Slam poet Suzi Q. Smith brought a national championship to Denver
When I laugh, I mean it.
Loud and from my belly.
Throw my head back, shake my hair
And even show the generous gap between my two front teeth.
It is when I am quiet that it is time to pay attention.
When I am quiet something big is about to happen.
It is 9 a.m., and in the back seat, Suzi Q. Smith is silent. One hour into the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Laramie, the poet is alone with her thoughts, looking out the window of the rental car at the empty fields. Her ability to focus is remarkable: Smith can go from being the center of a crowd to completely alone in the split second it takes her to concentrate. She has made this trip many times before; she does not need to practice.
An illness keeps Smith from driving alone, so she and fellow poets Bobby Lefebre and Theo Wilson are traveling together to the University of Wyoming, where they'll teach a class in slam poetry. Up in the front seat, Lefebre and Wilson are working through the lines of "Devil's Pie," a raucous, poignant and ultimately pointed piece about racism, shouting out lines that pit the Mexican and African-American races — their own — against each other.
Smith stays quiet until they ask for directions.
"We just keep going until we're there," she says. She pauses for a beat, then laughs. "That's kind of my life story, come to think of it."
When I am quiet I am concentrating.
When I am quiet I am going to climax.
When I am quiet I love you too powerful to speak.
When I am quiet I am going to take off your pants and change your life.
Smith was born 33 years ago at St. Anthony's Hospital, the youngest of four children. When she was little, her father thought she couldn't speak; she let her older siblings speak for her. But she could read and write before she started kindergarten — and it turned out that she had plenty to say, even if she didn't often say it out loud. Her youth was a quiet one, though many of her friends now find that hard to believe.
"We'd catch her by herself singing or dancing in the corner, and as soon as we did, she'd deny it," remembers Buddy Smith, her older brother. "Now when I go see her on stage, I'm like, 'Wow, that's my little sister.'"
When she was three, she and her siblings moved in with their paternal grandmother in Park Hill. Her grandmother, now 82, was raised during the Depression, and she reinforced Smith's interest in the written word, reading Harlem Renaissance poetry — Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes — to her grandchildren in the TV-free living room. She also read the Bible and took the kids to church, where she played the piano five times a week.
For high school, Smith moved to Littleton to live with her mother. For most of her life, she has had zero contact with her father, who figures occasionally in her poetry. "Every time she reads something, I find something in there that applies to us as siblings, and it's gut-wrenching," her oldest sister, Rebecca, says. "I'm proud of the way she's been able to express it on behalf of all of us."
In college at Colorado State University, Smith studied English and creative writing before dropping out in 1997 to earn money. She has not attended a class on campus since 2002, but in the intervening years has taken online classes for the University of Colorado Denver degree she will finalize in summer 2013; after that, she hopes to pursue a master of fine arts so that she can teach at the university level. But while her lack of formal education prohibits her from holding a permanent teaching position, it has not prevented her from entering the academic sphere — or from pursuing her poetry.
As far back as she can remember, Smith was always writing. By the late '90s, it was always poetry. By then she'd added Q, an early childhood nickname, to what started as a pen name and then became a full-fledged stage name. But she couldn't make a living as a poet, even when she started performing, so she embarked on a long series of jobs: as a cook at Pizza Hut; as a receptionist for a stock brokerage and then a bank; as an AOL telemarketer selling Internet user guides; at the Urban League, first as the executive assistant to now-mayor Michael Hancock and then as the organization's special-events and membership director. At the brokerage, a customer took note of her melodic voice and paid her a compliment: "You know, you have a great voice. Every time I call and am losing $1 million, you make me feel like I'm losing half a million."
Smith, who was broke, would have been happy picking up just a thousand of that. Her legal name is Leslie Suzanne Smith — but outside of work, the only people who used that name were bill collectors. By now, even her closest friends were referring to her as "Suzi Q. Smith," usually reserving the simple "Suzi" for face-to-face conversations.
It was at the Urban League, when Smith was eighteen, that she met the man who would become her husband, then her ex-husband. They married a few days after her twentieth birthday and divorced three years later, after Smith gave birth to a daughter, Kai. "We had completely different ideas of what marriage was," Smith says.
