music, poetry

how a white girl came to love motown (and what that has to do with Patricia Smith’s poetry)

When I was growing up, the car stereo was controlled by the person driving. My mother favored Whitney Houston and Ronnie Milsap, and my father’s musical taste included a sprinkling of rock from the 1960s and 70s. Both of them, though, delivered a healthy dose Motown. My brother and I considered ourselves lucky to have such a funny party trick: among our friends, we were the fastest to identify a Supremes song just from the first few bars; the only ones who could sing along to entire songs by the Drifters, the Temptations, and more. From those early years of riding in my dad’s truck and my mom’s car, listening to Van Morrison, Iron Butterfly, Smokey Robinson, The Four Tops, and the Supremes, I brought into my adulthood a deep and abiding love of “Oldies.” In the last handful of years, I have started to really dig in to the catalogs of Motown and Soul, and now my iTunes library finds Amanda Palmer and PJ Harvey hanging out next to Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Bill Withers and Curtis Mayfield.

This is only one of many reasons why I found Patricia Smith’s reading in Fanwood last night so exciting. Her new book, titled Shoulda Been Jimmie Savannah, is due out in Spring 2012, and began as a sort of love letter to Motown. But, as she mentioned at the start of her reading last night, she realized fairly quickly that the poems she was writing were about more—much more—than Motown. This book, in its current form, is a memoir, exploring the family’s move from the South to the West Side of Chicago. As Patricia said last night, “I realized it was a book about being the first generation raised in the North.” After a not-too-lengthy intro, she launched into a reading that seemed to come entirely from the new book (which was just fine with me, because dear Lord these poems are GOOD).

I tried to keep a sort of set list, jotting down poem titles and lines as they struck me. I’m not sure how successful I was, but here are a few notes:

13 Ways of Looking at 13:
(Born from an assignment Patricia gave to her writing class – write a poem about being 13 that is 13 stanzas/parts long; each part must have 13 lines, and each line must have 13 syllables.) The poem moves through so many aspects of being a 13-year-old girl – the first period (“You’re convinced the boys can smell you. And they can.”); being aware for the first time of the loss of control of one’s own sexuality (“Suddenly you know why you are stitched so tight”); acne; exploring language for the first time; learning that you will come into your own (“You’ll need to give your hips a name for what they did when you weren’t there”). I’d heard this poem in Cape May in January; it was no less powerful this time around.

About her mother’s reaction to her hair falling out in the 3rd grade. Highlight of the poem, for me, was the turn at the end, with “My whole slice of sky started to hurt.”

Poem about Richard Speck (didn’t catch the title on this one):
Oh so freaking creepy. “They were my first dead girls.”

Why A Colored Girl Will Slice You If You Talk Wrong About Motown:
Originally saw this published online in Granta; loved it in person last night. “And damned if they didn’t begin every one of their songs with the same word. Girl.” In that moment, Patricia captured for me every chill I ever felt at 17 when Mike Fox called me “Girl” instead of “Rachel.”

Open Letter poem (again, didn’t get full title):
This was a gripping poem in 3 amazing parts about, as she put it, “loving a white boy.” Pretty much the entire poem can be packed into one line: “to push those colors back inside the lines.” Of course, if you try to put it all into that single line, you’ll miss the beauty of this poem, which nearly had me in tears. And you’ll probably also miss some of the more subtle text of the poem, in which she examines the dichotomy of existence that each of us lives: who we are at home vs. who we are at school, work, etc. It was heartbreaking and beautiful.

The Riverview Amusement Park poem (again, no title):
This is another one I heard in Cape May. It made me sick to my stomach then, and did the same for me last night. And I mean that as a compliment.

Patricia closed the reading with a Q&A session, which was unusually engaging. She was candid and receptive to questions, and watching her talk about the classes she’s teaching was a delight. There was a moment of brief but intelligent dialogue on the frustration of being labeled in a specific way (“black, female writer – I know what she’s gonna read”), on the desire vs. the need to write; an offhand comment referencing Anthony Weiner and the enduring quality of life on the internet. I could have listened to her talk all night.

One of the reasons I find myself so drawn to Patricia’s work is how easily she breaks down what are seemingly impenetrable boundaries. She’s writing as a straight, black woman who grew up on the West Side of Chicago in the era of dreamy-eyed Motown. I’m reading as a queer, white girl who grew up in a middle-class suburb in New Jersey in the era of whiny college rock and grunge music. And yet, I feel like Patricia’s poems are a telling of my own experiences.

In “Why a Colored Girl Will Slice You,” when she read the line about how Smokey Robinson “slow-sketched pictures of our husbands,” I thought YES. I felt it too, remembering how I thought every boyfriend I had in high school should have been just like Smokey, pretending to be happy when in fact he was sad because we weren’t together anymore.

And in the Open Letter poem about loving a white boy, the thrill and agony of sneaking around to be together felt like she was speaking for every queer kid—the same thrill and agony of learning how to love and be loved, touch and be touched, outside the lines of what is considered “appropriate,” the same risk, the same tension.

And too, even the Riverview poem (that last part of which, by the way, is the image of a black man trying to block his little girl from seeing the dunk tank at the amusement park midway – the girl manages to see it anyway, and the poem ends on her sounding out the words “Dunk a Nigger”), with it’s absolutely captivating and horrifying final image, manages to provoke in a listener (like me) the sense of being a target. Of being a joke. Of being nothing and everything at the same time.

Another reason I love the work is in the performance. Patricia is a poet who puts her entire body into the poem. Her energy is strong and aggressive and you better be paying attention, dammit, because she is not fucking around. And I love that.

And then it was after 10 p.m., and the reading was suddenly over. Patricia was overrun with other excited listeners, and though I wanted to say hello and tell her how impressed I was, once again, with her reading, I decided to sneak out and head for the turnpike instead. I often worry about approaching featured poets after the reading; everyone seems to want to talk to them (understandably), and my views on that are a little cynical. I worry that it’s taking too much from a person: here Patricia had just spent a good 90 minutes releasing  a furious storm over us, talking about things that can’t be easy to confront in public, in front of strangers, with such grace and good humor. How could I ask for more?

I was like a fist unclenching all the way home.

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