Poet Of The Week

Patricia Smith

     February 17–23, 2020

Patricia Smith is the author of eight books of poetry, including Incendiary Art, winner of the 2018 Kingsley Tufts Award, the 2017 LA Times Book Prize and the 2018 NAACP Image Award and a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, winner of the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets; and Blood Dazzler, a National Book Award finalist. She is a Guggenheim fellow, an NEA grant recipient, a former fellow at Civitella Ranieri, Yaddo and MacDowell, a Cave Canem faculty member and a distinguished professor for the City University of New York. On Thursday, February 20, Smith will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series along with Roberto Carlos Garcia and Shira Erlichman at the Brooklyn Public Library.

Runaway

 

First, somebody’s got to run. There’s no sport

in it otherwise. Everybody needs to be drunk

on sun first, then just straight drunk, and there

will be rot-tooth cackling, dog-tired horses

spewing snot, straps slashing gashes in dead

air. But somebody has to run like he wanna be

in a place he can’t see, like Jesus blew a whistle.

The hunt needs a man who finally believes

the murmured come-ons of that blaring star,

who lingers a second too long in the red twist

of a preacher’s promise, and thinks that being

free just may be that muted flash at the end

of his pointed finger. Over there, out there,

over yonder, north, always north, he chants,

his whole body primed, egged on by a fleeing,

luminous orchestra. But first he’s got to run.

Everything he utters drips with a muddled,

sugary faith, his first halting steps click into

rhythm and night leans forward to scar him.

Sometimes he is minutes gone, maybe hours,

sometimes a day, before he realizes that all

land is throat, that it swallows and swallows

then dribbles a dust that lies and calls itself

light. The fear that he’s on a journey that has

already ended sparks the smell, the salt that

just barely blues his skin. And the dog doesn’t

know why or what it hates, it just knows that

Negro blur and the damn repeated spin of it.

The hound’s strained heart is everything, an old

gray muscle gasping backbeat for a flailing rage.

Fevering against the leash, it snorts the deep

sweaty bowl of the runner’s hat, one thinned

gray sock, an old work shirt. The cur quivers

with what it was born to do. There’s just no

sport in it otherwise. Straining forward on their

steeds, the hunters whoop, addicts for the chase,

while that wily northern star spits its sickly light

along the length of the quest, nudging the huntsmen

and their quarry to very different versions of free.

 

—From Incendiary Art, Northwestern University Press, 2017.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

“Runaway” came about when I was contacted by the inimitable Natalie Diaz, who had been tapped to edit a special sports-themed edition of Prairie Schooner. When she asked if I’d submit I said yes right away without any idea of what I would possibly do. What I did know is that I didn’t want to be predictable—after all, I’m the one constantly yapping with my students about the importance of an unexpected entry point. So when the idea of humans being hunted—for sport, for commerce—presented itself, I decided that would be my take.

What are you working on right now?

I finished my ninth book during the summer. It’s a volume of dramatic monologues accompanied by nineteenth-century photographs from my family’s collection—daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes and cabinet cards—of African-Americans. It was set to be published in fall 2020, but I decided I’d rather not have a book debuting during election season. Something tells me the world will be distracted.

Meanwhile, I’m collaborating with the award-winning photographer Sandro Miller on a book about black hair, which I am beyond thrilled about; and I’m enjoying working on a book of short fiction. The stories are coming out rather dark, which is worrisome and exhilarating at the same time.

What’s a good day for you?

My ten pages done. Time with my doggos and a pristine new stanza or two. At least one viable revision. Plus a deep, deep goblet of Rombauer.

What brought you to New York?

The city? My job teaching creative writing at the College of Staten Island. Just before that, I lived in Westchester County.

Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

It’s not a neighborhood, really. I’ve lived in Jersey for just over ten years, in a bedroom community of people who all seem to work in New York. Tree-lined streets, eerily quiet, not many people out walking. In the summer, there’s a flurry of activity as panicky homeowners rush out to pluck brown blades of grass from their lawns; in the winter there’s a flurry of activity as everyone crams their yards with inflatables. It’s just block after block of perfect domesticity—we border a long commercial strip, so there’s no real neighborhood center or gathering place. I really miss having one.

