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“This is My Story”: Getting to Know Patricia Smith

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smith credit Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Next week, Patricia Smith will come to the Library of Congress as the 13th Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize in Poetry recipient. In advance of her opening reading for the Presidents Day Open House and her evening Prize reading, the Poetry and Literature Center conducted an e-mail interview, below:

This is the second award Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah has won, the first being the 2013 Academy’s Lenore Marshall Prize. What is it about this particular collection that you think readers–and judges–are responding to?

“Savannah” started out being a book about Motown–basically, a look at how many ways the music held such an undeniable sway over me while I was growing up. I thought I’d write poems about Motown artists, about the songs, about how every major movement in my life had those songs as a soundtrack and how everything I learned about negotiating life was linked to whatever Motown hit was out at the time. But as I wrote I kept coming back to my experiences as a “first generation up-North child,” one of the generation of children born to parents who had migrated from the American South and settled in cities such as Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Detroit.

So the story grew to encompass my parents’ stories as well as my own. I think we all search, consciously or subconsciously, for the whole of our histories. So many of us come from other places, and we wonder how much of us was left behind, still rooted in a culture we don’t fully understand. We are also intensely curious about what it was like for those who laid the groundwork for our lives. I’d like to believe that’s what the book’s appeal is–it reminds us of the feverish quest at our center.

Also, to again narrow the focus, there are the African-Americans who migrated from the South and their children born in the North, dazzled and confounded by a new environment that had to become home. Much was promised to them, expected of them, taken away from them. And their voices aren’t often reflected in poetry.

You’re the first Bobbitt winner who is also a National Poetry Slam champion–a practitioner of both the oral and print traditions of poetry. How do you see these two traditions connecting, both in your work and in the poetry world in general?

I don’t really think of “both the oral and print traditions”–the first mistake is separating the two, as if two different sets of creative muscles are required. The tradition that matters most is the tradition of the storyteller, and that’s a tradition that’s meant to blend both of those elements beautifully. If you feel that the story you have to tell is one the world should hear–if you’ve crafted it with its rhythm and narrative heartbeat in mind–the connection takes care of itself. The story finds a way to be told.

For me, slam was an invaluable beginning–because of it I learned the unquestionable power of words in the open air. But when I began to discover poets who lived more on page than onstage, I didn’t feel like I was entering another realm. I felt I was approaching the ideal juncture where craft and voice join to create something unpredictable. One of poetry’s great tragedies is the general need to immediately categorize a poet as a “performance” or “page” poet without realizing that one should always be working toward the other.  Because I was introduced to poetry by getting up on stage and doing it, it took longer for me to achieve an academic legitimacy–which isn’t, of course, the be-all-and-end-all, but I think we siphon power from both “schools” of poetry by drawing a line between them.

The Library of Congress presently features a year-long exhibit titled The Civil Rights Act of 1964. Do you see a connection between such an exhibit and your work as a poet, as well as in terms of helping us better understand that time in our culture?

It would be impossible to live my life, or practice my art, without drawing upon the power of that revolution or the fierce determination of the people who helped me reach this moment. Since I haven’t seen the exhibit, I can’t directly link it to my work–but that time in history injects every word I write with confidence by reminding me of my root in this country and the many ways people who look like me have helped to forge its signature.

Jimi Savannah focuses on one family who crafted their own version of the American dream, and the fuel for that journey was the collective voice insisting upon our equality in an environment that screeched otherwise. Every poem reminds me that the fight for those rights will never be done–every word says I’m still here and I still matter. This is my story.

You’ll be kicking off the Presidents Day Open House in the Library’s historic Main Reading Room–another first for a Bobbitt winner. What might this opportunity mean for you and your work?

I can’t wait to hear my voice unwind in that space. The Bobbitt Prize represents a new level in a creative career that’s been both difficult and exhilarating. It represents recognition from an entirely new direction–not just from my peers, but from the government. That’s mind-blowing. When I appear in the main reading room, I’ll feel thousands of people standing behind me–my parents, friends from the early days of the Slam, my teaching colleagues, the 6th-grader in one of my workshops who smiled at me as he handed me his very first poem.

And when the celebration is over and I’m back home struggling over a stanza in the solitude of my office, those people will still be there, celebrating, encouraging. For myself and for them, I’ll keep writing.