Many thanks to Christal Cooper for featuring my poem “Astral” in her blog series “Backstory of the Poem.” I really appreciate all the work she puts into this series. She dug up and included lots of fun photos of me that I didn’t even know I had, like the one below, as well as images of and by Leonora Carrington, who is the subject of the poem. I talked about how I wrote “Astral,” resisting unhealthy conformity, and how I used to jump on a trampoline in my dress when I got home from work. Also included are notes that didn’t make it into the final draft of the poem.
My poem, “Everyone in Me Is a Bird”, which was originally published for the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series, is now featured as part the New York Times’ “Being Women” project, an exciting poetry and photography collaboration.
This beautiful series, created by Kerri MacDonald and Morrigan McCarthy, began last summer and will run each year.
Other poets in the project: Tonya Ingram, Joy Harjo, Layli LongSoldier, Jennifer Chang and Nickole Brown.
Photographers: Ruth Anna Fremson, Cig Harvey, Maddie McGarvey, Annie Flanagan, Nydia Blas, Erika P. Rodrgz and Anjali Pinto.
The print edition is on the cover of the “National” section for Saturday, August 18, 2018.
I’m delighted to see my poem “Everyone in Me Is a Bird” featured at the Academy’ of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day today! This poem was inspired by a line from Anne Sexton’s poem “In Celebration of My Uterus.”
The Journal is one of my favorite lit mags, and I’m happy to have a poem in their new issue, along with some stellar company. I think of their aesthetic as the ideal manifestation of Emily Dickinson’s “tell it slant” advice. Here’s a link to The Journal’s website, if you’d like to check it out: http://thejournalmag.org. And here’s a shot of my poem in their current print edition:
JT: Melissa, I hugely enjoyed your poetry collection I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, which seemed to me original, strange and often sublime. At the same time, your neo-Romanticism is also accompanied by an eye for the beauty of the everyday – so that the sublime mixes with the mundane (“Washing clothes … is an act of prayer,” you say in one poem, and another is entitled “Starry Night, with Socks”). For me, I would say this was one of the hallmarks of your style – but do tell me if I’m wrong. How would you describe your style?
MS: I love that assessment, Jonathan – especially that you called I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast “strange.” In pointing out the commingling of the mundane and sublime, you nailed not only my style, but also how I experience the world. I grew up in a secular home. My father is agnostic, and my mother is spiritual with a deep curiosity about supernatural mysteries. We didn’t go to church, but I would sit at the top of the jungle gym in my back yard and talk to god. I believed and still believe that god is in my backyard. That’s part of it. Also, there’s something a monk said to me years ago when I was learning Buddhist meditation. He said, “When you learn to relax inside your mind, you can be on permanent vacation, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.” You don’t need to go anywhere or seek anything. The beach, the flower, the mountain – they are all inside you. So, yes, I carry them with me when I vacuum and put on socks. Then I realize that vacuum cleaners and socks are sublime too. So, I think I would describe my style as you have, except to also possibly add that I think figuratively. I’m sure I have driven people crazy with my constant metaphors and analogies in everyday conversation, but if I want to understand or explain something, my mind almost always reaches for a comparison.
JT: Clearly, there’s a lot of cosmic and creation imagery in the collection. What themes and ideas were you exploring in this respect?
MS: I was exploring a feminine, cyclical conception of god, time, and the universe. Rather than fashioning my poetic god in man’s image, I fashioned her in woman’s image. It was important to me that she be god and not the diminutive or adjunct “goddess.” I wanted to convey her as the origin and the all powerful, but I also wanted her to be present in the whole of everything. So, in I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, most everything is pretty much a microcosm of the divine and the all. That’s why a pancake is creation flattened out. It’s all interconnected, all divine. As well, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast plays with ideas of reincarnation, god birthing the universe, and god attempting to parent the world.
In this episode of VIDA Voices and Views, Melissa Studdard interviews poet and fiction writer, Patricia Smith, who reads from her award-winning poetry collection Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah and discusses topics ranging from the poetic inspiration of children’s books to learning how to use technique to resonate your voice in the reader’s head.
About Patricia Smith:
A renaissance artist of unmistakable signature, Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” She has authored and edited six critically-acknowledged volumes of poetry, a children’s book, a crime fiction anthology, and a companion volume to the groundbreaking PBS history series, Africans in America. Her numerous accolades include the Rebekah Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and the Phillis Wheatley Award in Poetry. As well, she is recognized as one of the world’s most formidable performers and is a four-time national individual champion of the Poetry Slam. She was featured in the film “Slamnation,” and appeared on the HBO series “Def Poetry Jam.” Additionally, her works have been transformed into award-winning films and plays, and her vocals have been featured on jazz CDs and radio commercials. An accomplished and sought-after instructor of poetry, performance, and creative writing, Patricia often appears at creative conferences and residencies and is a Cave Canem faculty member, a professor of English at CUNY/College of Staten Island, and a faculty member of the Sierra Nevada MFA program.
Patricia Smith Quotes from This Episode of VIDA Voices & Views:
“When something comes back to your head more than three times, it’s begging to be written about.”
“If you learn how to look at the world the way a poet looks at the world, you will lose your mind—because inspiration smacks you in the face wherever you are.”
“[Poetry] is one of the only things you can do where your voice is always legitimate.”
“I want to be able to put a poem I’ve written on a table and have someone pick it up and say ‘Patricia, you must have dropped this poem’ and my name’s not on it … We should all be in pursuit of signature.”
“If you don’t tell your own story or even find a way to tell snippets of your own story, you give permission for someone else to do it.”
“I kind of think of poetry as a second throat.”
“When you’re afraid of parts of your story, you’re afraid to even write them down.”
“The key is to still have all that feeling and all that spontaneity in the poem but be able to bring it under a structure so that there’s a tension developed.”
“If you say you are impassioned about writing, you should want to write in as many ways as possible.”
What’s the earliest experience, or a stand-out experience, you can remember that made you realize that you can be yourself, write as yourself, and write about issues that matter to you? Has this been difficult for you?
Telling my truth as a woman and a writer has not only been difficult; it’s one of the greatest, most ongoing battles of my life. I would be a liar if I didn’t admit that almost every day I write is a day I struggle to say what I really think and feel. As well, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge that what I really think and feel is at times so repressed by and so buried beneath everything I am supposed to be that I can hardly find it to write about it.
Realizing that you can be yourself, write as yourself, and write about issues that matter to you is not the same as feeling empowered to do so. For me, it’s a process, and the biggest awakening has been reading Audre Lorde. I’m not all the way brave or all the way awake yet, but reading Lorde shook me up and startled me out of a sort of debilitating politeness. She made me realize that it’s not only my right—it’s my responsibility—to speak my truth. I came to her late, through my girlfriend, Amy King, and I wish I’d discovered her decades ago. My whole life would have been different. I keep Sister Outsideron my desk, and I keep quotes from “Poetry is Not a Luxury” and “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” on my hard drive. Lorde says:
We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired. For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.
What liberates me is not overcoming fear but taking fear for that wild ride from my gut out to the page.