Interview: Author Patricia Smith on "The Writing Life"

Author Patricia Smith--photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Here’s the official bio:

“Patricia Smith is the author of six books of poetry, including Blood Dazzler, a finalist for the National Book Award, and her latest, Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, a finalist for the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America and the Balcones Prize. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, TriQuarterly, Tin House and in both Best American Poetry and Best American Essays. Her contribution to the crime fiction anthology Staten Island Noir won the Robert L. Fish Award from the Mystery Writers of America for the best debut story of the year and is upcoming in Best American Mystery Stories 2013.  She is a 2012 fellow at both the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo, a two-time Pushcart Prize winner and a four-time individual champion of the National Poetry Slam, the most successful poet in the competition’s history. Patricia is a professor at the College of Staten Island and an instructor in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.”

Decidedly impressive—you can read more and buy books here: The Poetry Annex of Patricia Smith.

But…that’s not the Patricia Smith I knew.

The Patricia Smith I knew at the Chicago Sun Times in the 70’s was an audacious young clerk who snatched the then still typewritten articles from our hands when we yelled “COPY!” and rushed them to the editors to be proofread and fact-checked.

She couldn’t fool us, though. There was a glint in those eyes—she was a writer, waiting her turn.

And when she got it, she ran with it. But one day, a few years after I’d left the Sun Times, she made a quick detour to visit me on the Hopi rez

I believe she was on her way to…or from…one of her triumphant poetry slam appearances—she was the Queen of Slams already.  And by then I was living in a cute little rez house with a veggie garden in front—my Hopi husband couldn’t kick the habit of farming.

So there was blue and yellow corn and several types of squash and the tiny, sugar sweet melons they raise up there. And the local bulls brought their honeys over nights to munch at the ears of corn closest to the temporary chicken wire fence he’d hastily constructed to keep out all the littler critters.

Pat liked the garden, too.  And she liked my little girl, too—my daughter was still a wee one then. And Pat bathed her lovingly when bedtime came. And when I had sent her off to dreamland, I found Pat standing on the front porch right behind and above that garden, staring straight up at the sky.

She said…with a poet’s deft verbal frugality, “The silence…”

And then, also, “The stars…”

I totally understood. Everything goes to sleep early on the rez—you can hear the earth breathing in the silent night.

And there are no outside lights in most villages. So there are more stars, brighter stars, than most people will ever see—it’s startling, the first time you look up into the sequined sky.

But there was more to the moment than that.

I think it was her way of saying she finally understood why I’d run away West.  Or rather, why I had never returned. I can’t be sure of that. But at a farewell lunch she’d looked on as Roger Ebert had finally asked me point blank what I was going to do out west.

I had no idea. I was on auto pilot, deliberately letting my life unfold on its own. He said it was brave. But I’m not sure he whole-heartedly approved.

On the night of the silence and stars, I think Pat saw that my life had become a story far more compelling than any of the “copy” I’d written at the Sun Times. And the wordsmith in her liked that story and could leave me to it without regret.

After that, we did not speak or write for many years. Life did what it does. For both of us there was joy and pain. Peace and turmoil—there was, as she puts it in the interview below, her “meltdown” at the Boston Globe about which which much was written and about which virtually nothing was understood. Except by those of us who loved her and always will.

And I watched her ascent from the ashes with great pride.

We Facebook’d our way back together again later. And recently, we lost Roger, and in comforting each other, began to correspond more often.

And so when asked to interview a published writer, for the Story Cartel, a revolutionary online writing community and online writing course being developed by young Joe Bunting, I decided Pat would tell the deeper truths about the writing life.

She did. And I have to share them with the world—they’re too good to be left with only a chosen few.

So here are the questions followed by her answers, which are predictably powerful. I tried not to edit them save for spelling, to keep all that power intact.

If you’re a writer you really should print this. If you’re not a writer…you really should print this, too:

Q. Let’s start with a very general question.  Of all the things you’ve learned throughout your long and illustrious career…what one truly helpful piece of truly practical advice would you give writers about the process itself?  I’m talking about the real “It’s time to get to work” kind of things. 

