In 'Above Ground,' Clint Smith uses poetry to confront the legacy of slavery
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. With some fiction and nonfiction books about Black history banned in some schools, it's a particularly good time to talk with my guest, Clint Smith. His nonfiction book "How The Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With The History Of Slavery Across America" won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction and reached No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. It was also on The New York Times Book Reviews list of the 10 Best Books of 2021. For that book, he visited eight places central to the history of slavery in America to better understand the distortions in the way the history of slavery was taught to him and to most children, and the ways many Americans deceive themselves about that history.
Smith is also an award-winning poet, and I'm happy to say he has a new collection called "Above Ground." It deals with the legacy of slavery in a more personal way, through poems addressed to his young children about what their grandparents endured and escaped. The poems are also about fatherhood and the joy and anxiety surrounding it, especially as a Black father. Some of those poems are very sobering. Some are really funny.
Clint Smith, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's really a treat to have you back on the show. Your book opens with a prose poem about something I've been thinking about a lot, and I know a lot of other people think about this, too, and that is how do you hold two opposing thoughts in your head at the same time - gratitude for the things that are right in your life and anger or fear about everything that's wrong in your life or in politics or in the larger world or with the Earth itself? What were you trying to reconcile when you wrote this? What was happening in your life?
CLINT SMITH: Yeah. Well, it's so good to be back with you, Terry. It's always a pleasure to be on this program. And with regard to this first poem, so much of what I've been thinking about over the last several years is what you've kind of alluded to, the simultaneity of the human experience, which is to say, how do we move through our lives holding wonder, joy, awe alongside fear, despair, a sense of catastrophe. And a lot of what I'm thinking about in this collection are - is that idea in a sort of - in the context of the larger human experience, but also through the prism of parenthood and how parenthood is both the thing that shows you parts of yourself that you have never experienced before in ways that you are incredibly proud of, and also in ways that you're ashamed of - how being with your kids is, you know, full of joy and levity and laughter, and also that parenthood is one of the most exhausting, difficult and fear-inducing experiences in the world. And so I'm thinking about the simultaneity of our lives both in a macro context, in a geopolitical context, in an ecological context, but also in the specific granular details of our own lives.
GROSS: And you have the ability to put it all in words that really perfect the thought, clarify the thought. So would you read for us "All At Once"?
SMITH: I'd be happy to.
(Reading) "All At Once." The redwoods are on fire in California. A flood submerges a neighborhood that sat quiet on the coast for three centuries. A child takes their first steps and tumbles into a father's arms. Two people in New Orleans fall in love under an oak tree whose branches bend like sorrow. A forest of seeds are planted in new soil. A glacier melts into the ocean and the sea climbs closer to the land.
(Reading) A man comes home from war and holds his son for the first time. A man is killed by a drone that thinks his jug of water is a bomb. Your best friend relapses and isn't picking up the phone. Your son's teacher calls to say he stood up for another boy in class. A country below the equator ends a 20-year civil war. A soldier across the Atlantic fires the shot that begins another.
(Reading) The scientists find a vaccine that will save millions of people's lives. Your mother's cancer has returned, and doctors say there is nothing else they can do. There is a funeral procession in the morning and a wedding in the afternoon. The river that gives us water to drink is the same one that might wash us away.
GROSS: Before we get to more of your poems, I want to ask you about your nonfiction book, "How The Word Is Passed." That's about the legacy of slavery and the monuments commemorating the Confederacy and slave holders and the distortions of history. Has your book been banned? There's so many books now, fiction and nonfiction, related to Black history that have been banned or that are under consideration for removal from the classroom.
SMITH: Yeah. You know, it's interesting because I think there are a couple different ways that book-banning manifests itself as a sort of political and social phenomenon. I'm not specifically familiar with whether or not the book has been banned by particular school districts or that there are - whether or not there are librarians who are prevented from loaning it out. I've heard a few stories anecdotally, but I've not seen a lot of that. But what I'm more familiar with and what has happened is what I think of as a sort of quiet banning in the sense that it is not on a list that is made public. But there are people in decision-making positions who prevent the book from being a part of a classroom or of a school or of a school district.
