Best-selling poetry isn’t unheard-of — ask Ocean Vuong, Rupi Kaur and Amanda Gorman. However, in the three years I’ve been scrutinizing best-seller lists, I’ve never seen an author nail the feat Clint Smith just pulled off: Following a nonfiction juggernaut (“How the Word Is Passed,” which the Book Review named one of the 10 Best Books of 2021), he has published “Above Ground,” a poetry collection that shares chart space with novels by Jeannette Walls, Curtis Sittenfeld and Barbara Kingsolver. Like Smith’s son and daughter — the undisputed stars of his new book — these best sellers arrived in the world less than two years apart.
Smith wrote many of the poems in his second collection while he was working on “How the Word Is Passed,” which explores the shadow of slavery through nine places that bear its legacy. In a phone interview, Smith recalled leaving Monticello, the Whitney Plantation or Angola Prison and turning to poetry as a way to decompress. Maybe he’d write about the way his wife likes her pizza (extra crispy), or pretending to be a brontosaurus, or taking a baby to the beach: “It is such a simple joy/to watch you watch the world, to see you/see each thing for the first time, to watch/you feel sand on your feet but to not yet/know its name.”
Smith said, “I would use these poems as a way to remind myself that despite the struggle and the violence of this history, there was so much that had emerged from the other side of it. I think about how those moments — like making French toast with my kids, or having a dance party after dinner — are only possible because of generations and centuries of struggle.”
For the most part, Smith’s 5-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter enjoyed his book launch, though “after 20 minutes or so they were like, All right. Can we watch ‘Peppa Pig’?” Now, Smith said, “their eyes widen with recognition” when he reads the lighter poems in “Above Ground.” (It’s not all dance parties and Cheerios; Smith tackles gun violence and the climate crisis, among other difficult subjects.)
“Poetry is in part the act of paying attention and what this book has done and what poems have more broadly asked me to do is pay attention to those things we might otherwise overlook,” Smith said. “The things that do provide a sense of hope, a sense of optimism. I think if we can see those instead of looking over them, glazing over them, then we’ll remember that there’s a lot of wonder and a lot of tiny miracles in this world that are worth fighting for.”
Elisabeth Egan is an editor at the Book Review and the author of “A Window Opens.”