Life, Poems and Family With New York Times Best Seller Clint SmithEpisode 30
Renowned poet, educator and author Clint Smith joins Writing Black to talk about his latest work “Above Ground.” Smith discuses how his poems explore the intersections of family, race, social justice and personal identity. Maiysha and Clint have a candid conversation about his family and his fascination with Cicadas. Smith discusses his creative process and the challenges he faces when exploring the different facets of his book
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[00:00:00] You are now listening to theGrio’s Black Podcast Network. Black Culture Amplified.
Maiysha Kai [00:00:08] Welcome back to Writing Black. I’m your host, Maiysha Kai, lifestyle editor of theGrio. And this week we have a really fantastic as I’ve interviewed him before, he’s always so great to talk to about the craft of writing. And what I love most about this guest, Clint Smith, is his work across genres. You know, you may know him from his writing as a staff writer for The Atlantic. You may know him from his number one bestseller, How the Word Is Passed, a Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, which was not only a number one New York Times bestseller, but also the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction. And it really was dominating book lists in 2021. And his latest book takes him back to his roots in poetry, which is Above Ground Poems by Clint Smith. This is out at the end of March. And Clint, it is such a pleasure to be talking with you again. Thank you for joining us here on Writing Black.
Clint Smith [00:01:08] So good to be back with you again.
Maiysha Kai [00:01:11] I’m thrilled. You know, this book of poems is so special, and I think for good reason. Like, this is a book that to me. As much as How the Word is Passed trace to your own kind of origin stories alongside America. As you know, you being a son of Louisiana, son in New Orleans specifically, and really taking us through these sites of of these major racial reckonings across America, Above Ground is something that is both different and the same and is deeply intimate. It is very reflective of the life that you were living at home. I think it’s such a beautiful glimpse into interior life. And a lot of these poems about are about your children, about your your wife, about fatherhood. And I would love to hear you tell me what the impetus was for the inspiration behind Above Ground.
Clint Smith [00:02:10] Yeah, you know, it’s interesting. I guess there are a couple ways to answer that question. So I’m always writing poems. You know, poems are part of me. I’m always writing poems because they are. In both the creation of art, but also the mechanism through which I do my best thinking.
[00:02:27] My brother is 70 months younger than me, but is taller and knows more about numbers, so it doesn’t always feel like this is true. My sister is 24 years of loyal and eight years a best friend. I’m the oldest of three, but maybe the most naive. I still believe that we can build this world into something new, some place where I can live past 25 and it’s not a cause for celebration. Because these days I celebrate every breath trying to start counting them. So I wouldn’t take each one for granted. I wish I could give my breath to the boys who have had this taken. But I stopped counting because it feels like there are too many boys and I don’t know if breath to go around.
Clint Smith [00:03:00] Like poetry is the act of paying attention. For me, it helps me look at the world more intentionally, more proactively, more thoughtfully. And so much of what I’ve been observing about the world has been through the prism of fatherhood over the last several years. I have a almost six year old and I just turned four year old. And so we are we are in the thick of it. We’ve been in the thick of it for the past few years. And and part of what these poems are. Is an attempt to capture. An archive. These moments and these images and these ideas with my kids and in the world that surrounds my kids, the world that surrounds all of us. And it’s also sort of attempting to wrestle with and hold the simultaneity of parenthood in the sense that it is often the most joyous, most wondrous, most inspiring thing you’ve ever done. And at the same time is the most exhausting, the most difficult, the most fear inducing.
Clint Smith [00:04:11] And it is the thing that both shows you parts of yourself that you love and parts of yourself that you don’t love. And I’m interested always in this sort of simultaneity of the human experience. How we experience the emotional texture of our lives alongside one another, the differing emotional texture of our lives, one alongside one another, and that these aren’t things that can be compartmentalized, like you’ll be pushing your kid in a swing at the park and then get a phone call about a loved one being diagnosed with a terminal illness. Or you will be having dinner with your family and laughing at the dinner table while you know a family at a dinner table halfway across the world is being killed in a drone attack. Right. And so I’m interested in it in a geopolitical context. I’m interested in it in internal, in an interpersonal context. But yeah, I’m always fascinated by how we hold the sort of dialectic realities of our lives alongside one another. Because I think that is what it means to be human, right to experience joy and despair and love and pain all at once.
