Patricia Smith is that rare poet who has succeeded in both the realms of spoken word and published poetry. Four-time National Individual Grand-Slam Champion (an unsurpassed achievement), her work has appeared in Poetry, Paris Review, Best American Poetry and many other prestigious journals and anthologies and her collection Blood Dazzler was a National Book Award finalist. Her career would seem to render moot the whole page vs. stage debate.
Listen to her at the 2008 Dodge Poetry Festival read “34,” which gets its title from the number of drowned bodies found in St. Rita’s Nursing Home in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“34” is one of the poems in Blood Dazzler, a book-length sequence on Hurricane Katrina. This poem, in which she briefly speaks for each of the 34 found dead, serves as a microcosm for the longer work, where she takes on the personas of survivors, rescuers, the dead, newscasters, even Katrina herself.
Such an ambitious project would seem daunting to most of us, but Smith had been laying the ground for it throughout her career. As both a poet and a performer she has always been a gifted storyteller, and she has taken on the personas of others in all of her collections. Like many contemporary poets, she has gone past the autobiographical poem to use daily news stories, pop culture, public figures and political and social events as subject matter.
But Blood Dazzler only made evident on a broad canvas what was always at the core of Smith’s work: the capacity for empathy. This includes her own compassion, which makes her able to enter into and imagine another’s life so fully that the reader feels the voice is authentic and shares in the speaker’s experience. And her poems expand her readers’ capacity for such empathy. There is also the sense that they expand Smith’s, that she writes these poems out of the need to understand. We are moved because we are invited into Smith’s own process of exploration and discovery.
When we read her poems silently off the page, their varied voices come alive in our heads. We’ve heard these voices, and we recognize their rhythms and cadences immediately. When she reads the poems aloud on stage, she steps into and embodies them. Her work and performances make manifest a truth we can often forget: our most literary “academic” poetry and our spoken word “performance” poetry share one origin: the oral tradition.
See the Festival Program for information about Patricia Smith’s collaboration with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra at the 2012 Festival.
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For more information on the 2012 Dodge Poetry Festival and Program,
visit our website dodgepoetry.org