More on Patricia Smith!

I suppose the time has come and gone (or at least shifted) from our focus on Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith. However, I have been moved by her words ever since, particularly those of “Katrina” and “11 A.M., Wednesday, August 24, 2005,” in which Smith personifies Hurricane Katrina. This led to our classes’ exploration on the significance of naming. I’ll admit, I’m a huge poetry nerd, and since then, I’ve even been inspired by Smith to write several different poems on names and origins.

Not too long ago, my Creative Writing professor, Professor Abonado, noticed me walk into office hours with a copy of Blood Dazzler, which led to a discussion about how brilliant Patricia Smith is, as well as our favorite poems written by her.  Professor Abonado asked me if I had watched any videos of Smith performing (In the context of Joseph Roach’s Echoes in the Bone, there is literally a performer, an audience, and a stage.) her poetry live, and he was shocked when I said I hadn’t. He urged me to watch some of her videos as soon as I could  because of how powerful they are.

Fortunately, I took his advice and watched some performances on YouTube, particularly this one , in which Smith reads “34” from Blood Dazzler, a poem about “the 34 nursing home residents who were left behind to die” during Hurricane Katrina. In her introduction she says, “What I tried to do was turn the clock back just a few seconds and give each one of those 34 people a minute of their voice back.” Smith then goes on to perform all 34 stanzas, each in a distinct tone, volume, rhythm, and accent to reflect each individual that died. She goes from slow whispers to actually yelling at some points, speaking in anger (“15.”), heartache (“5.”), and hopelessness (“9.”), just to reference a few.  Smith’s attempt to immortalize the victim’s voices is indeed just as powerful and moving as Professor Abonado suggested. Throughout the video I kept hearing Beth say, “When you were moved, remember it was done as a work of art” in my head! I would HIGHLY recommend watching/listening to all of it. (Here it is again !) It almost reminded me of the picture frames in the ending credits of Spike Lee’s documentary, When the Levees Broke. Both the poetry and credits are works of art, a snapshot of time, and an attempt to preserve (even just a little) of the identities or stories of the people of New Orleans during this time.

While researching more on Smith, I came across an interview she did with Sampsonia Way, an online literary magazine, back in 2012.  In the interview, she briefly discusses the origins of Blood Dazzler, and recalls an incident where she performed “34” for a live audience at a poetry festival in Florida. She said she noticed a woman  in the audience”fidgeting” during the reading, so after she approached the woman and asked her if the performance bothered her at all. Smith recalls the woman responded, “Well they had Mardi Gras, didn’t they?” Smith then goes on to say (about the incident), “This happened at the stage some people were really tired about hearing of Katrina. They saw this false deity Mardi Gras on CNN and thought they could let it go…” “… There are a lot of people who just want to file it away, they’ve seen enough.” This, to me, is so heart-breaking.  

It made me cycle way back to Roach and his description of “performed effigies” and how they are treated. He says (of these effigies), “those fabricated from human bodies and the associations they evoke-provide communities with a method of perpetuating themselves through specially nominated mediums or surrogates.” (Page 36)  He describes these performers as “ostracized and undervalued.” (Page 40) In this case, Patricia Smith stepped into the role of an effigy and her and her message in “34” were both ostracized and undervalued. Certain audience members didn’t want to reminded of/bothered by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. From Smith’s interview, it seems like this woman in particular was sick of hearing about it, and wanted to “move on.” Apparently, Mardi Gras celebrations on CNN are enough to fool some and make them believe it was fine to move on and forget about Katrina. In the interview, Smith concluded with, “So I decided to keep writing. I thought there was a danger that Hurricane Katrina was going to disappear…” “… I thought it would be great if someone could pick up this book, 10 years from now and say, “That’s right. Katrina happened.”

As a side note, there’s an interview on YouTube of Patricia Smith discussing Katrina and Blood Dazzler, that I was really hoping to get to in this blog post, but I feel as though this post might be a lot already, and might also be a bit messy (if so, I apologize!). The interview was very interesting, so maybe in the next blog post? I am incredibly grateful that my professor noticed my copy of Blood Dazzler, because it led to such an enlightening conversation, and I’ve been learning more ever since!

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