Maiysha Kai [00:05:29] Yeah. You know, and I would agree. I mean, you know, reading aboveground these poems, first of all, you know, I think and I want to talk more about this later in our conversation, but I think the thing that, you know, for me about poetry and maybe this because I’m a former songwriter, you know, this idea of having to or trying to really capture a moment in, you know, an economy of words, in an economy just in terms of the format and the space. And, um, what I loved about it, I found it to be and this is the phrase that comes to me right now, deliciously human. Like it felt so, um, visceral in a good way. And, you know, in ways that made me cry, you know, and and I’m proud to say I cry over a lot of books that I write. The fact that I cried over this one, you know, because it just, you know, my heart, I was like, oh, my heart. You know, because I think that that is a very specific talent to be able to capture some some aspect of the human experience that on one hand is mundane. You know, it’s kind of, you know, there’s legions of parents, there’s legions of humans. But there’s also catching something that is so specific and and magical and really pulls us into that everyday magic that a lot of us kind of take for granted and overlook. And so I personally wanted to thank you for that, because I think that, you know, even not being a parent, I was very drawn into those little moments, those little glimpses of what humans, what magic humans can create. If that makes sense.
Clint Smith [00:07:05] Thank you for saying that. And it’s. What’s true is that, like I have so many poems that I’ve written over the course of the past several years about the world, about my kids, about my kids in the world, and in about 70 of them have ended up in the book. And so it is the case that, you know, I am trying to these poems are time capsules, you know, and trying to to hold on to these these moments that, as you mention, like otherwise can feel mundane or repetitive or the sort of moments that you can take for granted. And poetry for me is the way that I try to ensure that I don’t take it for granted. And that’s not to say I’m perfect. It’s not to say that, like, you know, I’m not trying to misrepresent this and be like I’m the most present parent all the time. 24 seven Like always, my phone is always on the other side of the room and I’m all what you might. It’s not it, but this is one of the ways that I attempted to. It’s almost like poems hold me accountable in some way, right? So if I have a poem about, you know, I have a poem about the making French toast with my kids on Sunday mornings, which is a tradition that began with my dad, like my dad would make French toast with us and I would make French toast my kids. And I think it would be easy to take for granted something that happens every single week or something that happens on this regular basis, something that sometimes is like very messy and elegant and, you know, sometimes somebody breaks the egg and the eggs all over the floor, you know, whatever. I think.
Maiysha Kai [00:08:53] Or you burn the bread.
Clint Smith [00:08:56] Like the fire alarm is going off and the fire, you know, the firefighters show up and I’m in my you know, in my pajamas. It’s. I think that the process of writing a poem about that experience and the process of sort of excavating the the specificity and the granularity of those moments. Makes me more. In its own way makes me more fully appreciative of them and makes me understand how even though it feels, it is something that can feel like, Oh, you know, we do this every week, we do this all the time. There’s only a short amount of time in the scope, you know, in the scope of our lives, which are hopefully long, that like you making French toast with your children exist in the way that it does, right? Because you’re going to, you know, blink and they’ll be teenagers and they’ll be like, I’m not trying to make French toast with you, man. And like, I’m going to I’m going to brunch, you know? So, yeah, I think the poems remind me how special the moments are when I’m at risk of forgetting myself.
