Over the course of her career, Patricia Smith has a reputation for tackling complicated ideas, combining humor and tragedy, and bridging the gap between spoken word and lyrical prose. She’s a four-time National Poetry Slam champion, a finalist for the National Book Award, and has received many other awards for books like Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, Blood Dazzler, and Teahouse of the Almighty. She edited and contributed to the prose anthology Staten Island Noir, and has contributed poems to many anthologies including the recent Bearden’s Odyssey.
Smith’s new book is possibly her best work to date, but it’s also a departure. Incendiary Art is a book-length sequence about violence and rage and fear. There is no narrative arc to the book, rather the poems and the sequences of poems function like a mosaic covering the life of Emmett Till, the voices of mothers whose children were killed, fathers who kill their own children, and urban violence ranging from the Tulsa massacre of 1921, the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, Los Angeles in 1992, and other events. It is also a very personal book; Smith writes of witnessing the 1968 riots in Chicago following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and many summers spent in the deep South with family. Her mother kept the photo of Emmett Till from Jet magazine on the wall of their house. We spoke about her challenging, complicated book, and why she felt it needed to be written.
The Millions: Incendiary Art is an amazing book, but it’s also a really hard book.
Patricia Smith: It’s funny you should say that. I’m so used to doing readings to promote a book. You pick out poems and you have your favorite pieces—balancing long poems with short poems, funny poems with serious poems and all that. It’s so hard to read from this without inserting poems from other books because there’s very little light in these pages. That’s not to say there’s no variety in the book, it’s just a really difficult listen unless you can work in a breather somehow. It’s been pretty revelatory because I’ve been reading poems that I haven’t read in years. This book has changed the idea of what a reading is for me.
TM: I’ve heard and read your work for 20 years or more now, and Incendiary Art feels very different from your other books. Where did it start? With a single poem? Were you always thinking in terms of a larger project?
PS: It started in a very strange place, with the sequence “When Black Men Drown Their Daughters.” I think I wrote “The Five Stages of Drowning” poem first. I had those two news items and I wasn’t sure where they were going to go. I wanted to examine the particular dysfunction that would lead a man to feel so disconnected from his daughter that he would use her as a pawn to punish the mother. My initial idea was to do a book on the many ways–both physical and psychological–that fathers can drown their daughters. For example, there are the stories about fathers in the heartland who “married” their daughters to keep them chaste until they were old enough for their own husbands. I started seeing a lot of things like that. I began to collect a lot of clippings and do a lot of reading about father-daughter relationships—not necessarily just black fathers. Because I had a really special relationship with my father. It started there, but I realized pretty quickly that that was a dead end.
Around that time, I was a teaching a class, telling my students they they should always listen for the voices they weren’t hearing. I talk about taking the time to look for an unexpected entry point into a poem. At the time, every two weeks or so there was another shooting of an unarmed man–usually by the police. I had my students look at news stories and I said, what is the voice we’re not hearing? I realized that there was always a very frantic shot of a mother in the beginning of the story and another frantic shot of a mother at the end when the person responsible for the death of her son or daughter was deemed not responsible for the death of her son or daughter. And then after that last frantic shot, the mothers disappeared. I thought about these mothers trying to re-enter their lives and what might be like. And so the “Sagas of the Accidental Saint” poems began that way. They wound up being the center, the focus, of the book for me. I tried to build everything else around that.
TM: It is interesting that the Emmett Till poems came later, because those poems and the Incendiary Art poems are really the spine of the book.
PS: The Emmett Till poems happened because Mamie Till was yet another mother whose son was gone. And I began thinking about the Incendiary Art poems during the riots after the death of Mike Brown. I realized how many times fire entered the picture, burning the landscape clean. I also heard someone ask, why do they burn their own neighborhoods? That made me think of the riots after the King assassination, which is when my neighborhood burned down. I spent some time trying to mix all these things and find a common entry point. Then I realized it wasn’t the subject matter, it was the fact that I was the one handling the subject matter. The same feelings kept rising to the surface even though I was looking at different topics. I decided that the idea of the changing landscape, the landscape that’s cluttered and confusing but that gets burned to the ground and starts over, was what I wanted at the center of the book. That encompassed all those different parts in my eyes. And hopefully in the readers’ eyes, too.
