Shoulda Been — An Interview with Patricia Smith

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy

Leslie Anne Mcilroy: I read your book Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah hard. I read it cover-to-cover and then over again. The title poem tells the story of how your daddy wanted to name you Jimi Savannah, not because you shoulda been a boy, but because you should have that wild spirit — “conjuring his own religion and naming it me.” I love that.

So, as a title/framework for the book I feel like it really works. A lot of the poems very graphically express the experience of feeling like you shoulda been something else or you should have to change: be lighter skinned, cleaner, purer, with bouncy hair, narrow hips, a smaller nose (the prevailing white beauty blanket), even talk different. And though there is pain in the pressure to conform/transform to be something you are not, there is also a real strength/power (in the end) of accepting your own beauty — no regrets. I walked away with that.

The book is also rife with music, sex, bravery, voice, place, love, culture, religion, discrimination — BIG stuff — in spite of feeling very autobiographical, narrative and personal. What does that mean? It means that you have done what every poet strives to do: write about the unique/personal in such a way that it transcends the individual experience and speaks universally. You are telling your truth authentically in a way that can be heard.

I want to start by asking you about your experience with poetry/words as a way to tell truth — art as vehicle for changing minds. Indeed, “Patricia Smith has been called ‘a testament to the power of words to change lives.’”  How did this happen to you? Who did you read, study with, discover as you were finding your own voice? What poem/s did you first read/write that made you know you could talk about discrimination/outrage/abuse — and that it mattered.

Patricia Smith: That’s such an odd way to put it — ”how did it happen to me”— as if something mysterious descended and I distinctly felt it. If I’m changing lives at all, then the happening isn’t in me, it’s in those undergoing the change. But that’s only part of what you asked me.

I think my education began with my father, Otis Douglas Smith. When he moved from Arkansas to Chicago during the Great Migration, he brought with him something I like to call the “tradition of the back porch.” At the end of every day, he’d hold court in the living room, spinning this addictive serial narrative in which everyone in the neighborhood, everyone at the candy factory where he worked, everyone in our family, was a character. And the stories kept going. And going. It’s wasn’t long before I learned to the look at the world through the stories it could tell, instead of through whatever I was or wasn’t learning in school. Words were magic, because words could form sentences, and sentences could make stories, and stories could spark a craving in your for more stories. Magic.

I’m from Chicago, and I was lucky enough to be a friend of Gwendolyn Brooks, and I’m sure everyone expects me to name her as a strong early influence. But though I feel a real “sistagirl sisterhood” with Gwen, the first poem I read that flung open a door was “The Gun” by Stephen Dobyns. Why? Because that poem was the perfect illustration of how we live our lives paving over all of these tiny terrors, and we (mistakenly) think we’ve done the work and that we never have to confront them again. That one poem led me to the rest of his work, and I remember consistently asking myself “I can do that? A poem can make me feel fierce and empty and wronged and fallible and frightened? Hell, yes!”

Until I discovered Dobyns, I really wasn’t that much of a reader of poetry. My focus was getting up on stage and doing it. All those headaches — submissions, publishers, etc. —were of no concern. I assumed there was only one way for poetry to take on breath.

Leslie Anne Mcilroy: You are also a National Poetry Slam Champion. Tell me about how that experience informs your work. Clearly your poems stand up on the page with earned craft and the incredibly fresh language sometimes lacking in the slam scene. But the slam scene is also very open to truth-telling/witnessing — the thing that needs to be said out loud.  Do you hear the “out loud” when you write? Fire. Passion. Voice. Body.

Patricia Smith: Starting in slam, and staying there for quite a while, informs my work in two ways. One, I’ve learned not to let any topic defeat me — I don’t have the patience to be afraid of anything. The slam taught me that I am charged with the telling of my own story — and if I don’t tell it, in a way that is unflinching and sometimes terrible, I grant someone else permission to tell it. I learned to be selfish about my own rhythms, and I learned to be a witness. Not a perfect witness, but a curious one.

Second, I learned to establish presence. Mic busted? No problem. Drunks in the back roaring and puking? Not an issue. Cappucino machine blasting away in the corner? Teen babbling on cell phone in the third row? Three people in the audience when you expected 300? All challenges, not concerns. The slam teaches you to own the stage, any stage, and to make it part of the story you’ve come to tell.

Truth telling is essential to slam, yes. You’re everyone’s witness until they see the need to be witnesses themselves. And once you’ve seen the power, the way spoken words can whip through a room and leave it changed, you don’t only hear “out loud” when you write. You learn to live your whole life out loud.

Leslie Anne Mcilroy: Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah tells the story of your mama leaving Alabama to come find her dream in Chicago and then meeting your father, giving birth to you. The poems are steeped in place/voice/culture from the city streets to the personalities, to the wardrobe and music, you put us there. There is love and heartbreak and infidelity, there are broken dreams and song and jumping rope. There are butcher shops and schools and bedrooms — all so rich with tattered desires, the hardness of life — and the joy.

