Longform

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."