Published last month by Coffee House Press, Blood Dazzler by , Smith is scheduled to appear at 9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 18, in the Overture Center's Promenade Hall, during the Passing the Mic Performance Showcase sponsored by the UW-Madison Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives. In an interview conducted via email, Smith describes the genesis of Blood Dazzler and her subsequent dance-theater collaboration with Urban Bush Women choreographer Paloma McGregor, assesses the legacy of Katrina, revisits her departure from the Boston Globe a decade ago amid charges she had fabricated sources and quotes, compares the rewards of teaching public-school students vs. prison inmates, and explains the responsibility that comes with fearlessness.
The Daily Page: Where were you and what were you doing when you conceived the title, Blood Dazzler? What was your reaction when those two words came to you?
Smith: I wish I could say that it came to me like a bolt out of the blue (although that would be a horrible cliché, and I would never say that). I'm actually awful with titles -- naming my poems, or a book of poems, is always the very last thing I do, and I'm never truly satisfied with the result.
I didn't set out to write an entire book, so I wasn't bothered by the task of choosing a title for quite some time. As it turns out, the phrase "blood dazzler" was in one of the final lines in one of the final poems in the book. It's a poem called "Siblings," a piece that personifies the other hurricanes that occurred in 2005 and thinks of them as members of Katrina's family. The concluding lines are "None of them talked about Katrina/ She was their odd sister/ the blood dazzler." I have no idea what those two words mean, but I loved their feel in my mouth and I loved the feeling left in the air once the words were uttered. No insistent inspiration, no intricate story, just a sweet sound at just the right time.
was published as hurricanes Gustav and Ike were bearing down on the Gulf Coast. How would you describe your reaction to this coincidence?
Dazzler was actually published at the beginning of September, long before both Gustav and Ike. I didn't see their approach as a coincidence as much as continuation of a natural cycle. Hurricanes are always leaving or always approaching. Because of Katrina, we're just more aware of them now. No one wants to make that huge human mistake again, so we all start walking on eggshells whenever we hear of one of Katrina's siblings gathering strength. I was amazed at the coverage of both Gustav and Ike. Maybe it's too soon to say this, but I think we've learned something.
As you travel the country to read from Blood Dazzler, to what degree do you discern continued sympathy for Katrina's victims, and to what extent has this been muted by the onset of sympathy fatigue? And do these reactions differ by region or the demographic makeup of your audiences?
Sympathy fatigue. Good phrase. That's exactly what I was encountering.
"34" was the manuscript's very first breath, although I didn't know it at the time. I fully intended it to be a single poem, a tribute I felt was necessary if I was to remain fully invested in the possibilities of my work. "34" would probably have become an important part of my next manuscript, but I certainly didn't see it as the heartbeat of a work revolving solely around Katrina. I folded it into my readings and watched closely to gauge audience reaction.
Then I was scheduled for a reading at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival in the winter of 2007. "34" was a relatively new poem, but I'd gotten some very interesting responses whenever I included it in a reading. Since I feel that every poetry reading is essentially a conversation, I would often approach audience members afterward to discuss their thoughts about and reactions to particular poems.
During the Palm Beach reading, I had reached the tenth or eleventh stanza of "34" when I noticed a distinct restlessness in the crowd. A few people were averting their eyes, staring off into the distance and shifting uncomfortably in their seats. I've always been starkly aware of my audience, and invested in presenting work that is -- at the very least -- engaging, so I was troubled by what I saw. One woman, decked out in the Palm Beach uniform of pink silk tracksuit and glaringly white sneakers, seemed particularly uneasy. In fact, as I approached her to chat, I got the distinct impression that she was considering making a run for it.
And this is what she said, verbatim, when I asked (after a few introductory and, on her part, stiff pleasantries) what had troubled her about poems set in post-Katrina New Orleans:
"Well... uh... they just had Mardi Gras, didn't they? Things are better now. I mean, saw some pictures on CNN."
It was at that moment that I realized that not everyone had felt it necessary to process the horrors of Hurricane Katrina. For some it remained a pesky, persistent scar, wrecking the sleek American landscape. Time had passed. This story was best filed away.
Since New Orleans and surrounding devastated regions were seldom in the news anymore, people who felt that way were no longer forced to look closely at what had happened, at what was still happening. They refused to hear poor people, tossed out of cramped trailers, begging their country to notice. They no longer chose to notice anything outside of the sad, manufactured gaiety of the French Quarter. They didn't want to be reminded of our country's gross ineptitude, or listen again to the mumbled apologies of a clueless leader. There were those who refused to acknowledge a stark reality -- an era, indeed an entire culture, had been sacrificed to the water.
That's when I decided to keep writing.
Audiences that are primarily African-American react differently. There's more angry acknowledgement. We're not surprised by anything this country does.
Some powerful books, including One Dead in Attic and Why New Orleans Matters, have been published in the aftermath of Katrina. Which other titles might you recommend as the best complements to Blood Dazzler?
I haven't read any of them, at first because I didn't want to be creatively buffeted about by their content, then because I just can't find the time. They're on my pile of books to grab when I find time for myself.
In the hierarchy of gratification, how do the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award, Paterson and Pushcart poetry prizes compare to winning the National Poetry Slam for the fourth time?
