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2008 National Book Award Finalist,

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Patricia Smith
Blood Dazzler
Coffee House Press

Interview conducted by Craig Morgan Teicher.

Craig Morgan Teicher: How does it feel to be a Finalist for the National Book Award?

Patricia Smith: The first thing I thought about when I saw the list of nominated poets, was that the first poem I ever published was in Triquarterly, edited by Reginald Gibbons. It’s a real circle for me. I always thought that all artists wake up every morning and stare at the same blank canvas; the words I have available to me in order to paint that canvas are the same words that legends and Poet Laureates and writers who are household names have. Finding myself in the company of these guys proves to me once and for all that the most important thing is the story and the telling of the story. I have to believe with this that pursuing our passion will eventually find us all—bad boys and secretaries and NEA recipients and rappers and teachers and Guggenheim fellows—in the same space and finally telling our stories to each other, and above all listening.

CMT: Blood Dazzler makes me think of William Carlos Williams’ lines about getting the news from poetry—it’s a book about the “current events” around Hurricane Katrina. Was it a different writing experience from your previous books?

PS: There was one story among the tragedies that were stacked upon tragedies in Katrina, that kept nudging at me and that was the 34 nursing home residents who were left behind and eventually died. I’ve always written a lot in persona, and what I set out to do was to wind the clock out a little bit and give those 34 people a little bit of their voice back. It was that one poem [titled “34”] that I thought, I’m going to do this and fold it in to the repertoire of things I do in my readings, then I’m going to move on.

Then a couple things happened that opened the doors, and got me to write more poems. One was at a reading I did. I’m always really tuned in to what my audience is feeling, and I was doing that poem, and I had some people in the audience looking at their watches and fidgeting around, and I think if they hadn’t been in the center of the audience they probably would have run out of the room altogether. I hunted them down afterwards and without being confrontational, asked, “Was there something that was bothering you about that poem?” A woman said to me, “Uh, well you know they’ve had Mardi Gras, right?” I realized that there were quite a few people who wanted to file Katrina away and have it be done so they could get on with their lives. And once I started writing after that, there wasn’t that much difference, because most of my poetry is a response to something. I get a lot of my work from the news and from conversations I hear. I did have to focus so minutely on that one event and look at it from different angles, as well as do a little bit of the background work in talking to people from New Orleans, because I’m not from there and I did not have that experience, but there were millions of people who watched it unfold on television, and I wanted to be that person and say “we can’t fold this away, it has to be something that remains in the public consciousness.”

CMT: So is that what you hope the book will do?

PS: I want people to keep talking about it. I also want people to be aware that the country we live in is capable of much. I go into a lot of middle schools, and I will talk about events like the Vietnam War, and kids are all starting at me like, “That would be what?” I find myself having to do a lot of backtracking before I can do a reading. I like the vision of students 20-30 years from now holding that book in their hands and at least having the questions formed, where they would look and say, “What did this mean to the country?”

Craig Morgan Teicher is a poet, critic, and freelance writer. His first book of poems, Brenda Is In The Room And Other Poems, was chosen by Paul Hoover as winner of the 2007 Colorado Prize for Poetry and was published by the Center for Literary Publishing. His collection of short stories and fables, called Cradle Book, will be published in spring 2010 by BOA Editions Ltd.



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