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Clint Smith on the poetry of parenthood and reading to his children

Author Clint SmithCarletta Germa

In his new poetry collection, “Above Ground,” award-winning writer Clint Smith explores the transformative experience of becoming a father, from seeing the world’s joys and tragedies anew to the everyday pleasures of bear hugs, birthday parties, and bath time. A staff writer for The Atlantic, Smith is also the author of “How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America” and the poetry collection “Counting Descent.” The New Orleans native lives in Maryland with his wife and two children. He will discuss his work with poet Tracy K. Smith at 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 4, at the Brattle Theatre, an event sponsored by Harvard Book Store. Tickets are available online.


BOOKS: What are you reading?

SMITH: “A Living Remedy” by Nicole Chung. Her first memoir was so stunning and this one is, remarkably, even better. She writes so poignantly about grief and mourning and what it was like to lose her parents in quick succession. I just started “The Wounded World: W.E.B Du Bois and the First World War” by Chad Williams. I’ve been thinking a lot about the world wars since I had a cover story in The Atlantic about how Germany memorializes the Holocaust.

BOOKS: Are you reading any poetry?

SMITH: Poetry is my North Star. I always have a poetry book going. I’m currently reading “The Carrying” by Ada Limón, our poet laureate. It navigates grief and ideas of motherhood. Having written a book about parenthood and fatherhood, I’ve wanted to spend time with women who write about motherhood. I think men can be celebrated for writing about their children in a way women aren’t. Men can be celebrated just for pushing a stroller.

BOOKS: What else has stood out in that reading?

SMITH: I really loved the work of Aimee Nezhukumatathil. She writes a lot about the natural world, and often puts that world in conversation with her family. Then there’s folks like Mary Oliver and Ellen Bass.


BOOKS: Which poets turned you into a poetry reader?

SMITH: I came up in the slam poetry world. So many young writers of color were using that space then to explore what language could be. People like Eve Ewing, Elizabeth Acevedo, Nate Marshall, and Paul Tran. I watched my peers push the boundaries of poetry.

BOOKS: Do you often read thematically?

SMITH: Not necessarily. I try to ensure that reading doesn’t feel like a project. During the pandemic, audio books became more central to my life. I had a then one-year-old and a three-year-old, so there wasn’t much reading happening. I began listening to audio books while I washed dishes or folded clothes.

BOOKS: What do you like to listen to as audio books?

SMITH: I listen to a lot of novels. I just read “This Time Tomorrow” by Emma Straub. I’ve wanted to read her for years. That is the kind of book that might have stayed in my queue for a long time because it wasn’t relevant to my work. I listened to Ann Patchett’s novel “The Dutch House,” which was narrated by Tom Hanks. Who doesn’t want Tom Hanks in their ears?

BOOKS: Do you read to your children?

SMITH: Every night. My five-year-old is learning to read. It’s such a delight to watch this little human discover language, even to read the signs on the road. The world is legible to him now.


BOOKS: What are your favorite books that you read to them?

SMITH: They love these picture books by Andrea Beaty, such as “Ada Twist, Scientist.” Ada is a little Black girl who is learning about experiments and hypotheses. She allows my children to see a Black child in a book which is about a child just being a child. We have the children’s books about Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman and others because it’s important for my children to understand what Black people have had to overcome. But those shouldn’t be and aren’t the only books that Black children should read about the Black experience. It’s important to have the books about a little Black girl who wants to be a scientist or the little Black boy who wants to be an illustrator. They need to understand the history that shapes their lives but also to be reminded that their lives are far more expansive and joyful than that.