Visiting Poets

Patricia Smith

Patricia Smith

A four-time individual champion on the National Poetry Slam and featured poet on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, Patricia Smith found her voice at the heart of the Chicago slam poetry scene that took off in the 1980s. Born and raised in Chicago in 1955 and widely known as a persona poet, Smith has said that she began to writing in others’ voices to combat the isolation and loneliness of being the only child of over-protective parents. Her personae—including Medusa, Little Richard, Emmett Till, a Skinhead, and victims of Hurricane Katrina—cross racial, historical, and class boundaries, and often confronting adversity and hardship; they give voice to unspoken stories and hidden truths. She has said she “made a commitment that there was nothing I wouldn’t write about.”

Poet, teacher, and performance artist, “Smith is herself a storm of beautiful, frightening talent,” observed Terrance Hayes. She has brought her poems to venues across the globe, including the Poets Stage in Stockholm, Rotterdam’s Poetry International Festival, and the Aran Islands International Poetry and Prose Festival. While performance is intrinsic to her work, she seamlessly reconciles the page with the stage, giving vitality and urgency to both the written and the spoken. As Kurt Heintz reflected, Smith “proved that slam could exceed its saloon origins and engage the literate public.”

The author of five books of poetry, most recently Blood Dazzler, a 2008 National Book Award Finalist, Smith’s other honors include a National Poetry Series selection for Teahouse of the Almighty and a Carl Sandburg Literary Award for Big Towns, Big Talk. She has written and performed two one-woman plays, one of which was produced by Derek Walcott’s Trinidad Theater Workshop, and is currently working on a verse memoir and a young adult novel. A proud Cave Canem faculty member, Smith also teaches English at CUNY/College of Staten Island, and serves on the faculty of the Stonecoast Low-Residency MFA program at the University of Southern Maine.

Select Poems

Hurricanes, 2005

Arlene learned to dance backwards in heels that were too high.

Bret prayed for a shaggy mustache made of mud and hair.

Cindy just couldn’t keep her windy legs together.

Dennis never learned to swim.

Emily whispered her gusts into a thousand skins.

Franklin, farsighted and anxious, bumbled villages.

Gert spat her matronly name against a city’s flat face.

Harvey hurled a wailing child high.

Irene, the baby girl, threw pounding tantrums.

José liked the whip sound of slapping.

Lee just craved the whip.

Maria’s thunder skirts flew high when she danced.

Nate was mannered and practical. He stormed precisely.

Ophelia nibbled weirdly on the tips of depressions.

Philippe slept too late, flailing on a wronged ocean.

Rita was a vicious flirt. She woke Philippe with rumors.

Stan was born business, a gobbler of steel.

Tammy crooned country, getting the words all wrong.

Vince died before anyone could remember his name.

Wilma opened her maw wide, flashing rot.

None of them talked about Katrina.

She was their odd sister,

the blood dazzler.

From BLOOD DAZZLER (Coffee House Press, 2008)

Go. He say it simple, gray eyes straight on and watered,

he say it in that machine throat they got.

On the wall behind him, there’s a moving picture

of the sky dripping something worse than rain.

Go, he say. Pick up y’all black asses and run.

Leave your house with its splinters and pocked roof,

leave the pork chops drifting in grease and onion,

leave the whining dog, your one good watch,

that purple church hat, the mirrors.

Go. Uh-huh. Like our bodies got wheels and gas,

like at the end of that running there’s an open door

with dry and song inside. He act like we supposed

to wrap ourselves in picture frames, shadow boxes,

and bathroom rugs, then walk the freeway, racing

the water. Get on out. Can’t he see that our bodies

are just our bodies, tied to what we know?

Go. So we’ll go. Cause the man say it strong now,

mad like God pointing the way outta Paradise.

Even he got to know our favorite ritual is root,

and that none of us done ever known a horizon,

especially one that cools our dumb running,

whispering urge and constant: This way. Over here.

From BLOOD DAZZLER (Coffee House Press, 2008)

it made, heaven’s seam splitting?

Was the sound purple?

The sound was purple,

throbbing like a new-torn wound

under August drape.

Under August drape,

Miss Katrina’s swollen gaze

considered bodies.

Consider bodies,

already filled with water

but secure in bone.

Secure in its bone,

a squat building shit bricks.

The sound was purple.

The sound was purple.

And only mutts, priestesses,

and tree trunks heard it.

Tree trunks heard it

ripping spit through matted leaves.

Wind found its color.

Wind found its color

and cast an eerie alto

to the first plops of rain

To the first plops of rain,

add the sound of purple,

shitted bricks losing bone,

the seam splitting and finally spilling


already filled with water.

From BLOOD DAZZLER (Coffee House Press, 2008)

Poetry Center Reading

Fall 2011