Last month, we went to the AWP Conference in the Windy City, a place all too familiar to poet and Chicago native Patricia Smith, who saw the conference as a perfect opportunity to celebrate the launch of her brand new collection of poetry: Shoulda Been Jimi Savanah. On Friday, March 2nd, I was privileged to be at the Chicago Cultural Center for this party. Co-hosted and presented by Young Chicago Authors/Louder Than a Bomb, the Chicago teen poetry festival and organization that helps coach and mentor young poets, the event was one of the most well-attended and fun book parties I have been to.
The setting was perfect because Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah is all about Chicago: specifically, as seen through the eyes of people like Smith’s parents, who came up to Chicago from the South. In fact, between 1916 and 1970, more than a half a million African Americans left the south and migrated to Chicago in what is known as the Great Migration. In one of the first poetry collections told from the point of view of these Americans, Patricia Smith does what she does better than most: gets under the skin of her subjects and transforms their passion, history, and emotion into poetry.
After two readers from Louder Than a Bomb got the crowd warmed up, Patricia Smith read to a captivated crowd for an hour, an experience that really cannot be described. If you have ever heard anyone say that poetry readings are boring, you must get them to a Patricia Smith reading immediately for a wake-up call.
This is also her most personal book so when Patricia reads, “Otis and Annie, Annie and Otis” as she did at her launch party, she is actually speaking from the heart and soul of her parents. Here’s an excerpt from the poem, which follows her parent’s early courtship and years of struggle:
I go a little crazy at the way he say my name. He say, “Annie”
like it’s the first word he learned. So I feel his name, Otis,
in my mouth before it come out. Then I pull it out slow, and I see
his eyes get real wide like he about to outright praise his God
because of what I said and how I said it. Ain’t gon lie, chile,
that felt good. But I ain’t foolin’ myself—he ain’t everything I want.
Like me, he lookin’ for some kinda job, living in his one room, and I think
I might not be the only woman he talkin’ to. But he’ll do me right,
and I sho need some kinda strong man stand beside me in this city,
while I find me a church and someplace better to live, a real address
where folks from down home can find me when they take the bus up.
So I say, “I been watching you a long time.” That’s what I say.
Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah also gives us a glimpse into Patricia’s experience of being raised as an “up North” child under the spell of Motown music. This is an excerpt from “13 Ways of Looking at 13″:
In the bathroom of the what-not joint on the way to
school, you get rid of the starch and billowed lace, barrettes
taming unraveling braids, white kneesocks and sensible
hues. From a plastic bag, you take out electric blue
eye shadow, platforms with silver-glittered heels, neon
fishnets, and a blouse that doesn’t so much button as
snap shut. The transformation takes five minutes, and you
emerge feeling like a budding lady but looking,
in retrospect, like a blind streetwalker bursting from
a cocoon. This is what television does, turns your
mother into clueless backdrop, fills your pressed head with
the probability of thrum. Your body becomes
just not yours anymore. It’s a dumb little marquee.
Then, the party really got started. There was soul food, book signing—and a whole lot of dancing as you can see in the pictures below.
Like we said, Patricia Smith knows how to throw a party.—Tricia O’Reilly