In 2023, the Academy of American Poets invited twelve poets to each curate a month of poems. In this short Q&A, Patricia Smith discusses her curatorial approach and her own creative work.
Poets.org: Welcome to the Guest Editor Q&A, hosted by the Academy of American Poets. I’m Mary Sutton, senior content editor at the Academy, and I’m here today with the Guest Editor for February, Patricia Smith. Patricia is the author of Unshuttered, Incendiary Art, and Blood Dazzler.
Patricia, welcome and thank you. Thank you so much for joining me.
Patricia Smith: Thanks so much. Glad to be here.
Poets.org: Glad to have you. Very honored to have you.
Smith: Thank you so much.
Poets.org: Let’s jump right in. How did you approach curating Poem-a-Day?
Smith: Well, first I got the news, “You’re going to be a Poem-a-Day curator.” I said, “Yay, yay, yay!”
And they said, “February...”
I thought about February, and the first thing that comes to me is just how dank and slushy and overcast it is. And I said, “How am I going to get something that people want to go pay attention to in February”
So I thought about, first, love poems because of Valentine’s Day. And I teach writing to people who don’t want to write... So the first things they always write are love poems, and a lot of them are just kind of... My students write things like, “He didn’t text me back,” you know.
So I figured that a love poem had a wide, wide definition, and so I wanted to narrow it down a little bit. And then I thought, “Okay, it’s also African American History Month.” And I wanted to figure out some way to combine the two, so I came up with the idea of asking African American writers to write love sonnets, and I forget, although a sonnet is only fourteen lines, it’s a challenge for a lot of people, you know. I got cursed out a couple of times when I asked. They said, “Yes.” Then they cursed me out a little bit. Then they said yes again.
They [the poems] sort of dripped in a little bit slowly, but I’m really excited by them. I’m glad I did that. Sometimes I think back and say, “Why didn’t I just say love poems?” And then we could have had… I’m sure that would’ve come in faster, but I wanted it to be a little bit of a challenge too. I wanted the readers to know that I posed a little bit of a challenge to the contributors.
Poets.org: Now, back in December 2009, you published in Rattle magazine, “Motown Crown,” a series of sonnets dedicated both to Motown music and to that particular issue’s tribute to the sonnet.
And what I enjoy about those poems is that they’re interwoven: the fourteenth line becomes the first line of a new sonnet, a device that mimics what I think connects these Motown songs, these impossible fantasies of love that made such a great impression on that generation of teenagers.
The sonnet has also been used to talk about impossible love, but the sonnets you curated for this project, for Poem-a-Day, transgress those expectations, and our readers and listeners will see what I mean with that. Can you talk a bit more about how the sonnet might also be a radical poetic form?
Smith: Well, I went to my MFA program specifically to learn form, and meter, prosody. For a long time, since I got introduced to poetry by getting up on stage and doing it, I was told in many different ways, that more traditional realm of poetry was not something that I should approach. In so many ways like: “Well, it’s going to be too hard, or, it’s outdated...” And all that came down to was that we don’t think you belong there... So it was really, really important to me to learn that. And every time I learned a form, I would put it in my toolbox, so sometimes you’re carrying around a poem for years, wondering why it’s not working, and it’s not working because it’s asking for something you do not yet know how to do.
So I think the idea of really mastering the sonnet is so you know how many ways to break it apart to make it yours, and that it doesn’t have to be traditional love; it doesn’t have to have the change after the eighth line. It’s just… It’s scaffolding, I see, for us to broaden the meaning of what a sonnet means, that’s why I picked the poets, hoping... Well, actually knowing that they all realized that. And so I want the reader to look at them and see that a sonnet, at least these sonnets, are not the expected ones, they won’t ever be the expected ones, and hope will broaden the idea for people who are writing out there too.
I said love sonnets, but there’s different kinds of love in these poems. There’s person-to-person love, of course, but there’s a wider love of community; there’s a wider love of family. There’s un-love in some of these poems; there’s the struggle for love. And I’m very, very happy about the way that the poets interpreted this.
Poets.org: Now, if you could direct readers to one poem in our collection at Poets.org that you haven’t curated, what would it be and why?
Smith: I am a Chicago girl, and the composer, the master composer of the “colored Chicago Girls soundtrack” was Gwendolyn Brooks, has always been Gwendolyn Brooks.
