Performances aside (for the moment), consider her literary accomplishments…
She’s the author of six collections of poetry: Life According to Motown (1991); Big Towns, Big Talk: Poems (1992); Close to Death (1993); Teahouse of the Almighty (2006); Blood Dazzler (2008); and Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012).
She’s working on a biography of Harriet Tubman, one of the best known “conductors” of the Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War.
Her poems have been anthologized in numerous publications, including The Oxford Anthology of African-American Poetry.
She’s written and performed two plays—both with a single character.
She’s a teacher, speaker and essayist. She contributed to and edited Staten Island Noir, which won an award from the Mystery Writers of America.
This is one of her poems. One can’t call it typical; Smith has no typical poems.
They Romp with Wooly Canines
and spy whole lifetimes on the undersides of leaves.
Jazz intrudes, stank clogging that neat procession
of lush and flutter. His eyes, siphoned and dimming,
demand that he accept ardor as it is presented, with
its tear-splashed borders and stilted lists, romance
that is only on the agenda because hours do not stop.
Bless his sliver of soul. He’s nabbed a sizzling matron
who grays as we watch, a thick-ankled New England
whoop, muscled to suffer his stifling missionary weight.
Earth-smudged behind the wheel of her pickup,
she hums a tune that rhymes dots of dinner trapped
in his beard with twilight. Is it still a collision course
if you must lie down to rest? Bless her as she tries
on his name for size and plucks hairs from her chin.
Bless him as he barrels toward yet another wife
who will someday realize, idly, that her only purpose
in this dwindling novella of his days is to someday
lower his heralded bulk, with little fanfare, into a grave.
She’s best known for her poetry performances. She’s won the National Poetry Slam four times and been featured on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. She’s performed in coffee houses, universities and concert halls. She doesn’t read her poetry; she performs it from memory, and she amazes as she pitches her expressions, gestures and body language into her words.
The performances are enthralling to watch. (There are a number of them available on YouTube, but the recording of several of them aren’t broadcast quality.) With the voice of authority and experience, Smith grabs hold of sense and sensibility and doesn’t let go, wringing out emotion, pain, and often anger. You feel these poems, and they can be a transformative experience.
Her performance of “Skinhead” is one example of the power of what she does with poetry (please note that it contains strong language). She is a distinctly American poet, coming from an American experience.
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