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Famous in Chicago, infamous in Boston . . . but Patricia Smith, poet, keeps on keeping on. And her collection Blood Dazzler, poems about Hurricane Katrina, has just been named a finalist for the National Book Award for poetry.
I wrote about her way back when–in 1990, to be exact, when a poem of hers won a local award, and I didn’t think a whole lot of the poem until I heard her take the floor at the Green Mill and put it over like nobody’s business. She was a mere entertainment reporter at the Sun-Times then, but she won the National Poetry Slam four times and took a big writing job at the Boston Globe, her instructions being to make language sing in the Globe the way it sung in the smoky clubs she performed in. In 1998 she almost won a Pulitzer for her columns. But it was a good thing she didn’t, because she was out of a job a few weeks later for making stuff up. “From time to time in my metro column, to create the desired impact or slam home a salient point, I attributed quotes to people who didn’t exist,” Smith admitted. “I could give them names, even occupations, but I couldn’t give them what they needed most–a heartbeat.”
The poetry community of Chicago was forgiving. “Did a raven actually say ‘Nevermore’? I don’t think so,” said one poet to Dave Hoekstra, writing in the Reader. I wasn’t as judgmental myself as I might have been. I wrote a column in which no one was more outraged at Smith’s fabrications than Slats Grobnik.
Smith persevered. “One of the world’s most formidable performers,” says the Web site on which she celebrates herself. “Eclectic author, riveting performer, energized instructor, there’s no one like Patricia Smith. No one.”
Competition for the award comes from Chicago. One of the other four finalists for the NBA is Northwestern U.’s Reginald Gibbons for the collection Creatures of a Day.