Patricia Smith at Canisius College Contemporary Writers
by Geoff Kelly - posted 10:59 am, February 6, 2011
She speaks from the neighborhood streets people tell you to avoid. She speaks from everyday conversation, from music, from urban decay and hope. A master of performance poetry and four-time individual National Poetry Slam champion, Patricia Smith’s work demands to be heard.
Recognized as one of the most prolific voices on the performance poetry scene, the spirit of Smith’s voice exists in the recitation of her words, which she delivers with remarkable truth and emotion. A native of Chicago, a city credited as being the birthplace of the poetry slam competition in the late 1980s, Smith is perhaps best known for her persona poems, in which she wears the veil of a character—a murder victim, an undertaker, a mother, a writer—and renders the character with an unrivaled authenticity.
Smith’s subject matter is as provocative as her performances, addressing themes dealing with urban violence, race and gender, depression and redemption. Her writing style is known for its musical quality, with a sense of rhythm that is even more apparent when she performs her work live. For Smith, written and spoken word feed off each other. Her readings are like a jazz improvisation; full of nuances, surprises, emotion, and never performed the same way twice.
In her poem “Medusa,” Smith writes from the perspective of the infamous character from Greek mythology, using her identity as a vehicle to explore sexuality and desire: “To have men never again/be able to gaze at my face/growing stupid in anticipation/of that first touch/how can any woman live like that?” It’s this element of physicality that registers with the readers, and makes Medusa seem more real, more mortal, than ever before. When read aloud by Smith, the end of the poem crescendos before hitting a barely-audible breath in the haunting last lines: “They only want to touch my face/and run their fingers through my…/my hair/is it moving?”
Her most recent collection, Blood Dazzler (Coffee House Press), was a National Book Award finalist, and provides a humanizing portrait of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Taking on the voices of Katrina victims, the Bush administration, even the perspective of Hurricane Katrina herself, Smith’s writing is emotionally charged, and at times, painful. The collection hits a powerful note with “34,” a moving requiem for 34 nursing home residents who were not evacuated from their facility during the storm and eventually drowned.
A poet, author, teacher, playwright, and former journalist, Smith is the author of five books of poetry, in addition to publishing nonfiction work, plays, a history book Africans in America (1999), and an award-winning children’s book, Janna and the Kings (2003). Her poetry has been included in journals such as The Paris Review, Poetry, TriQuarterly, and The Nation, and was featured on HBO’s award-winning Def Poetry Jam. Her collection of poetry, Teahouse of the Almighty (Coffee House Press), was a National Poetry Series award winner and recipient of the Hurston/Wright Legacy and Paterson Poetry Prize. A Pushcart Prize recipient, Smith currently serves as a Cave Canem faculty member, professor of English at CUNY Staten Island, and sought-after instructor, offering creative writing and performance workshops for all ages.
Patricia Smith will visit Canisius College on Tuesday, February 8 at 7:30pm, in the Marie Maday Theatre, as part of college’s ongoing Contemporary Writers Series. Coordinated by English professor and writer-in-residence Mick Cochrane, the Contemporary Writers Series brings renowned fiction writers and poets from the US and around the world to Canisius to read from their work and meet with literature and creative writing classes. Now in its 14th year, the Canisius College Contemporary Writers Series has showcased writers such as Tim O’Brien, Sharon Olds, Ann Patchett, Edwidge Danticat, and William Kennedy.
Following the reading will be an audience question and answer forum with Smith, a reception, and a book signing. All events are free and open to the public.