Patricia Smith by Beowulf Sheehan

Patricia Smith

Renowned Performance Poet
Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry
National Book Award Finalist

Readings & Lecture Topics

  • An Evening with Patricia Smith

“Reading poems like these, overflowing with life but contained by art, makes us all feel a little bit helpless. These poems are blessings that will move like white light through your veins.” —American Book Review

“Patricia Smith is writing some of the best poetry in America today.” —Sapphire

“One of the best poets around and has been for a long time.” —Terrance Hayes

Patricia Smith, lauded by critics as “a testament to the power of words to change lives,” is the author of six acclaimed poetry volumes. Blood Dazzler, which chronicles the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina, was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award. South Carolina poet laureate Marjory Wentworth writes, “Blood Dazzler is the narrative of a shameful tragedy, but it is lyrical and beautiful, like a hymn we want to sing over and over until it lives in our collective memory.” In naming the book one of NPR’s Top 5 books of 2008, John Freeman called Blood Dazzler “a fierce, blood-in-the-mouth collection,” which “already has the whiff and feel of folklore.”

Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (Coffee House Press, 2012), a memoir in verse, was praised by Sapphire: “Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah is just beautiful—and like the America [Smith] embodies and represents—dangerously beautiful. Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah is a stunning and transcendent work of art, despite, and perhaps because of, its pain. This book shines.” Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah was awarded the Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry from the Library of Congress and was a finalist for the William Carlos William Award from the Poetry Society of America. Smith is currently at work on the biography of Harriet Tubman, a collection of short fiction, and a coffee table book combining poetry with nineteenth century photos of African Americans.

Smith’s book Teahouse of the Almighty was a National Poetry Series selection and winner of the first ever Hurston/Wright Award in Poetry. Her other poetry books are Close to Death; Life According to Motown; and Big Towns, Big Talk. Life According to Motown was recently re-released in a special twentieth anniversary edition. She is the winner of a 2014 Guggenheim Fellowship; the Rattle Poetry Prize; the Chatauqua Literary Journal Award in poetry; and two Pushcart Prizes, for the poems “Laugh Your Troubles Away” and “The Way Pilots Walk.” In 2013, Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah received the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for the most outstanding book of poetry published in the United States in the previous year.

Smith’s work has been published in Poetry, The Paris Review, TriQuarterly, and numerous literary journals and anthologies, including Best American Poetry and Best American Essays. She has performed around the world, including Carnegie Hall, the Poets Stage in Stockholm, Rotterdam’s Poetry International Festival, the Aran Islands International Poetry and Prose Festival, the Bahia Festival, the Schomburg Center, the Sorbonne in Paris and on tour in Germany, Austria, and Holland. A four-time individual champion on the National Poetry Slam—the most successful slammer in the competition’s history—Smith has also been a featured poet on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and has performed three one-woman plays, one produced by Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott.

In addition to her poetic works, Smith edited the crime fiction anthology State Island Noir (Akashic Books, 2012); her contribution to the collection, the story “When They Are Done With Us,” won the Robert L. Fish Award from the Mystery Writers of America for best debut in the genre and was chosen for Best American Mystery Stories. In a review of the Washington Independent Review of Books, David O. Smith wrote, “Smith’s introduction is a revelation…her Staten Island is ‘a Greek chorus on Thorazine, shuffling in the shadows and moaning a soundtrack of regional discontent.'” She is also the author of Africans in America, a companion volume to the groundbreaking PBS documentary; Publishers Weekly called the book “a monumental research effort wed with fine writing…ultimately shaped by Smith’s beautiful narrative.” Michelle Cliff of the San Jose Mercury News said, “With its vivid language and historical integrity, Africans in America is a major contribution to this country’s written history.” Smith also penned the children’s book Janna and the Kings, which won Lee & Low Books’ New Voices Award.

She has served as a Cave Canem faculty member, a Bruce McEver Visiting Chair in Writing at Georgia Tech University, distinguished writer-in-residence at both the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center and Sierra Nevada College, and a fellow at both Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony. During a ceremony at Chicago State University’s Gwendolyn Brooks Center, Smith was inducted into the National Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent. In 2008 she was awarded a Lannan Foundation residency in Marfa, Texas.

