Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Paul Tran’s poem “Scientific Method” appears in the April 2018 issue. This post was written for the AWP conference panel “Dazzling Jimi: A Tribute to Patricia Smith,” with panelists Danez Smith, Angel Nafis, Fatimah Asghar, and Patricia Smith that took place in Tampa, Florida on March 9, 2018. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.
Note from the author: this post contains content that may be triggering.
“Can poetry hurt us?” the sixth grade class of Lillie C. Evans School in Miami asks Patricia Smith in her poem “Building Nicole’s Mama.”
I think the answer is yes.
Not simply because Toni Morrison tells us in Beloved that anything dead coming back to life hurts. But also because when I thought I was dead, when a man raped me the night before my twenty-first birthday in my college dorm room, when I didn’t know how to be part of the world or how to reenter a world where there’s nothing people won’t do to each other, Patricia and her poems hurt me back to life.
For all the days I felt paralyzed, locked in my room, in my body, replaying and replaying the incident in my mind, unable to talk to the police, to my teachers and friends, unable to share this with my mother in fear my family would disown me, Patricia and her poems talked to me. Her voice was the only voice I heard. Her voice was the only voice that filled the quiet crushing me. Her voice rising out of my computer—out of YouTube recordings of “Skinhead,” “Medusa,” and of course “Building Nicole’s Mama”—summoned me out of sleep, out of my drowning, out of doubt and anger and shame and fear and hate and hurt, and her voice kept waiting and summoning and instructing me to follow it toward a life where sanctuary and survival and love were still possible.
I followed Patricia’s voice out of that room in Providence, Rhode Island where the violence, I’m sure, still lives, to her VONA/Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation workshop at the University of California at Berkeley. I followed her voice to New York City after graduating from college with no job or sense of purpose in front of me. I followed her voice to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the Lower East Side where Mahogany L. Browne told me to compete on her National Poetry Slam team, and there Patricia was: sitting in the audience and telling me to get up. To get on stage. To write my ass off. To keep going. To win because what choice did I have?
When you grow up in poverty, in a family of refugees that speak little to no English, in a community where few graduate high school or go to college, defeat and death are the only promises you know can be kept. Victory, I thought, couldn’t ever be ours.
But Patricia clocked me.
She taught me that we must win in this life because how else can we live? Winning is showing up. It’s finding a way. It’s fighting the fight until your knuckles bleed and your bones break and still you realize your spirit can go on swinging.
She taught me that poetry hurts if we dare to write the poems we need to persist—if we see the poem as incantation. As wildfire. As rebellion. As a palm pressed against the widest wounds. A window drawn by the mind in a room with no exit. Poetry hurts when those who this land said were never supposed to be poets marshal poems as bricks hurled against a glass ceiling, as bricks in the house we are building for each other. Poetry hurts when we employ its every province—grammar, syntax, sound, meter, image, figuration, abstraction—to look at ourselves in the light and say, however we can, what it is and what it means to be human in that slippery moment because, once the saying is said, we must deal with what we see and not the mythologies and illusions that bring us comfort or reason to remain complicit or subservient to the kind of blindness that constitutes much of existence.
Being Patricia’s student, being a witness to the miracles she makes, taught me not only how to be a poet determined to investigate what has otherwise been ignored, what has been misrepresented or deliberately subtracted from history by orders of the powerful, but it also taught me how to be a person. She taught me that the poem is never any better than the person, and that in the aftermath of violence, I didn’t just need to examine the how and why of violence, but to examine the how and why of compassion, of empathy, and to do so with an open heart willing to see what it can’t ever unsee, willing to know and interrogate the production of knowledge itself.
This is what Patricia does with every letter, every sound, and every word. It’s what she does with every poem. She sinks her teeth into the meat of history.
You have rewritten our history, the history of America and of Americans like me, with symphonies roaring and rattling every grave until the ghosts shake free.
I’m so grateful, Patricia, that every choice my ancestors made, that everything they did to outlive wars and famines and conquerors who dreamt of their deaths—every sacrifice they endured—led me here, to this room, this arena we call Poetry, with you.
I’m lucky to sing in the choir with everyone you’ve mentored and made possible praising your good name.
I love you.
And if this isn’t magic, I don’t know what is.