How often do you come to Brooklyn? What neighborhoods do you go to? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.

It’s a three-hour round trip every time I come into the city (I hate pressured driving, so we’re talking New Jersey Transit), so I usually just come in when there’s a reading or I want a swift dose of non-suburban culture. I absolutely love Brooklyn. If I could afford a place that could handle roughly 4,000 books, two humongous dogs and my quirky but necessary collection of ceramic cows, I’d be there in a minute. I have friends in Fort Greene and Flatbush, but I cover as much of Brooklyn as I can whenever I can. The buzz is addictive. Smart people in a smart place. A smart place in a not-always-so-smart NY.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

A poetry community’s not something you find in a physical place—if it were, those who write in solitude out of necessity (for example, a friend of mine who’s saving lots of money by living alone in the mountains) would keel over from lack of support. So I’ve gotten more out of realizing that the community is not so much the person, but the work. I link with the work of like minds, wherever they are. And I don’t mean those who write like I do—whether our passions are aligned or diverging wildly, I recognize, learn from, and am buoyed by the passion.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

I’m not sure about a few of these, but they feel like they live in Brooklyn. Take a deep breath—MAHOGANY BROWNE (first and foremost and forever), Tyehimba Jess, t’ai freedom ford, Angel Nafis, Adam Falkner, Shira Erlichman, Syreeta McFadden, Jon Sands, John Murillo, Nicole Sealey, Jeanann Verlee, Lauren Whitehead, Jive Poetic, David Tomas Martinez, Pamela Sneed, Andrés Cerpa, Aracelis Girmay, Camonghne Felix, D. Nurkse, Lemon Andersen, Brenda Shaughnessy, Rachel Eliza Griffiths. And Annie Finch, the woman who helped fuel my love of meter and form.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

I’ve read everything that Mama Gwendolyn Brooks wrote many times over, even more now that I’m beginning to delve deeper into fiction. I just love how blissfully she ignored the rules of language, how she crafted a new way to look and listen to a world I thought I was already living in. When it comes to shouldering historical and psychological baggage, no one rivals the Chicago colored girl—and Gwen was one and I am one, and—well, she crafted our soundtrack. Her work taught me to break my unflinching fix on the horizon—I was always focused on “getting beyond” the space I was standing in—and to see my own self, my own neighborhood, my own people, as viable and utterly beautiful.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I’m reading two right now, and I can’t seem to shake either of them—Omar Sakr’s The Lost Arabs and Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s Seeing the Body, which I think is set to be published this fall.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

I long to delve into a book and keep myself there, long enough to think and breathe and dream like the writer. Always wanted to read the huge collecteds of Langston Hughes, Robert Frost, Audre Lorde and Neruda without stopping to read anything else. That’s pretty much impossible when you’re teaching. I did read everything of Gwendolyn Brooks’s once—but she is, was and will always be a special case.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I’m a dipper at random, unless I’m helplessly snagged by a first poem, in the mood for the signature of a particular poet or intensely curious about a poet everyone’s talking about. PHYSICAL BOOKS PLEASE. And no notes. Notes pull me out of the poem. I’d rather take notes later about whatever in the poem (or book) comes back to me.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

For years, it was a triple crown, but I just completed one and am now deceased.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

1) Top deck of a cruise ship during the biannual Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, when we’re just pulling out of port, with a kickass guitarist blurry and blaring as backdrop; 2) in just about any university cafeteria or library; 3) on planes, but nowhere near the toilet.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Will I be disqualified if I say that I don’t actually spend that much time in Brooklyn? Not for lack of wanting, but because my free time usually winds up being not so free after all. My best times have been at the homes of friends—Brooklyn is the de facto haven for intimate poetry salons—or at Greenlight, where I first hugged Angel Nafis, and where every reading I’ve seen and participated in has been stellar.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the brown girls, and gospel them skyward,

And what I concede, you shall concede,

For every note that springs from me as good should swell in you.

Why Brooklyn?

So I’m cringing a little (OK, a lot) because I’m a ride-or-die Chicagoan, and came perilously close to answering “Why not Chicago?” To keep the peace—in other words, to keep my Brooklyn buddies AND my ChiGirl membership card—I’ll go with this:

It’s Brooklyn because Brooklyn says it is.