by Lauren K. Alleyne
Patricia Smith is a presence. Whether on the stage or on the page, her voice is powerful, sure, and unmistakable: it compels and captivates; it is insistent and it is urgent. Across the span of her long career as a wordsmith, Smith has deployed her voice as a vessel for empathy, pulling readers and listeners under its spell outside of themselves and into, for a moment, the internal landscape of others. From a skinhead to a Greek god, from hurricane Katrina to Lucky (the dog whose world Katrina destroys), from the mothers of murdered Black boys to the gun that brings their end, Smith “goes there,” delving with both compassion and insightfulness into the worlds of others and bringing their stories into the light. The first section of “Sagas of the Accidental Saint,” for example, runs through a litany in the voices of “the mothers of the lost” to whom the poem is dedicated:
that’s my son collapsed there, my son
crumpled there my son lying there
my son positioned there my daughter
repositioned there my daughter as
exhibit A there my daughter dumped
over there my son hidden away there
my son blue there my son dangling
there my son caged there my daughter
on the gurney there on the slab there
in the drawer there my daughter splayed
There my son locked down there my
son hanging there my son bleeding …
The poem dives into the soulscape of these stricken women with a starkness that is both bracing and heartbreaking.
Smith brings to bear all the tools of music in the crafting of her poetic voice, the auditory elements of her work implemented with an enviable deftness. This precision and sonic seamlessness both open the door to the difficult subjects that Smith embraces and also holds the reader within them. The poem transfixes. Then transforms.
The engine of Smith’s work, though, is its scope: her determination to tell the whole story means moments are connected to other moments, which are connected to other stories, which are linked to a history that otherwise might seem too distant to matter. The aforementioned section of “Sagas of the Accidental Saint,” concludes thus:
shot as prey shot as conquest shot as
solution shot as lesson shot as warning
shot as comeback shot as payback shot
for sport shot for history that’s my son
not being alive anymore there that’s my
child coming to rest one layer below
the surface of the
of my life
In these closing lines, the mothers’ exquisitely rendered grief becomes both microscope and telescope, making visible the way the past holds space in the present and the future, linking the interior and exterior worlds, and unveiling the tangled and multitudinous strands of this story. Smith’s is a formidable and essential voice, and one to which we should continue to pay close attention.
Patricia Smith is the author of ten books. She served as judge for the Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial Poetry Prize sponsored by the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and she spent an hour in the studio with me talking about her own story. This is an edited version of that conversation.
Tell me about the process of writing Incendiary Art. Where did this book begin?
It didn’t begin the way it ended up. I found a couple of news items about men who had drowned their young daughters, and I knew I was going to write about them. I wrote a poem, and then I started thinking about all the other ways that men can drown their daughters—emotional, psychological, things like that—and that goes back to when I was growing up: I remember the fathers who weren’t in the home but they were in the neighborhood. It was almost accepted that the father would be in the home for a while but then split, and I had so many friends who would point to their fathers on the street and say, “That’s my daddy over there!” I wondered what leads to this dysfunction where a man considers his blood kin so disposable. In both [news stories], the men had gotten angry at the mother and said, “Well, I know how to fix her, I’ll just kill …” and I’m like, “What?!” So initially it was going to be (and get this title, because this is the only time you’re going to hear it) “When Black Men Drown Their Daughters.” And then I thought “Yeah … I’m going to be Alice Walkered or something,” you know? And so I was writing a lot of poems, poems about, for example, that thing in the heartland where some fathers are “marrying” their young daughters and having them vow to be celibate—it’s terrible—and so then I thought maybe I should make it [the collection] all [about] fathers. And so for a long time I had that idea set. But then I felt myself straining—you sort of write it through, you write it out, and you go, “Oh, this is not enough for a book,” you know, and so I put that aside for a while.
I wondered what leads to this dysfunction where a man considers his blood kin so disposable.