Maiysha Kai [00:10:04] I love that. I love I love the granularity of it. I think that’s something I want to talk about a little bit further when we’re going to do that. When we come back in just a minute with more Writing Black and more Clint Smith. All right. We are back with more Writing Black and Clint Smith, who you may recognize from across mediums, including his 2021 bestseller, How the Word is Passed. He’s back with a new book of poems Above Ground, which I am an instant fan. It’s a beautiful book, just really beautiful. And again, you know, we were just talking about like the granularity of the human experience that we don’t always think into when life does seem to go very fast. And you then have these moments, I don’t know, for me, at least I do, where I’m like, Oh my God, wake up. It’s happening. Like it’s happening right now. Yeah. Oh, look, it’s happening, all right. Are you. You recall that moment that you maybe missed before, right? Like, while it was happening, It was just whatever it was, you know, like, I lived for 24 years in New York City, and those were, you know, from college. And that was a very formative time in my life. And now I look back and I realize that things I remember things like walking down some street and like on like the Lower East Side or, you know, how I felt on this one day. And I do think that, like one thing that you pointed out is that poetry is kind of the perfect medium for kind of capturing those moments and making sure we don’t take them for granted. And I would love to ask you. You know, there are a lot of people who don’t get poetry right. They don’t they don’t understand it. And sometimes it feels overly obtuse or inaccessible to people. But what do you think the people. I guess that two part question that people maybe get wrong about poetry and what they can get from poetry.
Clint Smith [00:11:56] Yeah, it’s a great question. I think that part of the problem stems from. The way that we’re taught to read poetry as kids coming up in school, I think we’re taught about poetry as if it’s. Like a geometric proof or or a puzzle or a code that we’re supposed to unlock or solve. And I don’t think that that’s how poems are meant to be read. A poem is a piece of art. And I think it’s about how that poem or how a specific line in a poem or a specific word in poem, how it makes you feel. You know, it’s interesting from my first book, Counting Descent, I’m very fortunate that it’s been, you know, a lot of teachers teach it in their high schools, even some in their middle schools. And and so I regularly have a lot of like a lot of high school students slide into my Instagram DMs and, like, ask me questions about their homework. They’re like, What is the cicada mean, Mr. Smith? Like, what is the what is the symbolism of the of the cathedral?
Maiysha Kai [00:12:55] You do have a thing about cicadas.
Clint Smith [00:12:58] What you’re talking about. I love a cicada. You probably see Cicadas in all of my books. Those are my, that’s my bud right there. the cicada. But it’s interesting because like it and I always tell them this not is a cop out, but like, it doesn’t matter really like what my intention was in writing a line or using a specific imagery. It’s less about what I intended for it to be and more about how you, how you understood it, how you received it, right. It’s the same with any form of like a thousand people can look at the same painting and see a thousand different things. A thousand people can look at the same photograph and take away a thousand different things. A thousand people can read a poem and have a thousand different things. I was just doing a had a conversation with a guy just yesterday for an interview for this book, and he was talking about one of the poems in the book. And he was like, It was so fascinating to read a poem about X, Y, Z. And in my head I’m like, That is not at all what my and like what I thought the poem was about. But I thought but I think that that is so amazing that you can have a person that I can write the poem intending it to be one thing, and then somebody else can read it and see something completely different. And that both of those are legitimate. Like, that doesn’t mean that his interpretation is wrong. It means that his life and his experience and his sensibilities and his identity have been shaped the way that he consumes art and and his, you know, experiences are in conversation with the art that he engages with, which means he comes away with a different meaning than you might or than I might or somebody else might.
[00:14:39] And so I say all that to say, because poems are about how they make you feel. And with so but with all that said, I do, I think. I think poetry is also like any other form of art where there are different ways of creating it. And some are more abstract, some lean into a certain level of complexity. Some lean into a certain sort of metaphysical sort of set of ideas that aren’t meant to be understood in a concrete way. And then some are more legible and some are more narrative and some are more concrete. I mean, it’s the that I don’t think that poetry is unique in that, but I think that sometimes the poems were taught or the poems we are exposed to and the way we’re taught to engage those poems make it feel as if poetry is like a complex, obtuse, inaccessible art form. When there are some poems like that. But I think there are also lots of poems that and poets that write in different ways. And it’s again, it’s not to say that, like any way is more legitimate or illegitimate than another, the same way that in painting, like abstract art is not more or less legitimate than impressionistic arts or then landscape art or that, you know, it’s just everybody has a different way of seeing the world and and and depicting the world. And I think it’s the same thing with poetry. So I sometimes people give up on poetry after there’s been like a few poets or a few poems they don’t understand. But but I think there’s a lot of poets out there and a lot of poems out there that they would that they would rock with. It’s just a matter of finding the right folks.
