Friday, February 5, 2021

Well-traveled poets Patricia Smith and Tyehimba Jess in conversation

For almost two decades now, I have been thinking and writing about the complexity of black poets moving between stage and page, that is, between performance and printed text, between audio and book histories, and while I have thought about many, many poets along these lines, I've spent a disproportionate amount of time considering three crucial artists: Amiri Baraka, Patricia Smith, and Tyehimba Jess. 

All three have produced outstanding, unforgettable performances and showcased their talents in literary journals, anthologies, and volumes of poetry. 

For these reasons, I was really excited to catch a recent video of Patricia Smith and Tyehimba Jess in conversation with each other. 

These aren't just two accomplished published poets in the conventional senses. Instead, they both  passed through the legendary Green Mill Lounge, a space widely viewed as a crucial site for the emergence of slam poetry

Smith and Jess were veterans of Green Mill, and then they went on to become award winners in the world of (print-based) poetry. Relatively few poets have made the kind of journeys from stage to page while balancing both that these two have. A conversation between Smith and Jess is therefore a conversation between two of our most well-traveled poets.  

During their discussion, Smith and Jess reflected on their experiences at Green Mill and with Cave Canem. Jess made a point, which he has noted in several different venues, that Smith was an important influence on his beginnings. He observed that hearing Smith's persona performances were vital. 

In turn, Smith offered really insightful and important comments about the importance of Jess's use of persona for her and others: 

[With leadbelly (2005)] You hooked me on the persona poem's ability to tell one person's whole story. You know, to move around and say I'm gonna animate this guitar because this guitar is so important in this story. And how each one of the voices were so different and alive, it was like being picked up and plopped down in the middle of a snippet of cinema or something and you couldn't wait to turn and say, "where's this going who's talking next." And so the idea that it was powerful enough to move within a single story and be effective. That's the first time I thought about that, and I think that changed a lot of things, Tyehimba, for a lot of people because if you look now someone says, you know, "I have a poetry book coming out," and the first thing someone says is "what's it about?" you know?  I think, I think that the seed, I think you were the seed for a lot of that, for our realization of what role the persona poem could play outside of just being a poetic device.

Look, I had to present her full comments there because she wonderfully captures what some of us have been attempting address for years concerning the implications of leadbelly. Smith was also providing a cultural history from the perspective of a leading poet. It also needs to be said that in addition to being such a superb poet, Smith is a remarkable storyteller. You get that from her poets and her conversations. 

Whatever the case, consider that these two slam poet veterans were charting out a book history of poetry. 


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