The Memoir-in-Verse: An Interview with Patricia Smith
Patricia Smith was born and grew up in Chicago, Illinois, and currently lives in New Jersey. She is a Cave Canem faculty member at CUNY/College of Staten Island, and a faculty member of the Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College. In addition to her work writing and teaching poetry, she is also a playwright, author, and former journalist.
Her poetry collections and accolades include Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), winner of the 2013 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets and finalist for the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America; Blood Dazzler (2008), a National Book Award finalist; Teahouse of the Almighty (2006), which was selected as a National Poetry Series winner; Close to Death (1993); Big Towns, Big Talk (1992); and Life According to Motown (1991). Her books Blood Dazzler and Life According to Motown, were both the bases of plays staged by numerous playwrights, including the Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott.
Her work has also appeared in major literary journals, including The Paris Review, TriQuarterly, Tin House, and Poetry, as well as anthologies, including American Voices and The Oxford Anthology of African-American Poetry. She has also written a children’s book called Janna and the Kings (2003), a Lee & Low Books New Voices Award winner; and Africans in America (1998), a companion volume to the four-part PBS history series of the same name. She is also a 2014 Guggenheim fellow, a 2012 fellow at both MacDowell and Yaddo, a two-time Pushcart Prize winner, recipient of a Lannan fellowship, and a four-time individual champion of the National Poetry Slam.
Smith will visit American University on Wednesday, November 5, for the Visiting Writers Series. In preparation for her arrival, Louis Campana and I had the pleasure of discussing Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah and Blood Dazzler with Ms. Smith, who was, in her words, “glad to oblige.”
CA: Your collections tend to contain narrative poems and read like “novels-in-verse,” and you’ve mentioned in other interviews the importance of telling a story in your poems. “The poets are the truth tellers in society,” you’ve said. Can you talk more about the importance of storytelling in poetry?
PS: Even when I wasn’t consciously trying to craft a story, one was being crafted for me–everything I write comes from a single soul point, a common source. My mind leads me to where I need to be, and when I pick up a pen I’m still there. So once I noticed how often I’d return to a topic, a theme, a perspective, I realized how hungry I was for story. Poems with a strong narrative thread reach out and pull the reader in with something other than device or structure. They become snapshots of shared human experience, a way into a circle of discussion and understanding. Toni Morrison says that every one of her novels was an exploration of a question she didn’t know the answer to. For me, poems that converge to tell stories serve the same purpose.
CA: Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah explores your mother and father’s early lives in Alabama and Arkansas, their later convergence in Chicago and Detroit, and then your young life “up North.” Can you explain why you felt compelled to write the collection this way and what that process looked like?
PS: “Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah” didn’t start out to be what it eventually became. It was originally going to be a book of poems about Motown, the music which held an addictive sway over me during all of my formative years. When the idea came to me, it was Motown’s 50th anniversary–I wanted to write persona poems in the voices of Motown artists, poems about how the era was driven by the music, poems about the music itself, etc. But once I started, I had to ask myself WHY Motown was such a big part of my life. And once I asked that question, I realized that I wasn’t really writing about the music, I was writing about the experience of being a first child born in the north. While our parents were busy trying to negotiate a strange and challenging new environment, we looked to music for guidance, structure, comfort. (All my ideas about life and love were pretty much defined by whatever Motown song was out at the moment.)
I realized that the story of my parents, and the story of that whole generation of children who were the foundation of that new life beyond the South, was the story that really needed to be told. All during the writing process, I thought of it as “memoir in verse,” and that kept me on track chronologically and led me to remember moments I’d forgotten. It also opened up other moments that I’ve decided deserve to be explored in depth in future projects.
CA: You portray real people—your mother and father—in this collection, starting with portrayals of them as young people. What liberties or responsibilities do you take on when writing this kind of work? How is this process similar to or different from from writing about characters with whom you aren’t as intimately familiar?
PS: Since my father has died, and my mother is the opposite of effusive when it comes to her history in the south, part of the undertaking of this project was me trying to craft what I could of my own history. I often say that if we don’t write our own stories, someone else will write them for us–and if that happens, we lose control over their direction. I have no idea whatsoever how my parents got together, which is the reason poetry serves me so well in this instance. I can meld truth and fiction. From what I know of them, I can craft the lives I imagine resulted in me. These lives are not pure imagination–they consist of overheard stories, their personalities, the parts of them I see in myself.
