NEA Literature Fellowships

Patricia Smith

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(2017 - Poetry)

"Incendiary Art: Los Angeles, 1992"

On the day they found Rodney King face down on the bottom of a swimming pool, a friend says Nigger could take an ass whuppin’, but he couldn’t swim! Ain’t that something?


You can name yourself a man, walk taut and tall and will your voice
to stomp, but still be upended by demons, ain’t that something?

Tiny bones in your cheek, smashed, went fluid. Staggered, you were pissed by the sour taint of your sad, sputtered imploring, that something

you thought God was supposed to do for you even as your neck
slammed shut for its own safety. You were a man. But that, something

else, and something other was whupped straight out of you that evening, whizzing cudgels answered and answered when you swore that something

your swagger said that morning should still apply. You were much less
than your skin, which was all you were. And you prayed that that something

blazing the horizon would be something you could breathe. Because
you’d rather burn than die crumbled and cowering—a numb king.


'It’s no surprise that you coveted the water—born, as you
were, up to your neck in fuel. There’s no way to undo that night—

your ragged floodlit flail and swell, bulge of bone, the scar of
obedient art. Our roadside Jesus, all you knew that night

were ways to turn and turn the other mangled cheek. You gave them
no reason to heft the cross. You were pummeled blood-blue that night,

then looped and re-looped for moral while brick buildings charred and curled,
and mamas howled and clawed their babies’ naps for ash. You, that night,

were wick, and your city was a heinous grin, a hard-struck match.
It took all these years to shush your fume. Though you lived through that night,

you dreamed of plunging into the blameless cool, your hot head sick
with steam, a cheap tarnished crown bobbing—at last—into the light.

(from Incendiary Art, Northwestern University Press, 2017)

Patricia Smith’s eight books of poetry include Incendiary Art (Feb 2017); Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, winner of the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets; Blood Dazzler, a National Book Award finalist; and Gotta Go, Gotta Flow, a collaboration with award-winning Chicago photographer Michael Abramson. Other books include the children's book Janna and the Kings and the history Africans in America, companion to the PBS series. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, The Baffler, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Tin House and in Best American Poetry, Best American Essays, and Best American Mystery Stories.  

Smith is a Guggenheim fellow, a two-time Pushcart winner, a former fellow at both Yaddo and MacDowell, and the most successful competitor in the history of the National Poetry Slam. She teaches at the College of Staten Island and in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College. 

Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Author's Statement

I am my father’s daughter.

Otis Douglas Smith was grizzled and slight, flasher of a marquee gold tooth, Arkansas grit awkwardly sporting city duds. Part of the Great Migration of blacks south to north in the early 1950s, he found himself not in the urban Mecca he’d imagined, but in a roach-riddled tenement on Chicago’s West Side, alongside the pump jockeys, day laborers, housecleaners, and fry cooks who dreamed the migrant’s wide, implausible dream.

Many of those urban refugees struggled to fit, but my father never really adopted the no-nonsense-now rhythm of the city. There was too much of the storyteller in him, too much unleashed southern song hurtling toward open air.  From my earliest days, my place was on his lap, touching a hand to his stubbled cheek and listening to his gorgeously growled narratives. Because of him, I grew to think of the world in terms of the stories it could tell. I believed that we were all in the midst of a wild and unceasing adventure that begged for voice. In my quest for that voice, I found poetry—the magic of caging that ponderous tale story in taut, lyrically controlled spaces.

I never got to tell my father, out loud, about the legacy he’d left me. With every word I write, I strive to be the storyteller he was. This grant means more time, more stanzas, and permission for a newly-hatched exploration of the blurred lines between poetry and fiction. It means daring and risk and the psychic and financial space to push toward the next thing.  It means being even more of my father’s daughter.