You also put us in some pretty raw places that take a lot of bravery. I am thinking of the poem “Next. Next” where you describe the white boy that allows little black girls to touch his penis for a quarter, which ends, almost sadly with “I am the only one:/he has to take my hand and guide it there, and “Laugh Your Troubles Away” in which the speaker is used as a dunking booth prop in a sordid amusement park, where the patrons yell “Dunk a Nigger.” This kind of honesty is rare and vulnerable. It validates the power of language to open doors. It is the kind of poetry I am most drawn to, but it is hard — hard to read and write. Tell me what is your process when you are writing about such sensitive and graphic issues. What is your motivation?

Patricia Smith: I never really think of writing these poems as a process — I think of the incidences themselves as the shadows in a story, and I’m determined because those shadows work so hard at eluding me. I know that’s where the real work has to be done.

I teach a class called “Writing on the Other Side of the Wall.” The concept is that we constantly write “toward” a wall — sometimes we even get close enough to touch it — but it’s formidable, and it draws us near while pushing us away. The raw, terrifying, necessary writing is on the other side of that wall. It’s those things we think we paved over and overcame — but if we look over our shoulder, the pavement is rumbling. Poets are born to be witnesses, but sometimes we forget that that also means witnessing our own lives in a way that is unflinching and often painful. Our truths are harder than most truths, because we have the tools to find and deconstruct them.

Leslie Anne Mcilroy: The poems that are living with me constantly are from the section “Mad at My Whole Damn Face,” most which explore the power of the beauty myth: if you look like this (whiter), your life will be better, you will be loved. It is such a difficult struggle still, but poems like “An All-Purpose Product” describing Lysol as a solution for sanitizing the filth of the black experience or (‘I am not dirty, I am black’) or “Baby of Mistaken Hue” with the added bellow of a white God and your mother’s belief that the whiter you are the closer you are to being saved, are excruciating. I believe the universality of these poems are critically important right now with a cultural edict to be thin, smooth, small, unheard.

The poem “Sanctified” where you describe your mother douching with disinfectant to be purer is almost physically painful. I believe that poems like this are what women of all colors need to be reading to finally destroy the myth. How do you see these poems living in the world? Do you see poetry as something that helped you resist/overcome the desire to be something you are not?

Patricia Smith: The poems you mentioned have their place in the world, yes, but they’re also part of my “other side of the wall” writing about my mother and her insistence that I was never quite right. I never took the time to look closely at where, and how deeply, her obsessions were rooted, and that if you dug all the way down and examined that root, you’d find love. Love always has, and still does, spark a kind of insanity. With no rules on raising a child in the city, my mother sought to change the one thing everyone could see — my skin.

I realize the poems serve a purpose, because almost every time I’ve read them, a black woman my age comes up to tell a similar story. We’ve been so silent for so long. Tragically, many of us were convinced that we were incurable. But our mothers loved us hard, and wanted to clear our path. Instead, they hurt us and made us question our own worth.

As for whether or not poetry has helped me? Well, I would say not necessarily “resist,” because I spent a good portion of my life angry at myself for what I couldn’t be. My mother and her obsessions just didn’t disappear when I became an adult. In fact, the situation became more complex. But, especially with the writing in Savannah, I’m finally able to see the truth as a truth — not as a quirk of circumstance, not as something peculiar to my mother. I am able to say out loud “There was something about me that my mother hated and that I will never be able to change.” Once it’s said aloud, it can be explored. That exploration was a long time coming.

Leslie Anne Mcilroy: I want to ask you specifically about “13 Ways of Looking at 13,” which I identified with in almost every way. The specifics of my growing up were different, but many of the emotions, behaviors, hopes and insecurities were the same. I marvel at this poem and read it to my 12-year-old daughter. I believe this is an important feminist poems as it recalls exactly that age when we are trying to figure out what it means to be a woman in this world. I wrote down notes from the verses that really hit home like “Every time you touch your face you leave a scar”; “rename you pussy with their eyes”; “you are built of what should kill you”; “body becomes a dumb little marquee”; “Treat white people right because they give you things”; “That boy does not see you.” It really struck home. What was it like writing this poem? I want every tween to read it.

Patricia Smith: The poem had a funny beginning. I was teaching poetry to a group of students who were feverishly resistant to the idea of creative writing. They wanted to be policemen, factory foremen, fashion models — and they had no time to do something they didn’t see fitting into their lives (or hoped-for lives) in any real way. I kept looking for a way in. So on the day on their final, I said “No final!” and tore the papers up as they watched. Imagine the exhilaration. But I had something else in mind.

