She was born in Chicago and currently lives in Narragansett and teaches at Exeter-West Greenwich High School. She is a four-time individual National Poetry Slam champion and appeared in the 1996 documentary SlamNation, which followed various poetry slam teams as they competed at the 1996 National Poetry Slam on Portland, OR.
She gained notoriety when The Boston Globe asked her to resign after editor discovered her metro column contained fictional characters and fabricated events in violation of journalism practice.
She is also a 2008 National Book Award finalist, winner of the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award in Poetry, the Carl Sandburg Literary Award, the National Poetry Series award, the Patterson poetry award and the Pushcart prize. In 2006, she was inducted into the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent.
She won the Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary from the American Society of Newspaper Editors, 1997. However, the Boston Globe returned the ASNE award and withdrew her from consideration for a Pulitzer Prize after the newspaper acknowledged that some of her columns contained fabricated people, events, and quotes. Smith admitted to four instances of fabrications in her columns. She was asked to resign from the Globe after this revelation.
Fixed on a Furious Star, a biography of Harriet Tubman, coming from Crown in 2009.
Blood Dazzler, poems about Hurricane Katrina, Coffee House Press, 2008, a National Book Award finalist.
Teahouse of the Almighty, selected as a National Poetry Series winner, published in 2006 by Coffee House Press
Janna and the Kings, 2003, Lee & Low, winner of the New Voices Award for new children's book authors
Africans in America, history, companion book to the PBS television series of the same name, Harcourt Brace 1998, (co-authored with Charles Johnson)
Close to Death, poetry, 1993, Zoland Books
Big Towns, Big Talk, poetry, 1992, Zoland Books
Life According to Motown, poetry, 1991, Tía Chucha Press
Her poetry has appeared in major literary journals including The Paris Review and TriQuarterly, and dozens of anthologies including The Oxford Anthology of African-American Poetry, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, and Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem's First Decade