Patricia Smith: An American poet

Visiting writer addresses sex, Katrina, and childhood

Patrick Gage Kelley Nov 13, 2006

She runs in and sneaks to her seat against a wall in the “front” of the recently rearranged Maggie Murph Cafe as if hoping to be unnoticed, possibly as an attendee of her own reading. However, Patricia Smith — a four-time individual champion of the National Poetry Slam — is unlikely to remain hidden in any room for long.

She takes the podium, starting slowly. She introduces the first poem she will read to her packed corner of Hunt Library. It’s the poem she always reads first, inspired by Nicole, a sixthgrade student who wanted to be taught poetry so she could write about her mother, who died only a week before. And as the reading begins, she erupts into a different person.

As the glasses come off, she becomes the characters in the poems she reads: the children she teaches, older men she honors, victims of Katrina, younger and older versions of herself. Smith moves the audience from smiles to laughter both in her poetry and through conversation. She says, “We are having a party for her [Smith’s granddaughter] where everyone has to wear red,” to celebrate her transformation into a woman, the lead-up to a poem chronicling the blood of a woman throughout her life.

Her poems tell the stories of America: scenes of reality told through the voices of those who are living it. As the evening continues, the conversation is spotted with poetry, which is itself sprinkled with rhythmic screaming. Her eyes are squeezed shut as she opens her mouth into an expanse that beats into the microphone. The energy rises until she announces: “I am not going right into the masturbation poem after that.”

So after a brief pause she recites the evening’s centerpiece, a poem describing her experiences with self-pleasuring, in which she mentions the world record for multiple orgasms in an hour. A young man in the crowd with a dark grey Adidas asks, “Do you have that woman’s number?” Displaying the wit of a poet trained to act in front of a live audience, Smith replies quickly: “He is trying to get her digits! She don’t need you.” The crowd rises up with a chorus of schoolgirl giggles.

From here the subject matter shifts toward the serious. Smith performs a series of five poems about the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans. These best illustrate her ability to represent a variety of characters: from her portrait of Ethel Freeman, the 91-year-old woman who — left dead in her wheelchair — became an image of the poorly handled relief effort, to her 34-verse memorial for the 34 residents left to drown at St. Rita’s Nursing Home. While the devastation of Katrina has become a popular device for many artists, Smith brings to her poetry a characterization which truly defines her work, impassioning the audience as she moves through her thoughts on Hurricane Katrina, “the blood dazzler.”

Smith ends the evening with a description of her relationship with her father before reading “Hot Water Cornbread,” a narrative recollection of his presence in her childhood, of his teaching her to cook as they danced in the kitchen to the disapproval of her mother. He asked her that, when she became a famous writer, she mention the evenings they spent together. As the words of her poem dance between his death and their culinary lessons together, she creates one more portrait of humanity in this bittersweet closing, honoring her father’s inspirational request.