An example I have is there was a school in which the students and teachers selected "How The Word Is Passed" as a - as their common read. And it was a private school, and they were going to buy 2,000 copies of the book, and I was going to come speak there. And I've done this at several different universities over the past year or so. And so I was excited to do this at a school with younger students and be in conversation with those educators and those students about so many of the themes that come up in the book and how it's in conversation with a lot of the questions that we're wrestling with as a country today.
But then my speaking agency got a note that said that a decision had been made from above, from a board level that decided that they were not going to do - have "How The Word Is Passed" be the common read anymore because they didn't want any sort of controversial critical race theory books being inserted into the lives of students and having them indoctrinated with a particular set of views. And so the visit was canceled. The purchase of the book was canceled. And I think that that's something that's in some ways much more common for so many authors than what's happening in terms of the specific public list.
GROSS: You know, part of the point of that book was to write the things that no one ever told you when you were in school. You got a very, like, distorted picture of slavery to the extent you were taught about it at all. And your book was an attempt to say, hey, this is what happened, and these are the monuments to that. These are the, like, physical reminders of what happened. Let's talk about what really happened and how we remember the past and what we need to change in how we remember the past, because the past has been misrepresented in schools, among other places.
And you grew up in the South. You grew up in Louisiana and in New Orleans, surrounded by Confederate monuments, walking down streets with the names of Confederate leaders and, like, slave owners. So it's just ironic that a book meant to be an educational corrective is perceived as so threatening.
SMITH: Yeah, I think it's really unfortunate. As you said, I wrote this book for the 15-year-old version of me. I tried to write the sort of book that I felt like I needed in my high school American history class, the sort of book that would have given me the language, the toolkit, the intellectual and historical context with which to more fully understand who I was in relation to my city, my state and my country.
And so - and when I think about, you know, 15-year-old, 16-year-old Clint, I think about how desperate I was for that sort of information because I grew up in New Orleans in the '90s, in a time where we were inundated with these messages about all the things that were wrong with Black people - the crime rate and the rate of violence and the poverty rate and all of these things - the way that our communities were saturated with violence and poverty was because of something that Black people had done wrong. And you're inundated with this message over and over and over again. And if you continue to inundate a child with information and don't give them the information with which to push back against it, they're likely going to begin to internalize it.
And so I remember this feeling of knowing that what I was hearing was wrong, but not knowing how to say it was wrong, not having, again, that language, the toolkit to push back against it. And I remember feeling this sort of social and intellectual paralysis that I didn't know how to escape. And it wasn't until later in my life that I read these books, that I read these texts, that I read these scholars, that completely recalibrated my relationship to American history that included perspectives and stories and narratives that were not traditionally included in the sort of dominant narrative around American history. And it's difficult to overstate how liberating that was.
GROSS: Well, let's take a break here, then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Clint Smith. His new collection of poems is called "Above Ground." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE QUARTET'S "OUT OF THIS WORLD")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Clint Smith. His new collection of poems, "Above Ground," is about fatherhood and the joy and anxiety surrounding it especially as a Black father. He's also the author of the 2021 nonfiction book "How The Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With The History Of Slavery Across America."
Let's talk about your poems, and I want you to read one that's in part about what your grandparents lived through growing up in what you describe as the apartheid South. Your grandfather was from Mississippi and your grandmother from Florida. And it also refers to the miracle of your son being born, your first child, because he was hard to conceive. And then, the pregnancy ended up being very risky. Would you read it for us?
SMITH: (Reading) "By Chance." If the doctors said you were impossible and you arrived anyway, does it mean they were wrong? Or does it mean you defied science? What is the difference between science and a miracle other than discovering new language for something we don't understand? The day we brought you home, I stayed up all night and watched you sleep in your bassinet because I was afraid if I closed my eyes, you'd vanish. Once, a long time ago, your grandmother escaped a war, and your great-grandfather fought in one. You come from good fortune. You come from a history that is arbitrary and cloaked in luck. You come from a land mine that was 2 feet to the left. You come from children who shared their bread when they didn't have to. You come from the parachute that didn't open, then did.