This is probably more along the lines of “getting your mind right.” I think it’s insanely easy to forget that we are storytellers, first and foremost. Many writers seem almost anxious to allow others into their creative space in order to define, qualify, adjust, categorize, limit and pass judgment on the work being done. If someone calls you a poet often enough, you become one. Then when a story you have to tell requires something larger, smaller, wider or narrower than a poem, you tend to abandon the story. Because you’re a poet, dammit.

What’s I’m trying to say is that the story matters much more than the way you choose to tell it. If I consider myself a storyteller--avoiding the labels “novelist,” “poet,” “essayist,” “playwright,” “journalist,” “flash fictionista” and such--no structure has the power to daunt me. I’m free to let the story tell me what it wants to be, what shape it needs--and if it asks for a structure I’m not yet familiar with, I see that as a delicious challenge rather than an insurmountable obstacle.

If you say you’re impassioned about writing, you should want to write in as many ways as possible. Constantly blur the lines between the genres. Just because your boundaries have been established (usually by others) doesn’t mean you have to live within them.

Q.  When did you begin writing?  And also, when did you realize you could actually be a writer? 

I hate to say “I started when I was six,” because that sounds like the opening scenes of an afterschool special, but--I started when I was six.

My father, who came to Chicago from Arkansas during the Great Migration, brought with him something I call “the tradition of the back porch.” At the end of every day, he’d take root in the kitchen and start spinning tales--about his work at the candy factory, about the comings and goings in the neighborhood, stories filled with endless colorful comparisons between “down South” and “up here.” Because of him, I learned to look at the world in terms of the stories it could tell. A master of characterization and dialogue, he made me look at people I thought I knew in entirely different ways. From the minute he opened his mouth, I was mesmerized. I didn’t know how, but I wanted to hold sway over someone like that. And like him, I wanted to use words to do it.

So when I was six, I decided to be a writer of stories. I made my father buy me dozens of spiral notebooks, and I wrote and drew a combination of tales, utilizing the words I knew and the ones I could (hilariously) sound out and misuse. I crammed those notebooks through most of my elementary school years. Thanks to my dad sitting down with me and reading them religiously, I didn’t think there was any reason I wasn’t a writer. Even, in my middle school years, when I finally announced my intention to my mother and she said--in no uncertain terms--”Only white men do that.”

When did I actually KNOW know?

Getting introduced to poetry by getting on stage and doing it was both good and bad. For some time, it caused me to concentrate on the performance instead of the writing at the heart of it. There was a virtual chasm between the “performers” (who supposedly focused on a live audience) and the “academics” (who focused, supposedly, on readers). And there I was, right in the middle. In fact, I was so enamored of “poems in the air” that I began to think I didn’t need structure, that I could live my entire creative life from a stage. This mindset was the result of academia dismissing what we did as no more than theater, with no basis in actual written craft—remember, if you hear it enough, you begin to believe it.

At one point, I found myself (a performer) doing a reading with Reginald Gibbons (an academic), who was then editor of TriQuarterly, a prestigious literary journal. If he spoke to me at all, I fully expected to be dismissed as a poetic imposter. Instead, he asked to see a copy of a poem I’d just read.

I panicked. Since I was so focused on SAYING the poem, it was often written in one big meandering block, with no attention paid to structure or line breaks. I expected him to laugh out loud when I handed it to him.

But he didn’t. Instead, he asked me to write my contact information on the sheet and said “I’d love to publish this.”

AT THAT MOMENT, I knew I was a writer, and that committed writing continually crosses lines and perceptions.

(Interesting note: When I was up for the National Book Award, Reginald Gibbons was also one of the finalists. WHOA.)

Q. Here’s another one you must hear often.  Some writers say they feel as if they’re “transcribing” from some inner or…outer…voice.  They almost never outline or otherwise “plan” what they write.  (BUSTED!) Others find or receive an idea, and they sit down and decide exactly how to express that idea by creating a little “blueprint” for that first draft.  Are you more of a drafter or an outliner—or a combo plate?  Or is it, as it is for me, “situational?”

Yuck. Blueprint? Really?

