From 1987 through the end of the century, slam poetry has been
the strong force behind spoken word in Chicago and, in a ripple
effect, through western Europe and parts of the Pacific. But as
slam has given a lot of the world a keynote for reclaiming
performed poetry as a living art, slam has keynote artists of
its own who gave the movement meaning and direction through
their work. More than any other artist, Patricia Smith
sounds slam poetry's keynote.
Her voice originates from the true ground zero of the slam poetry
movement: Chicago in the late 1980s. While the significance of
"page versus stage" in poetry was hotly debated then, Smith
squarely reconciled both with strength and finesse. Smith's
work signals changes in the poetic landscape at the end of the
1900s in America and parts of western Europe as she toured and
word of her work spread. She made it clear that performance has
an absolute relationship to text, but that the ultimate synthesis
of page and stage is seamless. Repeated championships in the
(U.S.) National Poetry Slam and championship bouts at the Taos
Poetry Circus lended her the audiences to realize this quite
fully. Both her text and voice are vital. Nothing is left to
chance in Smith's language whether it's written or spoken.
Smith coined a kind of performance poetry which defined slam. Her
work resides in the present, in the urban neighborhood, in
nightclubs, streetcorner gathering places like the barber shop or
in 3:00 AM taxi rides home. She throws fierce charisma. She always
has. And while she writes from the "I", she writes selflessly so.
The audience is free to step into her shoes as they will, trying
on her point of view as her writing slips into the identities of
others. In all of this, there is an enlightened, worldly political
Her ensemble of energies is infectious, delicious to the
eye and ear, full and provocative to the mind. By that virtue,
Smith mitigated criticisms that slam poetry necessarily was a
coarse or uncritically-minded craft. She proved that slam could
exceed its saloon origins and engage the literate public. So in
many regards, the slam movement followed in her wake as much as
she did in its. She won Illinois' prestigious Carl Sandburg Award
for poetry in recognition of her craft.
Born and raised in Chicago, educated in Illinois, Smith left her
hometown and work for the Chicago Sun Times to pursue her
journalism career in Boston with The Globe after 1991.
She, with her husband then, Michael Brown, successfully
transplanted Chicago-roots slam poetry to New England, which has
since enjoyed a flowering of it's own performance poetry. Their
effort was key to making slam poetry a national phenomenon in the
United States. In spring of 1998, Smith was nominated and favored
to win, then withdrawn from consideration for a Pulitzer Prize in
journalism when rumors were validated that some of her Globe
column's stories were fabricated. Smith admitted so and lost her job at the
paper, but she would pay for her mistake with more than her job and
the forfieted prize.
She suffered institutional vitriol and public demonizing
by much of the mainstream press at the national level, particularly
by the more conservative Sunday television panel-show pundits.
While this all but ensured Smith's sainthood among performance
poetry's body politic, it also cost her wellbeing.
The loss of her professional career and her marriage coincided,
and the ensuing stress nearly ruined her health. But by the end of 1998,
she was back in recital again, recycling some of her very recent
experiences with the press into her contemporary writing. In one
strong, extended performance at the Chicago Cultural Center at that
time, she addressed such themes as vindictiveness, self-destruction,
betrayal, depression, suicide, and self-redemption; the directness
of transport from headlines to poetry arrested the audience. After
her recital, the full auditorium rose for a lengthy standing
ovation. It might be said that Smith's writing, whether it is
poetry aspiring toward journalism or journalism aspiring toward
poetry, tells the facts we innately know and must admit to ourselves,
instead of the facts that others would teach us for their own profit.
Vehicles like the web can bond page with stage by presenting text
and voice with nearly equal finesse. I'm particularly proud to
present the poetry of Patricia Smith as the first chapter in The
Book of Voices, as it binds together so many of Patricia's and my
own shared passions. If there was ever a keynote artist for such
a venture, she is Patricia.
The recordings presented here, to the best of my knowledge, are
not available anywhere else online. If so, they're copies of this material.
I translated the audio to web-ready form from DAT recordings I kept since
1994 when I directed Patricia's first poetry video, "Chinese Cucumbers."
That original DAT held about an hour of studio-quality recordings of
Patricia performing about twenty poems.
The video's soundtrack is available here, as are five other poems
previously not heard in commercial recordings. As you enjoy them,
I hope you can understand why Patricia Smith is the poet who defines
performance poetry best for me.
- Kurt Heintz, July 1999