Editor’s Note: MockingHeart Review recently sat down with poet and educator John Warner Smith, the current Poet Laureate of Louisiana, to discuss poetry, teaching, and the roles of the Arts and education in our tense, rapidly changing world. Valuable insights followed!
Tyler Robert Sheldon, Editor-in-Chief
MockingHeart Review: Hi, John. Good to talk with you! We last spoke in person back in January—how has 2020 been for you so far?
John Warner Smith: It’s been a challenging time, to say the least. Thankfully, I’ve managed to stay safe and healthy. I started the year expecting a very busy schedule of readings. I managed to do several of them virtually but my work as poet laureate has been much quieter than I had hoped. I was awarded a fellowship by the Academy of American Poets to conduct poetry workshops in several high schools in the Delta parishes. I was hoping to begin this fall, but that will probably be pushed back with a change in delivery format.
MHR: Due to the Covid-19 pandemic it’s been a while since our country operated under normal conditions. Could you share a bit about whether (or how) your work and writing life have shifted during the current crisis?
JWS: I miss reading in-person. I really love those moments when I have a poem in my hand and the audience is waiting to hear what it says. I can feel a poem when I look into the eyes of an audience. I could read all day! I’ve done a number of virtual readings, but I don’t get that rush. I’ve also shared more of my work on social media.
MHR: You studied with Terrance Hayes and Tracy K. Smith. Could you speak to how their work has influenced your own?
JWS: I participated in workshops that Tracy and Terrance led at the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshops. Terrance later taught me at Cave Canem. I cannot say enough about Callaloo and Cave Canem. The retreats took my writing to another level. Poetry had just discovered me. I was under the spell of it and not fully understanding why. More than anything, Tracy, Terrance, and the many award-winning black poets whom I was blessed to be taught by helped me to figure it out. I often think about those quiet moments when I sat alone trying to compose a poem for one of the Callaloo or Caven Canem workshops. I knew that I could never be as talented as the workshop teachers but I wanted to present a strong poem, knowing that their feedback would make it stronger. They made me want to keep writing. In time, I found my voice.
MHR: You credit Smith with helping to see poetry as “becoming,” which is a beautiful sentiment. How can we understand that idea in our current time, where political and viral forces threaten our world? What are we becoming, and how does poetry fit?
JWS: Robert Frost said, “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” Only when it is melted has a poem become a poem. When, through the spontaneity of its own making, a poem surprises me in meaning, I know that it is a poem. Tracy helped me to expect that magic to occur through constant revision, through rethinking what a poem is saying and doing from a reader’s perspective. That happened in a poem titled “Crossing,” that I wrote at the beginning of my journey with my father’s battle with Alzheimer’s. Tracy’s feedback not only helped me to write a better poem; it helped me to see my father’s mind differently and to appreciate the wonder and delicacy of it in spite of the disease that was killing it. That became the first poem that I published in a major literary journal. I might add that Dr. John Gery, the chair of my thesis committee at the University of New Orleans, also helped me to view poetry that way.
The political and viral forces are real threats but poetry can be a bridge to our common humanity. It brings us together to appreciate the full range of emotion and feeling possible in us, in spite of our differences. I write poems about race in America with that in mind.
MHR: Your work contains so many striking images and phrases. “Zydeco on Dog Hill” stuck with me, not just for its somber subject matter (among which a man is murdered), but for the imagery that represents it:
his wide brim
fedora suddenly seen
whirling in a herd of flamingos
and a pool of whiskey-warm blood.
What types of poetic conventions most fit your style of writing? Moreover, how might poetic conventions help us understand an ungraspable world?
JWS: I’m a prose poet at heart. Much of my poetry tells stories. “Zydeco on Dog Hill” is all fiction, but I borrowed from pieces of real life events. I’ve danced to Zydeco and I’ve been to Dog Hill in Lake Charles, Louisiana, but I don’t have a cousin name Gladys whose husband stabbed her lover in a Zydeco club. It’s all imagined.
My grandfather Andrew was the father of my early childhood. When he was a young man with a wife and three young children, he spent time in prison for killing a man in a card game. I remember the story that my grandmother told me about seeing her father walking through the sugar cane field the next morning to tell her that her husband had been jailed. My grandmother’s brother, J. Warner, whom I was named after, died at a young age from a tragic stabling that took place outside of a nightclub in Lafayette. Somehow, those images helped to build a poem about a character who didn’t exist in real life. The poem tells an imagined story but it also speaks to the dark side of human nature that is never told in a funeral mass. In myth and imagination, we can discover truth about who we are — the shadow side of human nature that we never speak about or admit to ourselves. In truth, I could have been one of the three men in the poem—Gladys’ husband, her father, or Jo Jo, her secret lover whose fedora ended up whirling in “a pool of whiskey-warm blood.”