Meanwhile, there was this drumbeat, this continuous drumbeat of these lives being lost, usually at the hands of the police. I always tell my students to look for the voice that they’re not hearing, so I said, “Wow, all those people have mothers.” And you see the mother twice: you see the mother at the beginning, in all the chaos where someone comes to her and says, you know, “your son is dead” or “your daughter is dead,” and then you see the mother again at the end when the person responsible for the death of her son or daughter is deemed not responsible, and more chaos, and then she’s gone. Okay, so you don’t know what the process is—how do you fill that hollow of having a child and then not having one? And then losing your child so publicly in some instances, too, and then having the child be railroaded and stereotyped in all kinds of ways. So I started with that. That was a little bit easier, because there were so many cases to work with, so I have the mother look at these different cases and say this is her child, this is her child, this is her child, and then I had to write the poems from her point of view. That kind of took over the book …
Now you might be wondering how I got to the title! That’s another thing. There are three movements to this book: there’s the drowned daughters, there’s the saga of the accidental saints (that’s the mothers), and then there’s incendiary art, which started after a Donald Trump rally while he was still running for president, and there’d been attacks on minorities who were coming in to the rallies. They interviewed this one man who had attacked one of the Black people at the rally, and he said, “You know, I sure would like to burn a Black man.” I was like, “What?!” And so it got me thinking about the role of fire in our lives. I thought about when I was growing up, the riots after the MLK assassination, how my whole neighborhood was just burnt to its bones, and it took years and years for it to come back. That, and then Tulsa, which a lot of people don’t know about, and the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, and the Rodney King riots. I just decided that I wanted to go through—because I did hear someone else say, “Well, they [Black people] go burning their own neighborhoods down”—those two things, and I thought, “I need to stand in the center of the fire for a while and see …”.
I had a moment before I put the book together when I thought I should just take one of these things, and I felt kind of strange for having these three directions—and there aren’t many poems in the book that aren’t connected to one or more of those segments, so I had to kind of think back to what kind of books am I seeing, what do I want, and it kind of backfired in a way. I love the book, but it’s a very, very hard book for me to do a reading from simply because when you’re doing a reading, you’re measuring—you’re doing long poems, short poems, funny poems, form poems, free verse poems—and there’s no relief. There’s no pull up out of this book. And maybe if I’d thought about that a little bit more, I would have changed direction, but I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.
It’s a phenomenal book. You say there are three movements, but that doesn’t address the elegy, that final movement at the end of the book that pulls the arc out of that public space into a more personal space. How did that come to be?
Well, so there’s one poem that I don’t like, that I don’t think did what I wanted it to do. I added it at the last minute, and you know how it is, you look back at your book and think, “Why didn’t I revise?” It’s called “Sometimes,” and it’s basically about when Black folks kill their own. I was trying to have that kind of be a segue into the idea that “not-every-life-is-lost-at-the-hands-of-the-police/not-every-hand-is-lost-to-race.” I don’t think it’s effective, but that was meant to be the segue into the next section. I thought about that for a while, and even my editors were saying I had to make sure that that elegy, which is really long, contributed to the book. In a way, it probably should have been in my previous book, but my book before, which sparked the elegy, was out and about before I even thought about the poem. So … I’m not sure … I like it in the book. I’m just not sure its place in the book is cemented in the way that I would like it to be.
It’s interesting, though, because when I read it, what I read was this conflation of both the daughter and the father—the opposite of the drowning in one sense that happens earlier in the book; on the other hand, it’s also another drowning—in the grief. But then there’s also a collapsing of the mother and the daughter: you write, “the daughter dons the widow garb” and so, ultimately, there’s an intense connection between the father and daughter. So to me, that poem pulls all of the things together.
Well, it was kind of losing both my parents in a way. My mother is not an emotionally giving person. She’s a functional parent. She’s a comb your hair, take you to church, check your grades, whoop your butt, you know—she’s that parent. And so my father was the person I told everything to and poured everything out to and the one who, if I say something like, “I wanna be a writer,” he doesn’t say, “Only white people do that,” which is what my mother said, in a way trying to protect me, but my father saw that my future was not in being protected; it was in taking chances. So [when he died], everything just stopped. Everything just stopped. And still, to this day, my mother and I look at each other sometimes and think, “And you would be who?” She doesn’t really know me. She’s not the kind of person who would say, “Tell me about yourself,” or “Tell me about your passions,” so what I’m most passionate about in life, my mother doesn’t recognize. This means nothing to her. So it was like losing both my parents. It’s something I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over, but it’s also something that infuses the writing. My father was a born storyteller, so I hear his voice all the time. That elegy, I guess, is a move toward writing the poem, the my-father-is-gone poem. I’m not even sure that’s it yet. I’m not even sure that’s it. It doesn’t in any way encompass how important he was in my life. I’d do a whole book about him …
My best friend, the novelist Catherine Chung, has a theory that the book isn’t done until you write something that breaks you. Was there a poem in particular that just took it out of you to write?
