Smith’s fifth book of poetry, Blood Dazzler (Coffee House Press) was a 2008 National Book Award Finalist. She is also the author of Teahouse of the Almighty (Coffee House Press), a National Poetry Series winner, the Best Poetry Book of 2006 on About.com, and a 2007 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and Paterson Poetry Prize winner; Close to Death (Zoland Books), Big Towns, Big Talk(Zoland) and Life According to Motown (Tia Chucha). Her poems have appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, poemmemoirstory, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, the Chautauqua Literary Journal, TriQuarterly, and other journals.
What is your favorite song?
My favorite song is Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ “Ooh, Baby Baby.” Since I’m a Motown baby, I grew up hearing men beg in rhythm, and this is the ultimate on-his-knees entreaty, all served up in Smoke’s creamy falsetto. Also, the song never fails to whiz me back in time, right to those confounding and crystalline days of my youth.
Can you share the story of how a few poems turned into Blood Dazzler?
During Katrina, the story that touched me most—the one I couldn’t, refused to, file among the litany of what my husband and I began to call the “awful anecdotes,” was the story of the 34 nursing home residents left to die in St. Bernard’s Parish. I write often in persona, and I became obsessed with resurrecting the voices of those lost men and women. I decided to write a poem in 34 stanzas, intending each stanza to say, very simply, “I was. I still am.”
Son don’t rise,
daughter don’t know enough to dial a phone.
Gets harder to remember
how my womb folded because of them,
how all of me lumbered with their foolish weight.
See what they have done, how hard and sweet they done dropped me here?
During the crafting of “34,” I wrote in a kind of fever, as if I was being urged forward by strangers. I was driven by a restless and agonizing visual, the sight of bodies floating in the darkness, bumping lazily against doors, beds, wheelchairs and walls—a languid and lumbering dance.
No more of us,
stunned and silent on the skin of this sea,
this thunderous wet.
We bob and bounce and spin slow,
draped in an odd sparkle.
“34” was the manuscript’s very first breath, although I didn’t know it at the time. I fully intended it to be a single poem, a tribute I felt was necessary if I was to remain fully invested in the possibilities of my work. “34” would probably have become an important part of my next manuscript, but I certainly didn’t see it as the heartbeat of a work revolving solely around Katrina.
Then something happened.
First I was scheduled for a reading at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival in the winter of 2007. Jeffrey McDaniel and I were the two “Café Night” readers, chosen primarily for our ability to perform poetry with some semblance of enthusiasm. The registrants at the conference were there to study with Thomas Lux, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Mark Doty, Heather McHugh and other notable, well-known poets. Although I’d taught at the conference previously, my role that year was to provide late-night entertainment to students weary from workshopping all day.
“34” was a relatively new poem, but I’d gotten some very interesting responses whenever I included it in a reading. Since I feel that every poetry reading is essentially a conversation, I would often approach audience members afterward to discuss their thoughts about and reactions to particular poems.
During the Palm Beach reading, I had reached the tenth or eleventh stanza of “34” when I noticed a distinct restlessness in the crowd. A few people were averting their eyes, staring off into the distance and shifting uncomfortably in their seats. I’ve always been starkly aware of my audience, and invested in presenting work at is—at the very least—engaging, so I was troubled by what I saw. I decided that I’d mingle with the crowd once the reading was over, try and find out why “34” was having such an adverse effect on this group of listeners.
One woman, decked out in the Palm Beach uniform of pink silk tracksuit and glaringly white sneakers, seemed particularly uneasy. In fact, as I approached her to chat, I got the distinct impression that she was considering making a run for it.
And this is what she said, verbatim, when I asked (after a few introductory and, on her part, stiff pleasantries) what had troubled her about hearing poems set in post-Katrina New Orleans :
“Well….uh…they just had Mardi Gras, didn’t they? Things are better now. I mean, saw some pictures on CNN.”
It was at that moment that I realized that not everyone had felt it necessary to process the horrors of Hurricane Katrina. For some it remained a pesky, persistent scar, wrecking the sleek American landscape. Time had passed. This story was best filed away.
Since New Orleans and surrounding devastated regions were seldom in the news anymore, people who felt that way were no longer forced to look closely at what had happened,
at what was still happening. They refused to hear poor people, tossed out of cramped trailers, begging their country to notice. They no longer chose to notice to anything outside of the sad, manufactured gaiety of the French Quarter. They didn’t want to be reminded of our country’s gross ineptitude, or listen again to the mumbled apologies of a clueless leader. There were those who refused to acknowledge a stark reality—an era, indeed an entire culture, had been sacrificed to the water.
It was then I vowed to continue writing, open my mind to other voices affected by the hurricane. Katrina is a story that should ever be far from the public consciousness, no matter how uncomfortable its continued, tortured existence makes us. I want it to stay in our minds, insisting to be reckoned with, to remind us of what nature, and human beings, are capable of.