The most important thing

Clint Smith, a writer and teacher, uses poetry to help students understand that digging into uncertainty can be just as important as finding solutions — an unfamiliar concept for many young people.

We asked Smith, a Harvard Graduate School of Education Ph.D. candidate, to read one of his poems with us — a selection from his debut collection Counting Descent. We also asked him to talk about how he approaches poetry in the classroom and as a writer. Watch the video here, and read excerpts from our longer interview below.

“Poetry doesn’t mean you need to have the answers.”
“I think that so often kids can feel paralyzed by writing because it feels like they have to know something, that there has to be some level of sanctimony, and that they have to have solutions or ideas to offer the world or their teacher or their peers. But poetry doesn’t mean you need to have the answers. It simply allows you to wrestle with the questions.”

“One of the first things I seek to do . . .”
“There can sometimes be this tacit, even unconscious presumption that spoken word is lower on the literary hierarchy than that of other more ‘traditional’ poetry. One of the first things I seek to do when I come into the classroom is seek to disabuse students of that notion. It wasn’t until the advent of the printing press in the mid-15th century in the west that poetry was even considered something to be written down, or something to be received in that sort of aesthetic.

“You are already a poet.”
“I tell kids, ‘So much of what you consume now, whether it’s hip hop or whether it’s other forms of oral performative storytelling, comes out of the oral tradition of poetry at its root. You are already a poet in many ways.’ And I think once that cage that they have in their minds around how they define poetry is unlocked, it opens up room for them to think of themselves as writers and as poets. It gives them an access point. They realize poetry isn’t something that is done by this type of caricatured white man sitting by a fire in the 15th century. It is instead something that is living and breathing and exists all around them already.”

“An antiquated and largely false notion . . .”
“I think there’s an antiquated and largely false notion that people have that every poem should be about the trees and the flowers. And that’s fine — I think there’s lots to write about trees and flowers — but I think writing about those things simply because you think you shouldn’t be writing about other things in your life is a problem.”

“Honest and urgent and deeply committed.”
“The work of the artist has never been more urgent than it is in our new political era. We are entering a phase in our history which demands that artists and thinkers and writers and teachers respond to the world as we see it — the world as it’s going to evolve over the next four to eight years in a profoundly different way, and I think people have to be honest and urgent and deeply committed to truth.”