Sharper with a Border

Patricia Smith on form, fathers, and the voice you don’t hear.
Image of the poet Patricia Smith.

Form, Patricia Smith says, is a practical way to approach writing “the hard poem”—the uncomfortable truths that every poet must find a way to face. “If I can shift part of my attention over to the form, it helps me deal with the difficult content,” she says. Her latest collection, Incendiary Art, recently published by TriQuarterly, is a book filled with difficult content, namely, the continual siege against black life and the rage that burns inside a people under such conditions. Multidirectional as always, Smith uses persona, police reports, news clippings, and her own memories to embody and challenge the stories we know—and the ones we don’t. The triple-sestinaElegy,” written for her father, is one stunning example. The following interview was edited and condensed.

Do you see a connection between the African American poetic tradition, which can be both musical and free, and received forms, such as sestinas, which are sometimes perceived as rigid and not intersecting with black culture?

When I think of “forms,” I don’t just mean when you open Miller Williams’s Patterns of Poetry and the things you’ll find in there. There’s a rhythm of speaking and thinking that belongs to African Americans. I used to restrain that rhythm because I would think that there was something informal about it. It’s almost like when I was going to school, and I would leave my real self at the door because it wasn’t the school self. It wasn’t what they were going to ask for. For me personally, that might come from the fact that my mother was so focused on dropping everything that labeled us West Side Chicago, including the rhythms in our speech, the things that we talked about. I realized when I was performing that if I would go somewhere and it was a predominantly African American audience, I would feel all this weight fall off my shoulders because I could do poems that I felt were rooted in who I really was, but I could also talk about things I had been learning not to talk about. If you go out and you look at the audience and it’s entirely white, I tell myself, “You don’t want to do that poem.” I thought, in the one place where I say I can be totally myself and the canvas is clear every day, why am I subconsciously hiding part of who I am?

For me, a lot of times, that feeling of having an audience in mind, or code-switching, has to do with whether I think that what I say will be understood. Sometimes it seems as if there’s no point in saying something if it’s not going to be understood.

I don’t think I’m ever going to do an entire poem that’s going to be understood by a particular group all the way through. I also realize that when I’m listening to someone else’s reading and I can’t immediately latch onto the narrative, then I’m fascinated by the craft. And that pulls me to want to do more of my own research about the narrative. But poetry is also a way for me to learn things. I have a poem about the Louvre in Paris, and I would go to a school on the West Side of Chicago, and I wouldn’t do that poem because I would think, “Nobody here has been to the Louvre.” And then I realized how crazy that was. Because I hadn’t been there either at one point, and the poem itself was about that joy of discovering something that people have tried to keep from you. If you don’t understand the specifics or you can’t visualize the Louvre, it’s my job to help you visualize it. And the interest of the poem is not for you to be an expert on what I’m talking about; it’s for you to feel the joy I felt when I sat down at the keyboard to write. Sometimes it’s the feeling in the poem that you need to latch on to, not the particulars of the narrative. And sometimes, when it’s the narrative, I count on the craft to be intriguing enough to pull you in, to want to do your own work to access it.

The central question that comes to my mind about Incendiary Art is this: why this book and why now? It comments on this moment in which the loss of black life is so visible, but these subjects are not new to your work or new to the people they’re about.

In my Intro to Creative Writing class at the College of Staten Island, I talk to [students] about looking for the voice that they’re not hearing. When I thought about the voice that I wasn’t hearing, I was thinking about the mother. You may see the mother at the beginning of the story, and it’s the absolute worst time. It’s when she’s either coming upon her child who’s gone, or she’s been told, or she’s in front of cameras and the emotion is still very raw. So you see her in this grief and chaos, and then she disappears. And then you might see a mother at a trial, or the next time that you’re guaranteed to see a mother is when the person responsible for the death of her son or daughter is deemed not responsible. And then she goes away. To me, there are so many lives surrounding the life that’s in focus, and the one that’s in focus is usually the life of the person who’s been killed. And I started out wanting to widen that focus and say, “There are people here who are left behind.” So with “Sagas of the Accidental Saint,” I started to write as much as I could in the mother’s voice, and it wound up being in form simply because I was looking for form to contain it. Sometimes a feeling is sharper when it has a border.

What inspired you to write the section “When Black Men Drown Their Daughters”?

Once I had the two [news items about black men who’d drowned their daughters], I was trying to figure out if they were related in any way, the dysfunction of this thing. And then I remembered that growing up, there weren’t any fathers in the home, pretty much across the board. A lot of the fathers had come up from the South and discovered the big city and its difficulties and joys. When my father moved out of the house, he would come home every night and stay with me until I went to sleep. And that was weird to people. I realized that if you were a boy, people were always saying, “At least you have your father.” And those fathers were more likely to return for a boy child than a girl. And for the girls, it was like, “Thank God you have your mother.” And the unspoken part of that is, you don’t need your father. He gives your mother money, makes sure you’re taken care of, but there’s not that same kind of commitment, or there are some things that a daughter’s going to need a father for, outside of a monetary thing. I was trying to figure out what would make a father think of a child as a bargaining chip. How can you detach yourself from your daughter that much to look at the daughter as an ideal way to punish the mother? And when I thought of that, I thought of the homes where the father was in the daughter’s life as a monetary help, when he was there, and as long as the mother was there, the daughter was deemed to be OK. We had a whole generation of first-generation-up-North girls, including myself, who grew up not really sure about relationships with men. And just as I was getting to the point of wanting to ask my father a lot of these questions, he was murdered.

Were those poems about black men drowning their daughters meant to be a counterpoint to the elegy for your father, whom you were so close to?

“Elegy,” in a perfect world, should have been in Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah [Smith’s 2012 collection]. I wasn’t quite sure what form I wanted it to take. Despite it being an elegy, I put as much of the absolutely vibrant mindset and life and voice of my father in it as I could. It’s a celebration of sorts, and it stopped the book from being totally dark.

In your introduction to The Golden Shovel Anthology, you talk about meeting Gwendolyn Brooks and what you learned from those brief interactions. What other lessons have you taken from her life and work?

If I had to pick one thing, the idea of being consistently a storyteller, whether or not you told those stories in a public forum, whether you were being published or on stage, that you had one story, specifically your life and the lives surrounding yours. And if you don’t tell your own story, you give somebody else permission to tell it. Because of her, and because of my father, I’ve thought of myself as a storyteller and not so much the genre I write in. You let your story shape the way that you tell it.

Originally Published: July 31st, 2017

Kyla Marshell is a writer whose poems and other work have appeared in BlackbirdCalyxGawker, the Guardian, SPOOK magazine, Vinyl Poetry, and elsewhere. Her work earned her Cave Canem and Jacob K. Javits fellowships and an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College. A Spelman College graduate, she is the the former development/marketing...