Chicago-born in the mid-'50s; daughter of a "no-nonsense, hat-wearing, God-fearing, church-going woman" who wouldn't let her beyond the front door to breathe in the chaos in Chicago's west side after Martin Luther King's assassination; a Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist at the Boston Globe until she admitted fabricating news stories; four-time individual champ of the National Poetry Slam; author of three books of poetry; co-author of a book on Africans in America--the companion to a PBS documentary series; writer of a forthcoming biography of Harriet Tubman; columnist for Ms. magazine.
Smith thrives in these multiple genres and geographies.
"If you say you're a writer, you should try all types of writing styles. We're all using the same canvas," Smith explained recently by phone from her home in Tarrytown, N.Y.
Hey, miz lady ... bring your fine ass over here and talk to me begins "Nickel Wine and Deep Kisses" from Big Towns, Big Talk (Zoland Books, 1992), whose dateline reads "Cabrini Green Housing Project, Chicago, 1982." The prose poem, like many in this volume, veers across the divide that Smith traverses: As a black woman, she knows the territory; she's trying to escape from it; she's drawn back into it.
Sheathed in wool and oxford, briefcased and correct, / I scurried past your steamy threat / with just a bit of inherited shimmy, / and you saw it in me, / the bottom line I've tried for so long to hide.
Smith is no absolutist. She's a witness, an intruder, a participant and an outsider, all at once.
Hey miz lady, come on back. Let's spend some time. / Harmless enough, so I let loose my smile / and hurry away. You listen to my heels apologize. / Cause you know that your real meaning will cling like brown to my skin all day: / Come back here, bitch. / I'll eat you alive.
Smith says she began writing poetry as a way to process her world.
Her poetic career began in the mid-'80s, when she was assigned to cover the first Neutral Turf Poetry Festival for the Chicago Sun-Times. By 1988, she was considered one of the city's slam divas and since has wrangled national championships. She's appeared at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York, Seattle's Bumbershoot Festival and the Taos Heavyweight Poetry Championship, where in 1997 she challenged champion Jimmy Santiago Baca.
On the page, her poems have been anthologized and widely published--in The Nation, The Paris Review and TriQuarterly. Her first book of poetry, Life According to Motown, came out in 1991, the same year she started writing for the Boston Globe. While all three of her books have grown out of her work as a newspaper columnist, her latest, Close to Death (Zoland Books, 1993), was directly inspired by interviews Smith conducted while working on a Globe article about black men in Boston ghettos.
But it was the slam scene that unleashed Smith's voice.
"There was this reading in a blues club. I thought, 'Hey, let's go laugh at the poets and have a drink.' I was surprised at how great it was," admits Smith.
She started going to open-mic readings and soon discovered that by getting up on stage, she could voice all these words that had been spilling out into notebooks.
"It's all a blur now. I was drawing inspiration everywhere. The poems weren't polished. I was just cranking things out. I look at the old poems now and think they needed editing--badly. But at the time, it'd be like editing your conversation, it was so raw.
"Now, I go back to the poem more than I used to. I read out loud all the time. I'm listening for rhythm, if it feels good in my mouth," Smith explains about going from the page to stage.
A featured performance in the 1998 documentary SlamNation may have brought her words to a broader audience, but Smith says she's finished slamming. She hasn't competed since 1995.
"I'm not even thinking about the slam anymore. It's just one way of performing, of writing poetry. I don't see a reason to limit myself," she explains.
About the slam scene, she adds, "The last one I went to, there was lots of screaming. Poets are mad about racial profiling or about women's status in the world. That becomes the model and the old style is pushed out. I left because I didn't feel like I belonged anymore. But I wouldn't trade slamming for anything," Smith qualifies.
It was the slam community that cushioned Smith during her Boston Globe story fabrication mess in 1998--she was withdrawn from consideration for a Pulitzer Prize when rumors were validated that some of her columns were made up. Smith lost her job at the paper and suffered institutional wrath. Her marriage fell apart, as did her health.
"But the slamming community opened its arms," Smith says. "There was a national slam that summer in Austin. The organizers sent me a card with a picture of the whole committee--all in their underwear--that urged me to come out there. Basically they were saying that we are all exposed at one time or another."
Smith adds, "So much has happened in journalism since then that I'm not on the back burner, I'm not even on the stove. For poets, it was never an issue."
Instead, Smith went out on stage, focused on her poetry, her sense of humor intact.
"I once had a stupid journalist ask me at a reading, 'How do you feel now that you can't write anymore?' Hey, it's certainly not the only way to write. I think having that other throat, having poetry saved me. I could pour all this hurt, shame and guilt into this funnel."Smith adds wryly, "I could retreat to my notebook or go postal at the Globe. Simple choice."