A voice in the eye of the storm

 ‘There are so many women who haven’t found their voices yet .?.?. I write for them too,” says African-American poet and playwright Patricia Smith.

She doesn’t claim easy victories, but sets herself a simple mission: “I want those women to hear me and say: I can do that!”
However, though most of her poetry is written from a female’s perspective, Smith does not necessarily hoist the feminist flag when she goes on stage.

“I write as a woman because I’m one .?.?. it’s natural,” she says and adds “I’ve also used a masculine voice in some of my work.”

Smith spoke to the City Press ahead of her headline appearance at this year’s Urban Voices International Theatre and Poetry Festival.

She is also scheduled to visit the ­Johannesburg Correctional ­Facility (Sun City) to give ­poetry workshops at the prison.
This is part of her commitment to a belief that all people must be equally heard.

“Granted, there are people who belong in jail, people who are real rough, you know? But even they deserve to have control of their voices,” she says.
This contest for a space to be heard is what informs her recent poetry anthology, Blood Dazzler.

A poetic tour de force that reflects on the tragic experience that was Hurricane Katrina.

The book is her way of “documenting horrendous acts on behalf of the administration, and telling the stories of victims who would have otherwise been forgotten” as Nicolle Elizabeth, an American reviewer, writes.

The power of Blood Dazzler is in Smith’s ability to become both the ravenous storm and the shattered land in this catastrophic encounter. She has mastered the art of persona.

Throughout the book, Smith becomes the deadly storm, and personifies it to make vivid its menace as it ravages through the lives of New Orleans citizens.

As the storm is officially declared a category five hurricane, Smith lends her voice to it: “Now officially a bitch, I’m confounded by words/all I’ve ever been is starving, fluid, and noise./So I huff a huge sulk, thrust out my chest, open wide my solo swallowing eye.”

She titled this poem “8am Sunday, August 28, 2005” after the date and time when Katrina gained full strength.

The nasty racial tinge underpinning the George W Bush administration’s lackadaisical response to Katrina is part of the rage of that historical moment. Smith agrees.

“Bush would come seated on an airplane, point at the dying people and talk about how tragic that was .?.?. but with nothing coming forth in terms of help,” Smith remembers.

But, “that’s the part we never want to revisit” she says. The victims were mostly black and Bush “brushed [them] off because they were powerless politically .?.?. and he didn’t need much from them”.

However, “Katrina was not a political question, it was a human question. And ex post facto, Katrina could have been in Beverly Hills”.

That’s why Smith feels if the disaster would recur under the new administration, Barack Obama would have a different kind of connection to the victims because “they are in a sense his people, they are black”.

Smith is also a former Boston Globe journalist. Asked about these beginnings she’s quick to point out that she didn’t go to journalism school.

“I started out with my own voice .?.?. I took a news story and found a poetic angle to it,” she says.

In 1997 her metro column won her the distinguished Writing Award for Commentary from the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

However, the Boston Globe returned the ASNE award and withdrew her from consideration for a Pulitzer Prize after the newspaper accepted that some of her columns contained ­fictionalised characters and events.
Smith acknowledged four instances of this in her work. She was asked to resign from the Globe after this revelation.

But her talents are indisputable because in 2006, she was inducted into the International Literary Hall of Fame for ­Writers of African Descent.

She is also a 2008 National Book Award finalist and won the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award in Poetry among other awards.

» Urban Voices International Theatre and Poetry Festival runs from 16 - 28 October in Johannesburg and Cape Town .

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