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And I didn’t even get your name…
It began with my father.
Grizzled and slight, flasher of a marquee gold tooth, Otis Douglas Smith was Arkansas grit suddenly sporting city clothes. Part of the Great Migration of blacks from the South to northern cities in the early 1950s, he found himself not in the urban Mecca he’d imagined, but in a roach-riddled tenement apartment on Chicago’s West Side. There he attempted to craft a life along side the bag boys, day laborers, housekeepers and cooks who dreamed the city’s wide, unreachable dream.
Many of those urban refugees struggled to fit, but my father never really adopted the no-nonsense-now rhythm of the city. There was too much of the storyteller in him, too much unleashed southern song still waiting for the open air. From the earliest days I can recall, my place was on his lap, touching a hand to his stubbled cheek and listening to his growled narrative, mysterious whispers and wide-open laughter.
Because of him, I grew to think of the world in terms of the stories it could tell.
From my father’s moonlit tales of steaming Delta magic to the sweet slow songs of Smokey Robinson, I became addicted to unfolding drama, winding narrative threads, the lyricism of simple words. I believed that we all lived in the midst of an ongoing adventure that begged for voice. In my quest for that voice, I found poetry.
Poetry was the undercurrent of every story I heard and read. It was the essence, the bones and the pulse. I could think of no better way to communicate than with a poem, where pretense is stripped away, leaving only what is beautiful and vital.
Poetry became the way I processed the world. In neon-washed bars, community centers and bookstores, I breathed out necessary breath, taking the stage and sharing stanzas with strangers, anxious wordsmiths who were also bag boys, day laborers, housekeepers and cooks. I loved the urgency of their voices and the way they sparked urgency in mine.
Because I saw writing as an active enterprise—something to be shared immediately with living, breathing humans—the official study of the craft wasn’t a priority. The pages I read from were peppered with ragged line breaks, meandering stanzas and general wordiness. I was certainly not a master of nuance and structure. I even considered revision a betrayal.
I believed that my poetic strength was in the immediacy of voice, a voice that bellowed with no rules or filter. For years, that voice sustained me; it has seldom failed. People came to me, saying that something I had written had changed the way they look at the world.
This is for the woman who came up to me after the reading and just stared, saying nothing, until we both began to cry. Little colored girls missing their daddies. There’s no other place for us, is there? There’s just no other place.