Congrats to all the finalists for this year’s National Book Awards. An extra special shout out to Patricia Smith, for not just writing a fantastic book but for being a consistent role model for what open mic poetry can be.
I’ve seen Ms Smith come up to many an open mic reading, sign her name on the list, wait for her spot, come up with no bio rundown or long winded personal anecdotes, recite a brand new poem for everyone to enjoy, and then go back to her seat to enjoy the rest of the open mic. Even more than that, I’ve witnessed her be generous with her encouragement and advice to burgeoning poets: read more, write more, and recite more.
All without forgetting or dissing her poetry slam roots–with four individual titles, Patricia is considered by many to be the greatest slam poet the movement has ever witnessed. Check the snippets from a recent interview with the Daily Page:
The Daily Page: Where were you and what were you doing when you conceived the title, Blood Dazzler? What was your reaction when those two words came to you?
Smith: I wish I could say that it came to me like a boltv out of the blue (although that would be a horrible cliché, and I would never say that). I’m actually awful with titles — naming my poems, or a book of poems, is always the very last thing I do, and I’m never truly satisfied with the result.
I didn’t set out to write an entire book, so I wasn’t bothered by the task of choosing a title for quite some time. As it turns out, the phrase “blood dazzler” was in one of the final lines in one of the final poems in the book. It’s a poem called “Siblings,” a piece that personifies the other hurricanes that occurred in 2005 and thinks of them as members of Katrina’s family. The concluding lines are “None of them talked about Katrina/ She was their odd sister/ the blood dazzler.” I have no idea what those two words mean, but I loved their feel in my mouth and I loved the feeling left in the air once the words were uttered. No insistent inspiration, no intricate story, just a sweet sound at just the right time.
As you travel the country to read from Blood Dazzler, to what degree do you discern continued sympathy for Katrina’s victims, and to what extent has this been muted by the onset of sympathy fatigue? And do these reactions differ by region or the demographic makeup of your audiences?
Sympathy fatigue. Good phrase. That’s exactly what I was encountering.
The story that touched me most — the one I couldn’t, refused to, file among the litany of what my husband and I began to call the “awful anecdotes,” was the story of the 34 nursing home residents left to die in St. Bernard’s Parish. I write often in persona, and I became obsessed with resurrecting the voices of those lost men and women. I decided to write a poem in 34 stanzas, intending each stanza to say, very simply, “I was. I still am.”
“34” was the manuscript’s very first breath, although I didn’t know it at the time. I fully intended it to be a single poem, a tribute I felt was necessary if I was to remain fully invested in the possibilities of my work. “34” would probably have become an important part of my next manuscript, but I certainly didn’t see it as the heartbeat of a work revolving solely around Katrina. I folded it into my readings and watched closely to gauge audience reaction.
Then I was scheduled for a reading at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival in the winter of 2007. “34” was a relatively new poem, but I’d gotten some very interesting responses whenever I included it in a reading. Since I feel that every poetry reading is essentially a conversation, I would often approach audience members afterward to discuss their thoughts about and reactions to particular poems.
During the Palm Beach reading, I had reached the tenth or eleventh stanza of “34” when I noticed a distinct restlessness in the crowd. A few people were averting their eyes, staring off into the distance and shifting uncomfortably in their seats. I’ve always been starkly aware of my audience, and invested in presenting work that is — at the very least — engaging, so I was troubled by what I saw. One woman, decked out in the Palm Beach uniform of pink silk tracksuit and glaringly white sneakers, seemed particularly uneasy. In fact, as I approached her to chat, I got the distinct impression that she was considering making a run for it.
In the hierarchy of gratification, how do the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award, Paterson and Pushcart poetry prizes compare to winning the National Poetry Slam for the fourth time?
They’re not even in the same realm. The poetry slam championship is a recognition of the way a poem is projected, the others are rewards for the way a poem is written. When I won the slam championships, the performance of poetry was a new and burgeoning craft, and the time was right. But I soon needed to learn more about the bone and muscle in poems, and I began to concentrate more on my writing. Once I began to be recognized for the craft of my work, as well as the performance, I felt I’d opened all the doors I could as a writer.
Is it fair to conclude you are more or less fearless? If so, who or what accounts for your courage? And if not, what most frightens you?
I am fearless. There is nothing I won’t write about, and nothing I won’t say out loud. The first time I read and someone approached me to say “I have felt that way, I just didn’t know there was a way to say it,” I realized a huge responsibility; and I’ve since come to the conclusion that I’m alive to in order fulfill that responsibility. I can’t do that by placing limits on my voice. Fright leads to inaction, inaction to complacency, complacency to a stunning malaise. We do only have one life, and silence is not the way to live it.
Full interview: Wisconsin Book Festival 2008: Patricia Smith speaks
All this attention to the voice in poetry, concern for audience, detail to personal growth in her chosen craft, and (again) attention to the (responsibility) of the voice in poetry spills on to the page and makes Blood Dazzler a stand out in poetry.
My Good Reads review:
Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler writes in the moment of Hurricane Katrina, from the formation of Katrina all the way to its monstrous after effects on the citizens on New Orleans, from every internal view point possible. Persona poems written in the voice of Katrina, New Orleans (before and during the storm), former FEMA Director Michael Brown, Ethel Freeman and family, the 34 victims of St Rita’s, and even a local dog left out to weather the storm.
Utilizing a variety of poetic forms (sestina, ghazal, tanka, abecedarian) and shifts in language that relay power, dread, scorn, and (ultimately) survival, this collection moves past the trend of poetics emerging from large scope tragedies–where the poet writes in simple response to the tragedy but rarely places the poetic speaker in the complexities of the tragedy itself–and sets a new benchmark for the poetics of witness.
You can also hear Patricia read from her book launch party at the Bowery Poetry Club:
This is the kind of energy that inspires the possibility in poetry, a possibility that is not determined by computer algorithms or search engine indexes, but by the engine of orature and the vehicle of literature combining to tell a vital story.