GROSS: Do you tell your children about what it took for them to get here, for you to get here, what your grandparents endured and how they survived?
SMITH: I do, absolutely. I think it's really important for them to know. And this poem is actually speaking to the experience not only of my own grandparents, but also thinking specifically of my wife's mother, who was born in Nigeria and escaped Nigeria during the Biafra War and who walked from Nigeria to Cameroon when she was a child and who ended up being able to move to the United States and make a life for herself when such a thing was so uncertain.
And so, you know, I'm thinking about the sort of - what it means for my children to be the descendants of people who were enslaved and also the descendants of people who were colonized and what it means to carry both of those lineages in their bodies. And I - it's important for us to communicate those realities to them. And obviously, you do it in a way that's developmentally appropriate. You do it in a way that allows them to understand, that's not going to traumatize them. But it is important for our kids to have an understanding both in a sort of micro, familial context where they come from, but also to understand the sort of larger social realities of colonialism, of slavery, that shaped why their family looks the way that it does today.
GROSS: Did you always know you wanted to be a father? And when you were younger and - well, when you were older, when you were a young man and you looked around and you saw the people who were parents your age and older, what did you see?
SMITH: Oh, man. Well, I thought that once you reached your 30s, you were, like, an elderly person.
SMITH: So I was like - you know, I couldn't - I was like, once you have kids, you're, like, old. You must be on - I didn't know what Social Security was, but I was like, well, whatever version of the thing that old people get is probably what you get when you turn 30.
I always thought that I was going to be a dad. I don't think there was ever a point in which that didn't feel like something I was moving toward. And I - with the exception - and I write about this at the beginning of the book, is when my wife and I got news that we were - that fertility was going to be difficult for us. And it was very uncertain. And the pregnancies themselves, when they even happened, were uncertain and incredibly emotionally and physically difficult especially for my wife.
I always imagined myself as being a father, but there were certainly moments where fatherhood felt more distant. And so I feel enormous gratitude to look at these two little humans that we brought into the world because there was a point in which that that was - it was uncertain whether or not that would happen.
GROSS: I want you to read a poem about that. And this is a poem about meeting your wife and deciding to try to conceive pretty soon because of the problems of fertility.
SMITH: (Reading) "Counting Descent II." My son was born on the 71st day of spring on the fifth floor of a hospital in a city with a history of burning. He had two grandmothers in the room and four generations in the world. My daughter was born on the 59th day of winter and two doors down from the room her brother was born in 21 months before. Both of my children were induced several weeks before they were due because waiting any longer would have been a risk to both of their lives.
(Reading) I met my wife two years, one month and seven days before our first child arrived and three relationships after I assumed no one like her existed. We sat at a table in a city 893 miles away from where we live now for four times more likely than we planned and talked about things we had spent half our lives attempting to forget. When the bar closed, we walked two miles to her apartment, where two dates later we'd kiss for the first time.
(Reading) After 17 months and three doctor's appointments, we started trying to have a child because the doctor said we had less than a 1% chance. I'm not sure how they came up with that number, but I remember all the doctors kept saying, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.
GROSS: So that was a follow-up poem to the title poem of your first book of poetry, which was also about thinking about your past in terms of numbers. I'll just quote a few lines. You write, my grandfather is a quarter century older than his right to vote and two decades younger than the president who signed the paper that made it so. Why do numbers have so much power where you're counting, you know, the days, the months, the distance between?
SMITH: Yeah, I should say that this poem and the one that preceded it were inspired by a mentor of mine, Alan Michael Parker, who's a professor at Davidson College where I went, and he was my advisor. He was one of the people who introduced me to poetry. And he has a poem in this book that - in his book that uses a similar conceit that I was so drawn to. I think numbers are such an interesting way to document one's past. I like the idea of the specificity of these moments.