It’s funny, because it’s not a very specific poem, it’s at the very end of the book, so I think it’s maybe an entry to another project or book or something, but it was one of the “Incendiary Art” poems—“Incendiary Art: The Body.” I think because it brings all that heat and motion and chaos and question back to the one person standing there, threatened and encouraged or broken or something, you know, and I didn’t realize when I wrote it that it was going to be that poem, but when I go back to the book it’s really difficult for me to read. I pulled it out a couple times, because when I do readings I will do an excerpt from “Accidental Saints” or maybe I’ll do the Emmett Till sonnets, but it’s hard to pull out two or three things, and say, “Oh I’m going to do a 30-minute reading,” and so in the quest for those single poems, I pulled that out and read it a couple times, and the second or third time, I went, “I can’t do that.” It opened up everything that had gone into the book. The same way that you end a poem thinking about what you want the reader to walk away with, I think, “I want the reader to be restless and troubled,” and I didn’t want to tie it up in a knot, and I don’t think that does that. There is some image from a movie, and it has something to do with the cosmos, where everything comes in to this tiny dot of light, and that’s the dot of light. That’s the poem that would probably push me into whatever my next project is.
You have ten books, and earlier, you talked about the connection between Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah and Incendiary Art, so do you revise into a new book from the previous book? Can you talk about the evolution from book to book, and what propels you from one project to another?
There are other things that tie into that. For starters, the fact that I got introduced to writing poetry by getting up on stage and doing it, so a lot of the revision or going back in to work is because I might pull something from my third book and do it in a reading and go, “Oh, I can change it.” I can change it when I’m doing a reading, though I can’t change the book. So instead of me thinking, “Well that book’s gone. It’s out,” I keep resurrecting things and throwing them into the mix; it keeps the poems fluid. Even where I go back and say, “I wish I had written that differently,” I can perform it differently; I can bring it back. And I’ve gone back into previous books and started pulling things out, and thought, “There’s no reason I shouldn’t be reading these things.”
My very first book happened because I was very visible, and there was somebody at a reading who was connected to a publisher who asked if I had a manuscript—which I did not, but I tell everyone if anyone asks you that question, say, “Yes, I do,” and then worry about it when you get home. And so it’s a very undisciplined book because I gathered everything I was reading on stage and stuff, and was like, “Here!” I didn’t know anything about craft or line breaks or anything. If you had snatched a sheet from me on stage, it would look like a block of prose, because I just wanted to get it down so I could read it; I didn’t care what it looked like. And when I would read something and breathe, I just threw a line break. And so that’s how the book came out. And I still love that book, because I was so young. And I think the first three books were kind of like that, although with the second book, which is Big Towns Big Talk, I was thinking music; I wanted to do music poems. I’m a music fanatic. And so I wanted to have a bluesy feel, which was also an excuse to keep me from paying attention to craft (you know, “I want it to feel like improvisation!” you know, yeah, whatever).
I got involved in slam, and my social circle was there, and then I realized that someone can hear a line or a poem or something that really connects with something that’s going on in their life, and they can be changed.
And then when I realized that people really listen, that it wasn’t a recreational exercise … I mean, I got involved in slam, and my social circle was there, and then I realized that someone can hear a line or a poem or something that really connects with something that’s going on in their life, and they can be changed. And so the book Close to Death was my first kind of admission that I was doing something socially that could be important, that I had a venue to tell a story or to address an issue that I didn’t really know was that powerful before, but I still think that the poems weren’t very disciplined. I was still getting a lot of attention for being a performer, and the books were nice, but they were kind of … a backdrop to that. And then I lost that publisher—they went out of business. I never sent a book out to anybody, you know, I’d just been in the right place at the right time, and so I did that, and then I won a contest that published a book, and then I was affiliated with Coffee House which is a real great press, and I talked to them about where I wanted to go.