[00:16:27] Every year, my students read Night by Elie Wiesel following completion of the novel, I saw in them the task of writing their own memoir. Maria came to America when she was five years old, wrote that she had to cross the river before she ever knew what it meant to swim. Ran through knee high grass as if the field were made of landmines, hid under the belly of trucks amid concrete and fertilizers so as not to leave a scent for the dogs. She did not know why she was running, but she knew that her mother cried every night for her father. She knew she was beginning to forget the outline of her daddy’s face. She knew that he worked 18 hours a day just to provide them with food they could barely find at home. She knew that he loved her.
Maiysha Kai [00:17:10] And I think you I think to your point, you know, just like any kind of work of, you know, whether it’s narrative, you know, fiction or nonfiction. Yeah, it’s all about style, right? It’s I mean, same with music. I mean, that poetry and music are right there. Brother and sister. We’re going to talk more about that in a second. And we’ll be back with more Writing Black. Okay. And we are back with more Writing Black. One of the things I think is so powerful about above ground is, is that particular dichotomy, this wonder of childhood that so many of us lose touch with as we get older and you kind of bring us back to it through these everyday moments of rediscovering the world through your children, but also having a very adult understanding of exactly the world that we are in at this moment and, and, you know, concerned about its longevity. Are you concerned about its, you know, everything about it? I would love to hear you talk about that reckoning. You know, when it comes to you know, you alluded to earlier, but this this this really faithful act of child rearing. Right. You know, wanting children, having children, you know, being strategic about having them. You talk about, you know, something I think is very real for a lot of people in our audience, which is, you know, even the act of bringing a child into the world is can be very fraught. It can be very frightening. You know, you and your wife had to advocate for her as you were trying to have your children and then to also be bringing them into this place. And it really is, to me, an act of faith. So can we talk about. Yeah.
Clint Smith [00:18:51] Yeah, it’s.
Maiysha Kai [00:18:52] Okay.
Clint Smith [00:18:54] The poem you’re alluding to in part is the the poem about my my wife’s complications during and all of our pregnancies. My wife, we both my kids were induced. My wife was induced, but my kids came in several weeks early. My daughter was in the NICU and and the entire process felt so uncertain and so precarious. That was compounded by the fact that we when we prior to even getting pregnant, we would have been told by a physician, by multiple physicians that my wife didn’t have enough eggs in her uterus to have children, that we have less than a 1% chance that we didn’t even have enough eggs to do IVF retrieval. And so there was a initially and this was about a year into us being together. And so there was this sort of beginning of the process of mourning, a life that we have begun to imagine together, mourning the loss of a life that we’ve begun to imagine together, and then recalibrating to consider like, well, okay, people construct families in different ways all the time. Right. And not one not one is not more or less legitimate than another. So they recalibrating, but then also deciding to try and then being successful in trying. But then because of all the previous news, we’ve gotten to feeling the whole process of pregnancy, feeling so uncertain, feeling so, so fragile. [00:20:33]And then the process of being a Black woman, you know, going through pregnancy, which, you know, at this point where we’ve had so many books and so many articles and so many stories that have talked about the ways that Black women experience. [13.7s]
Maiysha Kai [00:20:47] [00:20:47]And it’s not getting better. [1.9s]
Clint Smith [00:20:50] [00:20:50]It was just a story that just came out just a few days. [2.2s]
Maiysha Kai [00:20:52] [00:20:52]Yesterday, I read it. [0.7s]
Maiysha Kai [00:20:53] [00:20:53]Yeah. [0.0s]
Maiysha Kai [00:20:53] [00:20:53]Absolutely. Yes. [0.8s]
Clint Smith [00:20:55] [00:20:55]And you know, that that Black women are three times more likely to to die in childbirth, that Black children are far more likely to to die in infancy. You know, the list goes on and on. And and so many of these studies demonstrate that this happens regardless of one’s socioeconomic status, regardless of one’s educational background and the experience that very directly. And so it was one thing to sort of understand that intellectually or hear it in an NPR story or read it in The New York Times. It was another thing to be in the room and to see your wife. To see my wife ignored. To see her pain ignored or to see her concerns not taken seriously. And in how, but for her own advocacy, you know, largely on her behalf and in her insistence like, no, this is not. You are not going to tell me that what is happening to me is not real. That our children may not have made it into the world or that something might have happened to her. [64.6s] And so I