The power of education, poetry and honesty

Clint Smith is a teacher, poet, TED speaker, and doctoral candidate at Harvard University studying incarceration, education, and inequality.

What is your story?

Man that’s a tough and pretty intimidating first question. I’ve been doing this exercise lately where I try to write four-part haikus. So let’s see how that works here.

Born in New Orleans/
Spoon of gumbo in my mouth/
Books in both my hands

Mama made us read/
The Encyclopedia/
And eat our veggies

Always trying to learn/
And unlearn the things I must/
Believe in new world

Love to write and teach/
Also love pizza pockets/
But please don’t tell mom


Why did you go into education and poetry?

Writing, although maybe not formally, has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I had journals as a kid where I wrote stories, poems, reflections, and questions about the world big and small. I’d ask things ranging from “Why do people have to die?” to “Why does the pizza at Chuck E. Cheese taste so much better than the pizza at our house?” I would say that the latter is still something I’m trying to make sense of — it’s honestly one of the world’s great mysteries.

Anyway, I think that’s always been a part of my writing process, this idea of having the opportunity to sit down and wrestle with my biggest questions, even if it means I won’t always find the answer. In many ways, the asking the question is more important than finding an immediate answer or resolution. This, I think, shapes so much of the reason I’m a teacher as well. It’s not that I think I have all the answers, far from it. It’s the chance to work with a group of people to ask, and collectively wrestle with, thought-provoking questions that ultimately push us towards a deeper understanding of ourselves.


Who, or what, inspires you?

Everything really. And I don’t mean that facetiously. I’m inspired by everything from photosynthesis to feminist theory. Recently, I’ve been most moved by the work of the many Black Lives Matter activists and organizers. Many of them are my friends and colleagues, and the way they assert their humanity, how they remain unapologetic in their commitment to build a better world amid structures that seek to do the opposite, inspires me to get out of bed each day.


Why did you make Beyond This Place?

In my doctoral program I study the intersection of education and incarceration, specifically the efficacy of prison education programs. I made a commitment to myself when I began grad school, that I wouldn’t be the type of scholar who opines from the ivory tower without engaging in the work on the ground. It feels both ethically and intellectually disingenuous of me to study prison education programs without directly interfacing and talking with those who experience them first hand. So last year I began teaching creative writing at a state prison here in Massachusetts, and it has turned into the most important part of my graduate school experience, both personally and professionally.


What did you learn from teaching at the prison?

What it did, more than anything, is decouple what it means to be well-schooled as compared to well-educated. These men are some of the most engaged, thoughtful, and intelligent people I’ve had the opportunity to work with and many of them have little formal schooling. Schooling, typically, is something that happens in the specific context of a classroom, education can happen anywhere.


How can storytelling be a remedy to problems like racism and inequality?

I don’t know that storytelling by itself will serve as a remedy to racism and inequality — that’s a task that no poem or essay or book can achieve. What these things can do, however, it serve as a catalyst for dialogue on issues that shape the perpetration of these phenomena.


Which of the poems you have written is your favourite — and why?

I don’t know that I have a favorite per se, but one that I keep coming back to for myself is What the cicada said to the brown boy, which is a part of a larger series I’ve been working on.


How has your poetry changed since it started?

I’d like to think that my work has more nuance than it did before — that I’m able to see the world, and subsequently create art, that complicates our preconceived notions about the world and our role within it.


What are the most powerful pieces of writing you have read recently?

I recently finished Ira Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action Was White, which delineates the history of the New Deal and how it was specifically created with the intention of keeping black people from accessing the benefits of its programs. One of the best pieces of historical writing I’ve read. I also just finished Ross Gay’s Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude, which is an absolutely stunning poetry collection.


In How to raise a black son in America you say: “I refuse to accept that we can’t build this world into something new.” How can education play a part in this?

Education, at its best, is an opportunity to think more critically about the world around you. It’s an emancipatory endeavor. It disabuses you of the notion that the current structural make-up of the world is inevitable, and instead empowers you to understand that you have the agency to change it.


In The danger of silence you mention challenging students to explore silences in their own lives through poetry. You say silence is the residue of fear — how do you encourage your students to speak out?

I think students are willing to be more vulnerable and honest when their teacher is vulnerable and honest as well. In the classroom, I don’t ask my students to do anything that I don’t do myself. I participate in every discussion and every writing assignment with them. I’m honest with them about my shortcomings, because I’m human. I never try to teach from any sort of pedestal. I’m working alongside my students on the journey of self-discovery just as they are.


What have been the biggest lessons you have learnt while teaching?

You’ll learn more from your students than they’ll learn from you.


What’s the most important thing you tell your students?

You matter.

Find Clint here.