I was honored to be able to ask Patricia Smith a few questions about her work and about being a poet. Patricia is a personal hero of mine and her work has resonated with me profoundly. I hope everyone enjoys the interview. Please feel free to comment on it and share your reactions. – JW
Cobalt: Would you explain what being a poet means to you?
Patricia Smith: Being a poet means that I’m a storyteller, and that I’ve found a way to tell huge stories in small spaces. It means that I’ve learned to look at the world in a way that encompasses all of it. A poet never simply looks at the surface of anything. We’re always probing, questioning, disagreeing, rearranging, disturbing the flow. Being a poet means you can’t sit still. There’s always a question that needs to be answered–and the answer isn’t the most important thing. It’s the search for the answer that matters.
Cobalt: How does it shape your life, both physically (such as how is your writing time structured, or not) and emotionally? How do you walk through the world, and what does it feel like in your heart to be a poet?
Smith: Physically, I’ve been lucky enough to fold poetry into the rest of my life–I don’t find myself designating any part of the day as “poetry-writing time.” Poetry churns in my head all the time. And I leave snippets on voice recorders, in little wired notebooks, on cocktail napkins. When I sit down to “officially” write, it’s not always a poem–it could be a short story, an essay. I’m first and foremost a storyteller, and although poetry is my preferred genre, sometimes a story asks for something else. I wish I could be like Stephen King. He sits down at 5 in the morning, writes until 10, takes a break ’til lunch, sits down again at 1 or so, then writes until 5 pm, and he’s done. Sometimes I crave that kind of structure, but mostly I’m grateful I don’t operate that way. A good poem should hit you like a ton of bricks.
And you should never know it’s coming.
Emotionally: Being a poet means that there’s no sacred space. There’s no moment I can’t bring to a poem. Writing is not a recreational activity, it’s the way I process my life, how I move from day to day. It’s breath.
Cobalt: How does a poem come to you and come out of you? Maybe how does the first thought come, or the first line? Is it a thought that sticks in your head and won’t let go, so you know you must write about it, or does it come more subtly?
Smith: Poems don’t come from any one place, and pretty much every poem is different. I can say, without a doubt, and I hardly ever begin with a first line. I was introduced to poetry by getting up on stage and doing it, so the last line is often the first to occur to me. I know how I want the audience, or reader, to feel after the last syllable of the last line in the last stanza. I’m more likely to write the poem backwards.
More often, yes, the thought takes hold. And I hold onto that thought until I think of some unexpected entry point into the poem. I make myself assume that about 800 people have had the same idea at exactly the same time, and I need to find a way to stamp my signature on the approach.
Cobalt: And what does the experience of writing a poem feel like to you?
Smith: It depends on the poem. Sometimes there’s jubilation. Sometimes relief. Sometimes a deeper grief.
Cobalt: In Blood Dazzler you let yourself dwell in one event for an entire book. Can you explain why this was important for you to do, and why is this an important thing for all poets to realize that they can do?
Smith: I thought it was important because so many people just wanted Katrina to be over. That’s the essence of our culture: we’re always ready to go on to the next big thing. And Katrina was not only hard to look at as a tragic natural disaster, it involved a segment of the population so much of our country has no interest in seeing in the first place–poor, mostly minority people. I wanted a way to make the story of Katrina live longer. Ten years from now, maybe someone will pick “Blood Dazzler” out of a book remainders bin; maybe they won’t buy it, maybe they won’t even read it, but they just may say, “That’s right. Katrina happened.” Maybe that’s all I can ask for: a way to keep the story in the public consciousness.
Cobalt: What happens to you as a poet, and as a human being, when you realize that you don’t have to close the door on a subject, that sometimes one poem cannot speak it all?
Smith: That’s part of being a poet. There’s no period at the end of any poem. Stories are fluid. Circumstances change. The future shifts. A closed door is a shuttered throat. And a poet with a shuttered throat isn’t really a poet.
Cobalt: Is there any subject that you would not write about in your poetry?
Smith: There’s nothing I won’t write about. My goal is to have no secrets from myself. I owe it to myself to examine every facet of the life I’m living. Because there’s no second chance to learn who you are.
Cobalt: I have often struggled with writing about things which I know will hurt my family or others, or shock them perhaps beyond what I feel I can repair. Have you struggled with this and how have you resolved this in your work?
Smith: From the very first time I started writing, I also made clear to my family and friends why I was writing: not always for fun, not necessarily for audience, not to hear the sound of my own voice. I write to save my own life. I write to move my own life forward, and to make sense of that life. In the process, I have to take unflinching inventory of all the relationships I’m a part of, all the people who’ve had a say in who I’ve become. It’s all about making yourself a priority, even when the truth may sting someone else. As far as shock: someone else’s ability to deal should never lead you to edit yourself.
Cobalt: Do you still get nervous about sending out your work?
Smith: No, not at all. Getting published is not what’s most important.
Sometimes I even forget to send out my work. I’d much rather be able to look into the faces of the people who are hearing the poem for the first time. Nothing replaces that exchange of energy.
Cobalt: How about nerves when reading or performing? How do you feel about others reading your work?
Smith: I’m not sure you call it nerves, exactly, but there’s a electric little bit of apprehension every single time I read in front of an audience. But then, as soon as I open my mouth and sound comes out, that apprehension turns to energy. I love the feel of that transition.
If you mean others reading my work out loud, for a long time, I had no problem with it. In fact, I considered it an honor.
Lately, however – after a couple of instances where a well-known poet has actually “tweaked” the work as a “tribute’ – I’m a little less trusting. I want everyone who hears my work to feel what I felt when I sat down to write it. So, when someone else is reading your work, you relinquish that control.
About Patricia: Patricia Smith’s fifth book of poetry, Blood Dazzler (Coffee House Press) chronicles the human, physical and emotional toll exacted by Hurricane Katrina, a catastrophic natural event with lasting spiritual and political impact. Patricia is also the author of Teahouse of the Almighty (Coffee House Press), a National Poetry Series winner, the Best Poetry Book of 2006 on About.com, and a 2007 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and Paterson Poetry Prize winner; Close to Death (Zoland Books), Big Towns, Big Talk (Zoland) and Life According to Motown (Tia Chucha). Her poems have appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, poemmemoirstory, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, the Chautauqua Literary Journal, TriQuarterly, and other journals, and in many groundbreaking anthologies–most recently Gathering Ground, The Spoken Word Revolution, The Oxford Anthology of African-American Poetry and Short Fuse: The Global Anthology of New Fusion Poetry. Her poem “The Way Pilots Walk” received a Pushcart Prize, and is featured in Pushcart Prize XXXII: Best of the Small Presses.