And for me, poems, especially these sorts of poems in this collection, are time capsules. They are attempts to capture a moment in time. They are attempts to archive a moment, a feeling, an idea, an event so that I might be able to look back on it in the way that one looks back at a picture in a photo album or now a picture in your phone from years ago, and be drawn back into a moment. And I think that using numbers in the sort of conceit of this poem and the previous "Counting Descent" is just another way of creating sort of time capsules within the larger time capsule of the poem and bringing me back to those moments that, whether they were positive or negative, whether they were imbued with joy or distress, are important for me to remember.
GROSS: How did you have to recalibrate your plans for your own writing career after you became a father?
SMITH: Oh, man, I - you know, I used to - I was like, I'm going to go to the woods for, like, three months, and I'm going to write a novel, and I'm going to - you know, I imagined these sort of long retreats away, these extended periods of time in which I would be able to focus on nothing but writing and was quickly disabused of that idea because there was a baby in our apartment and soon to be a toddler and soon to be two toddlers and then two toddlers at the beginning of a, you know, once-in-a-century pandemic. And so I was disabused of the idea that I would have these long, extended, lavish periods of time with which to write where, you know, I put my tea down and sat by the window...
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.
SMITH: ...And the sun hit me just so. And there was very little of that. I think I had a conversation with a mentor, Imani Perry, the incredible writer, Princeton scholar. We got together years ago after my son was born, and she has two children of her own. And she was saying, you have to let go of the idea that you have to have these long periods of time, of open time to write. You got to write every chance you get, whether you have 10 minutes, whether you have five minutes, whether you can only write a paragraph, whether - and it's simple advice. But it was really transformative for me.
And I began to think of writing less as something that I had to have the perfect conditions for and more of something that I had to be proactive in cultivating. And so, you know, over the last several years, I write everywhere. You know, both of these books were written in my iPhone, on my laptop, on pieces of napkin at the coffee shop, during nap time, during episodes of "Peppa Pig," at the barbershop. I recognized that, you know, if I want to be a present parent and present partner, then it is important for me to sort of write where I can so that when I'm with my family, I don't have to be imagining or wishing that I was doing something else.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Clint Smith. His new collection of poems is called "Above Ground." We'll be right back after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JON BATISTE'S "KINDERGARTEN")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Clint Smith. His new collection of poems "Above Ground" is about the joy and anxiety surrounding fatherhood, especially as a Black father. Some of the poems reflect the themes he wrote about in his nonfiction book "How The Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With The History Of Slavery Across America." That book is about how monuments to slave owners and Confederate soldiers, as well as how history has been taught, have distorted the truth about slavery and its ongoing legacy. He grew up in New Orleans, surrounded by Confederate monuments and walking along streets named after Confederate leaders and enslavers.
There's a poem I'd like you to read about being out at the pharmacy with your two young kids. And if you have any greatest hits, any poems you think of as greatest hits, I would imagine this would be one of them. So this poem is called "Gold Stars."
SMITH: (Reading) "Gold Stars." On the days when I am out alone with my children, I'm made to feel as if I am a saint or a god or the undisputed best father of all time. What I mean is that when we walk into CVS and my daughter is wrapped on my chest and my son toddles at my side, people stop and look and gasp and point and walk up to me asking to shake my hand. Men pat me on the back. Women touch my shoulder and touch their hearts. The manager at the front of the store comes on to the loudspeaker to say, excuse me. May I have everyone's attention? On aisle seven, you can get three boxes of detergent for the price of two, and on aisle five, there is an incredible father running errands alone with his children. Everyone in the store bursts into applause, and someone walks over to hand me a crown and a ribbon and a coupon for an all-you-can eat buffet.
