About Patricia Smith
From 1987 through the end of the century, slam poetry has been the strong force behind spoken word in Chicago and, in a ripple effect, through western Europe and parts of the Pacific. But as slam has given a lot of the world a keynote for reclaiming performed poetry as a living art, slam has keynote artists of its own who gave the movement meaning and direction through their work. More than any other artist, Patricia Smith sounds slam poetry's keynote.
Her voice originates from the true ground zero of the slam poetry movement: Chicago in the late 1980s. While the significance of "page versus stage" in poetry was hotly debated then, Smith squarely reconciled both with strength and finesse. Smith's work signals changes in the poetic landscape at the end of the 1900s in America and parts of western Europe as she toured and word of her work spread. She made it clear that performance has an absolute relationship to text, but that the ultimate synthesis of page and stage is seamless. Repeated championships in the (U.S.) National Poetry Slam and championship bouts at the Taos Poetry Circus lended her the audiences to realize this quite fully. Both her text and voice are vital. Nothing is left to chance in Smith's language whether it's written or spoken.
Smith coined a kind of performance poetry which defined slam. Her work resides in the present, in the urban neighborhood, in nightclubs, streetcorner gathering places like the barber shop or in 3:00 AM taxi rides home. She throws fierce charisma. She always has. And while she writes from the "I", she writes selflessly so. The audience is free to step into her shoes as they will, trying on her point of view as her writing slips into the identities of others. In all of this, there is an enlightened, worldly political conscience.
Her ensemble of energies is infectious, delicious to the eye and ear, full and provocative to the mind. By that virtue, Smith mitigated criticisms that slam poetry necessarily was a coarse or uncritically-minded craft. She proved that slam could exceed its saloon origins and engage the literate public. So in many regards, the slam movement followed in her wake as much as she did in its. She won Illinois' prestigious Carl Sandburg Award for poetry in recognition of her craft.
Born and raised in Chicago, educated in Illinois, Smith left her hometown and work for the Chicago Sun Times to pursue her journalism career in Boston with The Globe after 1991. She, with her husband then, Michael Brown, successfully transplanted Chicago-roots slam poetry to New England, which has since enjoyed a flowering of it's own performance poetry. Their effort was key to making slam poetry a national phenomenon in the United States. In spring of 1998, Smith was nominated and favored to win, then withdrawn from consideration for a Pulitzer Prize in journalism when rumors were validated that some of her Globe column's stories were fabricated. Smith admitted so and lost her job at the paper, but she would pay for her mistake with more than her job and the forfieted prize.
She suffered institutional vitriol and public demonizing by much of the mainstream press at the national level, particularly by the more conservative Sunday television panel-show pundits. While this all but ensured Smith's sainthood among performance poetry's body politic, it also cost her wellbeing. The loss of her professional career and her marriage coincided, and the ensuing stress nearly ruined her health. But by the end of 1998, she was back in recital again, recycling some of her very recent experiences with the press into her contemporary writing. In one strong, extended performance at the Chicago Cultural Center at that time, she addressed such themes as vindictiveness, self-destruction, betrayal, depression, suicide, and self-redemption; the directness of transport from headlines to poetry arrested the audience. After her recital, the full auditorium rose for a lengthy standing ovation. It might be said that Smith's writing, whether it is poetry aspiring toward journalism or journalism aspiring toward poetry, tells the facts we innately know and must admit to ourselves, instead of the facts that others would teach us for their own profit.
from the introduction to Patricia Smith at Book of Voices. This site includes audio clips of Smith performing a number of poems.
No one has done a better job of leading poetry back into daily life than Patricia Smith. As the nations foremost Slam poet, she speaks the voices of those who have not been heard -- the mothers of murdered black youths, the undertaker who tries to patch up the corpses, the skinhead whose anger twists America into a knot. As a columnist for The Boston Globe she told those same stories, used the same techniques, creating personae to, as she puts it, slam the point home.
from "Patrica Smith, Journalism & Poetry: Shall we meditate on Truth?"
