Suzi Q. Smith’s new book, Poems for the End of the World, may seem like a macabre manifesto born from the pandemic. But the Denverite wrote many of the verses in 2019, responding to earlier global and personal upheaval: The Amazon rainforest was on fire, her daughter was headed to college, and Smith had recently left her position as executive director of nonprofit Poetry Slam Inc., which shuttered soon after. “I was spending time in gardens and thinking about how the world continues on, even after change or catastrophe,” she says. That theme echoes through one of the few COVID-19-inspired pieces, “Mezzo Sopranos Get the Sad Songs,” to appear in Smith’s book, out this month. We asked her to break down the poem for us.
Mezzo Sopranos Get the Sad Songs (1)
Did you hear the one about the long lines around
the gun shop and the sold out bullets
and the empty grocery store shelves in the United States?
What will happen when our lights are out? (2)
I hope we sing like the people in Italy. (3)
I only really know two arias, one of which is “Lascia Te Mi Morire”
translation: bring me my death
so I don’t think I’ll sing that one, (4)
but I’ll tell you this:
I’ll sing before I shoot,
I’ll sing before I shoot, (5)
ain’t never been afraid of heaven anyhow.
1. “I’m actually trained as a mezzo soprano—I take lessons because it’s good vocal training. I joke often that my opera training made me a better rapper, because I can control my breath and run all over the stage.”
2. “I was sheltering at home and seeing all this news about people lining up around gun shops. I didn’t feel fear or panic when the pandemic arrived, exactly. My concern was what other people’s panic might fuel.”
3. “It takes a lot of breath to sing, so singing amidst an illness that is taking people’s breath away felt very powerful to me.”
4. “Mezzo sopranos usually play a tragic role in the opera. So all the songs I know are really sad, like wishing for death, which didn’t seem like the right material at the time. I think I was singing a lot of gospel around the house last year. I grew up going to church five times a week, so gospel is part of my language.”
5. “Some found comfort in buying up all the bullets, and others found comfort in leaning out the window singing together. This is me making my choice, that I’d rather connect with my neighbors instead of fearing them. I tried to carry that attitude into my life, too. Last March, two of my poet friends, Bobby LeFebre and Kerrie Joy, joined me in stringing up our poems at community spaces, like Whittier Cafe. We attached the poems to fishing line with clothespins, so people could take them if the writing brought them comfort. It was a reminder that we’re still a community.”