The Academy of American Poets invited twelve guest editors to each curate a month of poems in 2019. Read a short Q&A with Clint Smith, listen to his interview on WNYC, and browse the curation for February 2019 below.
Poets.org: How did you approach curating Poem-a-Day for February?
Clint Smith: The first thing I asked myself was, “What voices are we not hearing from right now?” That question shaped my decision to have a week solely dedicated to lifting up the voices of people who are or have been incarcerated, which is a demographic of people who are constantly engaged in creative work, though rarely have the opportunity to share it with the public. I’ve been teaching creative writing in prisons and jails for the past several years and I’ve always been struck by the brilliance and powerful storytelling in the work. I wanted others to experience that as well.
My goal for this week, published in partnership with Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop in Washington, D.C., was to select work that illuminates the realities of life for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people that are too often left out of our literary canon and public discourse. For the sake of transparency, a few points: each incarcerated writer with a poem appearing this week has given permission for their work to be shared, but they are not using their full names to protect their privacy and to ensure their safety. There is a long history of incarcerated writers being targeted by prison officials as a result of sharing their experiences, no matter how benign it may seem. Having worked in prisons and jails for several years, I have heard these stories from incarcerated individuals firsthand. With that understanding, we wanted to do our best to share their voices without compromising their safety.
Additionally, while writers typically share some context about their work below the poem as part of the Poem-a-Day series, the logistics in this specific scenario made it difficult to carry out. Because communication and technology are difficult for many people in prison to access, because the length of time it takes for physical letters to be exchanged is uncertain, and given the amount of time available, we decided to highlight the organization, Free Minds Book Club, that these individuals are a part of. This process not being ideal or perfect speaks to the challenges of our justice system. I certainly recognize the constraints of attempting to share the work of incarcerated individuals, and felt those constraints should not prevent us from sharing these writers' poems altogether. My hope is that readers will sit with the work and immerse themselves in the stories of a group of people who continue to have their stories swept aside.
Beyond that, I sought out work from writers whose work surprises me, delights me, and who have created a language that helps me find things I didn’t know I was looking for.
Poets.org: 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?
CS: “I saw Emmett Till this week at the grocery store” by Eve L. Ewing. I love anything and everything that Eve writes and this poem is such a stunning exemplar of how a poem can imagine a different world, step inside of it, and capture a small scene within that world so poignantly. This poem feels like looking at a painting in a museum and discovering something new every time you blink.
Poets.org: What are you working on now in your writing, teaching, or publishing life?
CS: I’m currently at work on a narrative nonfiction book entitled How the Word is Passed, which is an intergenerational examination of how different places throughout the United States reckon with, or don’t reckon with, their relationship to the history of slavery and subsequent iterations of the Black American experience. Additionally, I’m at work on my dissertation which examines how people sentenced to juvenile life without parole make meaning of the purpose of education while incarcerated. Somewhere in there I’m tinkering away at a second manuscript of poems. It’s all work I’m very excited about.