INTERVIEW with PATRICIA SMITH
Incendiary Art, Smith’s newest collection of poetry, traverses past and present like water flowing from jug to jug. Throughout the book, Smith’s scope zooms in and out accordingly; at times, she uses news reports and headlines as her guide, and at others, her own personal life. Smith’s prose poem, Elegy, speaks to her father’s life and passing in a series of beautiful and imaginative prosaic stanzas. Navigating the haunting nature of the historical realities of black Americans, Smith deploys different poetic structures to make a startlingly evocative portrait. Incendiary Art is centered around a series of choose-your-own adventure-poems about the many lives Emmett Till could have lived had he not been brutally slain. These poems, like the rest of her oeuvre, linger in the mind, narrating “what ifs” ever present in the collective memory of the circumstances surrounding Till’s still painful death.
Incendiary Art lives up to the literal meaning of its title: art to stir up conflict. This conflict meanders through the mind of the reader – part rage and part tragedy. In advance of her appearance in Miami at the O, Miami poetry festival, Smith answered my questions about her poetry, the current state of affairs, and the slippery nature of fake news to tell the truth.
RIN JOHNSON: I’m struck, reading your poetry and especially reading Incendiary Art by how many different layers of time you are able to access poem to poem. How do these poems begin for you?
PATRICIA SMITH: I have a strange relationship with history. My mother, who came up from Alabama to Chicago during the Great Migration, was ashamed of coming from the south. As far as she was concerned, her life began when she arrived in Chicago. After I was born, she effectively shut me off from any lineage that began in the south, so I grew up with very little sense of a family that came before me. So when I explore time, I’m looking for versions of myself. I’m looking to spot myself in the backdrop of those earlier moments.
Also—unfortunately—there are so many tragic parallels that transcend the passage of time. Not only is the struggle real, it’s never-ending. Much of what I experienced as a first-generation “up north” kid in Chicago, much of the insidious racism my parents warned me about, much of that drumming heartbeat and restless root in the world, much of it was there and is here. The clock has no power anymore. I recognize rampant hate and various anxieties slithering from one era to the next.
JOHNSON: I admire your ability to speak through the full extent of the pain and joy inherent in the black experience in the United States, using both historical and contemporary narratives. Part of that means accepting that some things are not nameable, and when I read your poems aloud, I hear that. I am wondering how you feel about the current state of affairs and the nuanced pressure on black and brown bodies, immigrants and otherwise.
SMITH: Speaking to the black experience can be a fool’s game when you realize that the people most in need of its lessons aren’t listening. So the challenge is how to resurrect and resurrect those same stories—stories with endings everyone already knows—and lift them out of the realm of the ordinary. But how? You look at a contemporary issue through history’s dusty lens, or slap another face on history by pulling it, often reluctantly, into the twenty first century.
And yes, there are some things that resist being named—things too unwieldy, too elusive, too paralyzing. But what you did—reading the poem aloud— puts those names in the open air even when they refuse a shape on the page.
How do I feel about the current state of affairs? I’m terrified, enraged, at times oddly exhilarated. Terrified because the world suddenly seems to be at war with my body and the bodies of my children. Enraged because I’m fiercely possessive of my root in the world. Exhilarated watching the slow, inevitable implosion of DJT. That “nuanced pressure” is what gave birth to Incendiary Art.
JOHNSON: News headlines and other markers of time often preface your poems. Has your news-based, inspiration-based practice changed with the rise of fake
news, Donald Trump and the “alt-right”?
SMITH: Not at all. Even those skewered headlines can be used as lead-ins to poems. Actually, I think they’d be more effective. So much could be revealed. Currently, I’m having fun with this paraphrase of @realDonaldTrump tweet: “My campaign never talked to Russia, but Obama tapped my campaign calls to Russia.” How could you not love that juicy prompt?
JOHNSON: Your list poem, “The first 23 minutes of the First Day Without” speaks to this space “behind the news.” When you use language from news articles and journalism in your poetry, you are, in a way, behind that news, creating a window, holding up a mirror, and using your poems as an intermediary space.
SMITH: All stories can be pried open, flipped over, held up to that mirror. The news is the raw material, it’s the straight line. I live to find the story rumbling beneath, to turn that line into a jolt of electricity. “Always listen for the voice you’re not hearing,” I tell my students. I think of my poems as living in that restless no-man’s land between the news and the truth.
JOHNSON: Your work feels visual, almost like you’re framing a photograph in front of me – using your poems as frames for a meditation on the multiple layers blackness can inhabit, especially in the US. How does photography influence your writing practice?
SMITH: Although I particularly love ekphrastic work, I’m not sure it’s photography doing the influencing. My father, who also traveled north during the Great Migration, brought with him something I like to call “the tradition of the back porch.” Every evening after dinner, we’d settle together, and he’d tell stories—stories from the candy company where he worked, stories from the barbershop or the butcher shop or the gas station or just from the street corner. The characters were people I knew, and it was like sitting down to a rollicking serial narrative. He was the first person to pry my story open, teaching me that there were other ways of looking at the world beyond what I was learning, or not learning, in school. Because of my father, nothing I saw ever sat still.
Also, my fifth-grade teacher, Ms. Carol Baranowski, pummeled me with questions whenever I was about to write—What does that remind you of? What sound does that color make? How does that color taste? If that home had a voice, what would it sound like? By the time I was in middle school—although I didn’t know what to call it—I was looking at the world like a poet. From that point, thanks to a storytelling dad and an amazing teacher, nothing looked like what it was.
JOHNSON: How did you land on using the “choose your own adventure” motif as a tie-in for the Emmett Till poems in Incendiary Art, and what sort of adventure(s) are you implying?
SMITH: I’m the dictionary definition of a daddy’s girl, and my father and I used to read those books together, sticking with one until we’d exhausted all of the narrative possibilities. I often wondered how many ways Emmett Till’s story could have gone, how fate was such a decider. Also, a poet’s job is to keep asking questions until all the narrative possibilities are exhausted, until there aren’t any more questions to ask—and the first question should always, always be “What if…?” One less word, a trip not taken, a missed phone call, an extra word, a left instead of right turn, taking or rejecting advice, sleeping late on a certain day—there’s no way to tell what could lead to a history outside of the one we know. That possibility of shifting fortune is always.
JOHNSON: How can younger poets of color make incendiary art while still protecting themselves?
SMITH: Words are muscle. They may seem otherwise, like they just sit on a page doing nothing worthwhile, but I’m constantly astonished by what a well-turned stanza can accomplish. It’s important to realize that poetry is much more than a recreational exercise. The idea that putting our bodies on the line, rebelling in the gunsight, is the only viable way to join the revolution—well, that’s just wrong. I’ve signed books, “May the voices here inspire you to raise your own.” On the page, I can scream. I can confront. I can bellow and resist. I suggest that the poets don’t hide. That they scream. That they confront. That they bellow and resist.
JOHNSON: Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms depend on concise forms of writing. Do you think poetry’s audience is poised to grow?
SMITH: No. I think poetry is going to grow, that it will always grow, but I don’t think the “conciseness” of social media is the reason. I think that the idea of the world growing immeasurably larger, reaching in all directions, is what social media has to offer. It’s the strengthening of our communal voice, the accessibility of other lives to explore. No need to be concise. We roll with it, unrestrained.
Rin Johnson is an artist and writer. Johnson is the author of “Nobody Sleeps Better Than White People” from Inpatient Press and the forthcoming virtual reality book, “Meet in the Corner” from Publishing-House.Me.