(Reading) Just the other day, a woman at the park told me how wonderful it is that I took the time to babysit my own children. Just the other day, I changed a dirty diaper, and someone said, praise Jesus. Just the other day, a man on the road stopped his car in the middle of the street, rolled down his window and told me I was father of the year. It's not that I don't appreciate the sentiment. It's just that this man has no idea what kind of father I actually am. All he saw was me and two children and a diaper bag teeming with crackers. And it's not that I don't want people to tell me I'm doing a good job. It's just that I am praised for the sorts of things no one ever thanks my wife for. I am adorned in a garland of gold stars for simply being in this body.
GROSS: Your wife must love that poem and the acknowledgement of the disparity between how men are just, like, acknowledged and applauded for just being a father out in public with their kids and the way women are just expected to be that way.
SMITH: Yeah. It's one of those things where, you know - and we talk about this all the time and experience it in such profoundly different ways all the time. And I think there's an additional layer because, you know, she's a Black woman, and I'm a Black man. And so that is in conversation with the sort of already conspicuous difference that I think men and women, often of any race, experience with regard to people's perception of their role as parents. And it's one of those things where it's nice to tell parents they're doing a good job. Like, it is - I do feel oftentimes that, like, you know, parents should get a parade. Parents should get a - you know, should get - have random people come up to them and give them crowns and give them coupons and give them - and tell them they're doing a great job.
So it's not to say that that shouldn't happen, but it is to ask us to examine why we do that for fathers in a way we don't do for mothers. And I think that there's things to unpack from that that have to do with race and that have to do with people's - the sort of pathologies around Black fatherhood that have existed in our public consciousness for a long time. And so I think when people see a Black father, they want to celebrate it. Like, when they see a Black father with his young kids, it feels worthy of praise. And so I understand where it's coming from, even if I think it's important to push back against the impulse to do it only for the fathers and not for the mothers.
GROSS: So you've made it clear how fortunate you feel to have your two children and to have - you know, to have children at all because you were given only a 1% chance, you and your wife, of being able to conceive. But in the spirit of your first poem that you read of, like, holding two thoughts in your head at the same time, you love your kids; you love being with them; you're so glad when they go to sleep. And so I want you to read a poem about that called "Ode To Those First 15 Minutes After The Kids Are Finally Asleep."
SMITH: (Reading) "Ode To Those First 15 Minutes After The Kids Are Finally Asleep." Praise the couch that welcomes you back into its embrace, as it does every night around this time. Praise the loose cereal that crunches beneath your weight - the whole-grain golden dust that now shimmers on the backside of your pants. Praise the cushion, the one in the middle that sinks like a lifeboat leaking air, and the ottoman covered in crayon stains that you now have accepted as aesthetic. Praise your knees and the evening respite they receive from a day of choo-choo training along the carpet with two eager passengers in tow. Praise the silence - oh, the silence - how it washes over you like a warm bedsheet.
(Reading) Praise the walls for the way they stand there and don't ask for anything. Praise the seduction of slumber that tiptoes across your eyelids, the way it tempts you to curl up right there and drift away even though it's only 7:30 p.m. Praise the phone you scroll through without even realizing that you're scrolling. Praise the video you scroll past of the man teaching his dog how to dance merengue. Praise the way it makes you laugh the way someone laughs when they are so tired they don't even know if they will stand up again. Praise the toys scattered across the floor and the way you wonder if it might be OK to just leave them there for now, since you know tomorrow, they will end up there again.
GROSS: I think so many people will relate to that. What stage are you now with your kids?
SMITH: My son is about to turn 6. My daughter just turned 4. And so, you know, I think we all relate to that time after a workday and then picking the kids up, doing the afternoon activities and the homework and the hanging out and the soccer practice and dance class or a weekend where you're with your kids, you know, all day, and it's great. But then, you know, you put them down and those - just like the poem says, those first 15 minutes when you're, like, listening at the beginning, when you're listening to hear if anybody's going to tiptoe out of their room, or when they're younger, if somebody's going to start crying or start screaming and the sort of just overwhelming respite your body feels when you can, like, sink into that couch or into the bed or onto the floor. I think that is a universal experience because it's a lot to raise little humans and to try to make them thoughtful and kind and to make sure they don't, you know, put things in their mouth or their nose or both at the same time. So...
