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About this poet

Born on June 25, 1955, Patricia Smith is a poet, teacher, performance artist and author. She is the author of Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (Coffee House Press, 2012), winner of the 2013 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, given for the most outstanding book of poetry published in the United States each year, as well as Blood Dazzler (Coffee House Press, 2008), which was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award; Teahouse of the Almighty (Coffee House Press, 2006), a 2005 National Poetry Series selection; Close to Death (Zoland Books, 1993); Big Towns, Big Talk (Zoland Books, 1992), which won the Carl Sandburg Literary Award; and Life According to Motown (Tía Chucha Press, 1991).

Of Smith’s award-winning book, judge Gregory Orr wrote, “With equal parts art, attitude, and heart, Patricia Smith’s Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah braids together personal narrative and a collective cultural journey. In poems propelled by voice and verve, she moves through the urbanscapes of Chicago and Detroit-- conjuring first love and Motown with equal fervor. Her poems simultaneously zip along the textured surface of these worlds and plunge to the soul-depths of the people who inhabit them. And we, her spellbound audience, follow in her sonic wake, grateful to be part of stories so alive with detail and urgent with anguish and purpose.”

Her poems have been published in many anthologies, including American Voices (McGraw-Hill, 2005), The Spoken Word Revolution (2003), and Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam (Three Rivers Press, 2001.) She is also the coauthor of a history book, Africans in America: America's Journey Through Slavery (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1998), along with a children’s book, Janna and the Kings (Lee & Low Books, 2003). She is currently working on Fixed on a Furious Star, a biography of Harriet Tubman.

She is a four-time individual champion of the National Poetry Slam, a two-time winner of the Pushcart Prize, and her work has appeared in Best American Poetry, Best American Essays and Best American Mystery Stories. She has written and performed two one-woman plays, one of which was produced by Derek Walcott’s Trinidad Theater Workshop.

She is a Cave Canem faculty member, teaches in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College, and is a professor of creative writing at the City University of New York/College of Staten Island. She lives in Howell, New Jersey..


Selected Bibliography

Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (Coffee House Press, 2012)
Blood Dazzler (Coffee House Press, 2008)
Teahouse of the Almighty (Coffee House Press, 2006)
Close to Death (Zoland Books, 1993)
Big Towns, Big Talk (Zoland Books, 1992)
Life According to Motown (Tía Chucha Press, 1991)

Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah

Patricia Smith, 1955
My mother scraped the name Patricia Ann from the ruins
of her discarded Delta, thinking it would offer me shield
and shelter, that leering men would skulk away at the slap
of it. Her hands on the hips of Alabama, she went for flat
and functional, then siphoned each syllable of drama,
repeatedly crushing it with her broad, practical tongue
until it sounded like an instruction to God, not a name.
She wanted a child of pressed head and knocking knees,
a trip-up in the doubledutch swing, a starched pinafore
and peppermint-in-the-sour-pickle kinda child, stiff-laced
and unshakably fixed on salvation. Her Patricia Ann
would never idly throat the Lord’s name or wear one
of those thin, sparkled skirts that flirted with her knees.
She'd be a nurse or a third-grade teacher or a postal drone,
jobs requiring alarm-clock discipline and sensible shoes.
My four downbeats were music enough for a vapid life
of butcher-shop sawdust and fatback as cuisine, for Raid
spritzed into the writhing pockets of a Murphy bed.
No crinkled consonants or muted hiss would summon me.

My daddy detested borders. One look at my mother's
watery belly, and he insisted, as much as he could insist
with her, on the name Jimi Savannah, seeking to bless me
with the blues-bathed moniker of a ball breaker, the name
of a grown gal in a snug red sheath and unlaced All-Stars.
He wanted to shoot muscle through whatever I was called,
arm each syllable with tiny weaponry so no one would
mistake me for anything other than a tricky whisperer
with a switchblade in my shoe. I was bound to be all legs,
a bladed debutante hooked on Lucky Strikes and sugar.
When I sent up prayers, God's boy would giggle and consider.

Daddy didn't want me to be anybody's surefire factory,
nobody's callback or seized rhythm, so he conjured
a name so odd and hot even a boy could claim it. And yes,
he was prepared for the look my mother gave him when
he first mouthed his choice, the look that said, That's it,
you done lost your goddamned mind. She did that thing
she does where she grows two full inches with righteous,
and he decided to just whisper Love you, Jimi Savannah
whenever we were alone, re- and rechristening me the seed
of Otis, conjuring his own religion and naming it me.

From Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah by Patricia Smith. Copyright © 2012 by Patricia Smith. Reprinted with permission of Coffee House Press.

From Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah by Patricia Smith. Copyright © 2012 by Patricia Smith. Reprinted with permission of Coffee House Press.

Patricia Smith

Patricia Smith

Born in 1955, Patricia Smith is a poet, teacher, and performance artist. She is the author of Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (Coffee House Press, 2012).

by this poet

poem
Poseidon was easier than most.
He calls himself a god,
but he fell beneath my fingers
with more shaking than any mortal.
He wept when my robe fell from my shoulders.

I made him bend his back for me,
listened to his screams break like waves.
We defiled that temple the way it should be defiled,
screaming and
poem

and spy whole lifetimes on the undersides of leaves.
Jazz intrudes, stank clogging that neat procession
of lush and flutter. His eyes, siphoned and dimming,
demand that he accept ardor as it is presented, with
its tear-splashed borders and stilted lists, romance
that is only on the agenda