In "Lazarus," perhaps Smith's most well-known poem and still a mainstay in her performance roster, Smith wrote about Kai's father. The poem makes her sister Rebecca cry every time Smith reaches its crescendo, but she doubts that her ex has ever heard it. "Me without you is flawed," the poem says. "I need you. I require you. I'll be damned if I let them acquire you.... You're not the only one going through this. I'm standing knee-deep in the same mess, and we both know I'm not some damsel in distress. I carry the same weapons as you.... You and me got matching scars."
The poem ends with a call to action: "So get up, I'm not done with you yet, Lazarus."
Although the divorce was a friendly one (her ex still attends birthday parties and Thanksgiving dinners), Smith maintains full custody of Kai, now an inquisitive twelve-year-old who is her mother's single greatest inspiration.
With Kai, Smith has adopted an open, experimental relationship. "We have a different system," she says. Smith doesn't believe in bad words, but she does believe that language can be inappropriate, that opinions and ideas can be unhealthy. One day when Kai was in her Ke$ha phase, she was listening to the pop tart's music in the car. "So we pulled the car over to talk about her," Smith recalls. "I said, 'I know you love her, but don't you think she needs rehab? We need to start listening to what she's really saying and say a little prayer for her right now.'"
When I am quiet I am remembering what I have hidden at the tops of closets
And deciding how best to pack them.
When I am quiet I am trying not to cry.
When I am quiet I am going to leave.
When Kai was still a toddler, Smith began performing at open-mike nights, her voice an important part of the spoken-word scene. Smith's physical presence is just as impressive. Her copper-brown hair, which she wears in a loose Afro, bobs when she speaks, and a cunning smile is softened by the noticeable gap between her front teeth. "I'm black, but you can't tell," she jokes. "No one accepts me, not even the Puerto Ricans or the Dominicans. The only people who accept me as their own are the Cubans. Everyone else is like, 'Who do you belong to?'"
She belonged to poetry — but she was a relative latecomer to an important derivative of spoken word: slam poetry.
By the late '80s, the new genre was slamming in Chicago and moving into the big cities of the East, taking hold of New York and Boston before jumping over to the Bay Area and then spreading away from the coasts to cities like Denver. The Mercury Cafe was the city's first center for slam, and sent Denver's first team to the National Poetry Slam in 2000. But as the slam community grew here, the Mercury's five spots were no longer enough to accommodate even half the people who were competitive at a regional level, so poets called for an addition to the city's roster.
That's when Smith stepped up to co-found Slam Nuba in November 2006, despite her worries that the creation of this second group might create a rift — or, at the very least, a rivalry — in the Denver scene. "In other cities, when second or third slams start, it's usually because people hate each other," she says. But the rivalry has always been friendly. Last year, a time penalty in the final bout disqualified Smith from joining Slam Nuba, so she spent the summer competing with the Mercury Cafe team instead. "It sucks when we have to compete against each other, but at least when we're in a national venue, we have friends in the room," she says. In regions like the Northeast, with teams in New York, Boston and Philadelphia, it's easy for poets to get together; Denver's closest competitors are in Albuquerque and Salt Lake.
And Slam Nuba was a strong competitor from the start. It was one of the first groups to adopt a slogan, taken from the Spike Lee film Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. Today at competitions, when Slam Nuba is introduced, its members respond with an aggressive shout of "We cut heads!" At nationals a few years ago, another team reworked that as "We pot heads!"; an R-rated poster mocking the Slam Nuba slogan is currently circling the Internet.
In 2009, Slam Nuba's members were so busy practicing for nationals that they neglected to take a team photo the entire season. "Once you get on the team, you are signing your life away for four months," Smith says. Each year, she rotates her time between participating on the team and coaching it as the slam master at its host venue, the Crossroads Theater.
Denver's two teams have helped hone the city's reputation as a place for voluminous, multi-dimensional group pieces that often incorporate song instead of the solo performances preferred by the majority of their competitors. As long as each poet involved in a group piece either wrote part of it or is performing that round, he or she can join the group on stage. And when Slam Nuba travels for competition, its members like to stick together; they usually rent a condo rather than book hotel rooms.
Smith, Lefebre and Wilson have all rotated in and out of Slam Nuba since its founding six years ago, and the team has earned a spot at the national championship's semifinals every year since then. Even in casual conversation, the three poets sound like they are performing. So when Lefebre tells the story of Slam Nuba's rise through Smith, it is a dramatic monologue. For years, he has tried to convince someone to create a reality show following a slam team around during the four months leading up to summer nationals.
