The Job of a Poet Is to Witness

A conversation with Patricia Smith, winner of the 2021 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.
Headshot of Patricia Smith looking into the camera.

In contemporary American poetry, all roads lead to Patricia Smith. Look, maybe some of y’all are content with unproductive detours, lyric byways, and formal parking lots, but I’m a writer and a reader who wants to go to where the action is. Patricia Smith is that mecca, that metropolis, that neon city shining atop a jet-black hill. We go to the city because of a hunger for infinite possibilities. I read, learn from, and shout her poems for the same reason.

Let me count the ways.

With her poem “Skinhead”—an instant classic whose meaning only deepens as America continues to curdle—she changed the way many of us thought of persona poetry, its uses and its potential. Find me a contemporary poet who effectively uses persona poetry and I guarantee you they owe Smith a debt (whether they know it or not).

With Blood Dazzler (2008), nominated for the National Book Award, Smith built on her extensive use of persona and flexed her interest in formal poetry, all while drawing from the rich tradition of documentary poetry to illuminate the story of a natural disaster that became a manmade disaster, and then an American tragedy.

Let’s talk about her use of form.

When I say she “flexed her interest in formal poetry,” I mean she decided to become one of the best to ever do it. To read her formal work is to hear Smith saying, “If I can do this, you can too—write that sestina, write that sonnet, write that crown of sonnets, no door will ever be closed to us again.” A liberating politic runs through her work like electricity that powers every line and image. You always have a good time reading (or watching Smith read) her work, but it’s also true that the work acts upon you. You’re not the same person after encountering a Smith poem.

In collections such as Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), winner of the Lenore Marshall Prize, and Incendiary Art, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, she demands that we understand our histories don’t just live in us; in fact, our histories have heat, and many of us are already on fire. Whether retracing the migration that brought her family to the South Side of Chicago, meditating on the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, or considering the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, Smith demonstrates a gift for using poetry’s many seductions to reckon with stories many readers might otherwise sidestep. Poetry, in Smith’s hands, has jazz and wit and verve and unforgettable beauty—and an agenda. In poem after poem, over the course of a glorious career, Smith has used her art to liberate herself.

And that’s why we’re all here: To get free, to see new ways of living, to fall in love with a kind of life we couldn’t find back home, to arm ourselves with new knowledge, music, and cravings. Smith is the recipient of the 2021 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize because her career is one of the best things that has ever happened to us.

Your work draws from history, from journalism, from news. When do you know you have enough to actually sit down and write a poem?

I start writing first, and then I figure out what the poem needs. For instance, when I was writing about Hurricane Katrina, I realized that about 800 people were running to their keyboards at the same time, with the same ideas. So, I had to constantly think about signature. The process is first: get the story down. That might involve writing that looks like stream of consciousness, or like a big block of prose. And the second thing is language, and that's when I get closer to saying, OK, this is ready. If I've heard it before, I take it out.


A lot of the research is: What has no one heard? What has no one read? What's a detail that might be on the periphery of the story? That's a great entry point. You're trying to upend expectations for the poem, from both the reader and from yourself. I think every person has a signature, and it evolves as you do. I mean, that's why you put your poem down next to Yusef Komunyakaa's without your name on it, looking to identify which is yours and which is his. When I was doing the Katrina thing, I didn't do news research. I tried to find people that nobody saw. Or voices nobody heard. So that's what led to the personification of the storm [in Blood Dazzler]. And once I had that, a lot of other poems opened up.

Blood Dazzler strikes me as a turning point in your career, both in terms of its critical reception and in your use of formal poetry. Do you know that you’re going to write a villanelle or a sestina or whatever before you sit down to work?

I worked on Blood Dazzler while I was in my MFA program. It was my thesis. And how I think about prosody and form is: you learn them and you put them in your toolbox. So, if I'm talking about Ethel Freeman, an elderly woman, I'm gonna look at my toolbox for a form that has a bit of repetition, because elderly people circle around phrasing in their language all the time. OK, which repetitive form, or a form based on repetition, am I going to choose for her? The sestina seemed fine. It's a matter of figuring out what the poem is asking for, and not just saying I'm gonna write a sestina because I haven't written one in a while. You use form to bolster the narrative of the poem.

When you're first learning things, you go, "I just wrote a sestina, and it's gonna be called 'Sestina,' because I want y'all to know that I work here now." And that was fun; you work through it; then you figure out how to crack the rules a little bit. But you want a bulging toolbox, because a lot of people are carrying around poems that don't work, have never worked. They don't know why they don't work; they take them into workshops; they get a little satisfied; they bring them out; they're still not working. And I think it might be because the poem is sometimes asking for something you do not yet know how to do. And you owe it to your poems to broaden your skill set.

I want to talk about "Skinhead." That poem is, and will continue to be, an American classic. And it's a lot of people's introduction to your body of work. I want to talk about your relationship to it, because it's not just that it’s aging well, but that it's beginning to feel prophetic.