MHR: In much of your work you discuss the violence that affects black communities, from police and elsewhere. Your poem “Why Being a Black Father in America Today Frightens and Angers Me” distills a part of that experience in plain terms:
I am a father and grandfather of black boys
born and living in America,
doing honest work,
not committing crimes,
not hurting people.
When so much of America must necessarily doubt that these admirable traits are enough to keep them safe, is true equality possible? How can education and the Arts help to that end?
JWS: Equality is indeed possible. It’s the obligation and responsibility of every generation to resist any and all attempts to make race the defining factor in any person’s pursuit of freedom and happiness. The problem is deeply rooted in our county’s history of slavery and the caste system that grew out of it, a system that still exists and manifests itself in incidents of police killings of young black men.
My mother grew up poor in the Jim Crow South. She became pregnant with me when she was fifteen years old. I was not a candidate for long life. Education was my ticket out of poverty, but it has not been my ticket out of the brokenness of the American social, economic, and political systems that create and maintain two societies of haves and have-nots. The root problem is deeply spiritual, and deeply etched into the bones of America. I doubt that we will ever have a period of “Enlightenment” that will reverse the still-prevailing worldview that I am “less” because my skin, hair, and facial features are not “white.” But it’s my responsibility to do whatever I can to call out the hatred and hypocrisy and to love those who practice and speak it.
Arts can build awareness of that challenge, but I doubt that it can cure the problem. My white neighbors can read my poems day and night, but inviting me to a party or learning about my experiences with bigotry and racism can’t make them not see or treat me as “non-white.” My latest collection, Our Shut Eyes, speaks directly to that challenge.
MHR: You’re a caring and pedagogical writer, as anyone who’s heard you read can testify—and you direct Education’s Next Horizon, a Louisiana nonprofit organization. Could you talk a bit about the organization?
JWS: ENH was created thirteen years ago to advocate public education reform. We’ve tried to be a voice for change. I’d like to think that we’ve done some good, although Louisiana still has miles to go in improving education outcomes, particularly for children of color and children with disabilities. Unfortunately, due to our inability to raise funds in recent years, 2020 will be our last year as a non-profit education reform organization. But I’ll continue to speak of educational inequity through my poetry.
MHR: As a Louisianan and a poet invested in education, what vision do you have for public education in our state? And finally, how might we get there?
JWS: That’s a big question. The short answer is that we have to invest considerably more in high-quality early care and education for poor families and children. If we invest early and wisely, we can build stronger families and children who are prepared to succeed. When I was a child, public Pre-K and kindergarten were not available to black children. I was raised by a grandfather who was illiterate and a grandmother who had an eighth-grade education. A black Baptist preacher and his wife started a kindergarten program for the black children of Morgan City. I attribute whatever academic and professional success I achieved later in life to that act of love and kindness. I entered first grade knowing numbers, the alphabet, and words that I didn’t know existed. It was the most important educational experience of my life.
Years later, I was one of five black students who integrated an all white junior high school in Lake Charles. I was spat on and degraded, but academically I stood toe to toe with every white student there. No matter how meanly they treated me, they couldn’t take the “I” away from me. I grew from being a little black boy in a housing project to becoming the first black man to be poet laureate of Louisiana. I owe much of that to a black preacher and his wife giving me a strong start. That’s what we need in Louisiana, a stronger start for poor children.
MHR: What are you currently working on, and what are you reading?
JWS: I have made a shift since the pandemic. I’ve worked on my forthcoming poetry collection, but I haven’t written a single new poem since late March. One day in April, I opened up the laptop and saw a story that I started writing long before poetry discovered me. So, I wrote a novel and a novella, and I am halfway into a memoir. The writing cost me many hours of sleep and I might not get any of it published, but it enabled me to stay grounded and sane amidst the craziness of the pandemic, racial unrest, and the politics of Trump. Currently, I am reading Caste / The Origins of Our Discontents, the award-winning book by Isabel Wilkerson. The book has deepened and broadened my understanding of race in America.
MHR: What advice might you share with poets and writers who are just starting out?
JWS: Read, read, read, and write with purpose.
John Warner Smith is the Poet Laureate of Louisiana. He is the author of several poetry collections including Muhammad’s Mountain (Lavender Ink, 2018) and Spirits of the Gods (ULL Press, 2017), and his poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Callaloo, Antioch Review, North American Review, Quiddity, The Worcester Review, Kestrel, Bloodroot Literary Magazine, American Athenaeum, Transition, and other literary journals. Smith earned his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans Low-Residency MFA Program, and he teaches English at Southern University in Baton Rouge. Since November 2007 he has directed Education’s Next Horizon, a statewide non-profit organization dedicated to reforming public education in Louisiana.