Blood Dazzler was also my MFA thesis. So in that time I had really dedicated myself to learning craft, learning the language of prosody and learning who the important poets were, which I kinda think I knew, but … You know how we all have those conversations where you have no idea who people are talking about, and I said “yeah” a lot. I knew who the important poets were, but not who influenced them, who they influenced, and giving myself some sense of being part of that lineage somehow was really empowering. Then I felt the books had more of a back to them. I found out that when you put those things in your toolbox, you know, when you learn a lot about craft, then poems that had been just moving around on the page for years because I didn’t know what was wrong with them, it was because they were asking for something I didn’t know yet how to do. And so all of a sudden, it’s like, “That’s a sestina!” It’s so wonderful to have those things at your disposal and let the poem tell you what it needs and then say, yes, I have that now. So that was a real turning point for me.
I felt the shift happen around Blood Dazzler, so it’s interesting to hear you articulate it in this way.
It was a lot more confidence. I think the confidence shows even in that I took on telling a whole story in a book. Close to Death was not like that. Close to Death was like African American men in different phases of their lives—some in the south, some in the city—it wasn’t necessarily focused on violence or anything like that. But the thing about Blood Dazzler is there was a whole inner struggle about whether I had the right to write that book, you know, and the concern about appropriating people’s voices. But then I said, “Look, I think the poet’s job is to be a witness, and if I’m just going to be a witness to things that are right in front of me and accessible, then I don’t think I’m doing my work.” And it wasn’t a regional story; it was a human story. And there are a lot of people regionally who were doing work, and I thought, “Well, put our voices together, and you may get the entire story, but I shouldn’t back off because I don’t have any history in the Gulf region.”
And here’s this brief funny story. So Natasha Trethewey is a poet who does have a history in the region, and people had built up to me this whole thing that she’s really upset that you wrote this book and you’re not from there. I’m like, “Why would she be?” And there’s nothing there, but they’re building up this whole thing. Finally at this AWP [conference], I think, they set up an event where she and I were going to have a conversation with each other; people were signing up like it was going to be a cage match, like there was going to be a pit of Jell-O or something and we were gonna go at it—the Gulf region’s mine, arrgh! And so we’re sitting in these chairs, and I’m thinking, “Well, if it’s gonna come up, it’s gonna come up …” And we had this great discussion! She said, “No, I really wanted the viewpoint of somebody who wasn’t there,” and all that, and then we found out that what we did have in common was a murdered parent, and it just kinda came out in the conversation and I just thought, “You know, there are no stories a poet shouldn’t reach for.” There just aren’t.
I want to backtrack a bit and ask you to think about a question: what’s the line between exploitation and exploration of a subject? Especially around current events. You said you wrestled with it. If you had to say what the line is, if you had to articulate what that line might look like, or how you know if you’re stepping over that line as an artist …
I think the answer is: you have to make sure that you write the hell out of it. You can’t slack if you’re in territory that might be questionable. You really have to write it.
Well, I’ve been writing persona poems all my creative career, you know, but I don’t step in and say, “I know everything about what it is to be in this position.” I step in and I look around and say, “Okay, what’s accessible to me? What can I do?” So for example, okay, there’s this skinhead, and I don’t know how he became the way he was, so let me explore and see one possible way this might have happened, which then when I’m out of the persona, enriches who I am, not as a writer but as a person, you know. At least I think it does. I feel that it does.
