By Angel Gonzales
Angel Gonzales: In 2018 you were a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award recipient, an NAACP Image award and an LA Times Book Prize winner. This critical acclaim suggests you are reaching a broader audience than the one you may have had when you first started writing poetry. But what audience did you have in mind while writing Incendiary Art?
Patricia Smith: First of all, when I first started writing poetry, I was writing for live audiences, not ones I had to imagine. I hadn’t yet envisioned an audience of readers—I was writing for people whose faces I could see, whose responses I could hear as soon as the poem was done. That audience was vital, it was electric, it was ever-changing. In a sense, I was already writing for everyone.
I never stopped thinking of audience as everyone within the range of a poem, so Incendiary Art is for everyone too. A book about the loss of black lives cannot, should not be just for black people—if we can’t start listening to each other’s stories, we can’t really claim to inhabit the same world.
AG: You’ve talked about how the sequence “When Black Men Drown Their Daughters” was the entry point for Incendiary Art. How did completing that series of poems open doors to the creation of other poems in this collection?
PS: “When Black Men Drown Their Daughters” was the book’s original title, and the conception was totally different. The entire book was going to explore the various ways men fail their daughters, both literally and figuratively. I had plenty of material, but the book was a back-breaker, heavy and ponderous, and it felt strained, like I’d begun reaching for meaning. I guess my inability to fully realize that initial idea led me explore other new, vaguely connected areas. I knew black men would be at the book’s center—it took birth during a time when we were losing so many black lives, usually at the hands of law enforcement. In both its “Black Men/Daughters” and later incarnations, my mind turned toward the women left behind. That’s when the saga began.
AG: “That Chile Emmett in That Casket” is such a powerful opening for the collection. What themes did you want to introduce to the audience with the first poem and how do you see the subsequent poems addressing those themes?
PS: That poem was just as much for me as it was for the reader. I always think about my parents’ stark warning about how many ways death could happen to me, how much it determined the way I walked through life, and how it taught me the necessity of managing fear. As an adult, I was amazed to learn how many African-Americans my age grew up with that photo in their homes, in plain sight. That was the way that those of us who were first-generation up north were introduced to the world: “You will not live unless you fear living.” That’s the undercurrent of the remaining poems, the idea I wanted to explore and hopefully disprove.
AG: “Sagas of the Accidental Saint” is at the center of the book, which makes sense because it reminds us that racism is a visceral experience and actually destroys bodies, blocks airways, and takes lives, and we should never forget that. This is reflected in that stretch of pages where the line “The gun said: I just had an accident” is repeated. How did you arrive at the decision to repeat this line and to use that physical act of turning the page?
PS: It didn’t start out that way. Originally, the lines followed one after the other on the same page. But whenever I read it aloud, I paused after each one to allow the crack of the bullet to resound. I wanted everyone to hear how long ten could go on. When the time came to arrange and construct the book, I decided to combine the silence and the turning of the page in order to make the sequence feel like it would go on forever.
AG: I felt “Elegy” really slowed down the pace of the book because it’s so full of tenderness or at least the craving for it. It’s clear you and your father had a very special relationship. The poem ends with a kind of recognition of the name your father wanted to give you and references your previous book that I thought maybe you’d been working on this poem for a while. Had you been working on that poem long before this project? If so, what was it about working on this project that allowed the space for the poem to emerge?
PS: Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, which I thought of as a poetic memoir, was a hefty book, although I felt that I could have kept writing and writing and writing—I was revisiting the painful, resurrecting joy, piecing together parts of history I had hidden from. When you’re writing your life, there’s no end to it. But reality intruded and the physical book had to end—and it ended while some of the images and music in “Elegy” were just beginning to take shape. The story of my father was a story I had always carried, but I was afraid of so much of it.
I wasn’t sure if all of the poems fit in Incendiary. My very first readers commented on the heaviness of the manuscript, but I felt the book needed some light—going deeper into the life of someone who was lost. An admitted misstep in the book—the poem “Sometimes” was my attempt to segue into the elegy by introducing the notion that black folks sometimes lose their lives at the hands of killers who look just like them. But the “link” felt forced. I know now that I should have believed that “Elegy” belonged without trying to justify the fact that it belonged.
I had to physically see it in the manuscript to know that it needed to be there. “Elegy” was the crawl toward light that the book required. It was the one tragedy I knew by heart.
AG: In a previous interview you talked about struggling to end the book and I felt that while reading too. However, I like that the ending doesn’t necessarily offer a resolution. The book finishes with an “Emmett Till: Choose Your Own Adventure” and an “Incendiary Art” poem. How do you see the relationship between these two types of poems throughout the book and why did you decide to close the book with them?
PS: It’s a little dismaying to hear you say you felt a struggle at the end of the book. I felt it, but I didn’t want the reader to see it.
I guess the one thing I didn’t want was to end Incendiary in any traditional way. I didn’t want to signal a direction, a moral, or any attempt to tie up loose ends. I intended the undercurrent of the book to be numbing and chaotic. Those gunshots between the turning pages? I wanted those shots to resound from first page to last. So the actual final poems didn’t matter quite as much as the tone.
The series of “Choose Your Own Adventure” and “Incendiary Art” poems were touch points throughout the book—“Choose Your Own Adventure” kept the element of chance at the forefront (What would have happened if Emmett had gone to Nebraska instead of traveling of Mississippi? How would his story have changed if his casket had been closed instead of open? What if he’d never gone past the store? What would happen if any of the subjects of any of these poems would have turned left instead of right, stayed home instead of venturing outside where someone just happened to have a gun? ); “Incendiary Art” conjured the element of fire, the burning and rebuilding of landscape, the death and rebirth of body.
So I knew I wanted the reader to walk away still rattled by those questions, still uncomfortable in that heat.
AG: Throughout my readings of the book I kept putting Incendiary Art in conversation with other bodies of work, like Kiese Laymon’s Heavy and even Kendrick Lamar’s album, DAMN. What other book would you most want to see Incendiary Art in conversation with?
PS: Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward; James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew from The Fire Next Time; Cemetery Nights by Stephen Dobyns.
Patricia Smith's other books of poems include Teahouse of the Almighty, Close to Death, Big Towns Big Talk, and Life According to Motown. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, Tin House,and in Best American Poetry, Best American Essays, and Best American Mystery Stories. A Guggenheim Fellow, Patricia is also a professor at the College of Staten Island and an instructor in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.
Angel Gonzales is a poet and short story writer. She received her undergraduate degree from UC Irvine. Her work has appeared in New Forum, Matchbox Magazine, and Exhibit Magazine, and has also been a finalist for the Crab Orchard Review's short story contest. She currently attends the MFA program at Fresno State and is part of the editorial staff at The Normal School.