The first time Patricia Smith made me sob in public, I was a woman in a room full of women. And when I say full, I mean full. Me: sitting on the floor, criss-cross applesauce, like a little girl.
It was nighttime, Minneapolis, early spring. She was performing a long poem from a series called “When Black Men Drown Their Daughters,” evoking death by illustrating its stages in order (surprise, involuntary breath holding, hypoxic convulsions…). The poem took those of us listening into the consciousness of the little girls, the fathers, even the river. Smith’s imagination, it seemed, had no limits.
Smith played us like a conductor, our throats constricting or loosening at her command. We choked when she told us to choke, broke when she told us to break. A moment ago, we’d all been laughing together. Now, we were crying.
From “The Five Stages of Drowning”:
Inside the sack, the wriggling child
cannot translate fly, plummet, descend. She doesn’t
realize the hard questions she poses for pigeons
or how, so dull and stupid with dairy, she is all
the fall the sky can language.
Smith begins the poem by articulating this discrepancy of agency between the dying infant subject and her spectators. It reminds me now, in retrospect, of Roger Reeves’ 2015 talk “The Work of Poetry in the Age of Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston,” in which he discusses the ethical charge of dramatizing (and thus re-perpetrating) real events of violence on the page. The crucial difference, he argues, is that in the second, poetic instance of the violent act, the event can occur critically.
Smith, I think, gets this. Even as she imagines with stomach-wrenching vividity the drowning of these young girls—and other violent, tragic acts gleaned from the real world—she roots her imagining in criticism, the pivotal schism between original and art. The mind is always at work, flickering and framing, even as Smith drags the body through the water.
I’ve been to a lot of poetry readings in my life, but few stand out like my first experience of Patricia Smith. When she sent her last words crackling into the air that night, they sizzled into the river she left in her wake. Afterward, at a bar around the corner, I stared for about an hour into a plate of tater tots, her words still ringing in my ears.
I won’t go much into the second time Patricia Smith made me sob in public. Suffice it to say there was a second time. It was midday, in sunny LA. I had a seat, and I was prepared. She took the podium and read another long poem, this one about being the mother of murdered black sons, and again, I sobbed.
Smith’s collection Incendiary Art, forthcoming from Northwestern University Press, is full—as the title promises—of poems that incite. Most obviously they incite emotions like anger, sadness, and disgust. But they also incite formal admiration, scansion, and critical response. The book is structurally impressive, incorporating several long poems and two poetic sequences (“Emmett Till: Choose Your Own Adventure” and “Incendiary Art”) that weave river-like in and out as the book unfolds.
Lately, Smith’s themes involve black fathers and daughters, black mothers and sons, and the ways in which we teach and learn safety in a world that is so unsafe, particularly for children whose skin is not perceived as white. These poems are experiences of power and powerlessness, anger and fatigue, childhood and parenthood. They are inciting, and no where is their fire more catching than when experienced live, from the mouth of the poet who dared to craft them.
Behold the fire and flood of Patricia Smith yourself on November 19.
Gabrielle Bates is a poet and writer from Birmingham, Alabama. After completing her BA at Auburn University, she moved to Seattle, where she serves on the editorial board of two literary journals: the Seattle Review and Broadsided Press. Recently, Gabrielle’s awards include a scholarship to Bread Loaf and 1st Place in Gigantic Sequins‘ Poetry Comic Contest. She is an Indiana Review Poetry Prize finalist, Awesome Foundation grant recipient, and her work is published or forthcoming in Best of the Net 2015, Missouri Review, New South, Black Warrior Review, Passages North, Guernica, Rattle, Southern Humanities Review, and other journals. She graduated with her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington in June 2016. She is currently a Made at Hugo House fellow. Find her online at gabriellebatesstahlman.com or on twitter (@GabrielleBates).