Nothing against those perky planners, but if I blueprint, or diagram or storyboard or pre-nitpick, I’m deciding the direction of my story in advance. That doesn’t give the story much opportunity to veer off down avenues that may be more intriguing and better for its overall health. Sure, sometimes the lack of planning leads to mass chaos, but it’s always--in the end--glorious mass chaos. It gives my work permission to surprise me. I’ll never forget the moment my crime fiction writer hubby called me into his office one day. With a stunned look on his face, he said “Mulligan just picked up a gun.”

Mulligan, his protagonist, had never picked up a gun before. He had no reason to pick up a gun. But, much to the author’s surprise, he suddenly had one in his hand. The next step was to figure out why he had picked it up, and what in the hell he was going to do with it.

Now, that’s fun!

Q.  Along the same lines…where do your poems/stories come from? 

Every damned where. Honestly. Snippets of conversation, news clippings, the past, the present, “My Strange Obsession,” the future, buried hurt, Honey Boo Boo, unleashed joy, etc., etc., etc. The trick is to know that everything, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, contains a story. As soon as I open my eyes every morning, I have to narrow them against the onslaught of ideas hurtling in my direction. I’m sometimes hampered by an incredible sadness, knowing I’ll never be able to write everything that inspires me.

But it takes a while to train yourself to see those stories everywhere. We dismiss so much. And in much of what we dismiss, the best stories lie dormant.

Q.  You live in a passionate world of poets and people who love poetry.  But poetry remains, for many, a very mysterious genre.  Invite us into your world—why should we listen?  How should we listen?  Where do we begin to listen? 

There are plenty of people who love poetry--in fact, many who guide their very lives by it--just not many of them live here in the good ol’ U S of A. In many other countries, the poets are considered the truth tellers, the way to get the news you can’t get by watching the news. What is that William Carlos Williams quote? “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Well, whoopdee-do.

Once in Germany, I was in the Berlin train station when a group of poets returned from a long sojourn through the German countryside. They had their own train, stopping in all these little towns and villages. Bands would be playing, people cheering, flags flying, and they’d get off the train and do poetry. Then they’d head for the next town. Great idea--bringing poetry to the masses.

At the end of this trip, there were so many people jamming Berlin’s MAIN train station, waiting for the return of the poets, that it had to be shut down. People were weeping, waving flags with the poets’ pictures on them. When the train finally arrived and the doors opened, the poets had to be passed over the heads of the crowd. The consensus was “My God, the heroes have returned!” I couldn’t believe my friggin eyes.

Here in the States, poetry is seen as creative adoration or a step toward tenure. It’s frivolous and musical, and couldn’t possible contain any real truth or direction. That’s how we’ve learned to listen to it, and I’m not sure anything can be done about it. The way to realize poetry’s power is to listen to as much poetry as possible until it begins to speak to you in a very necessary way. It’s not a recreational activity for me--it’s the way I move from day to day, the way I process the world. It has that power. But to realize that, you have to clear your mind of that notion that it’s forever be relegated to the dusty bookshelf. The more you listen to poetry--and with the wide range of spoken word available online, there’s no reason not to--the more likely it is that you’ll find the poet or poem that speaks directly to you.

Where do we begin to listen? Lay down your conscious self. Live through the senses for an hour or so. Listen very carefully to a child. Lie on your back in the grass and let the world flood your body. Everyone has a moment in their life when they realized how powerful language was, that it has the power to persuade, to reverse, to urge memory, to unearth. Poetry gives language that power back and then gives it back to us.

Q. Another writer, Tucson local legend Tom Miller, answered the eternal “How do I find an agent/publisher/audience” question by saying, simply, “You don’t.  Let them find you.”   Do you agree with that?  Or are there ways to help that process along?

I’m with Tom, purely through personal experience. I’m sure there’s a “10 Best Ways to Find An Agent/Publisher/Audience” list out there somewhere, and that’s it’s probably worked just fine for hundreds of people. But I found an audience because I stumbled into one, and just happened to be ready to listen. I found a publisher sitting in the audience. I found an agent because someone in an audience suggested one, and that particular agent just happened to be ready to expand her stable--she had all the Pulitzer winners and poet laureates she could handle, now she just needed--well, a me.

I’m not necessarily fond of this question, but I think I made it sound easy--just get out there!--but I think it goes back to the idea that I don’t blueprint. For me, it’s a matter of getting my energy into the right rooms.