With [Hurricane] Katrina, there was the poem [I wrote] about the 34 nursing home residents—my mother’s sister was in a nursing home for a long time, and the task of taking care of her was portioned out to a number of people in our family. I was probably in high school, about 16, and they’re like, “It’s your turn to sit with your aunt.” And she was not the formerly God-fearing aunt that I knew. I mean, she would curse like a sailor and throw things, and no one had given me any prep, and it was a very strange place to be. But I remember there were two things they did while I was there. When she was asleep, I would walk around and I would talk to the other residents, and there was always the one woman who would put on full makeup and sit around, and there was the ex-soldier with all his stories were about “the war.” The other thing was that when it got out of hand with my aunt, there was a button my her bed, and if I pushed it, somebody always came to help. When I saw the story about the residents in St. Bernard Parish, and the fact that the administrator, the person who’s supposed to be in charge, had left them and had said, “I’m sure that someone would come and get them,” all I could picture—and this is the hazard of being a poet—is the room is dark, the water is rising, and I could see people pushing the buttons and nothing happening. So that didn’t bring me into the story on a “I am Chicagoan and I’m going to write about something that happened in a place I am not familiar with” level; that brought me in on a human level that could have been moved anywhere. And the fact that we tend to—when it’s on the line—we tend to write off our elders a lot, that’s what pulled me into it.
I did not intend on writing a whole book! I really just wanted to stay in that story for a while, and I remember reading that poem somewhere—and I’m very aware of my audience when I’m reading. That’s one thing I brought over from slamming, that if there’s not enough energy in the room, you change the poem that you’re reading; if there’s too much energy, you want to change the energy in the room, you could pull it down—but there’s a woman right in the front row of the audience and she’s looking at the clock, and she’s looking at her watch, and she’s fidgeting and I’m, like, “Hmmm.” By that time I had just become aware that there might be some people from the Gulf region who’d say that the work didn’t feel true, because I didn’t have anything regional in the poem, so I asked her afterward. I said, “I noticed you were a little uncomfortable, so I wonder if you could tell me about that,” and she was like, “Well, they had Mardi Gras this year …” and I was like, “Wow!” I realized there were a lot of people who just wanted it to be over. They didn’t want to see any more shots of people being lifted in baskets; they didn’t want to hear any more tales of disaster. I think that’s around the time that Monica Lewinsky said, “Hey, I still have the dress,” and everybody went “Whoop! They’ll be fine.” [Turns her face away.] And like [that woman in the audience], they see one building go up and they say, “Wow, New Orleans is fine now.” And that pushed me. I realized I’d been internalizing a lot of things I’d seen, and that some invisible thing had been stopping me from writing, and then I said, “Okay. I’ll do my readings, but before I do my reading about the nursing home resident, I’ll have three to four Katrina poems to say, ‘Let’s take your mind back for a while, know that this is still going on.’ ”
I think the answer is: you have to make sure that you write the hell out of it. You can’t slack if you’re in territory that might be questionable. You really have to write it. And that’s why I was so happy that [writing Blood Dazzler] coincided with me getting a little bit more confident about form and saying, “I can’t think of a form for this poem so let me hold on to it for a while, and maybe it’s something I’d never done before.” It was really important to me that the poems be sound. So if you don’t have a particular interest in the story—and maybe everybody didn’t—that they could appreciate them as poems. I think I’m probably proudest of that book. It represented for me a real departure from territory that I was comfortable with.
I want to backtrack to your MFA, because I feel like you’ve referenced it as parallel to Blood Dazzler—what was challenging, surprising, fun about that process for you?
I didn’t go in, as so many people do, looking for the program to give me a voice. I know sometimes it’s like, “I’m going to use this program to find out who I am.” I knew I could hone my voice, I could do other things with my voice, and I wanted a program to alert me to those possibilities. But that thing that I talked about before, about having some sense of how I fit in the canon and where, that was the most important thing for me. I was the person in the front row, my arm shooting up all the time, because we have a way of talking like people already know everything, especially in the MFA, like, “Well we’re all here because we’re so well-versed in all the poetic everything, you know.” So they would mention names and I’d go, “I’m sorry, can you give me a list of books so I can become familiar with this poet that we’re talking about as though I’m already familiar with them?” I didn’t care what people thought. I just wanted to leave with stuff that I feel like I had missed out on, you know. I was in a workshop on non-western forms, and I was like, “Yes! I can do this and this,” and then maybe we’d concentrate on villanelles and do things like that. Somebody tried to get me to love Emily Dickinson, and I don’t. And what was really funny about it is she was almost moved to tears because I was doing the reading and it was fine, but I just didn’t relate, you know, and so she was like, “But you’re a woman. Can’t you see?” And I just looked at her. It was fantastic. “You know what I really love? I love how passionate you are about this.” And that’s what made me want to read more Emily Dickinson, not that you say that there’s some weird connection that I’m missing that you want, that you need me to get, because that’s not going to happen, I could tell you. “I’ve read enough to know it’s not going to happen, but anybody who’s as passionate about something as you are,” I said, I love that you love her that much.”
