The inherent worth of small stories: Three Questions with Patricia Smith

Writers Speak
Patricia Smith


What is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a poet?

I’ve learned the inherent worth of small stories. I grew up thinking that poems had no chance of becoming iconic unless they were grasping for huge unwieldy concepts, unless they were somewhat blurry and confounding, unless the reader was armed with a sharp shovel to burrow for meaning. Now I know there’s a community that craves mirrored lives and new ways to move sanely from day to day. There’s nothing that can’t become a poem, and that poem can be clear, accessible, and as lyrical as our lives are.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

I am constantly astonished that people want to read what I write. Sometimes I feel like I’m writing in a vacuum, writing what I’ve always wanted to read, and subconsciously I’m always prepared to be my own audience. If there were never an audience or a chance to be published, I’d still be writing, because that’s how I check my temperature, see if I’m still firmly rooted in the world I want. I still find it amazing when someone says “I’ve felt that, I just didn’t know there was a way to say it.”

I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve often said that to other writers. I guess that’s how the community grows.

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a poet, what would it be and why?

A tornado—fevered and famously unpredictable. No one ever knows where I’m going to touch down and how much damage I will do.

Patricia Smith is the author of eight books of poetry including “Incendiary Art“, winner of the 2018 Kingsley Tufts Award, the 2017 LA Times Book Prize, the 2018 NAACP Image Award and finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah,” winner of the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets; and “Blood Dazzler,” a National Book Award finalist. She is a Guggenheim fellow, an NEA grant recipient, a former fellow at Civitella Ranieri, Yaddo and MacDowell, a Cave Canem faculty member, and a professor at both the College of Staten Island and the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.

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