the louderARTS Project

Patricia Smith

"She is a testament to the power of words to change lives."
---Emily Van Hazing, Fitchburg MA Sentinel/Enterprise
"Smith epitomizes what a performance poet should be: supremely confident, radiating with presence, drilling each word for precise effect, no nuance of inflection too small for consideration. Perhaps the greatest irony is that her talent for performance often eclipses her writing ability--which is, likewise, immense."
---Victor Infante, Orange County Weekly
"Reading poems like these, overflowing with life but contained by art, makes us all feel a little bit helpless. These poems are blessings that will move like white light through your veins."
--Kay Murphy, American Book Review
"Excerpts from Ms. Smith's published works pour forth words in their succulence, a 'necessary music' to evoke the sensual awakenings of a black woman... opens theater to the sound of playful, exploratory language that says something and sounds funny and fine saying it."
--Alvin Klein, The New York Times
"Smith writes the way Tina Turner sings."
--E. Ethelbert Miller, Small Press Review
"Your audience gave the best feedback through their tears and their applause, but here's mine for what it's were the zenith in the emotional arch of our gathering. You will be the single guest everyone in that audience will clearly recall a decade from now."
--Letter from Linda Smith, creative director, Hallmark Cards

An award-winning poet, playwright, journalist and performer, Patricia Smith is a renaissance artist of undeniable and unmistakable signature. She has done it all, and she has done it fiercely and well--it began with the realization that the word, in all its glorious incarnation, was always her most faithful and unflinching ally.

As a performance poet: Smith has read her work at the Poets Stage in Stockholm, Rotterdam's Poetry International Festival, the Aran Islands International Poetry and Prose Festival, Expo 90 in Osaka, the Bahia Festival, the Sorbonne in Paris and on tour in Germany, Austria and Holland. In 2002, she took the stage at Carnegie Hall as part of jazz innovator Bill Cole's 60th birthday celebration. She has also performed in a number of major American academic and performance venues including Bumbershoot, the Writers Voice, South by Southwest Music Festival, the Bisbee Poetry Festival, St. Mark's Poetry Project, Black Roots at the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center, the Painted Bride, and on tour with Lollapalooza. Smith has shared the stage with Adrienne Rich, Sharon Olds, Allen Ginsburg, Walter Mosley, Joyce Carol Oates, Ntozake Shange, Gwendolyn Brooks and Galway Kinnell. She was featured in the nationally-released film "Slamnation," recently appeared on an episode of the HBO series "Def Poetry Jam," and performed the poem "Awakening" at the 1991 inauguration of Mayor Richard Daley in Chicago.

Smith is four-time national individual champion of the notorious and wildly popular poetry slam, an energized competition where poets are judged on the content and performance of their work. In 1997, she "tied" with Jimmy Santiago Baca for the Taos Poetry Circle World Heavyweight Championship of Poetry, in what organizers have called the bout's most controversial decision.

In 1998, Smith began collaborating with musicians in order to break new ground during her performances--an experiment which has led to two immensely rewarding alliances. She now frequently appears with her band Bop Thunderous; the group has just completed a self-titled debut CD. She is also a vocalist with Paradigm Shift, a stellar improvisational jazz group whose members have worked with Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.

Recordings of Patricia Smith's work can be found on the CD "Always in the Head" (Wordsmith Press), as well as in the compilations "Grand Slam," "A Snake in the Heart" "By Someone's Good Graces" and "Lip." A short film of Smith performing the poem "Undertaker," produced by San Francisco's Tied to the Tracks Films, won awards at the Sundance and San Francisco Film Festivals and earned a prestigious Cable Ace Award as part of the Lifetime Network's first annual Women's Film Festival.

As a published poet: Smith is the author of three volumes of poetry--Close to Death (Zoland Books), Big Towns, Big Talk (Zoland Books) and Life According to Motown (Tia Chucha). In reviewing Close to Death for Library Journal, Louis McKee said, "...souls rage from the hellfire of the streets, and Smith effectively captures the language and urgency, the rhythms and fury." In her review of Big Towns in Choice, Maria Gillan wrote, "The voices that emerges in her poems is strong, fearless and passionate."

Smith's poems have been published in The Paris Review, TriQuarterly,AGNI and other literary journals, and in the anthologies Bum Rush the Page,The Garden Thrives, Children Remember Their Fathers, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, Aloud: Voices from Nuyorican Poets Café, Revival: Spoken Word from Lollapalooza, Unsettling America, Spirit and Flame and Power Lines. She has won the prestigious Carl Sandburg Award, as well as a literary award from the Illinois Arts Council and an honorary degree from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Smith is currently compiling a book of collected works, as well as two new books, Cracked Love and Teahouse of the Almighty.

As a playwright/performer: In 2003, The Play Company in New York City will produce "Professional Suicide," a one-woman show that got its start during the summer of 2001 while Smith was writer-in-residence at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Ct.

Selections from Smith's poetry volumes were previously adapted for the theater and presented as a solo performance piece, produced by Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott and performed at both Boston University Playwrights Theater and the historic Trinidad Theater Workshop. Another play based on Life According to Motown was staged by Company One Theater in Hartford, Ct. and reviewed favorably in The New York Times.

As an author/journalist: Smith was the author of Africans in America, a chronicle of slavery in this country and the companion volume to the groundbreaking four-part PBS series. Publishers Weekly called Africans "a monumental research effort wed with fine writing...ultimately shaped by Smith's beautiful narrative," and Michelle Cliff of the San Jose Mercury News said, "With its vivid language and historical integrity, Africans in America is a major contribution to this country's written history."

