Patricia Smith by Beowulf Sheehan

Patricia Smith

Award-winning Performance Poet
Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry
National Book Award Finalist

Readings & Lecture Topics

  • Prosody vs. Performance — Spanning the Chasm
  • Writing on the Other Side of the Wall — Confronting What Frightens You
  • Utilizing Poetry in the Classroom
  • Introducing Poetry to Underserved Communities
  • 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

“There’s no one like Patricia Smith, and her bold, necessary poems light up the American twentieth century in all its song and sorrow.”—Mark Doty

“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. 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 winner of the 2013 Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets and the 2014 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.

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.”

Smith’s current projects include Gotta Go Gotta Flow Gotta Blow, a book of poems accompanying the work of award-winning photographer Michael Abrasion; a coffee table book combining poetry with the 19th-century photos of African Americans, and her seventh volume of collected work.

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 20th 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.”

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 Staten 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 the anthology Best American Mystery Stories. In a review by 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 Lannan Foundation fellow; 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.

Smith teaches in the 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, shelters and prisons.

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. 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.


SHOULDA BEEN JIMI SAVANNAH (Poetry, 2012)

“Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah is a tour de force of the possibilities of contemporary poetry, echoing as it does the verse tradition of Gwendolyn Brooks…It’s glory is that so many identities are included and celebrated. In style and substance, its a book that contains multitudes.” —Mark Jarman”

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.

TEAHOUSE OF THE ALMIGHTY (Poetry, 2006)
Winner of the 2006 National Poetry Series. “What power. Smiths poetry is all poetry. And visceral. Her poems get under the skin of their subjects. Their passion and empathy, their real worldliness, are blockbuster.”—Marvin Bell

JANNA AND THE KINGS (Children, 2003)
Winner of LEE & LOW’s New Voices Award, Janna and the Kings is a moving story of love and rediscovery, and a celebration of the enduring bond between grandchild and grandparent.

AFRICANS in AMERICA (Nonfiction, 1998)
A riveting narrative history of America, from the 1607 landing in Jamestown to the brink of the Civil War, Africans in America tells the shared history of Africans and Europeans as seen through the lens of slavery. It is told from the point of view of the Africans who arrived in shackles and endured the terrible dichotomy of this new land founded on the ideal of liberty but dedicated to the perpetuation of slavery.

CLOSE TO DEATH (Poetry, 1993)
Young men who feel they have run out of options, whose bravado indicates they are no longer afraid to die, wear baseball caps emblazoned with “C2D,” for “close to death”. This chilling cry comes from those who expect to lose their lives violently without ever having a chance to live. Close to Death is a poetic requiem for those who struggle against the odds, for those who have resigned themselves to death, and for those already gone.

 BIG TOWNS, BIG TALK (Poetry, 1992)
Smith’s second collection of poetry reflects upon relationships, street life, and worlds familiar and unfamiliar. In these glimmering poems, the language itself comes alive and touches the soul. She is a master at overlaying vivid scenes with compassionate concern. Reading Big Towns, Big Talk is like witnessing the blues tugging at the heart; it shows how we can obtain insight into the lives of everyday people.

LIFE ACCORDING TO MOTOWN (Poetry,1991)
In the 1960s, the lives of black children were shaped by the glittery specter of Motown–a world of furious flash, undeniable glamour, and impossible romantic ideals. Some discovered the truth before it was too late. Others still drape their blues in the silken sounds, swirling in dimly-lit rooms in an endless, blinding slow dance. A poet who grew and thrived on the bright promise of Motown recounts in vivid imagery the lessons taught by and learned from the music.


KATRINA

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

HIP-HOP GHAZAL

Gotta love us brown girls, munching on fat, swinging blue hips,
decked out in shells and splashes, Lawdie, bringing them woo hips.

 As the jukebox teases, watch my sistas throat the heartbreak,
inhaling bassline, cracking backbone and singing thru hips.

 Like something boneless, we glide silent, seeping ‘tween floorboards,
wrapping around the hims, and ooh wee, clinging like glue hips.

 Engines grinding, rotating, smokin’, gotta pull back some.
Natural minds are lost at the mere sight of ringing true hips.

Gotta love us girls, just struttin’ down Manhattan streets
killing the menfolk with a dose of that stinging view. Hips.

 Crying ’bout getting oldPatricia, you need to get up off
what God gave you. Say a prayer and start slinging. Cue hips.

SHOULDA BEEN JIMI SAVANNAH

My mother scraped the name Patricia Ann from the ruins
of her discarded Delta, thinking it would offer me shield
and shelter, that leering men would skulk away at the slap
of it. Her hands on the hips of Alabama, she went for flat
and functional, then siphoned each syllable of drama,
repeatedly crushing it with her broad, practical tongue
until it sounded like an instruction to God, not a name.
She wanted a child of pressed head and knocking knees,
a trip-up in the doubledutch swing, a starched pinafore
and peppermint-in-the-sour-pickle kinda child, stiff-laced
and unshakably fixed on salvation. Her Patricia Ann
would never idly throat the Lords name or wear one
of those thin, sparkled skirts that flirted with her knees.
Shed be a nurse or a third-grade teacher or a postal drone,
jobs requiring alarm-clock discipline and sensible shoes.
My four downbeats were music enough for a vapid life
of butcher-shop sawdust and fatback as cuisine, for Raid
spritzed into the writhing pockets of a Murphy bed.
No crinkled consonants or muted hiss would summon me.

 My daddy detested borders. One look at my mothers
watery belly, and he insisted, as much as he could insist
with her, on the name Jimi Savannah, seeking to bless me
with the blues-bathed moniker of a ball breaker, the name
of a grown gal in a snug red sheath and unlaced All-Stars.
He wanted to shoot muscle through whatever I was called,
arm each syllable with tiny weaponry so no one would
mistake me for anything other than a tricky whisperer
with a switchblade in my shoe. I was bound to be all legs,
a bladed debutante hooked on Lucky Strikes and sugar.
When I sent up prayers, Gods boy would giggle and consider.

Daddy didnt want me to be anybodys surefire factory,
nobodys callback or seized rhythm, so he conjured
a name so odd and hot even a boy could claim it. And yes,
he was prepared for the look my mother gave him when
he first mouthed his choice, the look that said, Thats it,
you done lost your goddamned mind. She did that thing
she does where she grows two full inches with righteous,
and he decided to just whisper Love you, Jimi Savannah
whenever we were alone, re- and rechristening me the seed
of Otis, conjuring his own religion and naming it me.