Patricia Smith has spent her life showing skeptics how entertaining poetry can be. The success of the Howell resident proves that it can also be lucrative.
Last week, Smith won the $ 100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a Lifetime Achievement Award that ranks among the most distinguished accolades in American poetry.
“It’s fantastic,” she said of the accolade. “I think the most exciting thing that turns me on the most is when it comes to poetry, I didn’t have the academic foundation that a lot of people think of with poetry. I learned about poetry by being on stage and doing it.
A four-time winner of the National Poetry Slam, an annual performance competition that began in 1990, Smith also won the Kingsley Tufts Prize for Poetry of $ 100,000 in 2018 for “Incendiary Art,” a collection of poems about the violent death of ‘Emmitt Till and other African American men and women.
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Another collection, “Blood Dazzler”, focused on the human and environmental toll of Hurricane Katrina.
The purpose of these tragedy-inspired works, Smith said, is “to fill a void we have in terms of teaching history.” Landmark events like Katrina and 9/11 are barely covered in textbooks, as a generation born after they took place begins entering college. She tries to impress this on students in her side job as a professor at Princeton University and Staten Island College.
“Patricia writes about things that are really necessary but heavy in society and she really encouraged me to go there too, to be courageous,” said former student Luke Johnson, a published poet. “My art really took off after that.”
But for Smith, a native of Chicago who has lived in Howell since 2009, the best way to communicate the power of poetry is through oral performance.
“You are trying to expand the community of poets,” she said. “How can I get people excited about poetry? “The first thing I do when writing a poem is think about the effect it will have on a live audience. It’s much better to hear poetry than to just sit and read it.
This notion was reinforced last January, when 22-year-old Amanda Gorman became sensational overnight after reciting her poem “The Hill We Climb” during Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration.
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“Amanda Gorman, she too came from a performance background,” said Smith. “So many people who had deleted poetry or never thought about it saw this and got interested. They expected someone to buzz for three minutes. The fact that she put so much life into it made people wonder what else is going on. “
What else is going on with Smith now that she has an unexpected $ 100,000? A few home improvement projects, maybe, and maybe a collaboration with musicians on a favorite subject: the Chicago blues and dance club scene of the 1970s.
One way or another, his tendency to expand the audience for poetry will continue.
Jerry Carino is a community columnist for Asbury Park Press, focusing on the interesting people of the Jersey Shore, inspiring stories and pressing issues. Contact him at [email protected]