And there were the discussions where you could turn to anyone and just start talking about writing, and it wasn’t like when you got home and it’s like, “Oh, you did that nice, cute poetry thing.” So I felt that it was really just time for me, and I was very greedy and very possessive of my time there. Of course, there’s always more that you can learn, but I think that what I did there really changed me as a poet. It just opened up so many other doors. I was able to look at poems that I loved and that I went to again and again and again, not knowing why, and it’s because the poet had done something technically to help heighten my response to the poem, but I couldn’t see it. I could feel it, but I didn’t see it. Now I can look at a poem and go, “Ummmm! I see how you did that! I see how you shifted that rhyme scheme!” I mean, even poets that I’ve loved for a long time, like I’ve loved Gwendolyn Brooks, but when you really look at the technical things she did in her poems … So it opened that up for me. It gave me—and I don’t even think this was a primary thing—it gave me a legitimacy in a way. I wanted to teach, and people were asking me to teach, but for short stints—come here for a month or something—and I thought, “What am I going to do so that I am surrounded by my art all the time? So that if I’m not writing, I’m talking to other people who want to write?” And I knew I needed to have the degree to have that flexibility, that there’d be more places that I could go to. I miss it. I kinda wish that I could just take another couple years and just do it all over again! And you can, of course, do it on your own, you can do your reading, but you don’t, right? Because life. Because deadlines. Because money. You can do it on your own, but to be in that place, where everybody kinda looks at each other once in a while and smiles—and I’m sure a lot of people don’t have this experience—but it was so wonderful already having the sense of self and saying, “I want to see how much more that can be, and you guys are going to show me!”
You write across multiple genres: what’s that like? How do you know when something’s a poem versus an essay? What do you take with you into other genres, or what do you have to leave behind?
I realized that a lot of what I know about characterization or the arc of a story comes from poetry because, if you look at it, a good poem should include an entire story in a really tight and controlled space, so every single word has to do work. When you’re cutting, you’re cutting all that stuff—“You’re not in service to me, word! Away with you!”
First of all poetry is at the root of all of it. I have a thing when I have to do a speech or something (and I’m terrified of public speaking when it’s not a reading, like, you know, a keynote address or something): I always, always, write a short poem to lead in to the thing, because it grounds me. It’s the same way going into other genres. When I wrote my first major short story, it was about a woman who was psychologically abused by her teenage son. When she went for help, she met a woman who did a poetry therapy thing, and she would go off on the days that she had it really rough, and she was keeping a notebook of poems, and that got me into the story. I realized that a lot of what I know about characterization or the arc of a story comes from poetry because, if you look at it, a good poem should include an entire story in a really tight and controlled space, so every single word has to do work. When you’re cutting, you’re cutting all that stuff—“You’re not in service to me, word! Away with you!” And so, when I’m allowed the privilege of opening one of those stories up and I have space and I can really concentrate on the characterization or the setting or things like that, poetic language comes into view. And I was surprised, because there’s always these articles that are like “10 Ways to Write a Short Story,” and so I thought there would be some technical aspect of it that I’d have to study up on, but I just did a story. And I love story. That’s what leads me to poems. A really good story is like … really? Are you kidding? And you find maybe a little snapshot of that story and you write a poem, but that doesn’t mean the whole story leaves you. So I take poetic sensibility into the story, and I let that get me through. I love describing people. I love describing characters.
