Smith lived in Soweto, South Africa, for a year and hosted poetry workshops on HIV and AIDS after graduating from Davidson College in 2010.
His work highlights topics not often discussed on stage or in the news, such as the struggle of South African miners to make a living in dangerous environments.
Now an English teacher at Parkdale High School, Smith is the 2012 Graffiti DC Grand Slam champion and was a member of the Beltway Poetry Slam team. He is the only poet from the area to be featured on “Verses & Flow.” His performance will air Sept. 10 at 11 p.m.
We spoke with him about how he defines activism and why it’s important to give children a safe space to express their thoughts.
How did you become a featured poet on “Verses & Flow”?
I got an e-mail from the Walter Issacson agency, saying they had seen some of my work and wanted me to come on the show. I had no idea what “Verses & Flow” was. I started [a draft] in my Gmail and didn’t answer it for two weeks. I was cleaning up my e-mail, and decided to e-mail them back. The day after I won Graffiti DC, they called me saying I was selected to appear on “Verses & Flow.” This was the most absurd week of my life. I was so blessed.
You first started performing at slams hosted by Graffiti DC. How did you establish yourself as a poet in the city?
I had e-mailed Pages [the co-host of Graffiti DC] asking if it was too late to sign up. It was full, but I was listed as an alternate to qualify for the finals. I went to the show that night thinking I wasn’t going to perform. Pages came to me two minutes before the show, and said “Clint, you’re in.” Usually I mentally prepare myself before I slam, but I was not ready to go on stage at all. The poem ended up doing really well, and I won that night.
In what ways have you merged poetry with activism?
I got a call from the State Department in the spring, and I was like, “Oh snap! I’m going to be on the no-fly list! My poetry has gotten too radical! What am I going to tell my mom?” They said I was selected by the U.S. Embassy in Swaziland to conduct poetry workshops focused on HIV/AIDS, cross-cultural understanding and youth empowerment. When you give kids a safe space to be unabashedly honest, it is just amazing some of the things they write.
For me, [activism] is a big part of my involvement in poetry. Activism isn’t always about “We must go stop the man because he’s keeping us down.” Activism can be just conveying to others that we share a common humanity. Anything that changes how people perceive things for the better is activism.
Has anyone ever told you that your lyrics influenced or changed them?
That’s the best compliment I can get, when someone tells me, ‘You said something I always wanted to say but never knew how,’ or ‘You made me think about something in a completely different way than I did before.’ For me, that’s part of my role and responsibility, but not in a holier-than-thou kind of way. I’m here to reveal and share the way I perceive the world. My imperfections, my strengths, and how those inform the decisions I make, the things I do, and hopefully people resonate with that.
More from The RootDC