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Divedapper interview w/ Patricia Smith

Interview by: Kaveh Akbar

So you’ve been working on a new book?

Yeah, I just completed one collection of poems, and I finished another that was a collaboration with a Chicago photographer, a man named Michael Abramson. He’s a white guy, and he made a career out of going to south and west-side clubs, mostly African-American parts of the city, going to those clubs in the 70’s to take photographs. They have already been released once with an album of music that they played at those clubs. It was actually nominated for a Grammy. After he died, his wife wanted to reissue the photographs but instead of music she wanted text to accompany them. So they gave me a whole load of photographs.

Oh, that’s awesome.

Yeah, it was amazing. I had such a good time doing it. And that part is finished, it’s actually at the printer. It’s mostly a coffee table book publisher out of Chicago. It’s not a traditional poetry publisher. One of the big challenges is that it hasn’t been taken seriously as a poetry book.


There are a lot of poems in there about the music. A lot of his shots are really hot and steamy dance shots, so there’s a lot of heat and emotion in the poems. So, I’ve got that one, and then I just finished a more traditional poetry manuscript. It’s been busy. I like being busy.

That’s great to hear. Just this morning I was reading about Mary Oliver’s partner, Molly, who was a photographer. Mary wrote this beautiful text alongside a volume of Molly’s photos where she talks about how, through studying the photography, the great lesson she’d learned from Molly was that “attention without feeling is only a report. An openness, an empathy was necessary if the attention was to matter.” I thought that was so lovely and true and I wrote it down. It reminds now of your work, the way it builds from your observational instincts as a former reporter, but then draws from what seems to be a sort of deep empathy as well.

Well, that’s very nice of you, thank you.

When you write about Katrina, say, it’s not just a report. There’s a humanity that elevates it. I’m interested to see this photography project because it sounds like it could be a sort of natural vehicle for that kind of witnessing.

Yes. I think that’s our job.

Absolutely. It ties into something that you’ve said in the past that being a black poet is pretty much the same as being any other type of artist except that “when you’re black and focused on the task of witness, the chaos constantly threatens to overwhelm.” I think that’s so poignant today when so many black artists are being asked to speak for their entire community.

Yeah, it’s almost as if you need more than the allotted number of eyes, more than the allotted number of throats.   When you’re witnessing, you’re always supposed to look for the voice you’re not hearing.   You try to witness from that viewpoint. And one of the things, particularly about a lot of the young black men who are losing their lives, is that I never hear the mother’s point of view. I mean, you may see the mother at the beginning of the story at her worst moment, and then you may see her at the end of the story at her other worst moment when the people in charge blame her son for being gone, you know? So there’s a long poem in the manuscript I just finished about them.

Every time I think that poem is done, something else happens. I had my husband read the manuscript and he said, “This is so heavy. It’s so heavy and so dark and it’s a difficult read.” On one hand you’re trying to be a witness, but on the other you’re trying to make sense of the world for yourself. So a lot of times when I sit down to write, it’s because I’m confounded or angry. I don’t write that much when I’m happy. I don’t write that much when things are going well. I’m out being happy somewhere, you know? But when I need to get on the other side of something, my first refuge is the page.

You do tend to see lately these articles about how the constant discussion of race and the way we discuss it lately is like a stress syndrome for black folks. Every day you wake up it’s like, “Oh my god, let’s go to the news and see what’s happened.” I grew up in the era where we thought, or at least I thought, we were going to be constantly moving forward. Maybe a little step back here and there but mostly constantly moving forward. And now talking to my mother, it feels kind of like when she first got here in the fifties.

I travel quite a bit and when I get to a place, I want to go out to see where I am. I want to put myself in this place and see how it feels. But now I have to be so cautious. I have to ask about the organizers of the event, where can I walk? How far can I walk? Are there some streets I shouldn’t walk? Is there something politically about this place that I need to know that will keep me safe? That’s a really frustrating thing to have to prepare yourself for each day in order to live in each part of the world you encounter, even if you’re only there for a day. I could go to Europe and totally feel all that weight off my shoulders. The chaos is just the work you have to do to feel normal. And that shouldn’t have to happen. The fact is, now you have to sit down and warn your children about walking right and talking right and how to handle a traffic stop. You don’t know just how much of that you can deal with before it overflows, till you can’t do it anymore.

Read the full interview at Divedapper


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