By Dave Hoekstra
Anyone can get up and read on poetry night at Weeds Tavern, and most people do. Other than a few stir-crazy regulars and the occasional bum looking for a free drink, the audience consists primarily of poets.
Emily Dickinson never could have read "On this wondrous sea, Sailing silently, Ho! pilot, ho!" to these beady-eyed huns, who talk back, shout expletives, and drive poets they don't like from the mike. But in the late 1980s Patricia Smith found smooth sailing here. And when Smith resigned under fire from the Boston Globe in June, accused of inventing characters in her columns, the Weeds regulars chewed it over passionately.
"Hey, I wasn't at the charge of the light brigade," said Ken Green, like Smith a poet-journalist. "But I bet some of that was embellished, too. Did a raven actually say 'Nevermore'? I don't think so."
With an unlit cigarette in his right hand and the Weeds jukebox in the background, Green contemplated the line between art and journalism. "Poetry is embellishment and painting a picture whatever way you can. Now, I wrote sports at the Defender, and even if it was a small article about Little League baseball, I couldn't make up a kid's name and say he got five home runs when he only got one. Never."
Smith's writing first appeared in the pages of the Chicago Daily News, and later in the Sun-Times. Her front-page story in the February 23, 1978, issue of Sidetracks, the Daily News's weekly Reader imitation, eerily foreshadows the future. She wrote a first-person account of growing up on the west side, citing early influences like the brutal honesty and hip-hop cadence of the late poet and former south-side pimp Robert Beck, aka Iceberg Slim. The byline reads "Semi-fiction by Patricia Smith."
Smith's fame in Chicago came by way of her poetry. Four times she won the National Poetry Slam, a competition where the stage is at least equal to the page. One poem won her a trip to Japan in 1990. That year she went to work for the Globe, where her editor, according to a 1997 profile in the Columbia Journalism Review, "urged her to loosen up and write as soaringly for the newspaper as she did for the people who came to dimly lit, smoky clubs to hear her read poetry."
Weeds's open-mike MC, Gregorio Gomez, has heard several poets question Smith's credibility as a poet. "The page is more important than the stage?" Gomez wondered. "I wholeheartedly agree with that. Through the whole performance style that has developed, poets have become the focus, more than what they are saying. I've heard a lot of bad poems done very well through performance. And people go, 'Great poem!'"
He was choosing his words carefully. "There was always a tremendous response to Pat when she read at Weeds. She knew how to play the audience, she had a definite style in presenting her work."
Ron Foreman, a quiet, attentive man, is an avid student of Chicago poetry. He was best man when Smith married poet Michael Brown. He is a loyal friend. "It's all about passion," said Foreman, sitting across from Green and next to poet Joffre Stewart in a tiny booth at Weeds. "My background is science. And the truth is important in science. I get angry when I see people use science in a fraudulent way, and there may be a connection."
Stewart added, "Her [newspaper] job feeds the material from which she can make poetry as much as Greek myths feed her poetry. She was the queen of the poetry scene here, a quasi official of poets for Chicago."
"In columns you try to paint a picture, almost like a small-scale novelist," Green said. "The pressure to come up with something interesting every day may have had something to do with it. It's happened with other people."
In July 1997 Smith discussed the duality of poetry and journalism in a lecture for writers and editors at the Hartford Courant. Courant staff writer Andre Barnett reported that Smith saw poetry as the flip side of journalism. Smith had said, "Journalism is tied into facts. Poetry is liberating. It allows you to fill in facts, to create a story with the facts you wished were actually available."
Green first heard Smith read at the Green Mill. "She was the only one who caught my attention," he said. "She wrote about a barbecue place on the west side, the Bucket of Blood, and I know the place. It was a great poem. She actually spoke real words. She was real emotive. But characters were very carefully placed. Some things click louder than others. My [journalism] background told me it was too perfect."
"Bucket of Blood" appeared in Smith's 1991 anthology, Life According to Motown (Tia Chucha Press). Here's part of it:
Breeze has been knifed so many times
the left side of his face just seems to be crawling
The bone beneath has given up
But you'd better not stare
just bite into your links,
let the juice snake down your arms.
and keep your eyes straight ahead.
You'd better not lock your eyes on his face,
that startled map of bad moves and wrong choices.
Does it matter if Breeze is a fake?
"The truth is very important to me," Stewart said. "I'm a pacifist and I equate truth with nonviolence. In my poetry, I try to be as factual as I can. I make mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes. But I recognize people use fiction in poems. It's important to me that a listener knows the difference. Because I've been fooled."
Stewart, who's 73, always sits on a rickety stool near the front door on poetry nights. He passes out mimeographed sheets full of his straight-ahead political views. "I don't consider myself all that important a person," he said, with humility rare at Weeds. "So I try to write about things that are socially important to all of us."
In 1996, Old Town Ale House bartender Arthur Klug told me, "Joffre is the only man I've ever met who has remained true to his convictions. Joffre was an anarchist the day I met him 40 years ago. He's the same anarchist now that he was then."
Foreman said Smith's critics should consider the media coverage of her fall. "One of my questions, and I hope it would be important for everybody, is, if she did what is alleged, has anybody been hurt by what she did? I have a history in dealing in an official capacity with the media [with the Chicago Department of Health] and I've found many times that whether it be Chicago print or television, self-censorship is in our community.
"I hope the poetry community does not take this as a betrayal of any kind. She contributed so much to the poetry scene. She stepped into a second world [journalism], and I don't think that should have any bearing on poets."
But here's who Smith's fabrications hurt: other columnists.
Rekha Basu is a Des Moines Register columnist who wrote in late June that she "revered" Smith and followed her career, "maybe because I share her age, some of her ideological perspective, and her status as a minority columnist in a majority community."
Basu concluded, "I can't fully shut the door on Smith's voice. I'll just look for it in other forms, like her poems, where literal truths can be secondary to the larger truths they tell. Those are the kinds of concessions we make to real life. The problem for Smith was she wasn't willing to concede."
Stewart is pleased that Smith's poetry has been underplayed in the national coverage of her resignation. "She has not been identified with poetry," he said sternly. "So it doesn't hurt poetry, which is important to us as poets."
"Ultimately, it's a little bit of a letdown for people trying to make it," Green said. "I'm not saying she threw it away. But for pressure or whatever reason, her chance is gone now. Others are aspiring to reach that peak, and because of what happened, rightly or wrongly, they may be more scrutinized than they should be." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Sidetracks cover.