Poet Patricia Smith finds and pursues passion

Patricia Smith is an award-winning poet, mystery writer, performance artist and professor, according to a news release from the College of William and Mary. She is the author of eight critically acclaimed books of poetry and has kept audiences spellbound all across the country, as well as overseas.

The Patrick Hayes Writer Series at the college will host Smith at 5 p.m. Thursday, March 14 in the Tucker Theatre. A book signing and reception will follow, and the event is free and open to the public.

Following the trajectory of Smith’s rise in the world of poetry and performance artistry, I thought her role model must have been Maya Angelou.

“Although I know Maya Angelou’s work, and respect her as an icon, I was more influenced by Gwendolyn Brooks, who provided a soundtrack for the lives of young colored girls growing up in Chicago,” Smith said is in an interview with the Gazette.

“Her backdrops, her language, her sass and ferocity, were all familiar to me. I think Gwen’s work had much more of an edge, an air of tenements and chitlin assembly lines — a link to all the lives I’ve lived until now.”

Talking about what message she intends to convey to her audience, she replied: “There’s no way to plan these appearances too far in advance, because then they become cookie-cutter, one size fits all, and the audience deserves more than that. I wait until I’m in the space – until I can talk with people to know that everything I do is accessible to them. I want to introduce them to the idea that writing is like a second throat, a gift that gives you another way to interpret the world.

“That message isn’t something I can map out and plan, because I first need to feel connection with those meant to receive the message. I like to speak in real time,” she added.

Reflecting on what made her chose to become a poet, Smith said: “I don’t think there was any official ‘quest’ to become a poet – I suspect that many of us (have potential) as poets from the time we stumble upon language, and it’s up to us whether we rise to the challenge.”

I asked Smith, what distinguishes her poetry from many other well-known poets?

“That’s a difficult question to answer,” she said. “One that makes more sense, for my readers/listeners, to answer. It’s all in my process. I revise three times: once for the story, once for language and once for music. I never think a poem is good enough, so it’s always fluid, always able to be something bigger than it is.”

As a nationally-recognized poet, spoken-word performer, playwright, author and teacher, Smith has had the opportunity to travel the world. I asked her whether she has had any unusual experiences.

“After winning a citywide contest in Chicago, I was invited to read on stage in Osaka in front of 25,000 Japanese businessmen. I’ve sipped snake venom squeezed from a snake in a crate in Bangkok,” she recalled. “Once, in a rickety van with a group of American poets, I’ve rocketed down on the German Autobahn at 135 miles. I’ve read in each of the 50 states and read with Viggo Mortensen, who later starred as Aragon in ‘Lord of the Rings.’ ”

She added with a smile, “All of these experiences have been crazy, exhilarating, one-of- a-kind – the sort of things that happen when you find passion and never turn away from pursuing it.”

Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place” the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.

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