It’s impossible to speak of contemporary poetry without speaking of Danez Smith. The Black, queer, poz writer and performer from St. Paul, Minnesota, is the author of Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017), a National Book Award Finalist and winner of the Forward Poetry Prize. Their first book, [insert] boy (YesYes Books, 2014), won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Lamba Literary Award for Gay Poetry. Beyond the accolades, Smith is known to use their platform to invite outside voices—and outside readers—into the poetry world. In September, Smith visited Ohio State University to teach a weekend workshop, and spoke with Reviews & Interviews Editor Eliza Smith about balancing sorrow and light, their collection-in-progress, and the current state of poetry.
Eliza Smith: I was at one of your AWP panels last year, and during the Q&A you said something like, “I don’t think a book full of wounds makes a good book.” I’ve seen you tweet about this, too: “Your trauma is not what makes you a poet.” I was hoping to hear more about your thoughts on that, and how you navigate that in your own work.
Danez Smith: I see this a lot, especially with spoken word communities and how people teach young people, or when I visit some undergrad programs, and students feel like if they’re not exploring their deepest trauma, they’re not being what they consider to be a real poet. I think what writers are actually able to do is explore the wound but also find something different in there besides more trauma—to find light, to find levity. And also, to not explore the wound as well. We’re writers; we’re about craft. Sure, a wound is maybe one of the ways we first recognize ourselves as artists because it helps us dig ourselves out of that hole, but I don’t believe in the ethos that we must hurt ourselves in public in order to be legitimate. So, I just want to move away, and encourage folks to move away, from that.
I also think about readerly care from a writer, and not just wanting to offer up gore, even emotional gore, to our readers. Making sure that they’re okay. It’s important for us to balance all the emotions. And I think what actually makes sorrow or grief poignant is also the presence of joy. It’s that mix of emotions that actually creates good art, not just trauma porn.
ES: I teach an undergrad course, and we just read the recent Atlantic article you appeared in [“How Poetry Came to Matter Again”]. A big piece of that was the resurgence of the first-person lyric. Some of my students, especially people of color, spoke about the pressure to write from that “I.” Particularly in the spoken word scene—the pressure to blend the personal and political. The writer mentions an Aziza Barnes poem whose title is, “My dad asks, ‘how come black folk can’t just write about flowers?’”
DS: I think we all have to keep agency in our art and not feel any type of pressure to belong to any type of moment or school—unless we want to align ourselves to that, right? It happens in poetry so much. The language poets show up and say, “the I is dead,” and some people listen and some people don’t. The whole thing with “the I is dead,” “the I is alive”—just write what the fuck you want to write. I personally believe the political is better when the personal is present—when the writer allows themself to show up in their arguments and allows their real body to show up in these poems. I think the personal is stronger when we recognize that to be a living, breathing human is a political act.
But on the other side of that, yeah—if you want to write about flowers, write about flowers. I think there is a pressure, but nothing else is going to get rid of that pressure except for yourself. So, take up the agency to write about what you want to write about. I write about flowers, too. When you want to write about flowers, write about flowers. When you want to write about squirrels, write about squirrels. If you want to write about the crumbling, capitalist society, write about the crumbling, capitalist society. If you want to write your coming-of-age narrative, write your goddamn coming-of-age narrative. The call is just to stand firmly in want you do want to write about. If you want to write about the I, lean strongly into that I. If you want to lean away from that I, then go ahead and lean away. Just do everything with confidence, and with the knowledge that no one of us are doing anything new. I think maybe that can relieve some pressure, is that you’re never gonna be the first person to write about a thing. The only thing you’ll be the first person to write about is yourself. Once you realize that I’m not doin’ shit new, you can just revel in the old ways.
ES: I saw on Twitter that you turned in two books recently, and your editor [Jeff Shotts] said it was actually one book. Do you have two projects going? What are you working on?
DS: What I always do—and this has been for my last two books—is I think I have two projects, and Jeff tells me I have one. That’s what happened with Don’t Call Us Dead. I was working on one collection, and that was very much about black life in America, with a large focus on police brutality, and black death, and the ways in which America terrorizes black folks; and then another collection that was focused on my own sexual history and my diagnosis with HIV, and just thinking about when it means to be black, queer, and positive in America. Jeff helped me see there was a single conversation going on about mortality that was interesting and more complicated and grand when it was had together.