I thought about this for a while, and I realized that the one that I kept coming back to was her poem, “To Prisoners,” where I think, in her mind, she was thinking about the mindset of actual prisoners and trying to get them to think beyond their bars.
But I think of it as prisoners of conscience, prisoners of fear, prisoners of racism, of education, anything, you know. That we can close our minds and see no way out, that we can be prisoners of so many things. So every time I read the poem, depending on when I read it, who I’m showing it to, it changes. It changes, and it widens because I think all of us can consider ourselves prisoners of something, and that poem will help guide us out.
Poets.org: What are you reading right now?
Smith: I’m reading Joan [Naviyuk] Kane’s work... Actually, I am judging a huge contest, so I’m reading a lot of things. But it’s strange, when I read something instead of moving on with it, I sort of dig down into it and read it again, because I forget all about the contest and remember how lucky I am to be surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of books of poetry. And so I’m reading her book, Dark Traffic, and I had another book that I had mentioned that I was reading, and I changed it, I’m going back into Sharon Olds’s book, Balladz.
I had a chance to talk to her a couple of times, once during the Dodge Poetry Festival, and then during the Pegasus Awards in Chicago, and she was one of the first poets when I was coming out of doing the poetry slam, one of the first major established poets that I did a reading with.
And we came full circle, and I came to where she was being presented the Ruth Lilly Award this year, and I read with her again at Dodge. And so I realized that I’ve continually been fascinated by the ground, the personal ground, that she breaks in her poems, just things that a lot of us, we have paved over and never have to look at again. But then when you become a writer and you have those tools, the pavement starts to shake and you realize that you have to confront those things, and she’s always been someone who is fearless in that way. And so, because of things that are kind of going on in my life, I turned back to her to sort of try to absorb some of that fearlessness,
Poets.org: That collection, her most recent collection, Balladz, is fabulous, and I encourage our readers and listeners to go get a copy of that. I just did an interview with Sharon Olds, for the Miami Book Festival, which…
Smith: Oh, wonderful.
Poets.org: Our audience can find through Poets.org. Additionally, Joan Kane’s work is featured on Poets.org. Joan has also been in Poem-A-Day. She was there in November 2017, and December 2019, during the month curated by Paisley Rekdal.
Smith: I’m just really discovering her, she’s amazing.
Poets.org: Yeah, yeah. What are you working on now in your writing, teaching, publishing life? A lot, I’m sure.
Smith: Well, I’m trying to push Unshuttered out into the world, publication date is the fifteenth of February. There’s AWP [the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference] coming up; there are all these things where I know I should be there promoting the book.
It’s really important to me. It’s a book of dramatic monologues, persona poems, accompanied by nineteenth-century photos of African Americans. I’ve been collecting these photos for years; I’ve used them as writing prompts.
One of the first times that I taught at Cave Canem, I used those photos for prompts, so the books been a long time coming. I’ve been living with the photos so long that they’ve… they’ve started to take on personality and voice and bone and breath, and so this is the result of that. It’s very, very different for me, so I’m really excited to see how people will receive it.
I’m also writing a novel! During the pandemic, I took a lot of fiction classes. I thought that there had to be a “How to write a novel: 10 Ways to Write...” And that is not true. Everybody, if you are a poet, you already know how to write a novel, because I would do things, and, you know, if you write narrative poetry, you’re already kind of working within that dramatic arc, but you’re doing it in this tight, controlled space. So when I have all this room, it’s like, “Wow!”
And I’m thinking of it as just a long, unwinding poem. And that’s really helping me. It’s a first-person novel. It’s based on a news story of a woman who lost her two sons during Hurricane Sandy. And my husband writes crime novels, and I have been sort of delving into the crime novel community, the crime community, I love them; I’ve gone to conferences and things... And so I started to get this idea of a version of this woman who is stalking the families of people who did not let her in to help [her] during the storm. She lost her children because she had to leave them to go for help, and because she was a Black woman in a white neighborhood, people thought she was trying to trick her way into their homes. And so they didn’t answer the door and her children were washed away... So I have her exacting a bit of revenge.
Poets.org: I’m looking forward to reading both, but especially that novel...
Smith: I am looking forward to finishing it, thank you, Mary. I’m looking forward to actually writing the rest of it.
Poets.org: Well, thank you so much, Patricia, for joining me, and for all that you do.
Smith: No problem.