I had seen this story about somebody painting a swastika on Plymouth Rock. White people lost their minds. They didn't find the specific person responsible, but they found a representative of this group called the White Youth League. And so somebody interviewed this guy, and he spewed all this hatred: "I hate Blacks, I hate Jews, I hate gays." And, you know, you can either read that and say, “What an idiot!” and go on with your day, or "I agree with him!" and go on with your day. The job of a poet is to witness.

For some reason, that man and I both started here, but he went that way and I went this way. My idea was not to try to humanize him, but to bring us back to center. That poem was really kind of frightening to me. I guess the reason it worked well onstage is because you hear this stuff come from a Black woman's mouth, and there's this weird tension in that. But, also, when you do a persona, you have to be willing for the persona to say, "Oh, no, no, no, this is who I am." It’s a weird thing when you open your body to somebody else's story.

Something takes over.

That was the beginning of me thinking of poetry as a political weapon. That’s really been clarified lately because truth has been in such short supply. I went to Germany once, and there was a group of poets on a train, going through the German countryside. They would get off and everyone had decorated the town. People would sing, and there was food, and they would do poetry and get back on the train to go to the next town. I was in Berlin when the train came back for the last time. And there were so many people on the platform they had to shut down operations.

People were carrying placards with poets' faces on them and lines from poems. And then they opened the doors and the platform was so crowded they passed poets out over their heads. And I thought, there are some places where you go to the news for the news, and to the poets for the truth.

Can you talk about the responses of white people when you’ve read "Skinhead," or another poem that interrogates race and history?

I'm not from the Gulf region, and I don't have relatives from the Gulf region. So, when I read from Blood Dazzler, I was very concerned about not being an authority. I’m one voice writing about [Hurricane Katrina]. I am not the story. And, so, I was reading, and I could see—because I'm very aware of my audience—this woman, this white woman, kind of squirming around and looking at her watch. I didn't think anything of it. Afterwards, I talked to her. I was very nice. I said, "I noticed you were a little, you know..." And she got very Karen-ish. She said, "Well, I don't know. They had Mardi Gras, didn't they?" She had seen some pictures of people nailing stuff together in the French Quarter, and she thought, "Well, that's good. New Orleans is OK now." There were a lot of people like her who just wanted it to be gone. They didn't want to think about the Black mamas being lifted up in baskets. They were looking to get on to the next thing. I don't want to give you a chance to get out of a poem like that.


I think a lot of white folks, in particular, come to my work looking to hear a Black person say that it's OK not to pay attention. When I wrote Incendiary Art, my first couple of readers were like, there's no light in here. I realized that when I did readings, if I looked out, and there was an all-Black audience, I would do my Black poems, and we would have a good time. For a white audience—and this is unforgivable—I would do poems about visiting the Louvre and things like that. I was underestimating the intelligence of the Black audience. And there's no learning going on. There's no discomfort in that. We find too many ways out of what we should be looking at intensely and living with, and we shouldn't be able to find a way out. That's what keeps us from having to deal with things. So, when I do readings, a lot of white folks pat me on the back: "Thank you for giving us the urban viewpoint"—you know, shit like that. And all of us are guilty of wanting out, but I've had a couple of experiences like that, where I feel kind of like their Black pet, their Black friend.

I don't need light anymore. It's hard for me to write light. When I feel light, I go out and do fun stuff. But when shit comes down, I need to go write some poetry.

I've seen you read many times, in many places, and I'm always struck by your gift to make every person in the audience feel like an old friend. Which, to your point, is like saying, we're gonna do some work; we're not here for the light, we're about to do something together.

I read at Harvard once, and it was so early, early enough that I thought, "Oh, God," you know? It was a small room. So, I'm reading, and some people walk in; they go up to the front of the room and make a bustle, and so I stopped and said, "We OK now? We done?" And I started reading again. At the end, somebody said, "Do you know who that was?" And I said no. And they said, "Well, that was Stephen Breyer." I thought my taxes were gonna be messed up for years or some shit. You know, what was I supposed to do? Bow?

Supreme Court Justices can sit at the back, too.

Not too long ago I went to the United Arab Emirates. I was in Abu Dhabi. It was night, and I was onstage. It was totally dark, but there were these floodlights coming up from the stage.  And in the middle of it, I thought about my father. Because when I said, "Oh, I want to be a writer," and my mother was like [blows raspberry], my father was the first person to say, "Well, you can do anything you want." So, every once in a while, I feel him very intensely in a space. And there I was someplace I'd never thought I would be. It felt like I was standing on a curve of the world, you know. I've been all over doing this stuff, and it felt like my realization that I had made the right choice.

What have you learned over the last year and a half, now that you're in your office, reading to a screen? What has that taught you?

When I'm in front of a live audience, there's an idea about growing a community. I want people to realize that, in a way, I'm not doing anything they can't do. That's of utmost importance: not to say I am poet, you are audience, blah, blah, blah. I think that's what I have in mind when I'm looking at the screen too: that somebody is right on the verge. Somebody is looking insane, you know, thinking "I'm carrying this heavy-ass story," or "I'm carrying this story that I can't shake and I don't know what to do with it." People think poets have a life that they can't get, or that there’s something magic in us.

