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John Warner Smith

John Warner Smith earned his MFA at the University of New Orleans. He has published four collections of poetry, most recently Muhammad’s Mountain (Lavender Ink, 2018). His fifth collection will be published in 2020 by MadHat Press. A Cave Canem fellow, he is the winner of the 2019 Linda Hodge Bromberg Poetry Award. Smith has directed Education’s Next Horizon, a statewide policy advocacy organization that seeks to improve outcomes in Louisiana public schools, and teaches English at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He serves as the poet laureate of Louisiana.

Read about John Warner Smith’s 2020 Poets Laureate Fellowship project.

By This Poet



New Orleans, a Tuesday, 7:30 A.M.
I’m sipping coffee at a McDonald’s on Canal
when two young black men, early twenties perhaps,
walk in, buying nothing. Suddenly,
I’m aboard a mothership,
streaking toward the farthest stars.

One, like a fly, bobs the aisles, sweaty
in his Crown Royal muscle shirt.
Gym shorts hanging off his ass,
headset in his ears, he pantomimes
a singer and dances a Mardi Gras mambo
in July, with himself, second-lining
silky-smoothly across the floor, out the door,
onto the parking lot—his own block party
without the block.

The other, well-groomed, small backpack,
talks loudly, eloquently to himself
about home, what it is, isn’t and should be, then,
facing the faces, he launches a soliloquy
of senseless babble,
and you sense the other—
the voices, a stage, curtain and cast,
his fans and followers looking on,
inside his head.

I’m gazing stars. Drawn to the glow
of their wayward worlds,
I can’t help
but pause, watch and listen.
I’m entertained,
but scared, because they’re black men
and I’m one, too,
with a son and grandsons of my own,
and I can’t help
but ponder: what’s loose,
what’s broken, what’s gone wrong,
what’s the fix?

Moving Men

Men of the moving company arrive
in gray crew neck shirts and hard-toe boots,
carrying dollies, ropes and quilts,
a few songs and small talk
to pass the time. They lift, pull
and raise, then sail the séance
of grit golden sands.
They pull cups, pour water,
and pass bread, potatoes and fried meat.
These cocoa-tinted, bred, burned,
branded and bull-whipped men
have barely begun to move.
It’s only morning. Give them a day.

Renaissance Man

After Liston, they fell like dominoes:
Folley, Terrell, Williams, Mildenberger,
London, Cooper, Chuvalo, and Patterson,
dizzied by his lightning quick jabs
and the waltz of his dazzling white shoes,
sparkling like chrome
as he bicycled across the canvas.

We stood witness to the creation
of modern day myth—Black Superman
from Krypton, Kentucky,
undefeated god of the ring,
clairvoyant and charismatic,
denigrating and taunting challengers

while staring into his crystal ball.

He wanted to go to heaven so I beat him in seven.
It ain’t no jive, he’ll go in five.
He might be great but he’ll fall in eight.

Ali vernacular.
Ali meter.
Ali rhyme.
Ali renaissance:
        black beauty,
        black ballet,
        black poetry
        on the wings of a butterfly,

with foot work, hand speed, and power
that whupped ass.