And about the essay thing—it’s funny you should say that—I have this poem that’s actually in Jimi Savannah about my mother, and it’s called “Annie Pearl Upward,” and it was a little longer before, and I sent it out— I can’t remember to what magazine—and then I get this note that says, “We’ve chosen this for The Best American Essays,” and I go, “Wow. Wow! Okay!” So when I’m teaching creative non-fiction and we’re talking about lyric essays, I’m blurring that line all the time about what you can do and the chances you can take and the forms that you can write in, and sometimes prose poetry is moving its way in there and stuff. So when someone says so now write an essay, I immediately—remember when I told you that that if you first snatched a paper from me when I was first reading on stage, it’d just be this block?—I actually will write poems out and put an essay stamp on them. Folks are like, “Thanks for the essay,” and I say, “You’re welcome.” I don’t think there’s anything I wouldn’t try to write because the grounding, the poetic grounding, is so strong. I don’t think a lot of poets who say, “Well yeah, I can do poetry, but I can’t write a short story,” or “I would never try a novel.” No, no, no, no, no!
So many words!
I know it’s a lot of words, but it’s only a few at a time. And then I started reading novels that weren’t necessarily … they were more like snapshots in the life of someone. They were more like interconnected short stories, but disparate, and so the narrative arc goes through the stories, so your character starts here and ends here, but you don’t have to. The thing I hate is the pesky part when you have the storyboards and whatnot. I can’t do that.
I’m blurring that line all the time about what you can do and the chances you can take and the forms that you can write in…
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a project now that comes out of Incendiary Art, out of the “Accidental Saints” suite with the mothers. I was thinking, once everything’s over—and this came to me so clearly—she wakes up one morning and she’s got to go to the laundromat, and she hasn’t had to go to the laundromat since that happened. Or she has to go to church. Or she is lonely and she meets a man and she makes love again for the first time. And how nothing she does with the rest of her life can not be connected to her child. And so I’m starting to write a series of short stories and all the short stories have exactly the same beginning. It either comes in dreams or it’s something she’s thinking back on, and it’s the time when someone comes to the door and says … and sometimes they ring the door of a big house, sometimes they’re downstairs knocking because there’s no doorbell and the elevator doesn’t work. So it’s not the same woman all the time, but it’s the same woman in a way. And then she goes and there’s a story about the door and how this woman reacts and then there’s a story how she goes back to church or she goes to the local club to listen to the blues, and I dunno if it’s going to work. I thought about it. I put it on the shelf. I thought about it again, and I say that if something keeps coming back to me that way, that’s the thing I need to be writing …
I love collaborations, and so I have—my husband and I have—this huge collection of 19th century photos. We have cabinet cards and daguerreotypes and tintypes and things, so much so that we have no place to store them. We’ll probably wind up leaving them with someone who can store them: it’s a really large collection of African American photos. So I had proposed for a grant that I would do a series of dramatic monologues and kind of have an “Our Town” kind of thing with these photos, and have a book with these photos. And that’s a thing that draws on what I’ve learned about characterization. At first it was just gonna be photo-poem, photo-poem, but then I thought, no. Let’s have them connect somehow and have a focal point—a woman who’s a focal point—and have these other things that are written around her and these other voices around her. And if you hear me talk about any other projects besides the two I’ve just mentioned to you, stop me, because I really need to get this stuff done!
You’re a teacher now, what is the thing you try to have your students leave your class with? What’s the thing you try to gift them most earnestly?
Everyone has a passion. Everyone’s craving something. It might be something simple. It might be I need to know where I’m sleeping tonight, or it could be I want to win a Pulitzer Prize, but for a lot of my students, they don’t reach, they don’t reach far enough, their dreams are so small, it’s like they’ve kind of figured out I’m just going to dream about what I’m sure I can attain, you know. So I try to introduce them to so many different stories and different ways of telling them. Like okay, we’re going to do the book, and now we’re going to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, where you could see the guy who was waiting out in line with you come on stage and do something, and then he’s going to disappear, but you’re going to come to class the next week, and you’re going to be full of his story. Okay. So the story doesn’t have to be spectacular, you just have to tell it in a way that it’s unforgettable … so stories about people braiding hair, make me see it. One thing that has happened, and I think this is what is kind of driving me, they go, they leave, and then they show up a year two years later at a reading or someplace, and they’re like, I never forgot what you said about … so I stopped expecting the immediate payoff of in a classroom where they’re working for As.
