Red, White, & Blue

Patricia Smith

What You Pray Toward

"The orgasm has replaced the cross as the focus of longing and the image of fulfillment."
—Malcolm Muggeridge, 1966


Hubbie 1 used to get wholly pissed when I made
myself come. I'm right here!, he'd sputter, blood
popping to the surface of his fuzzed cheeks,
goddamn it, I'm right here! By that time, I was
in no mood to discuss the myriad merits of my
pointer, or to jam the brakes on the express train
slicing through my blood, It was easier to suffer
the practiced professorial huff, the hissed invectives
and the cold old shoulder, liver-dotted, quaking
with rage. Shall we pause to bless professors and
codgers and their bellowed, unquestioned ownership
of things? I was sneaking time with my own body.
I know I signed something over, but it wasn't that.


No matter how I angle this history, it's weird,
so let's just say Bringing Up Baby was on the telly
and suddenly my lips pressing against
the couch cushions felt spectacular and I thought
wow this is strange, what the hell, I'm 30 years old,
am I dying down there is this the feel, does the cunt
go to heaven first, ooh, snapped river, ooh shimmy
I had never had it never knew, oh i clamored and
lurched beneath my little succession of boys I cried
writhed hissed, ooh wee, suffered their flat lapping
and machine-gun diddling their insistent c'mon girl
c'mon until I memorized the blueprint for drawing
blood from their shoulders, until there was nothing
left but the self-satisfied liquidy snore of he who has
rocked she, he who has made she weep with script.
But this, oh Cary, gee Katherine, hallelujah Baby,
the fur do fly, all gush and kaboom on the wind.


Don't hate me because I am multiple, hurtling.
As long as there is still skin on the pad of my finger,
as long as I'm awake, as long as my (new) husband's
mouth holds out, I am the spinner, the unbridled,
the bellowing freak. When I have emptied him,
he leans back, coos, edges me along, keeps wondering
count. He falls to his knees in front of it, marvels
at my yelps and carousing spine, stares unflinching
as I bleed spittle unto the pillows.
He has married a witness.
My body bucks, slave to its selfish engine,
and love is the dim miracle of these little deaths,
fracturing, speeding for the surface.


We know the record. As it taunts us, we have giggled,
considered stopwatches, little laboratories. Somewhere
beneath the suffering clean, swathed in eyes and silver,
she came 134 times in one hour. I imagine wires holding
her tight, her throat a rattling window. Searching scrubbed
places for her name, I find only reams of numbers. I ask
the quietest of them:


Are we God?

"What You Pray Toward," by Patricia Smith, from Teahouse of the Almighty. Copyright © 2006 by Patricia Smith. Used with permission of the author.

Do you value the examination of the political in poetry? If so, what experience(s) taught you its importance?

Since I was introduced to poetry by serving it up from a stage—where response is immediate, impassioned, and sometimes threaded with impatience or vitriol—it's been virtually impossible to separate the poetic from the political. Although I don't think of myself as spouting irrefutable truths from a soapbox, performing—and writing—is necessary breath. It's the way I process the world, how I make sense of chaos and how I move my own personal narrative from one instance to the next. As a poet, I am a child of what surrounds me.

If I had to point to one moment that illustrated the power of poetry as political statement: I have a persona poem written in the voice of an inner-city undertaker. It's based on a journalistic interview I did with a real undertaker, who spoke to me of how his business had changed. In days past, his phone would ring, and when he answered it, it would be a call from a family asking him to help bury a respected elder, someone who had grown older and died, usually of natural causes. Now when his phone rings, it's inevitably a young mother asking him to bury her son.

The poem was written during a particularly brutal spate of gang violence in Boston, with a number of young men dying of gunshots wounds to the head. I wanted to talk to the undertaker about just what he had to do when he received a person who had died of such a wound, what steps he had to take to "fix" the face so, as the mother so often requested, the funeral service could be open casket.

I wrote a poem with a number of unflinching detail, containing much of the graphic information I'd gotten from the undertaker. Once, while performing the poem at a community center, three women rose from their seats and ran out of the room. They had all lost sons to violence in exactly the same way, and as they heard the poem they were picturing their sons on that slab. It was at that moment I realized the weight of my words. Poetry, which actually began as a recreational activity for me, had become something huge, something powerful, something else.

If you write about politics frequently, what issues, difficulties,advantages and disadvantages do you negotiate? Which poets do you draw on when conducting such negotiations?

An issue I constantly face is the question of voice and privilege. I write often in persona, taking on the voices of the disenfranchised, the unheard. Even that phrase "taking on" suggests some God-like wave of the hand, something I know or possess that the person I'm voicing does not. It's a question of poetic appropriation. What gives me the right to inhabit bodies, to suffer on command, to profess to "know" what it's like to inhabit days that don't belong to me. I felt this conflict starkly when I chose to write about the devastation wreaked by Katrina. I feel it every time I step gingerly out of my shoes and into the shoes of others. I often tell my students, "Try on all the shoes in a story—which they get uncomfortable, start writing." Well, if they're uncomfortable, that also means that you're as far away from your own experience as you can be. It's the age-old question of how you can rightfully own someone else's story.

