An Interview with Clint Smith, "Ode to the Loop-de-Loop," and "Line/Breaks"

Can you discuss the origin of "Ode to the Loop-de-Loop" and "Line/Breaks?"

"Ode to the Loop-de-Loop" was born out of an effort to write more about the things that scare me, both the profound and the seemingly trivial. It was a part of a 30/30 exercise I did with another poet, and the thing about writing a poem every day for a month is that it pushes you to write beyond the subject matters you're typically accustomed to addressing. After about the fourth poem, I had to really dig deep and be more reflective about the things that have frightened me over the course of my life. It ranged from heights, to police, to spicy food, to roller coasters. As I began writing the poem, I realized that as much as I feared the roller coaster, and the loop-de-loop particularly, it also holds a certain kind of mystique to it. It brought up the idea of being frightened by the things we seemingly can't control—something I've come to realize it's a recurring feature in much of my work.

In terms of "Line/Breaks," much of the work I've been doing lately, in both a personal and professional life, is decoupling what it means to be well-schooled as compared to being well-educated. I think it's important to remember that education manifests itself in a myriad of ways and takes place in both formal and informal spaces. This poem was an effort to remind me of the ways that has happened in my own life.

You're on a deserted island with only one poem. Which one is it and why?

My favorite poem at the moment is "Double-Dutch" by Gregory Pardlo. I had that pleasure of working with Greg this summer at the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop and it was a life-changing experience. We spoke a lot about the role of the black artist, and more broadly, what it means to create political art. I appreciate Greg because he really pushed us to make sure that, even in this current political moment, which seems to demand a certain type of art, we don't fall victim to writing one sort of way about blackness—to write beyond black death. So for me, this poem is important, not only because it is masterfully done, but because it is a poem about a girl jumping rope. Not jumping rope as a metaphor for dodging bullets. Not jumping rope as a way to skip over despair. But simply because she is a child who loves to jump rope. Part of what is insidious about white supremacy is that it can sometimes make black artists feel like they can only create one type of art, and subsequently our full humanity as black people fails to be conveyed. This poem, and so much of Greg's work, rejects that notion and it's a helpful reminder to me every time I read it.

What body of work or poet has been influential for your development as a poet?

I come out of the tradition of spoken word and performance poetry and it's difficult to pinpoint a single individual who shaped my development as a poet—it was really the entire poetry slam community. I will say, however, that nothing I've been able to accomplish thus far in my life would have happened had it not been for the poetry community in Washington DC. I'm eternally grateful for the way they welcomed me and gave me the space and encouragement to grow as an artist, especially at a time when I doubted my ability to be a part of that world.