Q. I see your name everywhere—appearances, readings…I’m not even sure what all.  And you have a family and other responsibilities—how do you find time to write?

I never feel like I have enough time. People are amazed at what a perky traveler I am. Nothing bothers me--delays, cancellations, unexpected hotel stays, long flights--because I’ve become an expert at writing during travel. I treasure the time. Not to mention downtime in queues, waiting for an oil change, sitting in my car waiting for the kid to finish a doctor’s appointment.

And I’ve fiddled with my teaching sked so that I only teach one day a week. It’s a helluva day--fulltime, 10 am to 10 pm--but it frees up the rest of the week for travel and such. And when I’m at home, it helps that my husband is also a writer. He speaks the language. He recognizes the need. I don’t have to explain to him that I’m about to be locked in a room for four or five hours, and not to be alarmed by expletives or the crash or thrown computer equipment. He knows when to deliver backrubs and tumblers of scotch.

AND, from the moment she was wee, Mikaila (granddaughter) has been around writers, so she knows from the drill. When she was little, she was always in the writing room with me. I’d say “I’m going to put a woman in this poem, but I don’t know how she should look. Would you draw her for me?” The key was to make her feel a part of the process. Now that she’s 18 and driving I never see her anyway. Just yesterday, hubby and I were talking about how weird and wonderful it will be to have the place all to ourselves. The problem will be NOT to stay immersed in our separate creative words in lieu of real human interaction.

Q.  What “feeds” your muse?  That’s almost like that “where do the poems come from” question, but I’m actually asking about things that feed your soul so that it continues to offer up all that good stuff. 

Motown music. Working on wacky kids’ stories that play relentlessly with language (sounds like work, but it’s so far from what I usually do, it feels like nurturing play). Sitting in the floor with Brady and Rondo, my two humungous dogs. Reading crime fiction. Cleaning (really), with ‘60s soul music blaring.

Q.  What achievements are dearest to you?   You know—the milestone moments that made that little girl from the West side of Chicago who is still there inside you grin from ear to ear and whisper, “See?  I TOLD you you could do it!”

In terms of writing, three things stand out: 1) Early in my career, reading in Osaka, Japan in an arena filled with roughly 20,000 people. I was in tears the whole time, thinking of how much my father had believed in me, and realizing that he’d never left the country. 2) Bowing my head during a solemn ceremony so I could receive my National Book Award finalist medal. So far from any world I ever imagined myself in. 3) Just recently, winning an award from the Mystery Writers of America for the best debut story in the genre. What I said earlier, about not being daunted by the challenges of any genre, of considering myself a storyteller above all? Bingo!

Best thing ever, though, was raising Mikaila, my son’s daughter. While I was fighting for my creative, and actual, life during the meltdown at the Globe, I was also engaged in a court battle for her custody. I fought for her while I wallowed in the throes of depression, when my future wasn’t clear, where I questioned the very thing I was born to do. Next month, she graduates from high school. That’s my biggest accomplishment by far.

Q. Leave us with a line or two that you wrote for yourself, perhaps in a moment of doubt or a moment of triumph—something we can tack up on the wall near our computers or on the door of the fridge or on our bathroom mirrors.  You can also leave us with someone else’s lines, or both.  And by all means, if there’s something you’d like to say that I didn’t ask about…go for it!

Someone else’s: “The form that's burned onto my soul is some twisted awful thing that crept in from a dream, a goddamn nightmare, and won't stay still unless I feed it. And it lives on words. Not beautiful words. God almighty no.”--Jean Toomer, Cane

ghty no.”--Jean Toomer, Cane

Views: 89

Comment by Lyle Elmgren on June 25, 2013 at 12:44pm

I have read interviews with writers. I found Kelcey Parker's interviews very informative. Each writer was asked the same questions. This interview of your is very interesting.

Comment by Keka on June 25, 2013 at 9:08pm

Glad you liked it! I knew Pat would hit each question out of the park and I cherish her insights.

Comment by JMac1949 Today on June 30, 2013 at 8:01am

Thanks for the PM, almost missed this in the feed... R&L ;-)

Comment by Rob Neukirch on August 9, 2013 at 6:44am

This is powerful and, as you say, good medicine for all...


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