"We didn't have anything to compare ourselves to," he says. "We just created this from scratch, but we don't fucking play. We've always been a well-oiled machine because we've never lost that feeling of being the other slam team."
But Smith isn't quite the well-oiled machine she once was. In early 2010, while at her job as a sales specialist at Trinidad Benham, she collapsed on her way to the copy machine. Typically, she proceeded to army-crawl to her desk in front of all of her co-workers, but the point was clear even to her: Something had to change.
Earlier that morning, in fact, she'd visited a cardiologist. She'd been pushing herself for years — as a mother, an employee, a poet — and the stress had begun to show. "The hectic pace of that all caught up with me, I guess, because all of a sudden I was on the floor," Smith says. "It was an insane lifestyle, but I didn't want to acknowledge any limitations."
The diagnosis was a brain-stem condition called dysautonomia. Essentially, Smith's automatic nerve system occasionally ceases to function correctly, which results in dizziness, loss of feeling and visual side effects. Her blood flow slows down. To explain it, she subtly curls the fingers on her right hand. "When I have a fit, this is the closest I can get to a fist," she says. For a poet, however, the disorder's most problematic symptom might be that it makes her substitute words. Frequently when she speaks, Smith will use a word completely out of context, confusing her audience. Recently, while attempting to request an envelope, she repeatedly asked her perplexed family members for a "lemon drop."
Smith spent most of 2010 in bed before she, Kai and their two big dogs moved in with her mother and stepfather. Today she works with a naturopathic doctor and takes forty vitamin supplements a day. If she experiences an attack while driving, she has to pull over and call a friend to pick her up. It is because of her condition that she doesn't drive alone on trips; instead, she brings other poets along. And she can no longer take Kai to school every day — a realization that required her to swallow a huge amount of pride.
"She knows what she wants out of life because she has been there and seen what she does not want," says her sister Rebecca. "After that, it's a lot easier to create a life out of where you want to go."
And in the end, the diagnosis helped Smith to make a decision she'd postponed for years: to finally drop the 9-to-5 and become a full-time poet. Now when she talks about her travels with those who don't know much about the poetry scene, they sometimes ask, "Oh, you got a job?"
Her response is candid: "Fuck you, no. Do you know how hard I work to not have a job?"
When I am quiet I am holding my tongue
Curling my fist 'round it
Tracing my fingers along the tip
Wanting to throw it
Wanting to hide it
Wanting to swallow it.
A slam poet is allotted three minutes for a performance, but Smith doesn't need them to make her point. She has been known to step on stage, recite a haiku and step off — to overwhelming applause. The most common category in slam is the identity poem, though, and most of Smith's poetry can be easily traced back to her own sense of self. She is a single mother who also happens to be a full-time poet, and that's a tough combination in America — albeit a rich place to write from. And when she writes, it's with a sense of urgency.
"You have only these three tiny minutes to say all of yourself to whoever is listening," Smith explains, "so you have to treat it like your last three minutes on Earth. You should be saying something that's a little bit bigger than you."
While she doesn't have much to prove to the local scene, she still has things to prove to herself. "People sometimes ask me for my autograph after shows, and I'm like, 'Why do you want this?'" she says. "I mean, I'd only want your signature if it were on a check. It's really a personal challenge to see what I'm capable of. My competition is me."
On stage, at the mike or working without one, Smith's delivery is bold and calculated. "Suzi Q. Smith is like ice water — really, really cold ice water," says Isis Speaks, another local poet. She pauses, then confirms the metaphor. "There's so much in her poetry that can be painful, but in this really deliberate, poignant way. It's brilliant."
Brilliant enough that last year, she was a finalist in both the Individual World Poetry Slam and the Women of the World Poetry Slam, and she was a semi-finalist at the National Poetry Slam. She is a national champion in haiku performance. She has two books and two CDs of poetry to her name, and another one of each in the works. And she is now rated the No. 3 female slam poet in the country, although she doesn't think the national title she won last year had anything to do with her ability to write. "I don't believe that winning or losing makes you a better poet," Smith says. "You can win every slam you're in for weeks and feel so high and then get your ass handed to you by a newbie."
