Steinberg: Time for a new Chicago poet

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Think about your mother.

How would you describe her, to a stranger?

“Nice smile” or “brown hair” or “made angels out of copies of The Reader’s Digest, folded over and painted gold”?

Here’s Patricia Smith, writing about her mother:

“Whenever I dream her young, I see red dust on her ankles and feet. Those feet were flat and ashy, steady stomping, the corn on her baby toe raw and peeled back. No shoes could hold them. Those feet were always naked, touched by everything, stones asked her to limp and she didn’t. Low branches whipped, sliced her skin, and they urged her to cry and she wouldn’t.”

And that was her mother only below the ankles, as a child, still in Alabama. Though that changed after what another writer would describe as, “she took a bus north.”

This is how Patricia Smith put it:

“Apple cheeks, glorious gap-tooth fills the window of the Greyhound. For the occasion, she has hot-combed her hair into shivering strings and donned a homemade skirt that wrestles with her curves. This deception is what the city asks. I dream her sleeping at angles, her head full and hurting with future, until the bus arrives in the city.”

The city she’s heading toward is Chicago, so Smith can be born here, 60 years ago, and become our city’s poet.


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What? Chicago’s poet is Carl Sandburg? Really? Still? Nice guy. But he’s been dead almost 50 years. “City of the Big Shoulders” first appeared in print 101 years ago. Saying Carl Sandburg is the city’s poet is like saying the Cubs star is Gabby Harnett.

Better off with Patricia Smith. A living city deserves a living poet. Smith writes poetry that sears and sizzles on the page. Like Sandburg, she worked at a Chicago newspaper, the Sun-Times, which she joined on March 23, 1987 — I know that date precisely because I was hired on the same day. We two made up the staff of The Adviser, a Wednesday insert that taught readers how to organize their garages and exile Japanese beetles from their lawns.

We didn’t like each other. In her eyes — she never said it, but she didn’t have to — I was a privileged white guy, buffed by Northwestern University to a bright white guy sheen and deposited near the summit of the hill that she had to drag herself up by hard work.

I called her “Queen of the Nile,” behind her back, a sort of backhanded compliment to her air of dignity, if not hauteur. She wrote her poems in the newsroom, on the glowing green ATEX computer screens.

Smith left the paper, went to the Boston Globe, then left journalism, under a cloud that becomes less worth recounting with each new honor given her: last year, a Guggenheim Fellowship in poetry, early this year, the Library of Congress’ Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry. There’s many more, but you get the idea. She teaches at the College of Staten Island now.

She does get back to Chicago. She has won four National Poetry Slams, and reads at the Green Mill, whose Uptown Poetry Slam would be the pride of Chicago, if the city knew enough to take pride in the pivotal place Chicago holds in American poetry. Home to Poetry magazine, which published T.S. Eliot’s first poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” when both were young, and continues to offer wonder, every month.

I’ve seen Pat read at the Poetry Slam. Jaw-dropping, and it’ll be interesting to compare her performance in the loud, crowded, boisterous bar to how she manages the austere glass shrine the Poetry Foundation built to itself at 61 W. Superior when she reads there at 7 p.m. Tuesday, joined by fellow poet Reginald Dwayne Betts. I’m going, and my wife, after I read her “Building Nicole’s Mama,” is eager to go, and you want to go too, even if you don’t know it yet.

Because as powerful as Patricia Smith’s poems can be to read — and some are delivered like a slap — they really should be read aloud, preferably by the poet herself. But until then, here, try this, from the essay about her mother I quoted above:

“Chicago. Say it. Push out the three sighs, don’t let such a huge wish languish. Her world, so big she didn’t know its edges, suddenly not enough. She’s heard the dreams out loud, the tales of where money flows, and after you arrive it takes, what, a minute? to forget that Alabama ever held sugar for you.”

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