wanted to write into that space [00:22:03]because parenthood is it is this thing that is like it’s the dance parties in the kitchen with your kids. It’s the French toast on Sunday mornings. It’s like listening to Maze and Frankie Beverly and showing your kids how your parents would dance and then being like, That’s that’s terrible dancing. I’m like, You dance like the octopus. Like, what are you talking about? It’s. It is. It’s all. It’s all the joy. It’s like watching kids smell flowers for the first time is watching your kids go down a slide for the first time. And it is the fragility and the uncertainty and the fear that comes with attempting to bring a kid into the world and then having a kid in the world. And for Black parents in particular, thinking about, you know, what we all know to be true about the the sense of precariousness, of having Black children grow into Black adults. And like how you both communicate the reality of the world to your child while also not wanting them to feel tethered or anchored or limited by the, uh, the history that has informed our contemporary society. It’s all about finding a balance. [75.5s]
Maiysha Kai [00:23:20] Yeah. How do you teach caution without, you know, them moving through the world in fear, which is a very, very real thing. We’re going to talk about that more when we come back to more Clint Smith and more Writing Black. We are back with more Riding Black and our guest today, Clint Smith, who is one of my favorite authors. You know. Clint, we were talking earlier about your this you know, I hate to call it a break. It’s not it’s not really a breakthrough book. But I think the book that a.
Clint Smith [00:23:49] We can call it breakthrough.
Maiysha Kai [00:23:52] I mean, you’ve been writing for a long time, so I didn’t want to say anything insulting.
Clint Smith [00:23:56] That is what it is.
Maiysha Kai [00:23:56] Everybody has that moment, right? You know what, everybody doesnt, and I should say. But as a creative, you know, a lot of people might know you for How the Word is Passed, which is this really incredible. You know, we’re talking about excavating things, but this really incredible excavation of American history as you traveled through these really prominent sites in which American history, particularly Black American history, has taken place, these pivotal places. And some of it makes its way into your newest book, aboveground. You know, through some poems, I definitely recognize some reference references there from having spent a lot of time with how the word is passed. And I can only imagine that you were writing some of these poems while you were also researching that book. But a lot of history makes it into this book, both, you know, genealogical history from your own family, your wife’s family, and also, you know, kind of Black American history. And I my sense was that you were trying to give us a context in which, you know, just what we were talking about a moment ago of the world in which you were now raising children and that a lot of people are raising children. A lot of us are living our lives and. Can we talk a little bit about research and kind of bringing history to the page and how that kind of works for you both in this space and obviously in your other work as a journalist and also as a an author of nonfiction?
Clint Smith [00:25:27] Yeah, I am always thinking about history. I’m always interested in history.
[00:25:32] George Washington When you won the revolution, how many of your soldiers did you send to the battlefield, to the cotton field? How many had to trade in their rifles for plows? Can you blame the slaves who ran away to fight for the British? Because at least the Redcoats were honest about their oppression. Thomas Jefferson, when you told Sally Hemings that you would free her children if were a major mistress, did you think there was honor in your ultimatum? Did you think we wouldn’t be able to recognize the assault in your signature just raping your slave, when you disguise it as bribery, make it less of a crime?
Clint Smith [00:26:01] There are very concrete ways in which many of the themes and subject matter that I’m that I’m excavating in how the word is passed show up in above ground. And that’s in part because these are quite things that are things I’m always thinking about, and in part because, as you said, I wrote a lot of this book at the same time that I was writing How the Word is passed. I wrote this book over the course of, you know, from when my wife first got pregnant, which was September of 2016. And so, you know, I’ve written these poems over the course of the past several years, sometimes, you know, some years more, more poems than others. But so as I was going to plantations and prisons and monuments and memorials and museums and, you know, all across the country to sort of understand how slavery is remembered or misremembered, I was also writing, you know, I was also becoming a father at the same time, like when the Confederate statues came down in New Orleans. That was the same month my son was born in May of 2017. And so the the catalyst for the very project happened at the same time as my life was experiencing this this enormous shift. And so, you know, there’s a poem specifically about standing in the cabin at the Willie Plantation.