SMITH: Yeah. The constant vigilance is - can be exhausting in ways you don't fully realize until the day is done.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Clint Smith. His new collection of poems is called "Above Ground." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RHYTHM FUTURE QUARTET'S "IBERIAN SUNRISE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Clint Smith. His new collection of poems, "Above Ground," is about fatherhood and the joy and anxiety surrounding it especially as a Black father. He's also the author of the 2021 nonfiction book "How The Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With The History Of Slavery Across America."
You grew up in New Orleans, surrounded by Confederate monuments and streets named after Confederate leaders and slaveholders. So, you know, that was part of the inspiration for your previous book about the legacy of slavery. But you had a personal trauma - well, a collective trauma, really, in New Orleans. You were 17 during Hurricane Katrina. And I think your family moved after that. Did you lose your home? Like, what was your experience of that?
SMITH: We did lose our home. I was 17. I was a senior in high school. And our home was under, you know, 10 feet of water, submerged, like 80% of the city was. It was hard in ways that I think I'm still trying to process and traumatic in ways that I think I'm still trying to unravel. And I say that, but at the same time, you know, it - we lost our home, but I was able to go to a different school in Houston, Texas. And we were able to relocate back to New Orleans into a different home and different neighborhood afterwards. And so I - you know, I am much more fortunate than so many others who lost their home and weren't able to go back to New Orleans.
But it's interesting because now - you know, I'm 34 years old. Katrina was 17 years ago. And so it very cleanly bifurcates my life now. And I had a moment where I was back home - I brought my kids and my wife home for Mardi Gras a few weeks ago. And that was their first Mardi Gras that they had ever experienced. And seeing the colors and the sounds and the floats and the - and how much my kids loved it, it was this sort of, like, wonderful sensory overload for them. And it was so nice to experience that through their eyes, in that way, and I hadn't been back home for so long for Mardi Gras specifically.
But I had this moment where we were in my parents' house, and I realized that they had lived in that house for longer than we had lived in my childhood home, which was so staggering to me because the home that I go back to, where my parents live now, has only ever been, like, the other house. You know, Katrina is the thing that both feels so long ago, but also not that long ago at all.
GROSS: What was your personal experience of the storm, of the hurricane?
SMITH: Yeah, we evacuated...
SMITH: ...And went to Houston probably two days before. I remember...
GROSS: Oh, yeah. So you weren't in the storm itself?
SMITH: No, we weren't in the storm. No, I mean - and the thing that some people who aren't from New Orleans don't always understand is that evacuating from the hurricane was, like, a regular occurrence. It was, like, an annual field trip almost. It felt - like, here comes a hurricane. You board up the house. You pack up some clothes for a few days. We go to Houston. Then, we come back a few days later, pick up some branches. Everything's OK. And that was my experience my whole life.
And obviously, Katrina was very different than the storms that had preceded it and had a fundamentally different impact. So, you know, I remember being a 17, you know, year-old kid who was sitting on my aunt and uncle's couch in Houston, Texas, watching CNN as the church I used to go to and the school I used to go to and the grocery store I used to go to were all shown submerged under water. But I think as a way to just keep going, I suppressed a lot of the anxiety and, frankly, depression that I felt.
You know, we didn't have - this was 2005. There wasn't the sort of conversation around public health or therapy or any of that that exists now in the way that, I think, it does for Gen Z and for teenagers who - you know, who are, in their own way, experiencing a profound mental health crisis coming out of COVID. But that wasn't even something that was, like, part of the conversation in this country in the same way. And so I think it is something that I kind of swept under the rug for a long time - to be stripped from my family, from my home, from my friends so suddenly, and to have never seen some of those people again. You know, it was a difficult time and a time that I'm, in so many ways, still trying to make sense of.
GROSS: There's one more poem I'd like you to read, and this is about your physical health and the physical health of your family. And it's also really basically a meditation on life itself. So the poem is called "For The Doctor's Record" (ph), and it's kind of as if you were giving a medical history at a checkup.