We’re often taught to think narrowly when we’re thinking about a collection we’re working on—you mine the narrow. But sometimes two narrow paths meet and become a river, and that’s what happened. So with this new book I’m working on, which is called—well, it’s two titles: it’s Homie on the outside and My Nig on the inside, for political reasons—I was working on this book, and then at some point in the process, I pulled out some of the poems that were speaking to living with HIV or suicide or gender that I was like, “Oh, maybe these are for another collection because the collection is really about kinship.” This time, it was Jeff telling me to put them back together and helping me to see maybe there was a richer conversation, not only about friendship but about what friendship does, and how friendship saves, and also adding some texture. I’m having a conversation about suicide—both a friend’s suicide takes center in the book, and also dealing with my own battles with suicidal thoughts—and now there are poems that I think help add that texture.
ES: Marcus Jackson visited our class yesterday. He’s an Ohio-based poet; he has a new collection called Pardon My Heart. He brought up how there might be a pressure for younger poets to turn out books quicker—because of the heat of this moment in poetry, and maybe it’s the current political environment, and maybe social media. Do you feel that?
DS: I’ve felt that, yeah. By the time my first book came out, I was 24. That pressure was a little weirder. I was coming from a very spoken word-heavy field, and in spoken word, I think the first book has a lot less weight than it does in the literary world because you’re kinda just looking to have merch. If you’re already touring, it’s like, I need a book so I can sell it. Everybody’s first book is indeed a grand event, but in the literary world, it has a different weight when you’re thinking about the market of post-publication prizes, a first book being your first entrée in this larger world, your announcement of yourself. My first book did well, but in some ways, I still wish I would’ve held on a little more. I know I felt a lot of pressure to have a certain book that did a certain thing, and it’s complete bullshit because truly it’s a long game. It’s better to let your first book live and breathe and be thrown away and completely rebuilt and changed, if you want to, to really have something you’re proud of instead of having the pressure to have a book that’s out when you’re young just for the sake of having a book.
But I think what’s also changed is there’s a lot of attention on young poets right now; maybe it is because of social media and just the way in which young poets are able to market themselves, or young people are looking for other young people to read. We need to relieve ourselves of a little bit of that pressure because it’s detrimental to us. It’s also just because people didn’t pay attention to first books. It’s not like people having books young is a new thing, it’s just that a couple decades ago, no one paid attention to you until your third book. And I think it’s actually a beautiful thing: when you look at many of the awards lists for post-publication awards, you see first books being a part of the conversation now in a way they weren’t before. It’s a great new day, but I also hope the people who are outside, who don’t have collections and are feeling bad on themselves, that they don’t. Airea D. Matthews is one of the best poets in America, and she was in her forties when her first book came out. She’s gonna have an excellent career from there. Toni Morrison didn’t have her first book until 39, and she’s fuckin’ Toni Morrison. So, everybody will be fine. And if you feel like you’re ready, then you’re ready. But I think folks can relieve themselves of that pressure to get out the gate before they have to.
ES: You read for the National Book Award Longlist recently. Can you talk about what you took away from that, and what it told you about the future of poetry?
DS: We read a shit-ton of books—hundreds. It really just taught me how great of a state poetry is in. It felt good to be able to steward that. I learned about so many poets I never would’ve known about, and I’m so excited to be lifelong fans of them and follow their collections. And now that the longlist is out, I can start talking about poetry again; I can say which other things I enjoyed from that process. But poetry is really in a good state. It’s such a diverse and wonderful field, not just in terms of the bodies and histories of the writers but in the work they’re creating. There is some wild shit out there. It’s really fantastic to see. I don’t see poetry going anywhere—I just see it getting grander. It’s good to see people who are able to tell their stories, and it’s good to see people who are not interested in telling their story, but they’re interested in doing really freaky shit. It is a large, wide, and amazing field. If anything, it taught me that now more than ever—I hate that phrase—but personally, now more than ever, I don’t know what poetry is. Because there is such a diverse amount of styles out there. It was a good reminder that we are a genre that defies category.
Danez Smith is a Black, queer, poz writer & performer from St. Paul, MN. Danez is the author of Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017), a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the Forward Poetry Prize, and [insert] boy (YesYes Books, 2014), winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award & the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. Danez is also the author of two chapbooks, hands on your knees (2013, Penmanship Books) and black movie (2015, Button Poetry), winner of the Button Poetry Prize. They are the recipient of fellowships from the Poetry Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, and is a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow.