Interview by Carlina Duan
Danez Smith is the author of Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017), winner of the Forward Prize for Best Collection, the Midwest Booksellers Choice Award, and a finalist for the National Book Award, and [insert] boy (YesYes Books, 2014), winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. They have received fellowships from the Poetry Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and more, and their work has been featured widely by publications/venues such as The New York Times, Best American Poetry, and the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Smith is a member of the Dark Noise Collective and the co-host of the poetry podcast VS with Franny Choi.
On Sept. 13, Smith visited Vanderbilt University to give a thunderous and tear-inducing reading of their work. After hearing Smith speak, my students approached me in class the next day with the wide-eyed question: “Are all poets as cool as Danez?”
We conducted this interview via email, a few weeks after their visit. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Interviewer: Let’s begin with friendship and fellowship. This past March, I had the pleasure of watching you and Franny Choi host a VS episode featuring Hanif Abdurraqib and Angel Nafis. There was a good deal of joy, of light, of thick & syrupy laughter that eve. It made me think about the possibility of joy and trust in artistic collaborations. How has friendship (literary friendships, or other, just-as-bountiful friendships!) shaped your own stance on literary creation and trust? Can you speak about the role of literary friendships in shaping your poetics and/or your creative process?
Danez Smith: TBH I don’t really think about literary friendship that much. I have some friends who are literary nerds and some who aren’t. I’m grateful for my “literary friendships,” but the people I treasure enough to actually consider a friend exist because of a love that reaches beyond genre only heightened by a shared kinship with words. I am anti- the idea of the lonely poet, brooding in the dark away from the world. Sure, there are those moments, but the bulk of what I have learned from and been pushed by has happened in rooms alive with other folks, talking and readings to each other and writing together. What we do is a collaborative art, dependent on our peers, our loves, and our world. I can’t describe how these relationships have shaped my poetics or process because I don’t know what the opposite is! I have never thought of myself as existing in a vacuum. What is my poetics without these people? What is my process without them? I don’t know and if I’m lucky I’ll never know. Community is where the work begins and ends, the self is just a bridge.
In vein with thinking about the VS Podcast, I’m wondering if you could speak about the process of fostering literary community. Who and what ideas are you building community around, and for? (I love, on the VS Podcast introduction, when you and Franny write: “Every poet wrestles with the world. Every poem is speaking to some greater outside…”) What have you learned about poems/writing/community-building from hosting the podcast?
I’m not building community around any particular idea. I’m just trying to engage with the many intelligences and capacities of my peers. The only rule is kindness and humility, the ideas and people that those principles invite are what I’m interested in. I’m not interested in only building around a pre-ordained idea, seems limited in how I’m thinking about the world right now. All I want is to be around folks interested in moving towards a more loving and possible world. Now, if those people happen to be queer and black and brown or at least down, then I think it has more to do with an understanding of love than any identity or idea. I do ride for black and brown and queer folks tho. All day.
VS is one of the best things in my universe. Franny Choi is my favorite poet and one of the smartest people on earth, so I’m just lucky to get to walk beside her as we walk into the worlds of all our amazing guests. Every interview we do is unique and I learn something different from every guest. If there is any singular thing I have learned, it might be that poets are literally my favorite people in the world. But I already know that. I think I could take about each episode at length, but we don’t have the time. I think one of the episodes I return to the most is Angel Nafis’ episode where she speaks on the ecstatic tradition of poetry. I love listening to her speak on that. It helps me look back up at the world with wider, more attentive sight.
I recently heard poet Nabila Lovelace speak about paying homage to a “tree of writers” who have come before her. In thinking about artistic lineage and ancestry, who do you grow on your “tree”? Who are writers who have shaked, shaped, and fostered you as poet and as being? Are there any recent texts/books you’ve discovered that you love?
Patricia Smith, Tracy K Smith, Ross Gay, Lucille Clifton, Avery R Young, Rachel McKibbens, Mayda del Valle, Saul Williams, Li Young Lee, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Essex Hemphill, Jericho Brown, James Baldwin, Evie Shockley, Douglas Kearney, Amaud Johnson, and so many more. So many poets have helped me shape what I believe to be the urgency and necessity of poetry. I spent the year reading for the National Book Awards as a judge, so look at the poetry longlist if you want to know a small sample of what has knocked me out this year. Also see my Twitter cause I’m not usually quiet about the books I love.