SMITH: (Reading) "For The Doctor's Records." My father has chronic kidney disease. He has had two transplants thanks to two people who were generous in ways I'm worried I am not. My mother has a nerve in her neck that doesn't let her sleep through the night. My mother's mother died of blood clots. My father's father died with Alzheimer's, casting a cloud over everything inside him. My wife had complications while she was pregnant with both my son and daughter. Both arrived early, and I held my breath until each of them released their first. My wife's mother escaped a war and lived to tell us how the memory is still whispering inside her.
(Reading) I enjoy fried foods. I eat too much salt. I worry about having more than one drink. I've seen people in my family become consumed by things they didn't know could kill them. My knees hurt some days. I feel my bones ache when it rains like the old folks used to say. I don't know what is in my body and what is in my head. I want to take more pain medicine, but I'm afraid of what I can't control. My chest gets tight when I lie to people I love. My mother's sister had breast cancer. My mother's brother let alcohol turn him into silence. I remain astonished by how cicadas lived for 17 years underground and then die within weeks of coming up to meet the world.
GROSS: What were you doing when you wrote that poem? What made you think of life in a way - as interpreted through medical records?
SMITH: This is inspired by a poem by the incredible poet Nicole Sealey. Our family, like many families, have a very specific and often checkered medical history. And I was thinking about this in part because, you know, when you bring - we began our conversation by thinking about, you know, what - did I ever question or did I ever wrestle with whether or not we should bring children into the world? Part of that is thinking about, you know, what your kids are going to carry. What they're going to - what are the sort of intergenerational realities, you know, the intergenerational traumas, the intergenerational genetic dispositions, the intergenerational health conditions that you will pass on to your children. And a big part of it is you don't know.
So I was thinking about and wrestling with that uncertainty. I was thinking about the sense of not knowing what parts of my lineage, what parts of my wife and I's collective lineage, our children will carry, and more specifically, how it will impact them. And that's a frightening, unsettling thing because you don't ever want to feel responsible for passing something on to your children that causes them physical, emotional or psychological distress. But you also just don't know.
GROSS: There's a kind of follow-up poem to the poem you just read. And it's called "For The Doctor's Record: Follow-Up," (ph) as if it's a follow-up appointment and you're still reporting medical things. And what I'd like you to do is just read the last part of it, starting with last night.
SMITH: (Reading) Last night, another boy who could have once been me or who might one day be my son was killed by police. But this time, no cameras showed up. I haven't cried in a long time. There have been 11,315 sunsets since I was born. And I haven't stopped to watch any of them.
GROSS: Is that right, that you've never really stopped to watch a sunset?
SMITH: At the time of writing that poem, that was true. Yeah. And I think that part of what poems do in their own strange way is make me more present and sort of hold me accountable. So the very act of writing down that I've never seen - you know, that I've been on this Earth, when I wrote that poem, you know, over 11,000 days and have never - really never just sort of sat to watch the sunset, like, for a sustained period of time - uninterrupted, focusing just on the way that the Earth is tilting so that the sun moves across the horizon - was a moment of revelation for me to ensure that that reality did not continue to be the case.
And so it wasn't long after that, I wrote that poem, that I did sit down and watch the sunset, because part of what poetry does is allows you to - and maybe the better word is forces you and pushes you to see the parts of yourself that you might not otherwise have encountered or might not have otherwise paid attention to. And I think that my having never watched a sunset felt reflective of a larger phenomenon, a larger idea of being unable to sit still. And I've been trying to do better with stillness, trying to do better with being present. And so that's what the poem was calling me to do.
GROSS: Clint Smith, it's been great having you on the show again and hearing you read your poems and talk about your life. Thank you so much.
SMITH: It's been such a pleasure. Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Clint Smith's new collection of poems is called "Above Ground." After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review the film that won the grand jury prize for Best American Dramatic Film at this year's Sundance Film Festival. This is FRESH AIR.
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