Patricia Smith


Letter to a Young Poet

My dearest, dearest poet,

You’ve surrounded yourself with input, until the whole of your body is a vibing wire.

Even as you read this, you’re probably connected, in as many ways possible, to a world you mistakenly believe is feeding you creatively. Your phone dings or buzzes, and you stop whatever you’re doing to whip your eyes to the screen. Once you do, you find the connection you crave—the text, DM, timeline post, voicemail, Snapchat, poke or email that assures you that you’re still part of—

something. That race. That religion. That political party. That prevailing opinion. You’ve convinced yourself that the primary role of a poet is that of witness, and that you’re witnessing as fervently as you can. You’re hooked into everything pivotal, everything that matters, everything that everyone else knows.

As a result, you have the ideas that everyone else has. And your poems begin.

But you wonder why they’re not the poems you wanted. You wonder why the stanzas feel like snippets of cinema, rewinding and replaying, and why the words eventually sit so static and pulseless on the page.

Chaos is not creative catalyst. So cut the cords. Punch the volume buttons to silence. You don’t need to be informed and driven by a babble of official sounds. Begin in aloneness, and trust your own throat to open and spill stories. Trust in the voices that jolt when no voices are there. Trust in everything you learned before you had anyone to teach you.

A poet should be lonely. That solitude should be numbing, complete, inescapable. In the terrifying midst of it, find a mirror and stare at your widened eyes, your unwashed hair, your unnerved self. Make sure the question you ask yourself is the only sound in the room:

“Now what do you have to say?”

Yours in inevitable solitude,



Patricia Smith is the author of eight books of poetry, including Incendiary Art; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, winner of the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets; Blood Dazzler, a National Book Award finalist; and Gotta Go, Gotta Flow, a collaboration with award-winning Chicago photographer Michael Abramson.  Her other books include the poetry volumes Teahouse of the Almighty, Close to Death, Big Towns Big Talk, Life According to Motown, the children’s book Janna and the Kings and the history Africans in America, a companion book to the award-winning PBS series. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, The Baffler, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Tin House and in Best American Poetry and Best American Essays. Her contribution to the crime fiction anthology Staten Island Noir won the Robert L. Fish Award from the Mystery Writers of America for the best debut story of the year and was featured in the anthology Best American Mystery Stories.

Smith has collaborated with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Angel’s Pulse Dance Troupe, the Sage String Quartet and singer Meshell Ndegeocello; her one-woman show “Life After Motown,” was produced by Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott and performed in residency at the Trinidad Theater Workshop.

She is a Guggenheim fellow, finalist for the Neustadt Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts grant recipient, a two-time winner of the Pushcart Prize, a former fellow at Civitella Ranieri, Yaddo and MacDowell, and a four-time individual champion of the National Poetry Slam, the most successful poet in the competition’s history. Patricia is a professor at the College of Staten Island and in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College, as well as an instructor for Cave Canem, the annual VONA residency and in the Vermont College of Fine Arts Post-Graduate Writing Program.

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