I had a friend who I used to go everywhere with, and I got invited to read at the Library of Congress. [Former US Poet Laureate] Natasha Trethewey brought in Luis Rodriguez, Kevin Young, a bunch of people, to read. So, we do this reading, and I'm like, oh fuck, I’m sitting in Natasha's chair, in the Library of Congress, whirling around and shit. My friend kind of blew me off after that. When I confronted her, she said, "Well, you know, I got this feeling that you have other kinds of friends now." I said, “You actually thought I was gonna forget our friendship just because I know Natasha Trethewey?” A lot of people think there are these rungs that we go up and we leave everything behind. I've had someone ask me, "Why are you still messing with these kids, these slam folks?" Or, “You don't have to be on social media." I know I don't have to. There's nothing that clicks and says, OK, now isolate yourself. Be a diva. There's just constant fun in this. And that's the joy, the tunnel of energy that keeps going back and forth. And it's on a screen just as well.

I think of you as one of the goddesses of persona poetry. Given that we’re more thoughtful about cultural appropriation now, have your thoughts about persona poems changed? Has the way you approach the form changed?

It’s not the way that I approach it, it's the way that I approach people who do it. I've had someone, a white person, come up to me and say, "I'm writing about the short time that I spent in jail, and this Black guy who was my cellmate. Does this ring true to you?" I said, "I wasn't in the cell with you." You know, I don't have a stamp that I put on all Black voices to say, "Yes, that's it, that's it." So, I started to ask a question when people approached me: Do you have a Black character in your novel or your short story? And are they there for any other reason than you need a Black thing to happen to them? The issue is not so much taste now but gumption.

The nerve!

It's not just doing it; it's being able to tell me why you're doing it. A lot of people say, "Well, I'm a writer, and I have a right to..." And that's exactly the wrong way. You've gotta have an answer for it—not just because it’s trendy, not because you need them to be a carjacker or something. Why did you make that choice? Let's have a discussion about that.

If a poet considers herself a witness, you can't put a border around what she witnesses. Now, she can be corrected by people who were actually there, and that's fine. I'm looking for that. But making sure your work is the best it can be is the best revenge, you know.

What’s an artistic project you still dream of taking on?

Well, when we did Blood Dazzler at the Harlem Stage, that was amazing because I got to see the physical embodiment of the poems. You know how poets are; we're like, "Let's put on a show!" I would have loved to broaden that and continue it because people really responded to it. But I ran smack dab into the financial aspect: dancers and musicians got to get paid.


Poets, you know, we all have other jobs. I would love to see Gotta Go Gotta Flow (2015), a book about dancers in 1970s Chicago blues clubs, develop into a stage thing, with all the personalities, the poems, the dancing, the music, the sharkskin pants. And the book that I have in the transom, a poetry book, is dramatic monologues with 19th-century photos of Black Americans.

Poets have huge dreams, but we have to have funding. I’m still a little shy talking about money. I can easily say, "This is what I would like to do, what would it take?" And that's one of the purposes of community. There are people who know exactly step one, step two, step three. I need to get better at that.

I've also got a Motown thing in my head. For instance—and this is not Motown—I used to be fascinated by Little Richard. He was on Arsenio Hall once. I was in another room, and I was like, "Who's making all that noise?" I went into the living room, and he was doing his, you know, "I'm the architect of rock'n'roll, blah, blah, blah." So, I wrote something in his voice. But it was kind of that joyous, flamboyant voice. What you're not seeing is this old man who, when the show is over, goes into a room with unforgiving fluorescent lights and peels off three layers of makeup, and the spandex underneath his pants, and the pointy-toe crocodile clickers he's got on, and becomes who he really is. All of my ideas about life and love and romance were pretty much defined by whatever Motown song was on at the time. I love me a begging man song.

There was a deep loneliness that Little Richard was working against. It was exciting and entertaining, but it was always with deep sadness.

He worked so hard on that persona.

And it wore him out.

That’s what I'm always telling my students: We are given a bill of goods. These people work hard on how we see them, but there's always an underbelly. And sometimes that's where your best work lies. You know, like, Olive Oyl. The fuck? Who's Olive Oyl? Why is she on the docks? Where her people?


Whose baby is Sweet Pea? Nobody knows.

No! Why is she on the docks?

Why is she on the docks? She stay on the docks. And then she goes and gets abused by Bluto. Ideas like that is what keeps the slate clean every day; just stuff that pops into your head. I wake up and can't think of anything else I would rather be doing because we're just idea machines. I mean, right now you must have more ideas than you can write.

Probably. Yes.

And I'm older. So, I start thinking, shit, I'm gonna be dead before I can write all this stuff.

Originally Published: September 14th, 2021

Saeed Jones was born in Memphis and raised in Lewisville, Texas. His poems often examine race, desire, power, and grief, and incorporate mythology as well as what he calls “black iconography.” In a 2014 interview for PEN America, Jones stated, “I’m obsessed with manhood as a brutal and artful performance....