Do you have any specific journal/note-taking practices in your writing? Where do the origins of poems come from, for you? How do you go about collecting ideas?
I really don’t. I just try to sit down and make words whether I’m inspired or not. Poems come from all sorts of places, my job is to listen closely to where they want to go. I don’t collect ideas. I wish I knew how to do that. I try to keep my eyes, ears, memory, and heart open so I don’t miss a poem when it passes by me. Maybe I thought of poems more as ideas to work on earlier in my career, but not it feel like just trying to follow a specific thought or sound to see where it leads.
As a reader of your work, I’ve always leaned into the bright windows of sound that you weave into your poems. In [insert] boy (YesYes Books, 2014), for example, lines like: “you awoke dressed as a rose blooming / with blades” (38) and “I hear music rise off your skin. Each hair on your arm a tiny viola” (109) make the ear in me sing, while also conveying the sonic as violence, as softness, as visceral tribute, as fact. You’ve also spoken in other interviews about your origins as a slam poet. I’m wondering about the legacy of noise/sound in your work, and your sonic loves. What are some sonic things in the world (literal/physical sounds, clips, songs) that inspire you? That you’re currently obsessed with?
- the sounds of black churches
- porch stories
- black people laughing
- the music of Jamila Woods
- the music of K. Raydio
- the music of Earth, Wind, & Fire
- the music of City Girls
- the music of Joseph Chilliams
- gross sex noises
- the Youtube series “Got 2 b Real”
- the podcast “The Read”
- the sounds of POC queer people
- shit my friends say
- heavy rain
- things people say a little too loud in public
- the sound of other people humming in the shower at the gym
- reading messages from Angel Nafis in her voice in my head
- the sound my grandma makes when she agrees with something shady
- lakes in the morning
Something that is on my mind constantly is how I, as a writer and editor of color, can sustain my practice (and my heart) in the context of writing responsibly about my multiple identities. As a marginalized writer, it seems that one is often seen as the all-representative of their identity; I’m either always cast through the lens of race in my poems, when my writing is very much about that, but also about so much more. Is this something you struggle with or think about? Do you have thoughts about writing against a consumerist readership/culture that might try to simplify your work, or any advice for other writers of color, nonbinary writers, or writers who may be writing from marginalized backgrounds?
I used to wrestle with this question a lot, particularly after a few poems of mine got a lot of attention around the time of the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the return of police brutality against Black folks and other POC returned to the interest and attention of the larger American audience. Around that time, editors—a lot of them white—started reaching out to me asking if I had more work about police brutality and Black death in particular, which at times felt like a genuine interest in amplifying a the movement, but often felt like editors trying to gain cash in one the aesthetic cool of politically engaged work from black poets. It gave me a little identity crisis. I was looking at work that had meant a lot to me, to my community, as a currency that I didn’t want to use, but many were trying to economize. What did I do? I struggled, I gave in to it, I rejected it, I felt gross, I said no, I said yes, I didn’t reply, I moved further away from myself, I re-dedicated myself to my communities & self (I went thru it all, y’all). I would go around asking my poetry aunties and uncles and big cousins this same question and between their mix of patience and “oh, they so young” eyerolls, I came to this: the feeling of having to write on behalf of my community and/or needing to perform my identity for the industry was an anxiety of someone else’s invention grafted onto me. So I shook it loose—it was a lot of shaking—but I did it. I still have to revisit the question sometimes and I come to the same conclusion. I don’t have to write against anything. I just have to write what is most urgent to me, write towards my most loved audiences, write to what is in most urgent need of love, and write whatever the fuck I want. Y’all, write whatever you want towards whoever you want. Leave the publishing industry outside of your writing practice.