Strangely, voice and privilege is also an advantage. I can dip into my poetic toolbox and add lyricism, depth, intrigue and texture to a voice—I know ways to get a reader or audience member to sit up and take notice. You may not be aware of the single black mother on the 5 am bus on her way to her job as a domestic—in fact, you may be surrounded by single black mothers on the 5 am bus on their way to their jobs as domestics—but maybe a poet can write her voice to the surface and make the weariness, the doubt, the strain real in ways you wouldn't hear otherwise. A poet should be able to thread language with power. A good poet should be able to move an entire room to action.

So the ability I question is also the ability I covet.

What 'responsibility' does an artist have to artistically engage his or her own politic?

I'm not going to preach about the responsibility of artists, because that sense of responsibility is as varied as artists are. Some of the most dedicated artists I know are wrangling for a payday, and that's about it. Some are crisscrossing the country, playing pass-the-hat and sleeping on strangers' futons, because they have stories that simply have to be told—at any cost. If I'm going to focus on MY responsibility, it's to get others to recognize the power of their own voices. The most effective way to do that is by raising my own.

In 2008, Horace Engdahl, the secretary of the Nobel prize jury, wagged his finger at American writing saying that "[American writers] don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. [.] That ignorance is restraining." What do you think? How have recent American poets engaged with or neglected the so-called 'big dialogue' of literature? Is this 'big dialogue' a political one?

Once, on a European tour, I found myself at Berlin's main train station on the day that a "poet's train" (not sure if that's what it was called, but that's what it was) pulled in, ending a tour of the Germany countryside. During the tour, this entire train filled with poets would pull into a town; the poets would spill out and head for the town square, where they'd read poetry as crowds cheered, bands played, flags waved. Then they'd board the train and head for the next town. They'd been at this for two weeks.

When the train came back home to Berlin, the station was so crammed with well-wishers that it had to shut down normal operation. I'd never seen anything like it. The door of a train car would open, and the poet would have to be passed over the heads of the crowd. People carried placards with poets' faces on them, signs with lines of poetry. I was in a place where people look to poets for the truth, where the stories those poets tell are revered and repeated.

That scene will never be replicated in America, because you need two sides for a dialogue. We can spout truths relentlessly—but if no one is willing to listen and return that energy, one tires of the effort. The undercurrent of the "big dialogue of literature" is respect. And the dialogue isn't between literatures, or types of literatures, or countries where a particular literature originates--it's between the reader and what is read, and believed. Poets in particular have so often become entertainers. The poets I saw being celebrated in Berlin were purveyors of gospel.

Is there room for romantic or rugged individualism in political poetry (as opposed to a capacious perspective of Whitman or other past poets)? If so, where is its place?

I'm a fan of rugged individualism in all art, not just poetry. It's essential when it comes to establishing a signature and forging what should be an unexpected entry point into to your work. I'm always wary of questions that begin "Is there room....?" The implication is that we shojuld be crafting borders, places where poems and poets can't go.

Where do you draw the line between poetry and propaganda? What is the purpose of such a line? Should today's poet be concerned with editorial censorship?

Since everyone's line is in a different place, it's not my place to draw it. In any given instance, I just try to be aware of the line's location. I'll admit that I'm not above tweaking a line, pushing a button, climbing gingerly up on my little soapbox, to slam a point home—particularly a political point. Poetry is sodden with propaganda. The question is this: Once the audience or reader recognizes it as such, what then? It's not like you can pick the propaganda out of a poetic line. Is it working? Is it threaded with lyricism and rhythm? Does it have an intriguing sound? Are minds being changed? If the answer to all the question is "yes," then why bother? If you've got a story to tell, and you want people to leave with that story, go with what works for as long as it works.

Editorial censorship? There are so many choices of places to submit work, to perform work, censorship isn't a problem unless it's a problem we create. I'm probably not the best person to speak to this question, because it's not something that's ever been an issue for me. I made up my mind some time ago that there's nothing I won't write, nothing I won't say out loud. That was a very freeing decision, and one I've never regretted. I'm educated whenever there's an attempt to silence any aspect of what I say. Whatever someone seeks to silence is what I know is working.

What are your thoughts on shifts in the state of the political voice in contemporary poetry, from the early modernist to the beat poets and black arts movement, to today? Where are we now? Where are we going?

The emergence of "spoken word" (whatever that is) has flooded the landscape with sound, sound bytes, catch phrases, logos and manufactured passion. Decibel level is thought to equal conviction. Poetry was once inseparable from its politics, from its staunch beliefs. Now those beliefs are overwhelmed by tricks of voice and nuance.

* * *
Patricia Smith
is the author of six acclaimed poetry volumes, including the upcomingShoulda Been Jimi Savannah (April 2012); Blood Dazzler, a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and Teahouse of the Almighty, a National Poetry Series selection. Her work has been published in Poetry, The Paris Review, Tin House, TriQuarterly, and the 2011 editions of both Best American Poetry and Best American Essays. She is a professor at the City University of New York and serves on the faculties of the Stonecoast and Sierra Nevada College low-residency MFA programs.

Published September 2012.

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