“Between art and protest”: On the Poetry of Clint Smith ’10

Clint Smith ’10 participates in Professor Parker’s Contemporary Poetry class. Photo courtesy of Davidson College Instagram.

Thomas Waddill ’19 & Lucas Weals ’19

It’s difficult to quote Clint Smith ‘10 briefly. A doctoral candidate in Education at Harvard, Smith speaks with an unabashed maximalism—multiple subordinated clauses, chains of coordinating conjunctions, a frankly heroic reluctance to end a thought with a full stop. While Smith sat in on Professor Alan Michael Parker’s Contemporary Poetry class this last Thursday, I managed to snag only snippets of direct quotation. On the work of poets after Ferguson, Smith says his “job became to read” the social moment; his personal life, both separate from and intertwined with the political violence around him, he calls “a marathon of cognitive dissonance”; on the (dubious) poetics of Instagram phenomenon Rupi Kaur, Smith is “not here to knock anybody’s hustle.”

His thoughtful, sprawling answers—at once immensely generous and slightly maddening—make his turns toward the lapidary even more profound. For the black poet, the black schoolkid, the black American struggling for selfhood in a society bent on destroying that very self: “You’re not singularly defined by that which wants to kill you.” On the peculiar magic of his chosen craft: “The poem is a special place—here, there is freedom to wonder.” This is how Smith develops both his poetry and his theories about poetry; between the pressures of a violent exterior and the possibilities of an infinitely rich interior, Smith works through his “history of violence,” which, like the best histories, is always deeply personal.

* * *

When Clint Smith came to Davidson he was, by his own description, “Clint the soccer player.” A soccer star in his Louisiana childhood, Smith quickly realized that the talent pool on a Division 1 team was of a different caliber than the one he was reared in. To make a long story short, he sat on the bench. But this awakening to the possibility that he might not be a professional soccer player—what Smith describes as an “identity crisis”—also became “the best thing that ever happened” to him. It gave him room to figure out a different way to find meaning, to define himself. The guidance of a few key professors, including the aforementioned Parker, Dr. Randy Ingram, and Dr. Brenda Flanagan, led Smith, eventually, to the world of letters: he edited what was then called the Opinions page of the Davidsonian, and in his senior year, he founded Free Word, Davidson’s spoken-word poetry collective.

Reflecting on Smith’s visit after the weekend, Professor Parker makes an interesting observation (by way of Dr. Suzanne Churchill): that for all his protests against the strictures of institution, and Davidson in particular, Smith has become something of a good Presbyterian. Our class struggled with what precisely this meant. We came to understand, in Smith’s transformation from athlete to poet, a kind of theological shift: from the Catholic preoccupation with the body to the Protestant obsession with the word. And we were invited to consider Smith not just as a poet, but as a kind of preacher. Of the poems in Smith’s first collection, Counting Descent, from which Smith read on Thursday evening, Parker remarks, “these are parables.” And while Smith is “still a poet,” and a poet yet in the process of refining his craft, his poetry is always “informed by the teaching of how to live . . . how to parent, how to read.”

Smith, then, is not only a poet or a preacher, but also something of a philosopher, at least in that really old, Aristotelian sense: someone concerned with the teaching of the good life. Perhaps all these roles have something to do with his tendency to speak at great length, almost sermonizing—as his audience, we can feel his reluctance to let the poems simply “live in the air” (in his own phrasing), as if the lesson may not have been made clearly enough. Consider a work from the beginning of Counting Descent, a seven-line stunner called “For the Boys at the Bottom of the Sea”:

            We are charred vessels

            vestiges of wood & wonder

            anchors tethered to our bows.

            It is the irony of a ship burning

            at sea, surrounded by

            the very thing that could

 

            save us.

The poem strikes with the force of scripture. We are aware not only of the metaphor, but of its proper application—because the “Boys at the Bottom of the Sea” are the same “black boys” from the previous page, boys whom the ocean, here imagined with the uncaring wisdom of a trickster god, has swallowed in its impossible vastness, the span of history: “what you see when you look at me? / you know how many of y’all I swallowed? / you just a drop of ink.” The unity of the collection provides guidelines for its own interpretation. When I ask Smith about his move from spoken to written poetry, little wonder that his response revolves around “the illusion of control,” a force made obvious by his tightly (and masterfully) managed verse. He was “unsettled,” he tells me, by the idea that the “poem has to speak for itself” on the page. Of course these poems can, and do, but that doesn’t stop “Clint the sociologist” from speaking for them.

