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.