Posted by: Viola | February 12, 2016

Meeting Patricia Smith and considering poetry’s work

This week, the American poet Patricia Smith gave a poetry reading at my community college campus, American River College. Tuesday, at 12:20pm, she gave a reading in Raef Hall. Thanks to one of the English professors, Danny, who alerted me to the event, I was able to attend, and I was very happy to be there.

I have been going through a quiet spell, taking a break from writing, and it was great to meet a poet and hear her read her poems. It gave me some inspiration, and made me realize that at times when we cannot write, we can take a break and visit the writings of fellow writers. We can draw from other poets the inspiration to keep believing in the good work that poetry does in the world.

Patricia Smith read a suite of poems dealing with the shooting of unarmed black citizens in the USA. She used the names of real individuals and described the incidents. She read poems in the voices of some who lived through these experiences, particularly the mother of one of the victims.

Patrician Smith said she wanted to capture a voice we don’t often consider–the mother who has to watch her child’s name and personality put through so much negative scrutiny, after her child is brutally killed. She has to live through several losses–the loss of her child, the loss of who he/she was (since the police and the media may portray the child in a way that is not accurate, looking for reasons why her child “deserved” to be killed by the police). She also has to go through a sense of blame, because it is easily assumed that she (as a mother) did not do her job properly and did not raise her child well, did not teach and protect her child properly.

These poems were poems that unsettled me, and I know that writing about this issue is a powerful process meant to take us out of our sense of comfort and safety. We must ask ourselves if we are really safe, and who protects whom? Parents ought to be able to protect their children, but they cannot always do so, they cannot foresee/control the ways in which they might lose a child to injustice. Law enforcement ought to protect citizens, but it is not always so; they cannot control an officer who pulls the trigger when he/she shouldn’t.

So who is responsible for whom, or maybe the question is, how can we be more responsible for each other?

By working on our racist attitudes and practicing love and kindness to others, we aren’t being soft. We are moving toward protecting each other. It’s a choice. When we choose to see people in racial ways, in ways that do violence to the selves/beings of others, we are opting to be unsafe and to make our world and lives more insecure. If we have the attitude that a black person is an unsafe person, we only continue to contribute to the injustice. I think, as a society, as a collective, humanity has to work toward seeing people as individuals and as humans and as persons and as multidimensional beings…not as one-sided racial beings.

This is where the power of poetry comes in. Poetry that celebrates the voices and experiences of people, of real human beings who experience their lives in multiple ways and who experience the deep trauma of injustice and loss when they are treated as less than human.

Poetry does many things:

  • Poetry humanizes people. It humanizes their experiences. Their feelings. Their realities.
  • Poetry unsettles and disturbs us, reflects reality back to us so that we can see the picture a bit more clearly and ask ourselves hard questions.
  • Poetry brings together the humanizing of others and the unsettling of others to build a bridge of healing and positive possibilities.
  • Poetry listens to the voices of the unheard and poetry forces those who do not listen to pause and hear.

These are my own perspectives, from attending the reading by Patricia Smith. I really appreciated the question and answer session she had after the reading. She answered questions about her writing. I asked a question about her publishing experiences…I asked her to share how she got her first books published and what her experiences of the publishing process have been like. She gave a great response. She said that going to readings and sharing her poems with audiences brought her into contact with people who offered to publish her or who connected her to publishing opportunities. Her first few books were published thanks to these contacts and relationships. Her later books were published through poetry prizes she submitted her work to and working with presses that wanted to publish her work (especially because she does a lot to promote and sell the books herself).

After the event, I got to meet and greet her and take photo with her. It was wonderful to introduce myself to her. I regretted that I did not bring a copy of my chapbook to give to her (I really need to carry copies of my chapbook with me). But she said I can send her a copy, so I will do so. A wonderful chance for me to meet another great poet. I have met Rita Dove, Carolyne Forche, Terrance Hayes, Richard Blanco, Kwame Dawes, Chris Abani, Matthew Shenoda, Ladan Osman, Warsan Shire…and now I have met Patricia Smith. ❤

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