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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)

When the Burning Begins

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 wait
for the burning and get it just right.

Before the bread cools down,
smear it with sweet salted butter
and smash it with your fingers,
crumple it up in a bowl
of collard greens or buttermilk,
forget that I’m telling you it’s the first thing
I ever cooked, that my daddy was laughing
and breathing and no bullet in his head
when he taught me.

Mix it till it looks like quicksand, he’d say.
Till it moves like a slow song sounds.

We’d sit there in the kitchen, licking our fingers
and laughing at my mother,
who was probably scrubbing something with bleach,
or watching Bonanza,
or thinking how stupid it was to be burning
that nasty old bread in that cast iron skillet.
When I told her that I’d made my first-ever pan
of hot water cornbread, and that my daddy
had branded it glorious, she sniffed and kept
mopping the floor over and over in the same place.

So here’s how you do it:

You take out a bowl, like the one
we had with blue flowers and only one crack,
you put the cornmeal in it.
Then you turn on the hot water and you let it run
while you tell the story about the boy
who kissed your cheek after school
or about how you really want to be a reporter
instead of a teacher or nurse like Mama said,
and the water keeps running while Daddy says
You will be a wonderful writer
and you will be famous someday and when
you get famous, if I wrote you a letter and
send you some money, would you write about me?


and he is laughing and breathing and no bullet
in his head. So you let the water run into this mix
till it moves like mud moves at the bottom of a river,
which is another thing Daddy said, and even though
I’d never even seen a river,
I knew exactly what he meant.
Then you turn the fire way up under the skillet,
and you pour in this mix
that moves like mud moves at the bottom of a river,
like quicksand, like slow song sounds.
That stuff pops something awful when it first hits
that blazing skillet, and sometimes Daddy and I
would dance to those angry pop sounds,
he’d let me rest my feet on top of his
while we waltzed around the kitchen
and my mother huffed and puffed
on the other side of the door. When you are famous,
Daddy asks me, will you write about dancing
in the kitchen with your father?

I say everything I write will be about you,
then you will be famous too. And we dip and swirl
and spin, but then he stops.
And sniffs the air.

The thing you have to remember
about hot water cornbread
is to wait for the burning
so you know when to flip it, and then again
so you know when it’s crusty and done.
Then eat it the way we did,
with our fingers,
our feet still tingling from dancing.
But remember that sometimes the burning
takes such a long time,
and in that time,
sometimes,

poems are born.

From Teahouse of the Almighty (Coffee House Press, 2006). Copyright © 2006 by Patricia Smith. Used with permission of Coffee House Press.

From Teahouse of the Almighty (Coffee House Press, 2006). Copyright © 2006 by Patricia Smith. Used with permission 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

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

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

The storm left a wound seeping,
a boulevard yawning, some
memories fractured, a
kiss exploded, she left
no stone resting, a bone
army floating, rats sated,
she left the horizon sliced
and ornery, she left in a hurry,
in a huff, in all her glory,
she took with her a