I asked them about their most difficult age. The consensus was 13. And that’s understandable. At 13, if you had skin, something was wrong with it. Boys’ voices were cracking, girls were suddenly bleeding — as far as they could tell — for no reason. And there was a vague uneasiness in the nether-regions that couldn’t be explained. Braces. Greasy hair. Cliques. Yuck.

Then I gave them their new assignment: Write a poem about being 13 — 13 stanzas, 13 lines each stanza, 13 syllables each line. They hated me, then loved me. Whenever I gave them an assignment, I did it, too. Of course, their 13 and my 13 were totally different — but you’re right, some of the misery is universal.

It also turned into another avenue for me to explore things I thought were long forgotten.

Leslie Anne Mcilroy: There are three poems that specifically deal with a young, biracial first true love: “An Open Letter To Joseph Peter Naras, Take 1, 2 & 3,” respectively. The poems detail the need to hide, be secret, not shame the family and, of course, with bigotry/anger: Joe’s father’s threats. I bring this up not only because it is so clearly a poem that speaks to HEArt’s mission, but because the ending is so significant: “I wonder if your father ever wonders who I am. I wonder if he wonders who I was.” I wonder, too. I wonder if there is a certain vindication that you are so respected and successful and his small, little mind refused his son the possibility of being part of that light? This should be regret — his. I also love the role of men’s tears in these poems, the idea of masculinity and sensitivity — a turning away from violence. I feel like this prejudice is still alive and well — just talk to any biracial couple/child. Your poem details the damages/loss/regrets manifested by hate.  Did you ever wish Joe & his father would read it?

Patricia Smith: Now that I’m older and know what love really is, I realize that I was really in love with Joe. He was beautiful and sensitive and smart. I really didn’t have to hide the way he did. Remember, my mother in particular believed that the whiter I could be, the better. And a white boyfriend, even a clandestine one, was well on the way. My parents urged me to be careful, his brother hid our secret for as long as he could, and well, it was pretty much the way an interracial, cross-city romance played out in the early ‘70s.

When Joe’s father found out, it wasn’t just a “well, it was great while it lasted” moment — it really tore us open and apart. I will never forget the tears streaming down his face. I hated the world for quite a while after that and it was torture trying not to look at each other in school (his dad had spies by then). I’m not sure his dad’s kind of prejudice would be remedied by meeting me (all he would have seen is black) or my, heaven’s sake, a poem. I’d love to talk to him now, just to let him know what we really had and what he took away.

Oh, and Joe did read it! The details of connection are too much to go into here, but he read it and was rendered a little breathless. It brought back everything — him reading it, me knowing he was reading it — and something like closure washed over us. You never forget your first love.

Leslie Anne Mcilroy: Finally, the book is rich with music — Mary Wells, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, the final 15-verse poem “Motown Crown” — they all pay tribute to R&B/gospel/Motown legends that created the soundtrack for your life. This, too, is a beautifully complex look at the promises lyrics make, the power of presence and talent, the despair of a discriminatory industry and the sheer heart-brilliance of voice. The way these figures and references weave in and out of your poems speaks to the way words in music can truly inhabit your consciousness and form your ideas of love, power, etc. I’m curious about who you listen to now. Does anyone have that kind of vocal power and presence? Are there musicians or singers you feel are creating the musical poetry that makes us believe in a better world, showing the strength of the African American duende, even if in the end it is all just hope?

Patricia Smith: You’re going to hate this answer. Whenever I have the time to really sit down and listen to music, I’m obsessed with the same era — ‘60s, some ‘70s — of rhythm and blues. I still listen to Motown, I listen to Aretha, Chaka Khan, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Tyrone Davis. That music, that time, is where I’m rooted, where I feel most at home. I still believe in the better world their voices crafted for me. I can hear hope in those voices, and it was the last time music spoke directly to me as if it know what I needed.

At the risk of making a sweeping statement that will enrage just about everyone, music since then has been vapid and self-centered. So there.

Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Patricia Smith is the author of six books of poetry, including Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, winner of the 2013 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets and the Phillis Wheatley Award, and finalist for both the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America and the Balcones Prize. She also authored Blood Dazzler, a finalist for the National Book Award, and Teahouse of the Almighty, a National Poetry Series selection. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, The New York Times, TriQuarterly, Tin House, The Washington Post, and in both Best American Poetry and Best American Essays. Her contribution to the crime fiction anthology Staten Island Noir, which she edited, won the Robert L. Fish Award from the Mystery Writers of America for the best debut story of the year and was chosen for Best American Mystery Stories 2013.  She is 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, the most successful poet in the competition’s history. She is currently working on a biography of Harriet Tubman, a poetry volume combining text and 19th century African-American photos, and a libretto for the city of Philadelphia. Patricia is a professor at the College of Staten Island and an instructor in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College, where she is currently a Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Humanities. She is married to Bruce DeSilva, the Edgar Award-winning author of the Liam Mulligan crime novels.