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Patricia Smith, Journalism & Poetry:
Shall we meditate on Truth?

Dateline: 6/23/98

No one has done a better job of leading poetry back into daily life than Patricia Smith. As the nation’s foremost Slam poet, she speaks the voices of those who have not been heard -- the mothers of murdered black youths, the undertaker who tries to patch up the corpses, the skinhead whose anger twists America into a knot. As a columnist for The Boston Globe she told those same stories, used the same techniques, creating personae to, as she puts it, “slam the point home.”

Shall we meditate on Truth? I learned to read the paper during Viet Nam and Nicaragua -- how to “read” by “reading through” the official truth. Smith’s columns, fabrications and all, come closer to representing truth than most if not all of the stories on page one, even to this day. As a journalist, Patricia Smith is a great poet -- she gets at the truth under the skin.

Meanwhile, the journalism industry has rounded up the wagons to protect their sacred trust as keepers of The Truth and drum Patricia Smith from their Fraternity. Her journalism career is over. She has duly written her eulogy apologia, seen variously as “sad” and “powerful” by letter writers to The Globe and “rather bathetic” by a correspondent on the Buffalo Poetics mailing list.

An interesting sidebar: Alan Dershowitz accused The Globe of “a double standard” rooted in rooted in “race, gender, and ethnicity” for firing Smith while allowing columnist Mike Barnicle to stay on after he had misquoted Dershowitz and fabricated other quotes, an eight-year old feud. The Globe responded that Smith and Barnicle had both been told in 1995 that future incidents would not be tolerated. Smith, it is implied, did not heed the warning.

Where is the poet Patricia Smith in this brouhaha? Not a mention of the Poetry Slams which she and her husband Michael Brown imported to Boston from Chicago six years ago. The New York Times reported that she was fired after returning from a vacation, while, ironically, two days previously they had quoted her in Taos for the World Heavyweight Poetry Bout as “a columnist for The Boston Globe who, as a poet. . . has won the national slam championship four times.” Shouldn’t heads roll over at The Times? Or, to them, is the job of the poet simply an avocation?

Smith’s short-cuts to truth can’t be condoned when passed off as the literal. But the moralistic posturing that we’re hearing from journalists who are denying her her authority as a poet is just so much sanctimonious prattle.

As poets, we’ve lived through Pound’s fascism and Eliot’s anti-semitism. Believe me, I’d much rather learn from “Dorothy Gibson, whose young daughter was getting a painful hair makeover for Easter Sunday,” one of Smith’s fictions.

Patricia Smith’s career as a journalist is over. Her career as a poet is just beginning.

--Bob Holman

Stop by the Poetry Bulletin Board & join in a discussion of these issues. Tell us what you think about poetry & journalism, truth & fact, lies & fiction. . .

Better yet, jump into the Poetry Chat room this Wednesday, July 1, 10 - 11 pm Eastern time (that's 7 - 8 pm on the West coast), for a live chat session hosted by your guide, Bob Holman, discussing Slam, Patricia Smith, and What the hell is Performance Poetry anyway?

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