The joys of parenthood are many and varied, but for a writer like Clint Smith, a special pleasure has been watching his son learn to read.
“It’s so fascinating to watch the world become legible to him,” he said. “It’s like having had the wrong prescription for glasses and seeing the world suddenly come into focus. I want to hold on to those moments.”
And in Smith’s new poetry collection, “Above Ground,” that’s just what he does, cherishing joyful moments and asking a father’s essential questions.
His first book, “Counting Descent,” also reckoned with family life and the complications of lineage and kinship. It was the 2017 One Book One New Orleans selection, which marked a very special homecoming for the writer.
“I’ve gotten so many notes from teachers in New Orleans who were inspired by the program to share the book with their students, which means so much,” he said. “And having an event and reading at the New Orleans Public Library to celebrate the moment was especially wonderful because those libraries are where I first learned to love reading.”
Next, a bestseller
His second book, a work of narrative nonfiction called “How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America,” rocketed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. It recounted his travels to such places as Jefferson’s Monticello, the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the Whitney Plantation, and the Blandford Confederate Cemetery, as well as other sites specific to America’s slaveholding past. This complicated journey into how and what is remembered firmly established Smith as one of our leading public intellectuals.
“Above Ground” has been a welcome return to poetry. “Poetry is where I started,” Smith said, speaking from his home in Maryland. “It’s my north star — even when I’m not writing poetry specifically, the music and the language are always with me. It’s always shaped my writing.”
These poems range from the wildly humorous — “Ode to the Electric Swing” (“my wife thinks I love you more than I love her”) or “It Is Halloween Night and You Are Dressed as a Hot Dog” — to the deeply serious and eerily timely, “We See Another School Shooting on the News.”
Smith said, “I was wrestling with and thinking about the idea of parenthood and how it reorients relationship to the world … It’s also about the simultaneity of human experience. Our lives are so full of overlapping and complicated emotional textures. We can be pushing kids in a swing in the park and get a phone call telling us that a loved one was diagnosed with cancer … ”
Never far from view
The larger geopolitical context, our responsibilities as global citizens — these are never far from view in “Above Ground.” As Smith said, “We can be at the dinner table enjoying a meal while halfway around the world another family is hiding in a bunker as their town is being devastated by missiles.”
“My son, as he would tell you, is 5¾, and my daughter just turned 4,” Smith said. “Their world is full of wonder and awe and silliness and joy and ebullience. It’s also,” he sighed, sounding like a typical parent, “exhausting. I’ve learned so much about myself.”
Echoes of Smith’s own childhood resound throughout the book. “New Orleans is everything to me,” he said. “I feel so enormously grateful to have grown up in a city that’s so dynamic, so socially rich and engaging. It’s a city that feels like a town that feels so distinct from everywhere else … ”
He recalls his first Thanksgiving spent away from home. “Where’s the gumbo? What are these mashed potatoes doing here?”
Legacies of Katrina
Some of the poems in “Above Ground” are a legacy of Hurricane Katrina, with which Smith has just begun to grapple, citing the healing power of distance and time. But he is contemplating a longer project in the future. The Katrina year, his senior year in high school, marks the midpoint of his life so far.
“It bifurcated my life as a child and as an adult,” he said. “My parents’ home was destroyed and we moved to a new house in a different neighborhood … So it’s a bit surreal, it’s home, but not my home.”
What strikes him most forcefully is gratitude for the people who raised him. “I felt safe, I felt loved, and you may not appreciate what a blessing that was when you’re 7.”
Grateful for a public voice
Smith is also grateful for his public voice, for the platform he has found for his thinking as a staff writer for The Atlantic Magazine and a popular TED talk speaker and award-winning slam poet.
“My life has changed in such profound way over last few years, and I’m still catching up to it,” he said. “I feel gratitude to all the people who have engaged with my work — the books or the Youtube series, Crash Course in Black American History, or all those people who came to see me give a talk.”
And he’s humble about his success. “I just try to be thoughtful, generous, to extend grace and empathy in the same way I would want it extended to me or my kids,” he said.
“I try not to talk about things I don’t know about … I’m lucky to follow projects that are teaching me something, allowing me to wrestle with the questions even if I don’t come up with the answers.”
One thing’s for sure: His search for those answers will go on. Fatherhood has made that quest more urgent.
Susan Larson hosts The Reading Life on WWNO-FM and is the author of “The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans.”
WHEN: 6 p.m. Wednesday (April 5)
WHERE: Baldwin & Co. Books, 1030 Elysian Fields Ave., New Orleans
HOW MUCH: $30 ticket includes a copy of the book.