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Counting Descent Paperback – September 15, 2016
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"So many of these poems just blow me away. Incredibly beautiful and powerful." -- Michelle Alexander, Author of The New Jim Crow
In Counting Descent, Clint Smith reflects “even the universe is telling us/ that we can never get too far// from the place that created us.” Smith weaves histories, from collective to personal, to make indelible archetypes of those places that have created us all. These poems shimmer with revelatory intensity, approaching us from all sides to immerse us in the America that America so often forgets. The broad sweep of Smith’s vision delivers a sudden awareness: In this poet's hands, we sense, like Rilke, there is no place that does not see you. -- Gregory Pardlo, Author of Digest
Counting Descent is a tightly-woven collection of poems whose pages act like an invitation to New Orleans, to the spades' table, to mom’s kitchen, to the kiss on a woman’s wrist, to conversations with hydrants and cicadas. The invitation is intimate and generous and also a challenge; are you up to asking what is blackness? What is black joy? How is black life loved and lived? To whom do we―this human We― look to for answers? This invitation is not to a narrow street, or a shallow lake, but to a vast exploration of life. And death. In a voice that has the echoes of Baldwin, but that also declares itself a singular voice, Smith extends: “Maybe there's a place where everyone is both in love with and running from their own skin. Maybe that place is here.” And you’re invited. -- Elizabeth Acevedo, Author of Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths
In Counting Descent, Clint Smith soars and patiently walks between Harvard Square and New Orleans, between the gap in his father's teeth and Baldwin's conversation with the Protest Novel, between the movement of Drake's hands and joy of sliding down a slide with his mother. Nothing, not one word, verse or line feels forced. This is only important because though most of the book feels written in what artist call "the pocket," nothing here feels at all safe. Clint Smith dares to be naked, dares to show the reader how and why he gets dressed, and in a way I'm still trying to understand, his work ask us to show, tell, imagine and remember too. Counting Descent is more than brilliant. More than lyrical. More than bluesy. More than courageous. It is terrifying in its ability to at once not hide and show readers why it wants to hide so badly. These poems mend, meld and imagine with weighted details, pauses, idiosyncrasies and word patterns I've never seen before. This book is supposed to be a great idea. It's not supposed to work. But it does. It so does. I wish I wrote this book. Since I can't, thank goodness Clint Smith did. Counting Descent does not take my breath away; it, in so many ways, gives me more ways to breathe. -- Kiese Laymon, Author of Long Division
About the Author
Clint Smith is a doctoral candidate at Harvard University and has received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, and the National Science Foundation. He is a 2014 National Poetry Slam champion and was a speaker at the 2015 TED Conference. His writing has been published in The New Yorker, The Guardian, The American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Harvard Educational Review and elsewhere. He was born and raised in New Orleans.
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The book sits on my desk at work as a constant reminder of why I am committed to social and racial justice. It is fire. It is strength. And it is love. Buy and read the book!
However, last year I came across Clint Smith while researching for class materials. In class, we watched his TED talk video from 2014 titled "The Danger of Silence" to investigate language devices in English I and speaking strategies in Advanced Speech. We also watched "When They Tell You The Brontosaurus Never Existed" because we loved it. Meanwhile, I Googled and watched other videos. It was clear that not only was Smith unapologetic at unearthing human and racial truths but he was (and still is) also a master of craft--adding in alliteration and assonance like it was his native tongue. Beautiful.
His book of poetry could not have been published at a more appropriate--albeit a terribly racist--time. Just in the past several weeks, sixteen more innocent black victims have lost their lives due to (on optimistic days) miscommunication or (on bad days) blatant bigotry. It's something I don't know how to talk about to my students because they don't see it. They live in a nearly all-white community; they see the television and media reports and think "That's not here. We don't even have any black people around here." That is to say, they're in denial. This book of poetry could change that.
In "For the Boys Who Never Learned How to Swim," Smith writes:
His face against the front of the police / car made him look like a fish out of water. / But where is the water? / When has there every been water? / When have we ever been allowed to swim? / When has there ever been somewhere / we can breathe? / I don't remember the last time police / sirens didn't feel like gasping for air. / I don't remember what it means not / to be considered something meant / to flounder, to flap against / the surface while others watch you / until the flailing stops.
Holy cow. Amazing. An analogy that makes me feel terrible for never taking the time to explain: Do you know what it feels like? You don't have to live around anyone of another race to take an empathetic moment and realize what it feels like. This entire book of poetry could be used as a companion piece for myriad other texts, in high school or in the education of life.
I highly recommend this book to any reader, even those smack dab in the middle of the corn with no other racial diversity to account for... even those screaming for lives to be meaningful while surrounded by others who claim those lives don't really exist.
I am a principal and have bought the book for my teachers to use in class alongside Clint's videos. Our youth need this poetry, it will feed them and empower them.
Excuse me while I go re-read to help me re-imagine the world whilst acknowledging it's beauty
"It should come as no surprise. / I have always used words / to try and convince the world / that I am worth something."
Smith constructs lines, poems, as argument, as rhetoric that reminds readers of past and present moments in the lives of marginalized voices.
I'll return often to Smith's lines to better understand the lives of African Americans, to share his tributes to James Baldwin and Malcolm X, to tell students they are not alone, to remember the suffering of New Orleans, and to rediscover the humanity and worth of all, including those society casts aside.