Interview: Patricia Smith

PatriciaSmithPatricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” She is the author of five books of poetry, including Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), which won the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets; Blood Dazzler (2008), and Teahouse of the Almighty. Her poems have been published in The Paris Review and TriQuarterly, as well as many anthologies, including American Voices, The Spoken Word Revolution, andThe Oxford Anthology of African-American Poetry. A four-time individual champion on the National Poetry Slam, Smith has also been a featured poet on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and has performed her work around the world. She is a Cave Canem faculty member and has served as the Bruce McEver Chair in Writing at Georgia Tech University. She is currently on the faculties of the Stonecoast MFA program in Creative Writing and the Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College. In 2006, Smith was inducted into the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent.

TCJWW: First of all, wow. This book is a treasure. The sections of Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah move chronologically, following a speaker’s origin and young life. What sorts of craft skills do you employ when organizing a manuscript like this, one with such a definitive narrative arc? Did you ever feel like a novelist or historian, struggling in the gap between memory and truth?

Smith: Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah started out as a book about Motown. I’m a Motown baby–all my ideas about life, love, and romance were pretty much defined by whatever Motown song was out at the time. The record label was celebrating its 50th anniversary, and I’d decided to write a book including persona poems about Motown artists, reflections on some of the songs, and poems that explored why the music held such sway over me when I was growing up.

In the process of crafting that work, I realized that it wasn’t a book about Motown after all. It was a book about being part of the first generation up north. My parents were part of the Great Migrations of blacks moving from the south to cities in the north like Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia. A lot is written about that generation, but not much about that first confounded group of city-dwellers, children whose parents had traded creeks and front porches for fire hydrants and tenements. I decided to start with my parents, and they chronicle my early life in Chicago. Once I’d settled on the chronological narrative line, I just kept writing and plugged poems in where they fit.

Did I feel like a novelist? No. Did I feel like an historian? Interesting question. Once my mother left Alabama and arrived in Chicago, she shut the door on her history, considering the south something to be ashamed of. She deflected my questions about her past and her culture, even refusing to talk about relatives she’d left behind. So Jimi was also an attempt to piece together the root she denied me, to have something I can page through and say, “This is where I came from.” Since the stories are my own (the only imagining is in the poem about what my mother and father must have been like when they first met), there’s no real gap between memory and truth. For this book, it’s essential that my memory be my truth.

TCJWW: Certain images repeat throughout this book: raid and roaches, sour pickles, Motown, teachers and singers. How much of this repetition comes into your work consciously and how much sneaks in unnoticed?

Smith: These images have been a part of me ever since I can remember, so I wouldn’t say they were conscious “topics” I suddenly decided to address. I grew up on the West Side, the part of Chicago everyone (still) tells you to stay away from–but it was my home, during a very special and singular time. Raid and roaches were a reality. Sticking peppermint sticks down the center of sour pickles (and eating them as one) is a very regional practice, pretty much confined to the time and type of neighborhood I grew up in. The music pinpoints a time and place. Two teachers were extremely important in helping me overcome my neighborhood’s assumption of failure and getting me to think of myself as a writer. I loved unveiling these moments and finding pride in them.

TCJWW: Stephen Dobyns says, “no surprise for the writer means no surprise for the reader.” Is there a particular poem or image that truly surprised you as you were writing Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah?

Smith: Ah, Stephen. One of my first influences, by the way. I guess the biggest surprise was in the poem Laugh Your Troubles Away!, which I fully intended to be a fun,  nostalgic piece about Chicago’s Riverview Park, an amusement park right in the center of the city. I was an only child, and some of my fondest memories were of exploring the park with my father. Thinking about that reminded me of the way he would refuse to let me enter one certain part of the park, and I researched to find out what he was trying to shield me from. I was both surprised and not surprised when I found out.

TCJWW: In the same way the book weaves together narratives of each family, it also entwines free verse and formal poems. What compels you to write a ghazal or a sestina instead of a form with less rules?

Smith: When I decided to get my MFA, I also decided to concentrate almost solely on metrics and structure. Years ago, I got introduced to poetry by getting up on stage and doing it. I had to really commit to considering myself a part of the canon as a whole. Once you’re labeled a “performer,” it’s easy to get pigeonholed, and your presence in that community can give the so-called poetry academy a reason and way to discredit your work.

I knew the type of poetry I was drawn to whenever I read. There were poems I read aloud, again and again, and I knew that the poets were doing something technically to help heighten my response to the work. I wanted to own that ability, to master the metrical undercurrent. I plumped my toolbox, so now if I want to lend a particular tone or cadence to a poem–to help its emotional and rhythmic presence–I have these other forms available to me as options. And as a result of studying prosody, I know that certain poems sometimes ask for certain forms. It’s incredibly liberating to have a familiarity with form. Immersing myself in its study was one of the best creative decisions I’ve ever made.

TCJWW: Could you offer any tips to writers who may be exploring their parents or younger selves through poetry?

Smith: Get beneath the surface as soon as possible. We spend our lives being shaped by so many other people — as I tell my students, “If you don’t commit to telling your own story, believe me, someone else will tell it for you.”  When you are hesitant, frightened, approaching a wall of some sort, then you’re in the right place. It’s tempting to skim the surface of your life, bathing your parents in a warm familial glow and barely chronicling your picturebook upbringing, but bookstore shelves are sagging with those kinds of lies. My best piece of advice: Scare yourself.

More Patricia Smith:

Patricia Smith’s website
Buy Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah
Subscribe to Smith on Facebook

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