37º ~ some sun, some clouds, chilly mornings and cool days, winter in Arkansas 2012
Last night, I had the great good fortune to attend Patricia Smith's reading at the University of Arkansas Little Rock, sponsored by the UALR English Department and flawlessly planned by Professor Nickole Brown. I knew the Smith came from a background of slam competition before turning to poetry of the page, so I anticipated an exciting night. I was not disappointed.
No demure and docile poet here, no staid professor intoning with great seriousness. Smith's voice soared and dipped as she captivated us all. While I was looking forward to hearing poems from Blood Dazzler and was a bit sad that Smith only read two from that book, I thoroughly enjoyed each poem she presented. Smith is an expert with the persona poem, taking on the voice of John Lee Hooker, Tyrell (a barbershop owner in Chicago), Ethel Freeman (a woman who died outside the Convention Center in New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and, in the book if not last night, the voice of Katrina herself.
The best thing about Smith's reading style is that she does not sacrifice the poetry for the performance. Throughout the poems, the attention to language, rhythm, and sound shines through, even while Smith brings the words to life on the stage. As a page poet with little background in theatre, I found a lot I might learn from Smith, most importantly, another affirmation that it is okay to love the words and let that love come through in the reading. During my days in graduate school, there was a way of thinking that tried to stomp this out of us. We were told to read "straight" and not let our voice rise and fall, not caress the words or add extra emphasis with body or timbre. (This, the kind of reading that brought me to poetry in the first place, when I heard the likes of Joy Harjo, Quincy Troupe, and Li-Young Lee and they drew me into their magic spells.) Slowly, I'm shaking loose that straightjacket, and I am more than thankful for Patricia Smith for showing me the way, again.
Finally, I'll be looking forward to April when Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, Smith's new book, comes out from Coffee House Press.