On Oct. 4, hollers and enthusiastic finger-snaps resounded in Lisser Hall as poet Patricia Smith took the stage to perform and discuss her work. Smith is the author of eight poetry collections. Her most recent work is the multi-award winning collection “Incendiary Art,” which the Kenyon Review calls “a book of terrible beauty, opulent brutality, immersed in the contradictions that kindle in and around and in reaction to Black lives and deaths.”
After performing a handful of her poems, including an ode to the turmoil of being thirteen and a eulogy for jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie, Smith was joined in conversation by Mills professor Elmaz Abinader. Smith and Abinader are longtime friends, as well as collaborators in the Voices of Our Nation workshop for writers of color, which Abinader co-founded in 1999 and Smith has taught at for many years.
Abinader’s first question to Smith, in reference to a public humanities project connecting Mills students to art in Oakland and beyond, was “What does the phrase ‘We are the voices we have been waiting for’ mean to you?”
In response, Smith talked about listening to her father’s stories about his day as a child, saying, “It taught me that there were other ways to look at story besides what I was or was not learning in school, you know? And so, to me, from the beginning, it became something that we spoke to each other … and so I never thought of it as something that a privileged few have access to.”
Abinader also asked Smith about her transition “from stage to page,” entering the more traditional poetry world after getting her start in slam poetry. Smith spoke about the tension she faced in these formalized poetry spaces, saying, “I had to keep my label. It was like, ‘Here’s a famous poet, here’s a famous poet, here’s a famous poet—here’s Patricia Smith, slam poet.’ I started publishing books and everything, and it was still, ‘Oh, you’re that slam person.’ So to them, it was a way to discredit me and keep me in my place, because I didn’t come up what they saw as being the normal way.”
Her strategy for fighting against this: “The best revenge is the work. If you can’t argue with my work, I don’t have to say anything.” She advises other slam poets to remember that “this is a stepping stone to something else. Don’t live there. Don’t let them put you in there and keep you there.”
As a professor at the College of Staten Island, Smith is used to advising aspiring writers. One piece of advice that Smith both gives to her students and tries to apply to her own work: start writing when you feel uncomfortable. She says writers hesitate to do this because “we get to a certain point and we say, ‘I’m hurting right here, this is the bottom of where I can go.’ And you know instinctively there’s more, but you just don’t do that. I want to see it as ugly as it can get. That’s what going to change me if I’m going to change. That’s what’s going to make me speak out if I’m going to speak out.”