"Suzi Q. Smith is honestly the most reliable person in the Denver poetry community," says Ken Arkind, her fellow coach for Minor Disturbance, Denver's youth poetry slam team, whose members range in age from thirteen to nineteen (see page 41). "She's 100 percent all the time."
When she isn't competing or coaching, she's performing locally and teaching at the middle-school, high-school and university levels. She spends about a third of her time traveling — less than she used to, given her health. Since 2008 she's been represented by Boston Event Works; she's one of the few poets with an agent, who takes 15 percent of any appearances she books for Smith. But in order to make a profit from her travels, she does not accept contracts for less than $1,500.
Because of their budgets, college lectures are the most lucrative gigs. Performing slam shows is not a great way to earn a living. Each night, she says, the best average haul is about $200, and that's if you sell all your merch.
Smith has also used the city's music scene to push her poetry and persona. Lady Wu-Tang, which first performed in January2011, has become one of Smith's most frequent outlets for poetry, though the majority is not her own. The band's internal joke about Smith is a serious one. When the members talk about her, they say that "Suzi Q. Smith is a fucking woman."
When Lady Wu-Tang was originally constructed, Smith doubted her assignment to the role of Method Man, the group's reluctant heartthrob and most enigmatic presence. But that all changed when she actually embraced the additional persona. "I remember right before our first show I saw Black Swan and I thought, 'That is my life right now. I'm two people at once,'" she says. "[Method Man] helps me tap into this raw, aggressive side of myself that I feel like is stamped out in most women."
Over the last few months, the cover band has earned considerable attention, most notably from Wu-Tang itself. Smith and the seven other female MCs who front Lady Wu-Tang closed down Raekwon's solo set at Casselman's the day before their own anniversary show at City Hall on January 29. Strapped into a corset and a fishnet top, growling her rhymes to the crowd at the sold-out concert, Smith was all woman — and not quite a lady.
The day after that raw and rowdy performance, the members of Lady Wu-Tang were personally invited by Raekwon to join him and Ghostface Killah on the stage in Aspen. "It felt like everything we had done before was just rehearsal," Smith reflects. "When it came time to step on stage with members of the Wu-Tang Clan, we had practiced enough to be ready for Raekwon to hand us the microphone and let us take over. That's how I want to be every day of my life."
I have words. Many, many words.
I have tongue and teeth and lips.
I keep a hurricane in my throat.
Today's poetry lesson was supposed to focus on sonic and literary devices, but only one kid showed up. For Smith, it was a briefly disheartening glimpse at the future of modern poetry, but for Manny, the sole student who didn't skip for detention or talent-show tryouts, it was a chance to practice his rap, to perfect the flow of the verse he'd just written.
In it, he compared his poetry to Harry Potter's wand, and the magical implications made Smith grin as she watched Manny perform a cappella in the otherwise empty classroom. Smith had signed on for a ten-week after-school program devoted to teaching poetry to sixth- through ninth-graders at Noel Community Arts School, helping them create a finished poem and record it on video. All nine students who should have been in the class, a branch of Flobots.org's work in the cultural arts, had been nominated for the chance by their teachers.
Seated in front of a whiteboard devoted to a lesson on volcanoes, Manny asked Smith if he could read his rap instead of reciting it, but he already knew what the answer would be. "Have you ever gone to a show and seen an MC spitting off a sheet of paper?" she asked. "Wouldn't you want your money back?"
He nodded and began to spit out the rhyme; he had no need to refer to that sheet of paper. When he was finished, Smith clapped before offering advice on his pronunciation, rhythm and flow. When she asked Manny for his favorite rapper, he said it was Eminem.
In their first class, Smith had asked the students to write down a line of their favorite song, then pass the paper to the person next to them. From there, they continued adding the lines, with the goal of constructing their own poetry from the results. One student chose Milli Vanilli's "Girl You Know It's True," a selection Smith earnestly hoped was a joke.
"Poetry is like sheet music," she argued, telling the class that it needs to be performed to come alive. "Have you ever seen a piece of sheet music and thought, 'Man, that song is my jam?'"