* * *

Indeed, if the previous week’s visit from Colson Whitehead had been characterized, for many students, by a baffling and almost offensive rejection of social responsibility from an artist whose work is so clearly embedded in fabrics of social conflict, Smith was almost more comfortable in the role of social scientist than in the role of poet. On a question of his “intentions,” a concept Whitehead wholly eschewed in all but the most strictly formal sense, Smith is as forceful as his poetry, if more literal: he began work on his book “largely to process the inundation of black people being killed at this particular moment.” On the differences between his personae—on Twitter, in person, in his work—Smith describes them all as “extensions of the same fundamental commitments,” which are “artistic, intellectual and political.” Or consider, as a final case in point, Smith’s response to a question that Whitehead faced almost verbatim—“What do you feel about your responsibility to your readers?” Smith’s answer is unusually concise: “Be honest . . . Reflect the world as the speaker sees it.”

And while he’s more than frank about his positive social beliefs, many of which are by no means alien to the majority of students at Davidson (on our previous analogy, think of that old cliché “preaching to the choir”), Smith has negatively defined aims as well, chief among them a “rejection of mutual exclusivity” in nearly all its forms—between the page and the stage, the personal and the political. Counting Descent’s epigraph, a quote from Ralph Ellison, makes the point as clearly as anything could: “I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest.” We are compelled again to consider, in Smith’s work, what lies between. There’s a conscious attempt to both bridge and frustrate the spaces between spheres of life we often consider distinct, especially for black Americans.

One way that Smith invited us to negotiate the supposed division between “art and protest” lay in the very structure of his reading in the 900 room. The set was divided into four parts, each with a contextualizing introduction. The first and third were composed of unmistakably political poems; one, called simply “The Drone,” a litany of the horrors of drone violence, featured a stirring elegy for what else the “hunk of metal” might have been besides a literal killing machine. The introductions to these two groups of poems expressed Smith’s sociological concerns: mass incarceration, the violence of white American hegemony, and our strange, nationalist impulse to deify, through nostalgia, slaveholders like Jefferson and Jackson. In these poems, Smith assumed the Baldwinian mantle of writer-qua-sociologist, obscuring the line “between art and protest,” deploying art and rhetoric interchangeably as a form of social critique.

But the second and fourth sections of his talk mounted a different, much more subtle kind of protest. These sections were what he described as “dad poems,” poems about his immense love for his wife and his young son. These recalled paternal, epistolary tradition of Baldwin’s “Letter to my Nephew” and Coates’ Between the World and Me. But these poems, in stark contrast to his political poems and to Baldwin and Coates, seemed almost deliberately unpolitical. They reminded me of that moment in Between the World and Me when Coates takes a quick, two-sentence break from the somber, bleak cautioning of the rest of the book: “I am not a cynic. I love you, and I love the world, and I love it more with every new inch I discover.”

The protest that Smith mounted with his “dad poems” is one of personal identity. Smith was reminding us that, for all of his sermonizing, for all of his work on race, he is, most importantly, a man. His blackness does not foreclose his ability to write, with simple, unadulterated human joy, about dancing in the supermarket with his son. Whitehead met our sociological concerns—and our efforts to understand him as a social writer—with flippancy and discomfiting stand-up comedy. But Smith’s method involved, simply and beautifully, poetry. The fact that he ended the night with one of his “dad poem” speaks to the importance he places on this; on being human, and holding on to what makes him human, even in the face of a system and a history that has viewed him as something less than that.

Smith’s debut poetry collection, Counting Descent, was published in 2016 by Write Bloody Publishing. In 2017, it was a finalist for the NAACP Image Award and won the Literary Award for Best Poetry Book from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. He graduated from Davidson in 2010.

Lucas Weals ‘19 is an English major from Bethesda, MD. Thomas Waddill ‘19 is an English major from Beaumont, TX. They can be reached for comment at luweals@davidson.edu and thwaddill@davidson.edu.

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