-minute independent film that won awards at the Sundance and San Francisco Film Festivals. She also appeared in the documentary Slamnation, which chronicled the 1996 championship. In this film, many competing poets spoke of Smith with a mixture of reverence and fear, all agreeing that she could be the downfall of their respective slam teams. She was not just the most successful slammer to date; she had become a legend.
Burning the Landscape
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. No matter which genre she employed, Smith painted the full humanity of her subjects, and her readers were touched by these authentic portraits.
In 1998, Smith’s 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 some of her columns for the Globe, violating the first rule of journalism ethics. One of the most notorious made-up sources was a cancer patient whom Smith claimed went by her middle name, Claire. The centerpiece of a column about a new cancer treatment, Claire is portrayed as a formerly optimistic person turned somewhat morbid and gruff by what she calls "the ogre" of cancer. In Smith’s farewell column, she said that she had fabricated characters like Claire "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 or by her desire to produce a shining column every week. She wrote 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 many recognized that despite her ability to stir readers’ thoughts and emotions, Smith was only a human being, just like those she wrote about so poignantly.
Smith’s life quickly spiraled downhill. She lost her job at the Globe, as well as her American Society of Newspaper Editors Distinguished Writing Award and Pulitzer nomination. At the same time, both her health and her marriage fell apart.
But like an arsonist phoenix rising from the ashes of her own making, Smith refused to let these events defeat her. Not knowing where else to go, Smith returned to Chicago and to her last remaining source of strengthâ€”slam poetry. She gave what many consider 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 that would not turn aside because of her professional sin and her personal despair. To thunderous applause and a standing ovation, Smith laid bare her soul.
Almost a dozen years later, Smith says people still remark on that reading. The audience had initially gathered out of curiosity, wondering what Smith would say after suffering through public demonization and private hell. As her words washed over them, they were deeply moved by the gritty emotion, heartache and triumph. These were words they had been waiting for, words that suggested hope and redemption against all odds.
While Smith says that "it was very important for me to be in that place at that time," it wasn’t until the National Poetry Slam, which took place a few months later in Austin, Texas, that she fully recognized how this group of people could be her saving grace. "That’s when I realized that the poetry community is a really unwavering community," she says. "They had kind of pulled me out [of my depression] because I wasn’t talking to anybody. They really just closed ranks, and that was very, very helpful for me."
The poetry community was the lone encouraging voice in the cacophony of opinions about what the Globe incident would mean for Smith and for her career. Smith recalls people asking her what she would do with her life now that she could no longer write. "The world [was] telling me who I was supposed to be," she recalls. "It’s like, nudge nudge, hint hint hint. And you don’t take the hint, so the easiest thing to do is to burn the whole landscape clean and start over."
Fortunately, when Smith burned the landscape of the journalism career she had built for over two decades, she was not bereft of all avenues for writing. In fact, these events allowed her to focus all her energy on writing and sharing poetry, which she says is "exactly what I should have been doing all along. I’m finding great rewards in it. It’s giving me some personal movement; it’s giving me a way to translate my own life without looking to outside people to legitimize me." While the loyalty of the slam community was immensely helpful for Smith, it was pure, unadulterated poetry that enabled her to find strength in herself. She says, "It was a real revelation to realize that I could find solace in poetry when I needed it, that not only was there a community that I could turn to, but that whenever I’m searching for answers, I feel like I have the power to find them myself and that’s in the writing." It’s not always an audience member who needs to hear a poem; sometimes a poem contains the words the author herself needs most.
Smith’s missteps at the Globe actually helped her to stumble onto the path toward becoming the writer she is today. She says, "I’m not thrilled with how I got there, but to tell you the truth, I probably wouldn’t change anything."
The many naysayers who thought Smith’s writing career had screeched to a permanent halt clearly did not have their fingers on the pulse of poetry. Before the events at the Globe, she had already published three books of poems, and her work had appeared in literary journals such as The Paris Review and TriQuarterly. But the applause from critics grew increasingly louder as she continued to pour her heart into her poetry. Teahouse of the Almighty, the first book of poetry she published in over a decade, became a 2005 National Poetry Series winner, and Blood Dazzler was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award.
But regardless of the censure or praise her work receives, Smith will always find in poetry a source of personal strength. It’s not about concrete achievementsâ€”putting a period at the end of a line, winning a slam or racking up poetry awards. Rather, it is an important exploration, a process, a journey. As Smith says, "It’s not reaching a goal that matters; it’s [the process of] getting to the goal…When you reach what you think is the goal, you look up and say, â€˜Well, damned if there’s not more road there.’" This is a road a poet must walk for herself. According to Smith, "Poetry becomes the way you move your own life forward."
Nevertheless, poetry is also about others. In her poetic manifesto dedicated to 6th grader Nicole, Smith proclaims the weighty responsibility poets have: "Angry, jubilant, weeping poetsâ€” / we are all / saviors, reluctant hosannas in the limelight." While finding her own answers through writing, Smith’s words also help people process emotions they thought were too deep and complex to express. Her poems lend a voice to those who are often overlooked or forgotten and plumb the varied human experiences that tragic news headlines cannot fully communicate.
In the low lights of the Cornelia Street Cafe, dozens of people listen closely to the forgotten voices buried beneath the torrents of Hurricane Katrina’s flood. Smith introduces "34," the first poem she wrote for Blood Dazzler: "The story [about Katrina] that pushed at me the most was the story of the 34 nursing home residents who were left behind to die. So what I tried to do is turn the clock back just a few seconds and give each one of those 34 people just a minute of their voice back."
After the reading, Jackie Sheeler, webmaster of poetz.com and one of the hosts of the Cornelia Street reading, stops by Smith’s table to tell her privately how much she loves the book: "I normally don’t just sit and read a book of poems that isn’t an anthology because it’s too much of just one voice. But I couldn’t put Blood Dazzler down because it’s filled with voices." The book is replete with the nuanced voices of victims and villains alike, tracing the common thread of humanity that binds us all together despite our differences.
In the midst of her literary success, Smith’s goal remains the same as when she first started out as a slam poet: she writes so that both she and her audience can heal and connect, remember and understand. Words have the power to change lives; in different ways, they saved both Smith and Nicole. Fully convinced of poetry’s profound purpose, Smith concludes her poetic manifesto with an exhortation to her fellow writers: "So poets, / as we pick up our pens, / as we flirt and sin and rejoice behind microphonesâ€” / remember Nicole. / She knows that we are here now, / and she is an empty vessel waiting to be filled. / And she is waiting. / And she / is / waiting. / And she waits."