In lieu of an author’s note, we’ve compiled a few quotations from recent interviews with Patricia Smith. —CRAFT
“When my mother came up from the south, she was very ashamed of being from the south. She wanted her life to begin once she hit Chicago. When I would question her about where she was from she would say, ‘What do you want to know about that for? You’re from Chicago, why do you want to talk about the south?’ She equated being southern with being poor and being backward. So after my father died, I grew up not really knowing or feeling any root beside the one that had kind of been forced upon me in Chicago. So I tend to collect places. I tend to try places on as home, like, what if this had been the place where I grew up? Or if this had been? I try to wrap the places around myself as much as I can, and that doesn’t necessarily mean state or a city or a country. It could be a certain kind of room.
“It’s also because I got started in poetry by getting up on stage. It was really important for me to set the scene for the listener because I only had one chance, they only hear the poem once. They can’t go back and reread it, they can’t stop you and ask you to back up. So I really had to paint a stark picture of where I was, what was surrounding me, what was surrounding the people in my pieces. I’ve worked really hard on trying to paint that picture and using as many of the senses as I can.”
—Patricia Smith speaking to Kaveh Akbar about the crucial importance of setting and sensory detail in her poetry; for Divedapper, September 8, 2015
“When my mother came up from Alabama to Chicago during the Great Migration, she fully intended to scrub all traces of the South from her life. She was ashamed of her background, ashamed of what up-north whites would surely consider a ragged upbringing, characterized by deplorable diction, ill-stitched homemade clothes, and a gaping ignorance of what it truly meant to be civilized. She was determined to give birth to a ‘city child’ whose links to that pitiful Delta backdrop would be severed as soon as possible—because she was convinced that was the only way I would ever be successful.
“In the process of severing those ties, she effectively cut me off from my history. She didn’t tell me stories about her tiny hometown of Aliceville, didn’t connect me with relatives who were still there, didn’t give me any sense at all of a Southern lineage. So I spent my childhood years essentially rootless, waiting for the big city to give me a shape. But so many things seemed designed to take away my voice, not to help me find one. I was enrolled in a school system designed to celebrate failure, living in a neighborhood that the rest of the city looked down upon, and subjected to a racism that was even more insidious than the one my mother had left behind in the South.
“When I found Gwen, I found my soundtrack. She was colored and bookish, knew tenements and the clanging music of the ghetto. She was a quiet and unapologetic witness to a world that constantly threatened to overwhelm me. She taught me to see around, beneath, and behind what was being served to me as truth. I realized that my own people held my lessons and knew my direction. We had a shared language, and not a single syllable of it was shameful. I listened to her until I learned to hear myself.
“When I seriously began writing poetry, I knew what I was striving for—that gorgeous meld of story and structure, while remembering that the most difficult stories to tell were my own.”
—Patricia Smith speaking to Donna Seaman about her mother’s erasure of the past, and the importance of Gwendolyn Brooks for her development as a writer; for The American Library Association Booklist Reader, April 25, 2017
“My father, who also traveled north during the Great Migration, brought with him something I like to call ‘the tradition of the back porch.’ Every evening after dinner, we’d settle together, and he’d tell stories—stories from the candy company where he worked, stories from the barbershop or the butcher shop or the gas station or just from the street corner. The characters were people I knew, and it was like sitting down to a rollicking serial narrative. He was the first person to pry my story open, teaching me that there were other ways of looking at the world beyond what I was learning, or not learning, in school. Because of my father, nothing I saw ever sat still.
“Also, my fifth-grade teacher, Ms. Carol Baranowski, pummeled me with questions whenever I was about to write—What does that remind you of? What sound does that color make? How does that color taste? If that home had a voice, what would it sound like? By the time I was in middle school—although I didn’t know what to call it—I was looking at the world like a poet. From that point, thanks to a storytelling dad and an amazing teacher, nothing looked like what it was.”
—Patricia Smith speaking to Rin Johnson about the influence of her father and her fifth grade teacher on her storytelling; for The Miami Rail, April 2, 2017