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About this poet

Born on June 25, 1955, Patricia Smith is a poet, teacher, and performance artist. She is the author of Incendiary Art (Northwestern University Press, 2017), winner of the 2018 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the 2017 Los Angeles Times Book Award in poetry; 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; 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 the history book Africans in America: America's Journey Through Slavery (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1998), along with the children’s book Janna and the Kings (Lee & Low Books, 2003). 

Smith 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 received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2017.

Smith 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

Incendiary Art (Northwestern University Press, 2017)
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)

Ethel’s Sestina

Ethel Freeman's body sat for days in her wheelchair outside the New Orleans Convention Center. Her son Herbert, who had assured his mother that help was on the way, was forced to leave her there once she died.

Gon’ be obedient in this here chair,
gon’ bide my time, fanning against this sun.
I ask my boy, and all he says is Wait.
He wipes my brow with steam, says I should sleep.
I trust his every word. Herbert my son.
I believe him when he says help gon’ come.

Been so long since all these suffrin’ folks come
to this place. Now on the ground ’round my chair,
they sweat in my shade, keep asking my son
could that be a bus they see. It’s the sun
foolin’ them, shining much too loud for sleep,
making us hear engines, wheels. Not yet. Wait.

Lawd, some folks prayin’ for rain while they wait,
forgetting what rain can do. When it come,
it smashes living flat, wakes you from sleep,
eats streets, washes you clean out of the chair
you be sittin’ in. Best to praise this sun,
shinin’ its dry shine. Lawd have mercy, son,

is it coming? Such a strong man, my son.
Can’t help but believe when he tells us, Wait.
Wait some more. Wish some trees would block this sun.
We wait. Ain’t no white men or buses come,
but look—see that there? Get me out this chair,
help me stand on up. No time for sleepin’,

cause look what’s rumbling this way. If you sleep
you gon’ miss it. Look there, I tell my son.
He don’t hear. I’m ’bout to get out this chair,
but the ghost in my legs tells me to wait,
wait for the salvation that’s sho to come.
I see my savior’s face ’longside that sun.

Nobody sees me running toward the sun.
Lawd, they think I done gone and fell asleep.
They don't hear Come.

Come.
Come.
Come.
Come.
Come.
Come.
Ain’t but one power make me leave my son.
I can’t wait, Herbert. Lawd knows I can’t wait.
Don’t cry, boy, I ain’t in that chair no more.

Wish you coulda come on this journey, son,
seen that ol’ sweet sun lift me out of sleep.
Didn’t have to wait. And see my golden chair?

From Blood Dazzler. Copyright © 2008 by Patricia Smith. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc. on behalf of Coffee House Press.

From Blood Dazzler. Copyright © 2008 by Patricia Smith. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc. on behalf of Coffee House Press.

Patricia Smith

Patricia Smith

Patricia Smith is a poet, teacher, and performance artist. Her poetry collections include Incendiary Art and Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, winner of the 2013 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize.

by this poet

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Two weeks after 17 students were gunned down in Parkland, Fla., hundreds of worshippers clutching AR-15s slurped holy wine and exchanged or renewed wedding vows in a commitment ceremony at the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary in Newfoundland, Pa.

Draped in thick silk the hue of hemorrhage and
2
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for Otis Douglas Smith, my father

The recipe for hot water cornbread is simple:
Cornmeal, hot water. Mix till sluggish,
then dollop in a sizzling skillet.
When you smell the burning begin, flip it.
When you smell the burning begin again,
dump it onto a plate. You’ve got to

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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