In her work with students, Smith tries to convince them that slam poetry is the last place where they can tell the truth about absolutely anything. She's made it her mission never to pretend to know something she doesn't, which is one of the reasons that children are drawn to her. "I love turning haters into believers," she admits. "I come from this strange area of life where I know I'm on top and I know I'm the underdog at the exact same time. I just try to get other people to admit they're in the same place."
At a workshop in Laramie last year, Smith asked students to write about the one thing they wish they could undo. She still remembers the most chilling answer — and her response to hearing it. "One kid wrote, 'the gun, the bat, the pipe, Ashley,'" she recalls. "I was astounded that I had been part of his creating that."
But she's also been astounded by more discouraging discoveries. At another college workshop, one of Smith's friends introduced her with an extensive speech, after which a kid raised his hand and asked, "If you've done all that, why aren't you famous?"
In response, she laughed and asked him to name one famous living poet. When his silence grew, she continued, "Exactly."
He couldn't even get Maya Angelou.
When I am quiet,
When the eerie silence fills the room
When the air is a wool coat, wet and heavy
When your body is an electrical fire
When your body is geometry dismembered
When everything about me is piercing and present
When everything I feel is too big to fit into my mouth,
When I am quiet
Something big is about to happen.
Smith passes through the lounge in the University of Wyoming student union, walks past a recruiting booth for the belly-dancing club, takes the stairs to a ballroom and looks over the two dozen undergraduates scattered across seven rows of mostly empty chairs for this session, part of the school's Martin Luther King Jr. Days of Dialogue series.
Then she teaches them to write poetry.
In order to encourage the students to write freely, Smith has allotted them one minute each for a series of ominous tasks: "Words that you most wish you could swallow back into your throat," "something you once believed to be true but don't anymore," "words that you should have said." The poems grow from this.
To show them how their poetry can move from paper to performance, she begins reciting one of her own pieces, devoted to the manipulation of African-American hair. When she performs, Suzi Q. Smith is a force to be reckoned with: As her voice rises, her body seems to grow until, towering over her audience and gently shouting at it, she gets her point across. She's a tough act to follow.
But her performances also sap her energy. So she stays quiet when the students sign up to perform what they've written in front of a larger crowd in the lounge; the sign-up sheet is full. This is her favorite part of the job: introducing poetry to those who might otherwise never learn it or care about it. And after the students read their poems, when she attempts to convince the gathering to start a campus poetry club, she earns a few nods.
Afterward, on the slow and sleepy drive back to Denver, the three poets discuss the future of slam. The genre is frequently dismissed in academic circles as a lesser art form, and pop culture often mistakes spoken-word poetry for its competitive counterpart. Worse yet, all three in the car have been confused for rappers. The art is still evolving, Smith says, then observes, "All of that is bullshit, anyway. It's always been performed out loud, from as far back as Homer. This is the way poetry is supposed to be, but Theo, you're a national poetry-slam finalist, and you can still go outside. So can I."
"Academia has co-opted it, though," Wilson interjects, "and made it seem like there was a difference."
No, Smith responds: "Academia realizes that we can teach poetry in ways they have never been able to. Everyone can be a part of it and make their point, but for slam to evolve and become something more, we, as the experts, have to close the gap between the page and the stage."
She sighs. "If you haven't noticed, slam is a soap opera."
And that soap opera is about to put Denver center stage. To become the site of a national competition, a city must enter a bid as though the festival were the Olympics. In late 2009, Smith and a handful of organizers put their heads together and decided to go for a smaller, more manageable festival, the Women of the World Poetry Slam, but their bid was rejected. The next year, though, they won the right to hold the Women of the World contest in Denver in March 2012.
For the better part of a year, Smith and her colleagues have been hunting down financial supporters and places to put the performers. Although only twelve women compete in a single bout, the festival will hold three rounds simultaneously — at Eden, the Mercury and Leela's. On March 10, the final round at the Denver Art Museum will crown the country's female slam champion.
"It's a good thing I've got a lot of hair," Smith says, "because some of it definitely got pulled out."
The festival is a huge project and an important one, given its recognition of female poets, but it's just a first step. For Denver, it's a chance to prove that the city is ready to host the nationals. Soon.
Some in the local scene worry that Denver might not be ready to stage such a large event, that it doesn't have enough full-time poets — or a large enough audience. But Smith dismisses those concerns.
"I don't think poets have weaknesses," she says. "It's just something you haven't done yet."
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