TM: The Incendiary Art poems loosely connect Chicago in ’68 and Tulsa in ’21 and the MOVE bombing, and they’re all about fire and violence and rage, but the connection is in part, as you said, that it’s you telling this.
PS: I guess there might be a stronger connection in my head simply because I was right in the middle of the riots in Chicago [in 1968]—and every time I see a riot of that type, it pulls me back to all that heat and chaos. It also makes me think of what it must have been like in Tulsa and wherever. I wrote because the connection felt strong for me and I hoped that some semblance of that connection would come together for the reader.
TM: I know people who still talk about Emmett Till in a certain way and it was because he could have been them and they’ve never forgotten that.
PS: That’s what my parents felt and that’s what they tried to drill into me. That’s why they had the Jet magazine picture in the house, the picture of Emmett in his casket.
TM: How did you come up with the idea of writing about Emmett Till in the style of a “choose your own adventure?”
PS: I used to love those books when I was a kid. And I as I get older, I look back on things and think a lot about the role of chance. I had just read about Mamie Till trying to get Emmett to go with her to Nebraska and then giving in and letting him go to Mississippi. I went through his whole story and said, where else could things have changed? I was one of those kids that was sent South. I was sent to Greenwood Mississippi every summer to get away from the city and run and be free and all that, but as soon as I got there I was presented with a whole set of rules. I was told how far I could go down a certain road or what man I should definitely not speak to if I happened to run into him. There were those same types of rules on the west side of Chicago. The South looked freer. It looked like you could run and play and do things you couldn’t do in the city, but it just operated under a different set of rules.
My mother probably didn’t think of it this way, but it was so frightening to have that picture torn from Jet Magazine in the house all while I was growing up. My mom believed that the way to get through life was to be as beholden as possible to white people. If she was in a room and a white person walked in, her whole body would get smaller. She tried really hard to teach me how to live like that—not only because she thought that was how to be successful in the world, but because it was the way to stay alive. You don’t talk back, you don’t do this, you don’t do that. If you said the wrong thing to the wrong person you might wind up in a shallow grave somewhere–and you never knew who the wrong person was. I thought about that a lot.
TM: “Sagas of the Accidental Saint” is the center of the book in a lot of ways, and you have this long sequence where you have one line on a page–“The gun said: I just had an accident”–and it goes on, page after page. It’s a long and complicated series of poems and those 10 pages with one line each were almost exhaustingly long. How did you decide on that length and that effect?
PS: I knew the whole sequence was going to be long. I worried that people wouldn’t know that first long sequence was in the mother’s voice unless I said, this is in the mother’s voice. I really wanted to impose some form on that segment. I assume everyone reads aloud—which may or may not be true—but I wanted there to be something intriguing about the passage outside of the content. A sound that a reader wanted to keep coming back to. A lament. I didn’t want to have names that people necessarily recognized immediately in the cases I cite. I want people to know that while they see these things in the news every once in a while, the tragedy is a more constant and consistent drumbeat. There’s a case in the news and then maybe a case a month later, but no, it’s more often than that. It’s something unfortunately that’s numbing and a certain portion of the population gets used to it. If there’s something very public or brazen about it then maybe it makes the news. Nowadays it makes the news usually because there’s film. I wanted people to say, I don’t know that name, I didn’t know that name, I didn’t know how many times people committed suicide with their hands tied behind them. I wanted it to be relentless, but I didn’t want it to be too much.