Clint Smith [00:27:28] And I always remember this moment because when I was taught about slavery and we might have talked about this in our previous conversation a couple of years ago, but when I was taught about slavery, I was always taught about it through the when I was taught about the horror of it, it was through the sort of spectacle of physical brutality. It was the beatings, it was the whippings, it was the hangings. It was the physical torture that was enacted on Black bodies. Yeah, I didn’t I can’t say I wasn’t taught, but I didn’t fully understand the other part of it in the context of family separation and fear. And in part because I didn’t have my own children and so I didn’t really understand. I wasn’t old enough maybe to understand the emotional stakes of it. [00:28:13]And I remember going into this cabin at the Winnie Plantations cabin that had been there for hundreds of years that enslaved people themselves had lived in and stepping inside. And you you step in and it’s, you know, this cabin made from the wood cut down from cypress trees and hear the wooden planks moan under your feet as you walk through. You see the sun sort of slide through the cracks in the roof and slide onto your cheek. You look down and you see the space where, you know, enslaved families, multiple and slave families would have lived. I did this thought exercise where I close my eyes and I tried to imagine what it would be like. If I put my kids to sleep one night, I woke up the next day and my children were gone and I had no idea where they went. I had no idea it would taken them. I had no idea if I would ever see them again. I mean, it’s in and it’s an unfathomable sort of horror and cruelty to even imagine. Then you have this moment where you realize that this was the omnipresent threat that millions of enslaved people lived under every single day of their lives, that at any moment they could be taken from their loved ones, from their parents, from their children, from their brother, from their sister, from their grandparents, from their entire community. And part of what I’m beginning to think about was how my life is only possible and my children’s lives are only possible, because of generations of people who struggled against that reality. And fought for freedom. Even if they knew, they wouldn’t have a chance to experience it for themselves. And that me, the dancing with my kids in the kitchen and me making French toast with my kids that me going to the park with my kids, that me chasing my kids in the backyard, that those moments are only possible because of these people who fought for something they knew they might never see, but they fought for to make it possible for me. [109.5s]
Clint Smith [00:30:03] And so what I wanted this book in part to be was a reflection of what was made possible by so much of what I was exploring in the previous book, and also something that reflected the expansiveness of of the Black experience, which is to say like, I wrote an entire book about slavery. So I take seriously what it means to to understand and to engage with and to to mine the past and to understand the way that the history of violence, oppression and cruelty has shaped the Black experience over the course of generations. And I know that that is not what singularly defines our community. That is not what singularly defines our people. Like that’s far more expensive than that. Far more robust than that. Far more joyful than that. And I wanted to write into those spaces as well, because when my kids read this book, however many years from now, I want them to see both the history of struggle and what was made possible by the struggle. I want them to see, to understand a sense of, understand the violence that was enacted on their ancestors and to understand that with their lives, the possibilities for their own lives are only limited by their imaginations. And I think that that’s something that a lot of Black parents and people around young Black children, regardless of if you’re a parent or not, are always trying to hold those two things.
Maiysha Kai [00:31:38] I love that. We’re going to be right back in another second with more Clint Smith and more Writing Black. We’re back with our guests today, Clint Smith, and more Writing Black. And, you know, Clint has written this gorgeous book of poems Above Ground. You know, we were just talking about you know, you talk a lot about parallels. You talk about we’ve talked about that in this conversation. You talk about them in the book. I mean, one of two of my favorite poems in this book. And I really loved the poems, that’s saying a lot. There’s a poem about your mother in law where you talk about language and words that, you know, have this double meaning and then, you know, and it’s a motif you kind of revisit through these poems. And another one being talking about Stevie Wonder’s, you know, the MLK anthem, Happy Birthday, which all Black people that I know have adopted, as you know, the birthday song for all occasions, that the tradition is what we do. But, you know, talking about this idea of of both fighting for liberation and holding joy at the same time, and that that is something that we are particularly skilled in, which I thank you for, because I think that that’s so such an important reminder. And as you also pointed out, you know, when we talk about our experience in the world right now as African-Americans, you know, particularly those of us who have some mobility, understanding, who made that possible and how that’s possible is so, so vital. But I do want to go back to another motif that is a big one for you. We said we were going to talk about it, which is the cicadas, you know, and I would dare I ask that Above Ground is also in reference to the the cicadas that you. Please explain.
