An Interview with Patricia Smith

By TC Tolbert


Originally published in the University of Arizona Poetry Center Newsletter 29.2, Spring 2004.

I interviewed Patricia Smith via email in April 2004. Smith is a four-time individual champion of the National Poetry Slam and is a featured performer in the 1998 documentary SlamNation. She is called “perhaps the best individual slam poet in history'' on the SlamNation website.

TC Tolbert: It seems that there is a slam poetry camp and an academic poetry camp—can a hard line be drawn between the two?

Patricia Smith: First of all, we need to clarify the term "slam poetry." The slam is basically a recreational activity, an entertaining competition some poets choose to engage in. Because the emphasis is on performance, "slam poetry" is often the tag mistakenly slapped on "performance poetry." That's a style that seeks to erase the line between poet and audience, a style that stresses voice and rhythm and presence. It's the style that's most successful in slams, so the terms are used interchangeably—mistakenly so. Performance poetry is a style. The slam is something a poet may choose to do with his or her work.

Sure, it seems there's a rift between academia and performance. It's a hard-drawn, unnecessary line that just keeps us from exploring and learning from each other. Academia sees the performance of poetry as some sort of theatrical trickery, devoid of real substance. Performance poetry stalwarts distrust the official “legitimizing" of poetry by those with fancy degrees and deep pockets. Academia is frightened by the immediacy, unpredictability, the passion. Folks who perform their poetry resent the notion that an MFA, hefty grant, or publication in a journal is the only way to be legitimate.

The problem is that we're both doing (or should be doing) the same thing—widening and nurturing an audience, taking an art that's been relegated to the dusty bookshelves and getting it back into the hands (and ears) of the people who need it. The two camps do exist, and that's shameful. Basically, we've drawn the line because we don't understand each other. Our motivations are unclear. But there are breakthroughs. It's reached the point where it's becoming impossible to ignore goings-on in the rival camp. Hopefully, we'll realize that it all comes down to words scrawled on a blank slate. And it's the words—not the performance or qualifications of the poet—that are important.

TC: From my understanding, you do community work involving poetry. Can you tell me about that and if there is any relation between that work and the idea that "the responsibility of the poet is to communicate effectively," as Marc Smith says. Do you believe that poets have any responsibility other than that of creating art?

Patricia: I read and teach in grade schools, high schools, community centers, prisons, and halfway houses. I do this as much as I can for one reason only: I keep thinking how my life would have been changed if I'd known earlier about this second throat, this poetry, this alternate way of processing my life. I want people to look at me and say, ''I can do that." I want them to see that words can be fists, flowers, tears, screams, prayers, and apologies. The only difference between me and someone who doesn't write poetry is that something happened in my life to click those words loose—and I want to be the "something" that happens in the lives of as many people as I can reach. And yes, Marc is right—the responsibility of the poet IS to communicate effectively. There's no use in speaking if no one can hear us. There's no use writing if we have nothing to say. Poets’ responsibility. Creating art? That can't be all. Our responsibility is huge. We are steeped in a sweet, powerful language, a language that everyone possesses. We can't rest until that language is spoken by everyone.