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Words Matter


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 doesnt 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 doesnt 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 wasnt 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 its hip hop or whether its 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 isnt 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 theres an antiquated and largely false notion that people have that every poem should be

about the trees and the flowers. And thats fine I think theres lots to write about trees and

flowers but I think writing about those things simply because you think you shouldnt 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 its 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.