More elephant poop.
Glad to meet you, Kenneth. My name is Patricia. I only have four books published, and I’m nowhere near a university position. But I’m a poet, damn it, and have been one for two decades. So why haven’t we met, been published together, shared a mic, or partied into the wee hours with a group of like-minded souls?
Almost 20 years ago, I stepped onto a stage in Chicago and read a poem. Some people said that I “performed” the poem. What followed that moment was a glorious whirlwind decade of poetry slamming, stark spotlights and hundreds of other stages. Over short tumblers of whiskey and beer-splotched legal pads, a whole generation of poetic “rebels” got together to bellow our distaste for and celebrate our disconnect from the canon. We helped forge a false division, claiming that our way was the only way. We didn’t need to study poetry. We were poetry. Those lush grants funding the creative dreams of academia’s darlings? Haaruumph. Blood money.
We were vilified, discounted and summarily dismissed because we veered wildly from the prescribed path, and because we publicly declared that traveling the path was a coward’s way out. Performance poetry (an unfortunate term for work that dares give a damn about its audience) was called mere theater, and performance poets (another even more unfortunate term) were wily manipulators, deftly pushing audience buttons to elicit sexy, dramatic responses. Our detractors declared that we were actors, not writers.
The division was always there: The important, thickly-educated, academically connected true artisans vs. those wacky kids shrieking their neuroses to bars crammed with their ale-addled ilk. The artisans were suspicious of our passion and burgeoning popularity. We sniffed in their general direction—but secretly feared their brand of legitimacy. Would we have to be rebels forever?
Like you, I latched onto “the same group of poets who see poetry pretty much the same way I do.” I was happiest in that nurturing circle, and never felt a need to risk venturing elsewhere. I read widely—Dobyns, Olds, Ginsberg, Komunyakaa, Dove, Bell—and loved the work, but assumed I would be a pariah of the officially accomplished. Yep, that’s what I believed, and I believed it much longer than I should have.
My guess is we never encountered one another because I was a member of the bastard brethren. I came up in the slam, and slam was—still is--a dirty word in many poetry camps. And with four national championships—more than anyone in the competition’s history—I was indeed the demon child, a picture of everything wrong with poetry today.
I remember my first AWP panel. I was honored, overwhelmed, although I couldn’t quite figure out why I was included. The topic, long ago lost in the folds of my muddled middle-aged mind, had nothing whatsoever to do with me. But hey, there I was, with bells on.
The introductions went something like this:
“First, we’ve got Molly Peacock….blah, blah, blah…nationally renowned…blah, blah…next, a National Book Award finalist…blah, blah, blah….NEA award….blah, blah…grants up the wazoo…our third panelist…Guggenheim…one of our country’s foremost…blah, blah, and finally….
…Patricia Smith, slam poet.”
Ahem. No mention of my books, my tiny little awards. When the poetry status quo finally recognized me, it was as trained monkey, poem on demand, an easy way to perk up a dull panel or interminable academic dronefest. Just have the monkey—I mean, the performance poet—do a little dance. I’ve spent most of my writing life trying to get out of that box.
And it’s that line between active and passive, performance and literary, the have-not and the haves, that I suspect has kept us apart. However, if my first introduction to you had been even the rumor of 125 pages of transcribed traffic reports, ummmm…I’m not sure we’d have much to talk about, especially after my initial greeting: “Are you nuts?”
After struggling for honest recognition and trying to shake the notion that my poetry is meaningless because I read it well, I admit it irks me somewhat when someone with nine friggin’ books and more respect than I’ll ever get admits that his own work is “tedious,” “highly unreadable” and based on “preposterous propositions.” I have to ask—have you stayed cuddled in your own little circle because you’ve found the only people who understand (or pretend to understand, a distinct possibility) what it is you do?
Is that what our circles are all about, and why we’re so wary of stepping outside of them?
(By the way, I don’t know Rachel. I know Kwame because we’ve taught at Cave Canem together, which raises the black poets/white poets questions, another beast altogether. And Jeff—Jeff, I’m sorry if you don’t want anyone to know this—used to be a poetry slammer.)
PS: Kenneth, there is a piece of yours that I’ve encountered, and that I love. Now that you know a little about me, can you guess which one it is?
Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Incendiary Art (2017), winner of an NAACP Image Award; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), which won the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American...