INTERVIEW: Dazzle, Roll Call // Patricia Smith

 

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by Jon Riccio

There’s only one force of nature that can withstand you when your hurricane siblings include Emily who “whispered her gusts into a thousand skins,” Maria whose “thunder skirts flew high,” and Philippe (“flailing on a wronged ocean”), and that’s Patricia Smith, her 2008 collection Blood Dazzler a clarion container of persona and received form embodying the shockwave that was Katrina. Smith reflects on Blood Dazzler’s origins, provides an update on one of her subjects, and sings the praises of the 31-syllable tanka form. She makes us wonder whether the passage of time has salved Katrina’s “throbbing like a new-torn wound/ under August drape.”

For anyone about to title a book, there’s wisdom on that too… 

Jon Riccio: You’ve stated that “34,” a persona poem recounting the “thirty-four bodies…found drowned in a nursing home where people did not evacuate” served as Blood Dazzlers genesis, the deceased given their due with such lines as “What makes the dust of me smell like a dashed miracle,/ the underside of everything?” and “I’m cold/ and I’m strapped to this country.” Why are those last five words as horrifying as they are apt?

Patricia Smith: Many people have asked me why I took on the storm, especially since I’m not from New Orleans and have no ties whatsoever to the Gulf region. It’s because I didn’t see Katrina as purely a regional event, but a human one. I think the disaster made it all too clear just what our country is capable of—the blatant dismissal of poor, mostly brown, people in a time of crisis. And there it was, blaring from our TV screens for everyone, finally, to see. The truth, and the horror, of those five words lie in the fact that the people considered disposable in our society are those forced to be most reliant upon what that society deems as “just.”

 JR: How did the personification of Katrina as a woman contribute to Blood Dazzlers impact? What were the pros and cons of gendering a hurricane in the draft stages of your work? 

PS: This line in Blood Dazzler is one of the first lines that came to me: “Every woman begins as weather.” I never considered NOT giving the storm the ability to be vulnerable, fierce, remorseful, arrogant, weary, and vengeful. Katrina’s voice is what eventually gave the book its shape. When I write poems, I always look for an unexpected entry point, and crafting this book was no different. I knew no one would expect to hear the storm to speak, and I needed her to help make sense of the chaos.

JR: The fatalities in “Tankas” – “I have three children,/ but only two arms,” “I found my sister/ whirling in the peppered blue,” and “—God’s hands smothering/ your heart. And the thumps/ grow slower, slower, until/ He takes back your name. Lifts you.” – shed light on a death toll estimated between 1,245 and 1,836 (source: Wikipedia). Why do the 5/7/5/7/7 tanka syllable constraints work so well here?

 PS: You can’t look directly at death unless you can contain it. It’s horrific in its undefined edges, and the idea of it unleashes a fear that blurs both its reality and inevitability. The tight control of the tanka is somewhat sleight-of-hand—it’s a taming of what refuses to be tamed. Working in such a terse, controlled form didn’t change the truth, it just slowed my approach to it. It helped me rein in rampaging emotion. Concentrating on the syllable count gave me a way to confront the body count.

JR: “Siblings,” a roll call dedicated to names of past hurricanes, maintains its modified abecedarian form through the letter W (“Wilma opened her maw wide, flashing rot.”), the final lines diverging: “None of them talked about Katrina./ She was their odd sister,/ the blood dazzler.” Was this the intended destination of your title all along?

PS: No, not at all. When I wrote the poem, relatively early in the process, I reached the last line and put the words “blood dazzler” in as a placeholder, intending to come back and replace them with a more suitable phrase when the right inspiration hit. They didn’t mean anything at the time. I came back when I considered the book done, and by then those two words had stretched to fit. They bellowed and mystified, all wrong and yet perfect against each other. So they stayed in the poem, becoming what was whispered about that bad girl.

Then came that terrible moment when the book needed to call itself something. I’m terrible at titling, it’s something I’ve always struggled with. And those two words wrapped themselves around everything—the phrase was just wide enough to encompass the narrative without defining it. It was darkness and sparkle. It was menace and the memory of a clear, untroubled sky.

JR: Blood Dazzler also contains a sestina and a ghazal. You close your book Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah on a Motown sonnet crown. Why has received form been such a good fit?

PS: I dedicated my MFA study to mastering the language of form and metrics. Blood Dazzler was my MFA thesis. As I worked, I tried to be receptive to the poems, to listen to what they were asking to be. Katrina, as persona, helped me with the direction of her voice and the voice of the story surrounding her. Form is a device in my toolbox, accessible to me when it’s needed. Chaos becomes something other when it’s controlled. I love how it’s possible to take a sprawling, unwieldy story and give it lyrical boundaries.

JR: I keep returning to “Ms. Thang Sloshes in the Direction of Home,” as you’ve built an empathy around this character, fierce in her fuchsia suede: “She thought that being a woman meant filling/ the body with rain,” “Old muscles swell, beg her to dive and push/ like a man, master the water,

swim/ like a bitch with an Olympic agenda.” What’s she up to these days?

PS:      She smoothes rampant muscle

and silkens errant hairs

with a sung southern syllable.

Ask her where the storm went

when she chased it away, and she’ll

tell you her new name, spitting

the hard K in homage…

JR: There’s a series of eight voodoo poems in Blood Dazzler, each “available for the following magickal purposes…” including love and passion, healing, spiritual cleansing, and blessing. Which of these holds the most significance for you?

PS: That would be healing—healing wounds, healing rifts, healing ruptures. The prospect of being able to recover from any depth of hurt.

JR: The back cover features praise from Mark Doty, Carolyn Forché, Terrance Hayes, and Yusef Komunyakaa. How would Hurricane Katrina blurb your book?

PS: You mean Blood Dazzler? What a weird question. I suppose: “Patricia Smith dared to lock eyes with a storm—and thought she saw me.”

Coffee House Press (2008): $16.00

Patricia Smith is the author of seven books of poetry, including Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, winner of the 2014 Rebekah Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress, the 2013 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets and the Phillis Wheatley Award; Savannah was also a finalist for both the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America and the Balcones Prize. Patricia also authored Blood Dazzler, a finalist for the National Book Award, and Teahouse of the Almighty, a National Poetry Series selection. Her most recent book is Gotta Go Gotta Flow, a collaboration with the late Chicago photographer Michael Abramson. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, The New York Times, TriQuarterly, Tin House, The Washington Post, and in both Best American Poetry and Best American Essays. Her contribution to the crime fiction anthology Staten Island Noir, which she edited, won the Robert L. Fish Award from the Mystery Writers of America for the best debut story of the year and was chosen for Best American Mystery Stories. She is a 2014 Guggenheim fellow, a 2012 fellow at both MacDowell and Yaddo, a two-time Pushcart Prize winner, recipient of a Lannan fellowship and a four-time individual champion of the National Poetry Slam, the most successful poet in the competition’s history. Her next poetry collection will be released in 2016; she is also working on a volume combining poetic monologues and a collaborative novel with her husband Bruce DeSilva, the Edgar-Award winning author of the Liam Mulligan crime novels. Patricia is a professor at the College of Staten Island and an instructor in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.

Jon Riccio received his MFA from the University of Arizona. Current and forthcoming poems appear in Yellow Chair Review, Stickman Review, Pamplemousse, Mead, Bridge Eight, Cleaver, Hawai’i Review, and After the Pause, among others. A 2014 Pushcart Prize nominee, he serves as the poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review.

 

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