Tuesday, March 30, 2021

When Patricia Smith reads, what do we hear?

Patricia Smith, source: Chris Rolinson

Back in February, I was viewed an online conversation between Tyehimba Jess and Patricia Smith. At one point, Smith read her poem "Hey, who you got in here?" -- a conversation between women who are at a prison to visiting their sons who are serving time. 

When she read the poem, I was immediately annoyed with my own initial reading of the poem on the page. I had not given the different voices and personas the richness that Smith did. Listening to her gave me a fuller sense of two black women in a prison waiting areas conversing before meeting with their incarcerated sons.   

But perhaps we can stop right there and consider that while listening Smith, I began to imagine hearing two other black women. This idea of considering where my mind goes when I hear Smith came back to me recently after reading this article, "When Podcast Hosts Speak, What Do We Hear?"

The article focuses primarily on white people, who, the author notes, make up about 80% podcast hosts. There's some attention to the fact that black podcasts sound different or don't have the freedom "to let aurally loose" the way many white hosts sound. Legit points.

For almost two decades now, however, I have taught African American literature courses, and I have increasingly included audio recordings of poets reading. My students and I realize that there are white-black differences, but given our focus in the course, we end up thinking about the variety among black poets. 

Students view Smith's reading of her poem "Skinhead" as the most haunting. It's one thing to watch her reading the poem on Def Poetry Jam. But for years, I played only an older audio version, where there are no applause and visual. We'd just listen. 

I'm not fully sure why but the experience of listening to only her audio gives an eerie feeling. Not seeing the reader perhaps raises the image of the white supremacist in the minds of my students. Too, many of the them are not previously aware of Smith, and their introduction to her is reading in the persona of a skinhead. 

I started actively reading and listening to Smith's readings at the beginning of my career as a professor in the fall of 2003. I had completed a major project on the Black Arts Movement, and I was trying to acquaint myself with contemporary African American poets. I first came across works by Tyehimba Jess, and I noticed in interviews, he almost always mentioned Smith as an important influence and model. So I began "following" both of them long before that practice became associated with social media.

Smith is routed to slam and spoken word. But it's worth noting that she emerged from Chicago and the Green Mill Lounge, so her sound is not the same of someone who came up in, say, New York or California. 

In terms of age, Smith is a contemporary of Rita Dove, Harryette Mullen, Erica Hunt, Nikky Finney, Cornelis Eady, and Carl Phillips. Her background as a spoken word artist, however, means she projects and performs her in ways much different than them. Or put another way, she likely was inclined to think about poetry audience (at the Green Mill Lounge and at National Poetry Slam competitions) in ways that those other poets did not.     

So when Smith reads, you, or at least I, have to give thought to that background to the trajectory of poetry on page and stage.  

It's possible of course to situate Smith among various spoken word artists, including Jae Nichelle, Porsha O, Jasmine Mans, Amanda Gorman, and others. Alright. But then, what Smith does with persona stands out. In addition to mothers with incarcerated sons and a skinhead, Smith has also written/read in the voice of Hurricane Katrina and the cartoon character Olive Oyl. 

As I considered Smith's poem "Hey, who you got in here?," I thought about the poet as listener. You get the sense from that poem that Smith has spent some time pay attention to quite conversations between black women. So among other things, when Smith is reading, what you end up hearing is a production of someone who's a close listener. 


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