August 22, 2017KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEthicsLiteratureReading

Patricia Smith’s “Skinhead”

In light of the white hate and violence on recent display in Charlottesville, as the (still living) history of white supremacy and white nationalism rose up in (was it ever far from?) our national consciousness, sanctioned and normalized by the President himself, I found myself thinking of Patricia Smith’s poem (or rather, her performance of her poem) “Skinhead.”

You can find the print version online at AGNI, and Smith’s Def Poetry performance on YouTube. Say what you will about trigger warnings and content warnings; I provide such a warning for my students before sharing this poem with them, particularly the performance. This does not mean the students can or should opt out, and no one has ever asked for that option; it simply means that they can and should prepare themselves. Yes, it is visceral, but so is the viral Vice News video we’ve all been watching.

“Skinhead”: the title itself already reveals what the poem is “about.” A persona poem, dramatic monologue, it seeks to inhabit a consciousness abhorrent, that of the white supremacist. In Julia Novak’s “Performing the Poet: Reading (to) the Audience: Some Thoughts on Live Poetry as Literary Communication,” in the Journal of Literary Theory 6.2 (September 2012), she starts “from a conception of oral performance as a basic manifestation of the art of poetry rather than a mere presentation of an essentially written text,” exploring the “double role” (poet and performer) as well as the “relation of the actual and the fictive speech situation: i.e. the relationship established between poet and fictive speaker in performance, as well as the relationship of the actual spatio-temporal situation and the audience and the fictive spatio-temporal situation and addressee evoked by the poetic text.” Novak takes Smith’s “Skinhead” as one of her main examples, writing:

In 2002, Patricia Smith, a famous African American writer and four time National Poetry slam champion, was invited to perform her poem “Skinhead” on HBO’s Def Poetry series . . . That the poem cannot be autobiographical – or rather, that the “I” of the poem [fictive speaker] cannot be conflated with its author [poet and performer] – is obvious. Smith is visibly part of a “race” that is not “pure” and “perfect” in the skinhead’s view . . . And yet these words emanate from Smith’s mouth – they are the speech of a black woman . . . The voice of Patricia Smith is superimposed on the voice and identity of the skinhead, i.e. the “real world” context intrudes upon the fictive context, giving rise to an unresolvable contradiction of perspective. Furthermore, the words Smith utters are her own thoughts, her own composition, which underscores the sincerity of her critique of racism. The identity of the poet – who is performing authorship here – and its relation to the fictive speaker matter a great deal in this performance. 

Of course, Smith is not the only embodied presence that matters in this performance. Novak writes:

[P]oet-performers may consciously relate the addressee that emerges from the audience’s contextualization of the verbal information to the audience itself . . .  Apostrophe – the use of the pronoun “you” – has a much greater effect in live poetry, where “you” finds a real-life target and can be understood as implicating the present audience in the speech act . . . When Smith quietly pronounces the final words of her poem, her deictic gesture towards the floor in front of her at “right here” breaks down the boundaries between performance and everyday-life:

I’m your baby, America, your boy,
drunk on my own spit, I am goddamned fuckin’ beautiful.
And I was born
and raised
right here.

The poem’s deixis (“your,” “here”) powerfully roots it in the present of her performance . . . Spectators thus find themselves accused as part of a nation that has given rise to the racist views and deeds of the self-righteous skinhead.

As I re-read Novak’s article, I notice the recurrent power of physical presence: “Characterized by the direct encounter and physical co-presence of poet-performer and audience, live poetry occurs in a specific spatio-temporal situation, and it is this definite ‘situatedness’ that constitutes the performance’s essence as shared experience.” I think of the conversation around Tina Fey’s SNL satirization of the “overwhelmed,” stress-eating liberal; while I laughed at some of it, I, like others, couldn’t swallow the seeming “moral” of “don’t show up.” Smith’s poem is powerful on the page, but its embodied force is even more powerful. Show up. There is power in life, as in poetry, in literally, physically, holding space.