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Eye of the Hurricane 

From Blood Dazzler:

Now officially a bitch, I’m confounded by words—
all I’ve ever been is starving, fluid, and noise.
So I huff a huge sulk, thrust out my chest,
open wide my solo swallowing eye.

You must not know.
Scarlet glare fixed on the trembling crescent,

I fly.

The Hudson Valley Writers Center is housed in the retired Phillipse Manor train station, a reassuringly solid building with heavy stone pillars and burnished woodwork. It boasts a spectacular view of the Hudson, with the graceful arc of the Tappan Zee Bridge to the south. Except when a train rattles past, it’s quiet enough to hear birdsong. The air is still, spring-sweet. There is no indication at all that a storm is about to strike.

That would be slam poetry champion and National Book Award nominee Patricia Smith, as the voice and embodiment of Hurricane Katrina, channeled in Smith’s 2008 book Blood Dazzler. Moving from the storm’s perspective to a devastating roll call of human victims, Smith does not so much read her poems as inhabit them, roaring and whispering from voice to voice like a virtuoso character actress.

The Writers Center appearance is a rare touchdown at Smith’s Tarrytown home between gigs; her website itinerary lists 20 events within three months in 10 different states. She’s gotten very good at packing. “I have three piles of laundry. I get home, dump the suitcase into the hamper, and pack the next pile,” she laughs.

Five-time winner of Chicago’s Uptown Poetry Slam and four-time National Grand Slam champion, Smith favors accessible language and emotional immediacy. “She throws fierce charisma,” said Kurt Heintz, introducing her at Book of Voices; a Small Press Review critic exulted, “Smith writes the way Tina Turner sings.”

“I got my introduction to poetry by getting up on stage and doing it, and there was always a mix of people in the audience—ex-cons, people who bag groceries in the supermarket, people with kids. There’s something in poetry for just about everybody,” she says. The eclectic mix matters. “It’s easy to kind of huddle around other people who are doing what you’re doing and feel safe.”

Safe is not Smith’s flavor. Her poems employ a vast range of personae: child molesters, gang members, politicians, even storms (Katrina revels in “The difference in a given name. What the calling,/the hard K, does to the steel of me,/how suddenly and surely it grants me/pulse, petulance. Now I can do/my own choking”.) This might seem audacious, but Smith shrugs it off. “The persona gets the poet out of the way. It takes courage in one way, but if the audience doesn’t like it, you can comfort yourself that it’s the persona they don’t like, not the poem. The greater challenge is writing through your own life and being completely honest.”

“Honesty” is a loaded word. While Smith made a name for herself on the slam circuit, she earned a living as a journalist, first at the Chicago Daily News, where she started out as a part-time typist, and then at the Boston Globe, for which she wrote hundreds of columns. She wrote with a raw intensity that garnered her a nomination for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize, later withdrawn when the paper confirmed rumors that she’d fabricated sources and quotations in some of her columns.

Smith’s final column, “A Patricia Note of Apology,” took it on the chin: “As anyone who’s ever touched a newspaper knows, that’s one of the cardinal sins of journalism: Thou shall not fabricate. No exceptions. No excuses.” She told readers, “I wanted the pieces to jolt. So I tweaked them to make sure they did. It didn’t happen often, but it did happen.” (Website called “It didn’t happen often” her farewell lie, claiming as many as 20 columns cited undocumented sources.)

The fallout was massive. Smith lost her job amid a firestorm of public humiliation; the resulting stress destroyed her first marriage and jeopardized her health. But by the end of the year, she’d funneled these experiences into an evening-long performance at the Chicago Cultural Center on themes of self-
destruction, betrayal, and redemption, receiving a tumultuous standing ovation.

A decade later, asked if she misses being a journalist, Smith replies with a raucous “Naah!” She’s come to see the experience as a baptism by fire. “It was basically like a blowtorch, burning everything flat, and showing me what kind of writing I was meant to be doing. I wish I had learned it in some other way, but everything I’m doing now comes from that.”

Speaking of...

  • Nina Shengold profiles slam poet Patricia Smith­.


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