Clint Smith [00:33:33] So, you know, cicadas, they show up a lot in my in my psyche. I just think that they are such a fascinating it’s like the one of the most fascinating, if not the most fascinating life cycle of any any creature in the natural world. I mean, you know, they’re the skaters that live underground for 17 years. And then on the 17th year, they like come they come out of there and they mate and they die. And and it’s just so fascinating. And it’s interesting to think about the way that that sort of metaphor shows up differently at different points in my life. In I have a poem about a cicada in my debut book Counting Decent, which came out in 2016. And that book is thinking a lot about coming of age as a young Black person in America, thinking a lot about it’s written in the midst of the sort of early days of the Black Lives Matter movement, when the way it felt like there was the omnipresent image or video footage of Black people being killed at the hands of the state or vigilante and. And the cicada. In that context, he’s thinking about, I have a poem, what the cicada said to the Black Boy, which is a part of a suite of poems in which a non-human objects or or animals are talking to a Black child and either instilling advice or warning or it was a sort of one of the things that serves as the anchor of the project. And and I’m interested in the the ways that the life cycle of the cicada could be in conversation with the hopes that Black children would make it past 17 into adulthood.
[00:35:23] I’ve seen what they make of you, how they render you a multiplicity of mistakes. They have undone me as well, pulled back my shell and feasted on my flesh. Claimed it was for their survival. And they wonder why I only show my face every 17 years. But you. You’re lucky if they let you live that long. I could teach you some things you know. Have been playing this game since before you knew what breath was. This here is prehistoric. Why you think we fly? Why you think we roll pacts? You think these swarms are for the fun of it? I would tell you that you don’t roll deep enough, but every time you swarm, they shoot. Get you some wings, son. Get you some wings.
Maiysha Kai [00:36:09] Wow.
Clint Smith [00:36:09] And and so that’s kind of what that poem is, is thinking about. And then in this copy, in this book, you know, my the cicadas came. Yes. This will be will last year or a year and a half ago. I’m up here in Maryland. And so they were very present and they were very loud. My kids were four and two when they came in. I just remember this sense of wonder both. Well, it was fear at first because my kids came outside and they were like, What is this? Like, What are all these bugs on the ground? And because there’s cicada shells and exoskeleton like everywhere, you know. And then the one then then when we kind of went out and I showed them that, like cicadas don’t bite. Like cicadas are you know, they just are kind of they like to fly around, crawl around. And then they started collecting the cicadas, the cicada shells, like they were like they were sort of treasure. And they put them in their buckets and they were trying to see who could capture the most. And I remember watching this moment, I mean, like the next time these cicadas come, the next time this species of cicada come, my kids will be 21 and 19. Interesting. It just, for me, captured this moment. Of how, how fleeting some little moments of parenthood are. Right? That I will never again see my children see cicadas for the first time. I think it can just be very easy to take those moments for granted. Kind of like what we were talking about at the beginning. And I. I do. And I’m not perfect at it again. Like, you know, I certainly don’t want to ever misrepresent myself as like super dad. I think I’m just like a dad that’s trying my best like so many of us are. Well, but the poem, like for me, writing a poem about that experience helps me archive it emotionally, helps me remember it in the same way that like, you know, the way we all love to scroll through old photos of our kids or god kids and nieces and nephews, and you’re like, I can’t believe that little two year old is now that 12 year old or is now that 22 year old. The poem is just like a different way to do that. And I think the cicada is just this like, you know, one of the most interesting things in the natural world.