About the repeated bullet line—when I had it printed out to read, I realized that I would pause a certain number of beats between each repetition of the line—and that it was just enough time for a page to turn. So I then printed it out with one of the lines on each page. There’s something striking about the physical act of turning the page. If you say it and you breathe and you turn the page, people have said to me afterwards, you feel like you’re being held captive. You don’t realize it until maybe the third time, oh my god, she’s going to do that 10 times. Because there were 10 shots. I want you to hear every gunshot—and in order to replicate that feeling, it’s not enough to stay on one page and say this happened 10 times. The time you take to turn the page is enough time for the gun to fire again. I’m always trying to give the reader at least as much of me in person as I can on the page. Whenever there’s something like that, when I can do something to help you hear me saying the poem, I’ll do it. I was afraid that when I spaced those out the way I wanted that the publisher would say, this is too much, this is too long, but they were very supportive. They knew exactly what I wanted to do and we kept it that way. It also helps me when doing readings because if I read the whole “Sagas of the Accidental Saint,” it’s half an hour. It helps me to be able to take two or three of those cases out of Accidental Saint and read them as individual pieces.
TM: Have you always written that way? Thinking about sound and meter and trying to replicate the way you read on the page?
PS: Almost from the beginning. Because I got introduced to poetry by getting up on stage. The audience can only hear the poem once. Normally they don’t have a copy they can read again. You have to be very cognizant of not only the poem’s content, but the fact that it is able to be received and interpreted relatively easily. I didn’t know I was doing this consciously until I started to really study poetry, but I talk aloud while I write. I say one line over and over until the next line comes and then I say those two lines until the third line comes. Not only will I have internalized the poem somewhat by the time I’m done, but I’m really conscious of the way the words reach the air, how they sound. I think that is the result of me spending so much time doing poetry for an audience, before the idea of the reader was ever really clear to me.
When I started to study poetry, I realized that there were poems I go to again and again. I even know them almost by heart. But every time I see these poems I read them all the way through—why do I do that? Because the poet did something technically to help heighten my response to the poem and I didn’t know what it was. I wanted to know what those sounds were called and what was happening with meter. They have to work hand in hand—the content has to be something that draws the reader in, but so does the sound. If I can take something horrible and lend music to it, you have to read it. If I can take something beautiful and add some sort of cacophony to it, you have to read it. Meter is something you have in your toolbox that can really enhance a poem in a lot of ways. It would be overwrought if you did it all with the content, but you can do something that the reader can’t point to right away, and they can leave the poem with the feeling you want them to leave with, without knowing how they got it.
TM: You contributed to the recent anthology Bearden’s Odyssey, about Romare Bearden, and I liked your poem in the book, but I kept thinking that the way that Bearden used collage is similar to what you tried to do in Incendiary Art in some ways. Were you conscious of this? Were you familiar with Bearden’s work?
PS: Not really. I mean I’d seen pieces of his before, but I never studied his work. I looked at more of it when I was presented with the idea of the anthology. The idea of collage however, goes back to Blood Dazzler. There’s a poem in Blood Dazzler about the 34 nursing home residents who were lost in Hurricane Katrina. People ask me about that a lot. It’s sort of a juncture for me because I so often turn to persona. That was the first poem, and I thought that was going to be the only poem, resulting from Katrina. That’s the poem that I had. I didn’t intend to write a book. Our lives are one long narrative and every once in a while you see something and you take a picture—I want this moment, I want this day. I pictured a camera moving around that room. The lights are out, the water is rising, and people are pushing call buttons and no one is coming. I wanted a camera to scan that room and I wanted it to stop and maybe it only stops for a second, but a second of life is better than none.
In Incendiary Art, I felt for a long time that I needed to do more to pull together the sections. It wasn’t enough that we’re talking about different types of loss. That’s overarching. If I think about African-American lives and I think about those long narratives and those snapshots, if you put all those snapshots on the table and someone looks at them, they’re going to have a hard time putting together a story. But if you realize what narrative they came from, then you’ll know what the story is instinctively. That idea of the line of lives and pulling what we need from it—those moments, those instances, those days—whatever you need to piece this life together.