CA: You said that you thought of “Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah” as a “memoir in verse.” What does writing a memoir in verse offer you, as well as readers, that traditional memoir does not?
PS: Pretty much what I said [before]. It gives me the ability to blend the lyrical and factual. Straight memoir wouldn’t offer that opportunity.
CA: What made you so interested in writing about Hurricane Katrina in Blood Dazzler?
PS: I didn’t start out with the idea of writing a book. In fact, everything started with one poem, “34.”
I had an aunt who died in a nursing home. As a teenager, I was part of the rotating system of caregivers, people who came in to sit with her and help with her care. She was in the later states of Alzheimer’s (as well as suffering from other ailments), and was no longer the quiet, God-fearing woman I remembered. She’d spew expletives, upset her food tray, throw things against the wall. She no longer recognized any family members. Needless to say, helping to care for her was extremely difficult. But whenever things got problematic, I could press a yellow button on the side of her bed and help would come immediately.
When I saw the story of the 34 nursing home residents left to die in St. Bernard’s parish, I visualized the power gone, the lights filling with water, and the buttons being pushed, over and over, but no one coming. It was that image that sparked the poem.
When I finished the poem, I made it a part of my reading repertoire, and at some point I realized how many people just wanted Katrina to be OVER–they didn’t want to hear about it anymore, didn’t want to see any more images of poor people being lifted in baskets to escape the water, they didn’t want to see pictures of a destroyed and decimated Crescent City. So I knew how important it was to keep writing. Katrina wasn’t a regional event, it was a national failure–and I realized how much of the coverage I’d internalized, so I gave myself permission to process. I only began to think of it as a potential book when I had 30 or more poems.
CA: Blood Dazzler includes one poem that uses the ghazal form. Why did you choose the ghazal as a fixed form for this poem when so many of your other pieces are shaped by your own improvised structure?
PS: Many of the poems in Blood Dazzler were written when I was in my MFA program studying prosody. I was fascinated with the ghazal at the time, and I’ve always been intrigued by the possibilities of the ancient form made contemporary. So I tried it, it fit the subject matter, and I loved the result.
CA: You’ve mentioned in a past interview that you relinquish control when someone else reads your work. What has drawn you more to written word poetry and what does it mean to relinquish control of a poem?
PS: I was never “drawn more” to the written word. I just studied the craft, grew in confidence, and began to write more. To me, relinquishing control means to give the reader/listener the freedom to bring their own life to the poem and interpret it in the way he or she needs to. When you let a poems loose into the world, you are offering tools to people who many not have discovered the “second throat” that poems can be.
CA: “If you don’t read a poem aloud, you’re not reading a poem, period,” you’ve said. What is it about the power of the spoken word? Does the poem not come alive until it is spoken? What, in your opinion, is the difference between simply reading work and hearing yourself speak it? How does it shape the meaning of the poem?
PS: Until you vocalize a poem, you’re only getting part of the poet’s intent. Many times, the poet does things technically that help heighten the reader or listener’s response. After all, poetry began as an aural art, mouth to ear, and—like all good storytelling—it lives most effectively on the air. So now, I don’t believe words come alive until they are spoken.
CA: I’m in the middle of reading Wayne Koestenbaum’s poetry collections, and as you may know, his work is memoir-in-verse-like, but he often includes commentary on the nature of narrative poetry within his poems. In “Seventh Canto” in Model Homes (2004), for example, he writes in the fifth stanza:
My newest fear is that these lines are prose
Instead of poetry, and that I’ll be
Punished for not minding the gap. Prose grows.
Like pregnancy, while sterile poetry
Tightens, reduces, crimps, corrects–and shows
A contrapuntal breathlessness. Agree:
I’ve erred. Now, Steve is marinating steak.
To help peel Yukon Golds, I’ll take a break.”
Even if you haven’t read this collection or any other collection [by Koestenbaum]—what is your response to this kind of fear? Do you have these fears, too?
PS: I suppose I’ve gone through a period of that type of fear, but I long ago gave up drawing lines which cage the art, as if it must be categorized and labeled before it can truly be. The story is much more important than a label for the form you choose for its telling. I feel free to let my subject choose its form, which can sometimes change during the writing. Why add a worry that doesn’t really have a reason to exist?
Sarah Katz is a contributor and a third-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.
Louis Campana is a staff writer for Café Americain and a second-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.