Maiysha Kai [00:38:29] I totally you know, listen, I’ve never seen them that way. I’m always typically annoyed by them. But, you know, seeing them through that lens was really, really special. And yeah, it’s it’s a beautiful depiction. Listen, nobody I don’t think anybody’s done cicadas the justice that you have done them, Clint. We’re going to be record back and a final second with our final segment of Writing Black and our guests guest Clint Smith. We’re back. Clint, you know, I love this conversation. I always love talking to you about writing. And I just think you’re so prolific, but also just so honest, though there’s such a beautiful authenticity to your work and and relate ability, which I think is what people respond to so much. But I have to ask, obviously, who do you love? Like who do you read or listen to or what? Like, who excites you when you’re thinking about like language and you know, you obviously it’s such a gorgeous. Like a deep love of language and such a gorgeous facility. Who do you gravitate towards?
Clint Smith [00:39:30] Well, I mean, you know, there’s so many. I feel lucky to have so many friends who are also poets and writers who are whose work just blows me away and who and people who I sort of come up with over the years. As some people know, I came up in the in the spoken word and slam poetry scene. That was my sort of entry point into literature. So before it was, you know, like New York T imes bestsellers or book awards, it was it was like dive bars where people were were taking shots in the back while you were trying to read a poem about your relationship with your father. And so by like we there’s a sort of cohort of us who came up together in our teenage years, in our early twenties folks like Eve Ewing and and Nate Marshall and Hanif Abdurraqib and Danez Smith, Fatimah Asghar, Franny Choi, Sofia Elhillo, Elizabeth Acevedo. These people who, you know, like I was on the same slam poetry team as Liz Acevedo in 2014 when we won the National Poetry Slam. And and I remember when she was like, I think I’m thinking of writing a novel, you know, like I have this idea for. And now she’s, you know, one of the most prolific authors, like a novelist, young adult novelist in the game. And it’s just been so and I think that’s the case with so many of these folks. Like that was our sort of space where we were figuring out who we were as writers. And and it’s been so inspiring to watch as people, you know, write for write comic books and write for television and write and do scholarship and do journalism and write novels and write plays. And it’s just I feel so I feel so inspired by this sort of cohort of of young writers of color who have sort of come up with and who I am, I’m constantly looking to as it’s a sort of peer mentor relationship in many ways to so many. Those folks, to the first folks to to read my work. And I feel very grateful to them for that.
Maiysha Kai [00:41:38] Well, I feel grateful that you were able to join us this week for Writing Black, Clint Smith, you are you know, you remain one of my faves. Can’t wait to talk to you again about the next book. I’m sure there’s more to come, But in the meantime, I hope people engage with Above Ground. It’s a beautiful, beautiful book of poetry. Very accessible, ya’ll. Not obtuse. So get into this. And Clint, thank you so much for joining us on Writing Black.
Clint Smith [00:42:02] Thank you. I appreciate it.
Maiysha Kai [00:42:04] Well, I love that conversation with Clint Smith. You know, as I said, he’s one of my favorite writers. And if you have engaged with his work yet, I highly recommend that you do. We reference this book a lot, How the Word is Passed, a Reckoning with the History of Slavery across America. Clint literally went across America and beyond to trace the roots of slavery in America and its impact upon various communities as they exist today. And it’s a gorgeous book, I’m sure from his poetic sense, you’ll get that It’s beautifully written, even though it’s a totally different type of book than aboveground. But another book I want to recommend, because it is Poetry Month is Make Me Rain Poems and Prose by Nikki Giovanni. Now, to say that Nikki Giovanni is a living legend is understatement of all time. You know, she has been a poet, a storyteller, an academic, etc., etc., etc.. And she’s still going to this day. So this is her most recent, I believe this came out, I want to say, in 2019. And she really you know, when we talk about relatability and poems that really kind of bring you into the scene. Nikki Giovanni is one of the best. She’s just phenomenal. So those are my favorites for this week. And we hope that you will join us next week for another episode of Writing Black. Thanks so much for joining us for this week’s episode of Writing Black. As always, you can find us on theGrio app or wherever you find your podcasts.