Thus Spoke Patricia Smith: Poetry is Light
Poetry hangovers are the best hangovers. I have to admit that I’m still reeling from 2018 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award Winner Patricia Smith’s week in residency. Even as I write this my mind takes me back to striking moments where I was enchanted by Patricia Smith and the other poets who gave readings. It was a whirlwind of words, a deluge of creative energy, and an art-drunk toast to the poetry gods themselves. Their appeasement is evidenced by the fact that it poured rain and the night sky shouted thunder on us after the poetry readings by Inez Tan, Ashanti Anderson, Lynne Thompson, and Patricia Smith. It was as if the poetry and aesthetic gods approved of all that was read, said, and shared by blessing the typically dry greater Los Angeles area with rain and lightning.
The final day of Patricia Smith’s week in Claremont kicked off with a generative poetry workshop. Poets from all over Southern California gathered to write poetry together under the masterful tutelage of Smith. We were given the task of writing a love poem, but with the caveat of adhering to a banned word list of some five hundred words.
Let me tell you, dear reader, it is a labor to write a poem about love when you can’t use words that are typical to the lexical understanding of love in the English language. You’re forced to consider: how does one describe a kiss when one cannot use words like mouth, kiss, caress, lips, or even face or eyes? In this generative process, you are forced to become a poet. You are forced to transform regardless if you are ready or not. I had to find the words to describe what is so familiar to me in a new and oblique way. So I slapped something together and called it a love poem:
Whose sight penetrates, I,
Don’t know what
Composure floats unto me
Yet, determined to be
One with whole
Holistic blankets of
Requited safety here
Where we know that
Waking up next to
Open lungs and sight
Donates a perimeter to
Don’t ask me what it means! Remember, Barthes told us the author is dead. Energized by our Apollonian endeavors I was restless for the evening’s events: the big finale reading featuring Patricia Smith and others. Later that night, when it came time to hear some poets published in this year’s volume of Foothill I made sure to shy away from any of the complimentary beer and wine served at the event. It doesn’t take many libations to sway my composure. I thought that if I didn’t have anything to drink I could resist any catharsis and the need or desire to cry. I was so wrong. Patricia Smith’s “Biting Back,” a poem where she describes the coming-of-age of her son and witnessing his final instance of childhood, brought me to tears. I cried not because I’m a parent and know what it feels like to watch your own child become a teenager in front of you, but because it is a story about a mother and a son. A story that resonates with and in me because of my strong relationship with my mother—a woman who raised my sister and I with little to no help. It made me consider what in that instance of leaving behind adolescence is lost and gained again when moving from teenager to adult.
After gathering myself and enjoying the socializing one participates in after events like this I bought a copy of Smith’s Incendiary Art. The poetry book that brought Smith to us. When she signed my book I told her how moved I was by her poem about her son. She thanked me for my insight and kind words and handed the book back to me. “Jamey, I hope you find light in these pages,” she wrote. When leaving the event a storm struck. As I made my way home I realized that her book may offer me light in engaging with it in the future, but that day I had already found light: I wrote a poem and heard one that made me cry.