A poem of yours that has always struck me is “Lion King in the Hood,” from Black Movie (Button Poetry, 2015). This poem re-envisions scenes from The Lion King — turning a reader’s gaze towards the brutality of Black deaths, towards relentless (senseless) losses. Joy is haunted; trauma and violence is revealed. For me, this poem — through both form and language — is an instance of subverting a cultural narrative (see: Disney) into one of critique, of refusal, of reveal. This poem transformed the way I think about form, on poetry shaping/sharpening the communities we live in, enabling us to see clearer, to call out. For you, what is your vision for what poetry (and poetic forms) can attempt to do for the world?
Good lord this is a huge question that I could either spend the rest of my life trying to answer or let it float quietly over the rest of my life. I think poetry can do anything and I love that every poet is attempting to do something in their poems, we need a variety of spells to change the world. For me, poetry is an opportunity to expand and distill humanness. It is a mighty tool for us to spark protest & seed possibility, a place for us to offer our readers refuse, food, validity, and delight. Form, whether traditional, invented, or appropriated, is both invitation and trigger for all those things I think poetry can do. There are forms that play with sound to raise and relieve tension in the body (say the sonnet or the sestina), while other forms (like the invented, appropriated form in my poem you mention) trigger a reaction because it reimagines something recognizable to the reader, altering perception and building something new across an old synapse. These are all just different types of play and, for me, play is at the heart of form. I don’t know what poetry forms can attempt in the world, but I know that they are useful vehicles to carry the poem towards transcendence and they are tools that we can use as writers to delight ourselves. Form, for me, is selfish. It’s a chance for me to challenge myself to produce in ways free verse doesn’t allow. It’s a space to explore and push of my own poetic pleasure, even when the poem is riddled with emotional difficulty. I often return to Marilyn Nelson’s introduction for A Wreath for Emmett Till where she discusses using the heroic crown of sonnets as a kind of buoy to make wading into the difficulty of his murder possible. That rings true for me. Form as often been the lifeboat what makes exploring the troubled waters of the world and myself possible, to delight in the midst of the battle.
Your book Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017) was a finalist for the National Book Award, and has generated many readers nationally and internationally. Do you have a different relationship with your poems once they’re out in the world for the public to read/digest?
Once a poem is in the world it’s no longer precious to me. Well, in a way. There is a necessary release I have to agree to once a poem is in the world for it is no longer mine, but the world’s. This is why I try to keep my poems to myself before they are ready, before I am open to public comment or consumption of the work. I disagree with myself a little tho. There is another kind of intimacy offered in the performance of the work and that connection between me and the poem requires the publics looking, but it is still a somewhat private experience of the poem. While reading a poem out loud def is about building a bridge and home with the audience, it also allows me to get to know the poem again or really for the first time over and over again.
Can you speak about the process of stitching together Don’t Call Us Dead? How did the order of the poems call and conjure? How did you find the manuscript materializing?
[…] I was working on two collections, one focused on queerness, sex, and HIV and another focused on police brutality and Black death in America. When I began working with Graywolf, Jeff Shotts suggested that the two collections were having a singular, more complex conversation. I thought he was trippin until I realized he was super right.
Beyond that, the book came together like most books do. It worked until it didn’t, I threw out half and wrote more, I returned to some old things with new eyes and fixed them up, I reordered and reordered and shuffled and cried and felt like a bad bitch. It’s the work, ya know?
I think maybe the most interesting part of putting a book together is how you listen to and wrestle with your editors. Jeff Shotts, Parisa Ebrahimi, Phillip B Williams, and the Dark Noise Collective are the people I trust most with my work because they push me to a higher level of thinking, they celebrate my successes and don’t let me slide on my bullshit. I reject the idea that poetry is a lonely art form because I know how trash I would be without the eyes and ears of others, the many people in my life that make these books a collaborative process.
What is one lesson you learned fairly early on in your writing life, that has remained with you, or that you carry forward today? (If there isn’t one, what’s something you wish you could go back and dunk on your younger poet-self?)
“Baby boy, you only funky as your last cut.”
— Andre 3000
Stop looking back at what you’ve done and being impressed—keep creating, keep moving. Live in the process instead of for the product.