Smith teaches in the Stonecoast MFA program at Sierra Nevada College and is a professor of creative writing at the City University of New York/College of Staten Island. She has also done hundreds of writing and performance residencies in elementary, middle schools, and high schools.

Patricia Smith’s website

Patricia Smith is the author of six critically-acknowledged volumes of poetry, including Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, which was awarded the Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry from the Library of Congress, was the winner of the 2013 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy American Poets, and was a finalist for the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America; Blood Dazzler, a National Book Award finalist; Teahouse of the Almighty, a National Poetry Series winner (all from Coffee House Press); Close to Death and Big Towns, Big Talk (both from Zoland Books), and Life According to Motown, just released in a special 20th anniversary edition (Tia Chucha Press). She also edited the crime fiction anthology Staten Island Noir. Her contribution to the that anthology, the story “When They Are Done With Us,” won an award from Mystery Writers of America and was published in Best American Mystery Stories.

Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, Granta, Tin House, TriQuarterly, Gulf Coast and many of journals, and in dozens of groundbreaking anthologies—including Best American Poetry, Best American Essays, Villanelles, The Incredibly Sestina Anthology and Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African-American Poetry. She is the recipient of two Pushcart Prizes, for her poems “The Way Pilots Walk” and “Laugh Your Troubles Away!”  She 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.

In her newest collection, Patricia Smith explores the second wave of the Great Migration. From her parents’ move from the South to Chicago to being raised as an “up North” child under the spell of Motown music, she captures the rampant romanticism of waiting and hoping and the dogged disappointment and damage of living under a delusion. Shifting from spoken word to free verse to traditional forms, she reveals “that soul beneath the vinyl.”

BLOOD DAZZLER (Poetry, 2008)

“…With her radiant powers of empathy, her fiercely acute ear for the musical possibilities of American speech, and her undiluted rage, Patricia Smith makes in Katrina’s wake a sorrowful, unflinching, and glorious book.” —Mark Doty

In minute-by-minute detail, Patricia Smith tracks Hurricane Katrina as it transforms into a full-blown mistress of destruction. From August 23, 2005, the day Tropical Depression Twelve developed, through August 28, when it became a Category 5 storm with its “scarlet glare fixed on the trembling crescent,” to the heartbreaking aftermath, these poems evoke the horror that unfolded in New Orleans as America watched on television. Assuming the voices of flailing politicians, the dying, their survivors, and the voice of the hurricane itself, Smith follows the woefully inadequate relief effort and stands witness to families held captive on rooftops and in the Superdome. An unforgettable reminder that poetry can still be “news that stays news,” Blood Dazzler is a necessary step toward national healing.


I was birthed restless and elsewhere

gut dragging and bulging with ball lightning, slush,
broke through with branches, steel

I was bitch-monikered, hipped, I hefted
a whip rain, a swirling sheet of grit.

Scraping toward the front of you, hungering for wood, walls,
unturned skin. With shifting and frantic mouth, I loudly loved
the slow bones

of elders, fools, and willows.

—from Blood Dazzler


Raipur, India, Nov. 2005

Imagine holding it there, thrumming, taunt,
unbridled crave in an unfinished fist,
not caring it’s the reason she exists
at least for this moment. But watch it haunt
the gone dreams of all who see it throbbing,
soft pulsing, blood metronome, raw engine
drumming her death into maybe, robbing
us of what we need to believe. Again.

One doctor feels God’s presence, one does not
(chilled, he eyes the trash). A nurse wants to snatch
the beating thing, hold it to her chest, and match
heartbeats. She thinks Maybe I ought
to pray. The child, with life to overcome,
dimmed by their indecision, shields the drum.


Everything crawls—the green-black walls
move slow like a prayer. The floor rocks
with all that’s left living—leggy
scuttering, vermin, lumpy rain.
Everything floats dizzy samba,
weaving obstacles and channels,
and sometimes rats ride. This is home.
This is home as funk, churning moss
dripping from its arms, arms open
wide to take in my damp body.
Everything crawls. The drooped ceiling
crawls toward the floor, the light hard-crawls
through soft splintered slats. And I crawl
through upturned rooms, humming gospel,
closing tired eyes against my home’s
languid rhythms of rot, begging
my new history to hold still.

—from Blood Dazzler