When asked by a ninth grade student at Nathan Hale High School what her favorite thing about poetry is, Patricia Smith replied, “You can tell huge, huge stories in very small spaces….[That’s] the magic of poetry.”
Indeed it is. Few moments have seemed more magical than the audience of 150 ninth grade students in rapt attention last Tuesday morning. Not a text was typed, not a note passed, not a secret whispered. Students watched and listened to the poet transfixed, as though under a spell—the magic—of words.
Smith begins every performance with the same poem, “Building Nicole’s Mama” (http://rattle.com/blog/2009/04/building-nicoles-mama-by-patricia-smith/), and this day at Nathan Hale was no different. A line in the poem, “waiting for new words to grow in my mouth,” reflected the experience in the auditorium: words grew, Smith spoke them, and the students heard.
Smith, calling herself a “storyteller, or a witness,” relayed the story behind the poems and how they were created. When she told her mother she wanted to be a writer, her mother, drawing on her own experience, remarked, “Only white men do that.” Smith’s father, on the other hand, who worked in a candy factory and had “sugar in his skin,” told her, “You can do anything you want.” A poem about dancing with her father in the kitchen ends with a line that speaks to Smith’s artistic beliefs, whether writing about family or students or people who suffered through Katrina, “And in that time, sometimes, a poem is born.”
After Smith’s performance, hands shot up. This had turned out to not be a quiet group—it was, in fact, a group of students so into poetry that two, reciting original poems, opened on stage for Smith. Students asked questions such as, “Who introduced you to poetry?” Smith’s answer: Stephen Dobyns, whose book Smith chose by chance off a bookstore shelf. His work taught her that it was “okay to write about those tiny little horrors in our past… it’s energizing to confront them.” Another student question was, “How much in your poetry is thinking and how much is feeling?” Smith answered by talking about how poetry, for her, starts with emotion and is never just thinking. Through study she has learned to balance feeling with form. Talking about writing from emotion, Smith remarked, “It’s always easy to write when your heart’s broken.”
High school students, certainly, understand something about heartbreak. Smith advised the students to, “get out of your conscious self as much as you can,” and to use writing to process, “take your initial feelings…to the page.” From beginning to end, these students listened to Patricia Smith. She listened to them, too: she ended her visit surrounded by a happy group of students and, with a giant grin on her face, called over to SAL staff, “Hey guys, I’m going to go to the school store!”