Last night Patricia Smith had a book launch party for her new book entitled _Blood Dazzler_. It is her fifth collection of poetry. Published with Coffee House Press (which also published her National Poetry Series Winner _Teahouse of the Almighty_), _Blood Dazzler_ is a collection of 77 pages of poetry in and around the events in Late August 2005 in New Orleans.
I had the privelege of sharing the stage with Patrick Rosal (_Uprock, Headspin, Scramble & Dive_ and _My American Kundiman_ both by Persea Books) and Lynne Procope as we read woven around Patricia Smith's words.
A story about why this feels special in a lot of ways: A few years ago, I took a Poetry & Performance class. I had this book, _Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poet's Cafe_ which was a required text for the course. There are hundreds of voices represented, and I was to choose a poem to perform. Something about this poem "Skinhead" by this poet "Patricia Smith" caught my eye. I was choosing between two poems. Then I heard from a friend that "Skinhead" (yes, about the white supremists) was composed by a black woman poet, I thought...wow. And figured that was my challenge: to step into this costume that this poet created, and give it a try. Live the words.
What power. I remember wanting to know more about this poet. I checked out her books from the school library, read them while at work. I kept looking more and more for her; I even found her livejournal and proceeded to read her blog, and readher friend's blogs, and realized that she was accessible. I wanted to access her.
In 2006, I was accepted into Cave Canem's summer retreat, which is a week-long workshop/retreat for poets of the African Diaspora. Patricia Smith was slated to be on the faculty there. I don't know how I did it, but the rest is history. I later moved up to New Jersey, (I now live in NYC, however) and over the years, met up with Patricia at various events: AWP, Gwendolyn Brooks Conference, Cave Canem 10th year anniversary celebration, etc. We became really great friends.
So, when she asked me to read for her launch, I was excited, and thought, what an amazing chance to give back. I spoke a few words about that moment. She asked us to write -- if we had not already written about -- a poem about Katrina. I have a poem, first published in Chicago State University's _Warpland_, that will be in my forthcoming book about the Gulf Coast. I read that poem, and over the course of August, I managed to write a poem about Hurricane Hugo, which, has a very similar story for Charleston, SC as Katrina does with NOLA. So I read new work first, and then I read work from my book.
"Requiem for the Gulf Coast"
Most of my poems tend to be less than a minute. I had two other poems I wanted to read; we had 10 minutes each. But for some reason I get on stage and lose all sense of time, and felt like I had been up there for too long, and moved to my last poem, which was "Lament", which I felt touched more on the NOLA story than any other poem I could have read.
"Lament" used to be the title poem. I guess you can still consider it the title poem as you can see where the title of my book _How God Ends Us_ came to be. It is a hybrid of sorts. Imagine: a pantoum and a sestina coming together (but without the sestina's envoi), so that the lines repeat with some variation instead of just the end words. I'll share the first stanza.
Oh, how You end us.
The beginning of disaster
is the moist inside of a lie. How you
speak with fiery tongue, with smoke words. How you
hide spirits in the spaces of the house no one inhabits.
There are other silences You keep.
--so these six lines change and form different meanings as the poem goes along. But there were echoes in Patricia's poems that spoke to this, and I'm very interested in conversations that happen between poets and poems. It was a good night.