One of the things about Incendiary Art is that I didn’t know how to end it. There is so much I felt that I needed to keep in the conversation. This happened with Blood Dazzler, too. I had people say to me, you’ve got to hurry up and get this book out because people are going to forget about Katrina. The idea of someone forgetting about something so huge and important was so amazing to me. How? And now I hear people saying, you hardly hear anything about the men and women who died at the hands of the police—I hate to keep saying that—because of all the political turmoil that’s now piled on top of it. People were paying, or pretending to pay, a lot of attention to that until our very survival as a country became an issue—and now our focus is in a million different places at once. All I want is for someone to pick up Incendiary Art or pick up Blood Dazzler and say, that’s right, this is happening. That’s what I want. Maybe it won’t last long, but for the moment they’re reading those poems I want them to be thoroughly involved in what they’re reading. The idea that things have to be tied together tightly or that they have to lead so directly one into the other, I think I’m walking away from that idea.
TM: I could feel rereading those last few poems that you were trying to find a way to close the book. You couldn’t have an Emmett Till poem be the last one because him being alive wouldn’t work, even though you make it clear that only chance keeps him alive. But you seemed to be trying to find some light.
PS: It was a difficult book to close. There’s not a narrative arc in the book. I wanted that last Incendiary Art and that last Emmett Till. We talked about the gun said I just had an accident, and that was another way to close the book, with that ellipsis that keeps going. I wanted Emmett to be laughing and alive—which goes back to that idea of chance. Taking this turn instead of that turn. I was in a store here in New Jersey the other day and in the current political climate someone can very nakedly stare and sneer at you publicly, as if they’re daring you to say something about it because they’re emboldened. The question is, because I’m a very impetuous girl, do I say something back? If I say something, does the person get in their car and follow me home? There are dangerous situations in places where I’m not used to being frightened. That idea of not knowing who your neighbors are. Having people who were content to be hateful in private in their basements are now out in the open. When I look back, I tend to say, that’s the way it was, but not the way it is now. To see that again—that’s as much light as the book could find. One of the things I ask my students is can we find beauty anywhere? Can we find humor anywhere? I think there might be a couple of moments where something visually is a little lighter, but there’s no humor in this book. When you said it’s a different book, I think it is.
TM: After finishing a book like this, is it hard to let go? Do you really need to spend time with something funny and lighter?
PS: It’s a combination. For a while after Blood Dazzler people would come up to me and say, well there was just this major tragedy in you-name-the-place, what are you going to write about it? Well, I’m not going to. I’m not the tragedy writer. I’m not the natural disaster writer. That was what I was moved to write about at that time. When I say that Incendiary Art was a hard book to finish, it was hard to finish because things kept happening that should have been in the book. I would see something and immediately say, I want to write about that but where is it going to go? I’m writing in reaction to a lot of things. I’m writing because I’m angry and I’m sad and I’m trying to make something make sense. If I keep doing that, I’m going to wind up with exactly the same kind of book. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but I do want to be funny and I do want to find ironic things and play off of them, and now I’m frightened politically. If we write to move our lives forward, we’re constantly writing about those types of things.
I’m working on some fiction that came right out of Incendiary Art and the mothers of those murdered people. I wonder about the folding back into what an ordinary life should be. How do you do that being a woman who woke up one morning with a son or daughter and went to sleep without one? I have my Guggenheim proposal, which I haven’t started. My husband and I collect 19th-century photos of African-Americans and I want to do a book of dramatic monologues using some of those photos. There could be light in that for me. Luckily I have six weeks of residency this year. I’m not thinking I wrote a dark book so now I have to write a light book. I would like to, for my own psychological health, pull up and out a little bit. I’d like to write a children’s book again. I haven’t done that for a long time. I think of myself as a storyteller and not necessarily a poet and so you look for the best way to tell a story. Hopefully I can get something that lightens the landscape a little bit, but I go with what presses me to be written.