Smith has worked as a journalist for the past twenty years--about twice as long as shes been performing and publishing her poetry. Her poetic career began, oddly enough, about a decade ago when she was assigned to cover Chicagos first Neutral Turf Poetry Festival for the Chicago Sun-Times . By 1988 she was considered one of the city's slam divas and she has been a mainstay on the contemporary performance poetry circuit since then. Originally a Chicago poet and a member of Chicagos first national champion slam team, Smith performs regularly at the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge, MA; Nuyorican Poets Cafe on New York Citys Lower East Side; The Green Mill in Chicago; Seattles Bumpershoot Festival; Lollapalooza; and the Taos Heavyweight Poetry Championship, where in June, 1997, she challenged champion Jimmy Santiago Baca. She is five-time champion of the Uptown Poetry Slam in Chicago; four-time champion of the National Grand Slam; and co-founder (with her husband, poet Michael Brown) of the Boston Slam, which is currently held at the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge. Her poems have been anthologized in Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry (1994) and in Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe (1995). Her work has also appeared in The Nation, The Paris Review, Agni, and TriQuarterly. She has published three books of poetry and has written and performed two one-woman plays, one of which was produced by Derek Walcott's Trinidad Theater Workshop in the spring of 1994. She has also recently completed a theatrical version of Close to Death.
As the above suggests, Smith collapses the distinction between the historical and the personal, news and lived experience in her poetry, drawing on her experience as a performance poet as well as her work as a journalist over the past two decades. Smith's poems and performances grow directly out of news articles or op-ed pieces that she has written for the Chicago Sun-Times and, later, the Boston Globe. In her first two books, Life According to Motown (1991) and Big Towns, Big Talk (1992), Smith draws upon her training as a journalist and writes poetry that is based on stories culled from history, mythology, other newspapers, and the tabloids. These texts include persona poems told from the points of view of the M.J. Cheatham, the only white man the state of Mississippi has ever executed for murdering a black man; Emmett Till, the African-American teenager who was lynched in 1955; a father who molested and murdered his four-year-old daughter; a skinhead; a murdered gas station attendant; and Little Richard, to name a few. Smith literally presents these poems as a retelling of news stories, often including either an epigraph or a sidebar which refers to the news story that inspired her poem. By merging both of these discourses, Smith creates a poetic language that is grounded in the quotidian, public language of the newspaper.
While all three of her books have grown directly out of her work as a newspaper columnist, Close to Death was inspired by the interviews that Smith conducted while working on "Voices of the Endangered American Black Male," an article that Smith wrote for the Boston Globe about black men in the Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan neighborhoods in Boston. Smith describes the impetus behind this book when she states:
This book is because nearly half a million black men are behind bars in the United States. Because I have seen my son with shackles at his ankles and wrists. This book is because black men represent only 3.5 percent of a national college enrollment of almost 13 million. Because I know a 51-year-old man who cannot read. This book is because 45 percent of black males are likely to become victims of violent crime three or four times in their lifetime. Because my father was killed by a bullet fired into the back of his head. This book is because a black male infant born in 1993 has a 1 in 27 chance of losing his life in a homicide. Because a gangbanger in Chicago used a 2-year-old boy as a shield. This book is because young black men in New York City are wearing clothing emblazoned with the logo C2D--Close To Death. Because so many of them are. (4, Smith's emphases)
Oscillating between the statistical and the anecdotal, the personal and the newsworthy, this passage insists on grounding Smith's poems in her own experiences with and her observations of the violence and nihilism that African-American men confront daily. Smith returns again and again to her role as witness to these experiences via her father, her son, her fifty-one year old friend who cannot read, and the gangbanger who shield himself from bullets with a two-year-old child. Smith's personal stake in this litany is made all the more immediate and urgent with her inclusion of both her father and her son as poetic personae whose voices are included in the book. (Smith includes a photograph of her son on the cover in his black sweatshirt with the hood up, just as she describes him later on in a poem entitled "Always in the Head," and one of her father's poems functions as the book's epigraph.) The preface also includes first-person descriptions of the riots that followed Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968 and the beating that Rodney King received from the L.A.P.D., as well as descriptions of the ensuing L.A. uprising. These events, with the surreal description of the gritty black-and-white video tape of Rodney King's beating and the recurring apocalyptic image of the sky burning, underscore a nightmarish vision of what it means to be black and male in America. Divided into four sections-- "Close," "Closer," "Closest," and "Closed"--the poems included in this book paint a picture of African-American men's experiences in post-Rodney-King America. The poems are testimonials to her son's birth; the death of her father, a boy named Jules, and Miles Davis; and everything in between. "Undertaker" is one of the poems included in the "Closer" section of the book. Dedicated to Floyd Williams, owner of the Floyd Williams Funeral Home in Dorchester, the poem witnesses a young man's death, describing in the voices of the young man, the undertaker, and the young man's mother.
from Julie Schmid, "What's Going On: Poetics, Performance, and Patricia Smith's Close to Death. Copyright © 1997 by Julie Schmid. Full text available at http://english.rutgers.edu/schmid.htm
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