They're not even in the same realm. The poetry slam championship is a recognition of the way a poem is projected, the others are rewards for the way a poem is written. When I won the slam championships, the performance of poetry was a new and burgeoning craft, and the time was right. But I soon needed to learn more about the bone and muscle in poems, and I began to concentrate more on my writing. Once I began to be recognized for the craft of my work, as well as the performance, I felt I'd opened all the doors I could as a writer.
How did your dance-theater collaboration with Paloma McGregor come about?
I performed "34" at the Kentucky Women Writers conference in 2006. Paloma, a noted choreographer and principal dancer with the Urban Bush Women, was in the audience. The nationally renowned dance troupe's stated mission is, ironically, "to bring the untold and under-told histories and stories of disenfranchised people to light through dance." Once we were both back in New York, Paloma contacted me and asked for a copy of the poem.
"The first time I heard '34,' I was just so struck by the rich telling of these stories," she wrote in an email. "As a choreographer, I am committed to storytelling. Amplifying voices, particularly of those who are ordinarily denied a platform, is a key part of why I make art. So when I heard '34,' I felt the power of a kindred artistic spirit. It was not until a few days after the conference that I had the idea to make a dance work to the poem."
That's how it began. Now we're working on a full production, containing about eight of the poems in the book. It's been thrilling, but difficult, because we can't realize the extent of our dream without funding for the dancers, stage crew, actors and designers, who have so far been working without funding.
You've performed in quite an assortment of places across the U.S. and overseas. Do you have one venue that stands out as a favorite memory? If so, why is it your favorite?
I once performed before 20,000 Japanese businessmen in an outdoor arena in Osaka, Japan. I'd won a citywide poetry contest in Chicago, and the prize was an all-expense paid trip to one of Chicago's sister cities. It was a quirky and funny and immensely gratifying experience.
What are your expectations for your Wisconsin Book Festival appearance?
I don't have any. That way, I'm always pleasantly surprised. It helps not to set boundaries before you're actually in the space, before you're face-to-face with the people who're expecting something from you.
How do the rewards of teaching public-school students compare to the karma of teaching prison inmates?
I never really concentrate on who's in the classroom, just what they'll take away from it. In both instances, you have to spend time convincing them that their voices are present, strong, legitimate. Students haven't found their voices yet; prisoners have had their voices taken away.
Is it fair to conclude you are more or less fearless? If so, who or what accounts for your courage? And if not, what most frightens you?
I am fearless. There is nothing I won't write about, and nothing I won't say out loud. The first time I read and someone approached me to say "I have felt that way, I just didn't know there was a way to say it," I realized a huge responsibility; and I've since come to the conclusion that I'm alive to in order fulfill that responsibility. I can't do that by placing limits on my voice. Fright leads to inaction, inaction to complacency, complacency to a stunning malaise. We do only have one life, and silence is not the way to live it.
What is your first memory of poetry? What were your emotional and physical reactions to it?
I guess my first poetry wasn't really poetry. My father, who was part of that great migration of blacks from the South to the North, was a born storyteller, and he transformed each and every day into a rollicking narrative. From him, I learned to look at the world in terms of the stories it could tell. And when I strive to make my poetry human and accessible, it's his voice I hear.
How did your experience at the Boston Globe impact your career as a poet? On balance, did it damage or enhance your credibility? And 10 years later, how does it echo in your life?
Working at newspapers opened the world in a way that presented me with endless opportunities and perspectives as a poet, especially when I was a travel writer and began to travel outside the U.S.
When I got fired from the Globe, being a poet saved my life because I had a way to process what was happening that had nothing to do with my identity as a reporter. As far as damaging or enhancing my credibility, I can't tell you, because it's always someone else who makes that decision, whoever it is who is choosing to believe or not believe you. Ten years later, I hear no echo. I can talk with my husband (and always do) about the news biz, I have many friends in newspapers, I'm square with where am I, what I did and where I'm going. I'm sure diehards in the industry won't be thrilled to hear this, but I'm totally past it. Learned a lot about myself and my art. So grateful for the lessons.
Who or what accounts for your musical tastes?
I am a Motown baby, first and foremost, always and forever.
What was the last book you read that you would recommend to friends, and why are you recommending it?
My husband is writing coach for the Associated Press, but he's also just recently snagged an agent for his first crime novel. When I can, I immerse myself in crime novels because he sparked my interest in the genre -- the last one I read was George Pelecano's The Turnaround, which was forceful, poetic and mesmerizing. I'm always trying to get poets to read things that aren't poetry. We're basically storytellers, after all. The book I recommend most to poets is James Lee Burke's In Electric Mist With Confederate Dead. It's one of the most beautiful, haunting stories I've ever read, and it effectively blurs the line between prose and poetry. We're so busy categorizing ourselves that we don't realize we're all scrawling on the same canvas.
Why do you live where you live?
Tarrytown is close to Manhattan and AP, a great place to raise kids, and an actual headless horseman gallops down Main Street every Halloween. This is our last year here, however. I'll miss it terribly, but it's time for a new chapter.
The theme of this year's festival is "Changing Places." How do you interpret that phrase? And depending on your sense of its meaning, what place would you change (and how would you change it), or with whom would you change?
I love to put myself in the shoes of my characters --whether it be a poem, a short story or a play. I walk into every story I read in the newspaper. I think this constant shifting of perspective plumps my toolbox as a writer. I can't be a writer and just be one person. I have to be able to be at least a part of anyone. It's all about flipping the script.