It’s a blind faith thing in a lot of ways. I think just showing them how excited I am about what I do, and that I’m a working writer, I’m not somebody who’s looking back at the good old days, and saying “Oh, when I was …” so it makes it more immediate for them. And then to take them to see working writers who are close to them in age, who aren’t necessarily … you know, this is not a money-making enterprise. You have to really love something about it, not just the audience, because the audience is fickle. And then with each student, you kind of have to figure out what’s going to draw that particular student in. And that’s kind of like most of the work.
Who is in your poetic pantheon? Who are the writers you really feel led you to poetry, taught you how to write, move you still?
I used to have a list of people that I’d say when asked that question. And I realized I made up the list and it wasn’t the real list, and I was saying what the person who was interviewing me probably wanted to hear or what the school where I was would like me to say.
I want the true list.
Gwendolyn Brooks is on the true list. I’ve never seen anyone be able to … not tweak language, but just own it. I want to write about simple things in the way that you will not forget. I said one time in an interview that my goal was to be thought of the way Gwen Brooks was thought of, and it felt like such a travesty coming out of my mouth, but I really aspire to that level of artistry. Not adulation or anything, but just that … her stamp was on everything: you could read something that she wrote and know it’s her without her name being on it, and that’s like the ultimate to me. Stephen Dobyns: that’s my guilty (white male) pleasure. When I was just trying to surround myself with books (I was still on slam and doing that) I used to volunteer at bookstores, and there was one bookstore in Chicago where I had a lot of downtime, so I’d go to the poetry section and I’d start pulling down books. And I didn’t know who I was supposed to be reading, so I wasn’t going through picking out books. I was just like, “Let’s see,” and I’d read like the first three and just go no, yes, no, trying to kind of figure out what is that I love and why. And there was a book he wrote called Cemetery Nights, and I pulled it down and had no idea who it was. Stephen writes about those little tiny horrors—the things that happen in our lives that we rush to pave over and think, “Thank God that thing is over! I never have to look at that again!” But once you become a poet and you’re a true poet and you look over your shoulder, that pavement you think you buried something under is going like this [undulating motion]; you cannot say that you’re a poet unless you unearth those stories and see where they lead you. He was the first one that—I would just sometimes be so disturbed by things that he’d choose to write about because they were just so … It was like taking me and just being like “Look!” and because of the way he did it, I couldn’t turn away from it. And so that gave me permission: You can write about that stuff? You can go that deep? And he remains that for me. It’s sort of like your first lover, your first poet who really says this is something that I want to do with my life as opposed to something this is something I do in my spare time. And when you start to see people who have six or seven books and you go they’ve committed to this, this is what they do, you know. He was one of those first people.
I have a real affection, a real debt to the people who pump gas, school secretaries, mothers, drunks, ex-cons, who felt that they had a story that was pushing them hard enough to come and stand up in a room full of strangers, you know, and maybe come back.
And something I’ve realized lately is when I was—I’m originally from Chicago—so when I was going out and reading at a bunch of open mics and features and things like that, there were about six places every night you could read poetry. So we used to just write a poem, you’d read here, and then the whole group would just head on over to another place and you’d hear everybody’s poems. So I have a real affection, a real debt to the people who pump gas, school secretaries, mothers, drunks, ex-cons, who felt that they had a story that was pushing them hard enough to come and stand up in a room full of strangers, you know, and maybe come back. For a lot of them, that was their first real community. I can remember lines and poems from people twenty years ago. Never saw them again. They may have never come back, but the risk involved in being that naked and need[ing] to say your life out loud that way, I think that those people have probably pushed me more than anybody that I can open a book and read. I miss that. I love when you’re doing a reading and you see somebody’s eyes go, “I could! That’s happened to me, and I just didn’t know there was a way to do it.” I would love to see people run out of the reading with pens going, “Whaaaaaa!” You know? They’re more important, and I think I need to start saying that more. Because I want—I hate the phrase “ordinary people”—but I want people to see what’s accessible, what they can do, what they can reach, and how it can help them move from day to day. And maybe it turns into something, or maybe it doesn’t, but that story lasts because I still remember it.
Read more in this issue: Critical Essay | Poems | Writing Prompt
Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Associate Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014)