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 conscience.

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