A Chat with Clint Smith
By Lekha Medarametla
“Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.”
– Robert Frost
Last Thursday, writer, teacher and spoken work poet Clint Smith visited HB with his new book, Counting Descent. He gave an entertaining assembly that was met with an amazing response from the audience, delivering a powerful message about the problems American society faces today. He is an activist interested in the link between education and incarceration, as well as the inequality present in America. After a rousing assembly, I sat down with him and asked him some questions.
What do you think are the most pressing social issues facing America right now?
Well, I think the most pressing issue right now is not to elect Donald Trump (“I AGREE” – random bystander). I also think the civil war in Syria is really big and doesn’t get a lot of attention- about 100 children have been killed since Friday, and I think people are becoming increasingly indifferent. Issues of racial justice and police violence and incredibly important, obviously, and I would say a lot of work still needs to be done about LGBT issues and discrimination in the workplace.
How does using poetry as a medium for activism affect people in a different way than prose, or the media?
Poetry gives people this access point to issues that don’t make them feel personally attacked. As a poet, part of what I want my work to do is to put things in context and to illuminate things people otherwise might not have considered. And I think that part of what illuminating that work creatively does is make people realize that others wrestle with the real human implications of these things, rather than thinking about them in an abstract way.
What do you think our generation can do to improve racial relations, and maybe achieve greater equality in society?
Besides having a mountain goat patronus reading about systemic racism? Well that would be number 1.
I really think that we- and it sounds like it’s happening here at Hathaway Brown- should talk honestly about history, both in the context of slavery and also housing discrimination, the ways school are funded- all of these different things that deeply impact communities in a racial context. For example, sometimes highways are built through black communities with small businesses. Highways are constructed mainly through poor communities, and they move people out to build the highways, so nobody goes to those mom-and-pop businesses anymore. These communities become these cesspools of violence and drug markets. It’s a very real thing.
I think that white people need to speak to other white people about racism. There are certain conversations that will never happen with people of color in the room. People who are not black need to have these conversations specifically with their friends, their family, and be honest be honest about the ways in which they and many of us are complicit in the perpetuation of systemic racism in this country.
What is the tie between education and incarceration?
There is a thing called the school-prison pipeline, which means depending which school you go to, the neighborhood you grow up in or the disciplinary policies that exist in that school, you are either more likely to be on a trajectory for college or on a trajectory for jail. Data shows that if you are suspended or expelled, you are exponentially more likely to be arrested or end up in the criminal justice system. I think we need to change school disciplinary policies, and desegregate schools. Schools are, for the most part, and especially public schools, still segregated along the lines of race and class. So what happens is, we have schools that are hyper-concentrated in regards to poverty, and academic achievement becomes really difficult there.
I really enjoyed your Ted Talk, The Danger of Silence (“Thank You!”), those of us in Mr. Parsons’s English class are familiar with it- was there ever a moment you wish you had spoken up about an injustice, or regret being silent?
All the time! I really wrote that poem to hold myself accountable, because there are so any moments where I didn’t speak up when I needed to. I think every day I am presented with moments that are like, alright, you gotta say something, even though it’s uncomfortable. Life, for me, is as much about unlearning as it is about learning, and I think I am unlearning a lot of things about myself, in terms of prejudices I may hold. I think it’s a continuous process, there is never going to be a day where I speak up about every single thing I need to.
Part of what we struggle with, as students, is actually writing, and we hit a lot of mental roadblocks or lack inspiration. Can you describe your writing process?
Very… practical. I make sure I set aside time every day to write, at least 20-30 minutes. Sometimes its in the notes section of my iPhone, talking to Siri, on my laptop, on a pad with a pen. So there’s not a consistent way I do it, but oftentimes I’ll be reading or listening to something, a podcast, and I’ll hear a word or a phrase that spark something inside of me, and then the poem almost grows out of that. The beginning or the end of the poem, for me, are often the last parts written.
What are your favorite podcasts?
Ah, there are so many. I listen to super nerdy ones. Longform, the Weeds (Ezra Klein show), This American Life, Invisabilia, The New Yorker Radio Hour, NPR’s Code Switch, just to name a few
One last question: As students, a lot of us believe that we are not “good” at writing- what would you say to someone that holds that mentality?
One, read. The best writers are the best readers. Sometimes that’s an unsatisfactory answer, but I write better because I keep reading more books, and I am very lucky that my job every day is to read, write, and think about the things I care about. Seeing how other writers construct their ideas is really important.
Clint Smith has a new book out called Counting Descent, and is a collection of brilliant poems combining creativity and activism. He is the first of a series of visiting writers; I think we can all agree that having him at HB was a great way to start off the school year!