Smith was a staff columnist for Ms. Magazine, as well as columnist-at-large for Her essays will be featured in two upcoming anthologies: Convictions and Seasons of the Day: African-American Women on Motherhood.

A newspaper journalist for 20 years, Smith was most recently a city columnist at the Boston Globe. During her tenure as a reporter and columnist, she won honors from the National Society of Black Journalists, a distinguished writing award for commentary and column writing from the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and in 1998 she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in commentary.

As a teacher and lecturer: Smith teaches writing during residences and conferences and speaks often in schools, hoping to foster a love for the energy of the written word. She has taught poetry and memoir writing at the Writers Voice in New York, and was an instructor in the Cave Canem program for African-American writers. Her favorite audience of all time was the 6th grade class at Lillie C. Evans Elementary School, Dade County, Miami.

For Brother Blue

Every little colored girl needs a colored man who loves her unconditionally, who treasures her frailties, her sins, the mistakes she makes just pulling in one breath and pushing out the next. She needs someone who knows how her heart bends almost to the point of breaking. What she needs is a lanky, loquacious griot swathed in all the colors the sky has been, a man whose feet never bother to reach the ground, and couldn't if they wanted to, because of all the glittering butterflies lifting him up. What every little colored girl is a man who spots her in a crushing crowd, pushes and pummels to reach her side, and then says • in response to everything she has ever done and ever will do • "You leave me breathless."

And that moment, like so many others, becomes a story. It sprouts a spirit and he tells it to her, arcing over her awe, showering her with spittle and spirit. She thinks of turning away because she is awkward under this, this being the fuel for each sputtered syllable. "You are wondrous, the things that you are," he says. "You are a phoenix. You rise and rise, and never stop rising." She becomes, in turn, a tigress, an angel, a ship on turbulent waters, a goddess, a relentless flame, a star, a scared little colored girl, a blue bird with wings that can circle the world. He makes her all of these things, because in this moment, in this place, he is crafting a gospel, a religion. Butterflies are lifting her up. His loving her knows no questions, is pure madness. He says, "The sun shines because you are in the world," and she does not laugh. No one else could say that and make it so true.

She notices her skin straining toward indigo.

What happens because he is in the world? Because he is here, all spinning verb and flame, stories beg to be told. From creaking Delta porches to the city's insistent stone, we are what has happened to us. We are what is around us, we are our histories and what we see when we stare through the stars. He is the way to give voice to this. His lap is where we sit as he tells us who we are.

"I wish I had known your father," he says. This is often not connected to anything else he has said or anything he will say. He knows that her father died long ago, and that this is what drives her to rhymes, that constant bending of her heart. He knows that he can be a million fathers to her, just not the one she wants. He even stands with her as a father would, grasping both of her hands tightly, his lanky body wedged between her and the world.

She loves him for this.

For course, she has written a poem for him. She wanted more, but words were all she could find to use.

Did you speak out the stars? Is that your song?
The twist of twilight from its glory orange heat
to whisper colors--was that your work?
It must have been your fingers that coaxed
the stubborn skin of morning to this softness.

The words were huge in her heart, but they were simply angles and curves and pauses on a too-white page, each word woefully unable to hold what she owed him.

Were you the father of this midnight, did you
pull me into this cradle of bunched starlight
and hold me there, weaving the sleepy color brown--
the color of my face, my knees, my hair--
into the patchwork of passage, into the jumbled quilt
of days that can no longer be reached for, or touched?

She keeps writing the damned thing over and over. She is angry because the poem will not pull him into the circle of its arms.

When my body stutters and I cry hallelujah
into the moon's many mouths, is that you crafting
those syllables of steam? Beneath your gentle mercies
I am convinced that Jesus breathes his shaking
into simple things--wood, candles, a toddling child.

She is angry because it is not colored blue.

And I know now that the stars--mystified by their
own unbridled fire, already drunk with blazing--
sprang from your throat. You knew how often
I would gaze upon their shifting light, how my eyes
would choke on their bright singing, how they would
pulse with glowing even after the both of us are gone.

She wonders if she will ever write anything that huge enough for him.

Because she steps down from the stage and he is there. In the room full of so many people, they are alone, and his blaring light won't stop rushing over her. She tries to speak, to answer in some way, but any word she manages is only half of what it should be. This is a story that will not end until she does, and that is unthinkable to him, so he blesses her with a voice that can strike down injustice, hair that is twisted from threads of silk, claws strong enough to clutch the sleek sides of mountains. He clasps both her hands, as if their skins touching were essential to the story, and on the back of his she sees ragged butterflies bleeding blue ink. She imagines him every dawn, crouching at a window that seeps newborn sun, filling in the wings with a ballpoint that is soon drained. He ritually stains his skin, laughs aloud as his hands take flight.

"I can teach you to fly," he says. She thinks only daddies can do that.

Spindly arms jut out at his sides; he flaps once, throws back his head and laughs. The blue beret doesn't teeter, never teeters. "I can teach you because you have taught me."

Now she is his teacher. His words come faster now. There is a message he has for her, something he senses she needs to know, and he will hold her hands until it comes. Never mind that the world insists on moving on around them, without them.

"You are beautiful!" he says now, and they stand there, their souls fused, curious, but not impossible. After all, inked wings flutter on the back of a bluesman's hand. Stories move the world forward. Every colored girl needs. And the next day--still warm within the circle of him--she sits down, picks up a pen that flows blue, and writes this.

© Patricia Smith

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