More than Slam Poetry on the Page: Patricia Smith

Patricia Smith, Blood DazzlerPatricia Smith is a poet, performance artist, author, and teacher.  She has published five books of poetry including Close to Death (1993), Teahouse of the Almighty (2006), and Blood Dazzler (2008) which was a finalist for the National Book Award.  The winner of a Pushcart Prize, Smith is a four-time individual National Poetry Slam champion.

While Patricia Smith got her start in poetry as a slam poet, her most recent collection of poetry speaks to her ability to perform on the page as well with all the force, vibrancy, and conviction that she demonstrates at the microphone.  Blood Dazzler is a sequence that explores the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, specifically focusing on the tremendous destruction and loss of life caused in New Orleans.  Natural disasters and political turmoil can be difficult subjects to write about convincingly, but Smith uses the full power of direct language to engage with her reader.

The easiest way to describe Blood Dazzler is to say that it is like a slap in the face; Smith never sidesteps the fear, death, and loss that her subject is fraught with.  And although she always confronts the issues head on, the most powerful weapon at work in Smith's writing is her sense of rhythm and sound that clearly come from her slam background.   She describes "the slow wilting jazz of their legs / razored by the murk" and the battered people who struggle with "that first blessing--forward, forward, / not getting the joke of their paper shoes, / not knowing the sidewalks are gone."  Again and again she forces us to confront the suffering of the residents of New Orleans by grabbing our attention with driving rhythms.

Many of the best poems in Blood Dazzler are persona poems, and Smith always takes on the voice of her chosen character with conviction and feeling.  In "34" she speaks through the mouths of thirty-four nursing home patients who were not evacuated during the hurricane, and in the short segments of the poem, she authoritatively creates thirty-four distinct personas.  "I am a sudden second of soft leaving. / I'm cold / and I'm strapped to this country," one speakers says, while another prays, "God, we need your glitter, you know / those wacky miracles / you do / for no reason at all?"  Smith works with a huge range of voices, and convinces us of her mastery of them all.  On the whole, Blood Dazzler is a strong collection that uses rhythm and voice to powerfully call the reader to reexamine Hurricane Katrina and the political turmoil which surrounded it.

Smith's success both as slam poet and author means there are a great deal of resources for engaging with her writing on various websites.  A sampling of the Smith's poetry and performances available online include the following:

- The Poetry Foundation: Full text of "What You Pray Toward" and "Hip-Hop Ghazal." Smith is also a fairly regular contributor to the Foundation's blog "Harriet," and she has a great post about reading and performing poetry.

- Academy of American Poets: Full text of "Medusa"

- A quick search for "Patricia Smith" comes back with numerous videos of her reading and performing her poetry.  Check out "34" from Blood Dazzler.

- Smith's personal website: Three more video clips of Smith performing her poetry along with a detailed bio and other information.

Created on: 
Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Arizona Board of Regents