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Interview with Danez Smith

At the end of January 2018 I met Danez Smith in Manchester, before their event at the Anthony Burgess Centre that evening. Smiths latest collection, Don’t Call Us Dead, had just been published in the UK, having already appeared in the US to much acclaim, where it was shortlisted for the National Book Award in Poetry. But Smiths work (their latest and their 2014 debut {insert} boy) as well as two pamphlets of poems (hands on your knees and black movie) has not only been praised by reviewers and critics. Smiths reputation is founded initially in live performance; their transatlantic visibility precedes them through a variety of online and print platforms as well as a huge social media following, all of which has created a community of poets and readers, something central to both their writing and live performance. Smith grew up in St Paul, Minnesota and became a fixture of the slam poetry scene they are a 2011 Individual World Poetry Slam finalist and reigning two-time Rustbelt Individual Champion, as well as festival director for the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam. Smith currently co-hosts the popular Poetry Foundation podcast, VS. It is no surprise that Smiths onstage charisma and passion exudes from work that is rooted both in the personal and in a community that extends well beyond their experiences as a black, queer American poet wrestling with a national legacy of violence.

 

As the events host, the poet Andrew McMillan, commented during the Q&A later that evening, from this side of the Atlantic it feels as though American poetry is going through a golden age: American poets (especially poets of colour) are fuelling a political collective consciousness and discourse around identity and equality. Smith is grateful for a British audience while also being humbly cautious about taking the spotlight from a UK poet of colour. They, like a number of Black American poets from Amiri Baraka to Claudia Rankine, are part of a crucial transatlantic conversation that must continue to converge as nativist rhetoric rages in both the US and the UK.

 

Smith begins their reading that evening by pointing out that any white British person in the audience who thinks they can exempt themselves from the horror of Americas racial violence is plainly wrong: the British invented racism. Certainly the American legacy of racism owes a lot to the British Empire, whose descendants Smith suggests would prefer to spectate, aghast, at the crimes of their former colony. Of course, the mostly white crowd sitting in this room are not the ones that need convincing. One hopes that they will do more than merely acknowledge their privilege, as described by Smiths work repeatedly in relation to Black and queer bodies. Smith moves the audience to act, to laugh, applaud, respond, snap their fingers (some do) and interact with their voice on the stage. Momentarily, we become plural in the act of listening a rare spirit of communalism against a shared pain rears up and dissipates, leaving us with a renewed sense of purpose. What Smiths work gives us is an unwavering sense of responsibility for the survival of others and ourselves.

Q

The White Review

—  Now that your book has been published in the UK, I wanted to begin by asking you about any differences you sense between UK and US poetry readerships. How prepared do you feel for a UK audience?

 

A

Danez Smith

—  I havent actually thought about it too much. My allegiances are to the poem and to the people who inhabit my poems, so while Ive been very excited about the UK release of my book, I havent paid much mind to the readers it might find here. If I had a different job, I might prepare differently for a British audience, but luckily my job is to be a poet, and poetry is less interested in borders than people are. I say all that to say that I preparedby being the poet and person I am. I sort of wonder about the white British persons experience reading my poetry, and I think a lot of them will probably excuse themselves from a lot of the indictments that I have in my book. I think the British people like to fancy themselves as being less racist than their American cousins, which is complete bullshit. So I also hope theyll be able to see themselves and not just the Americanness Im indicting in the book, and I hope we can have some honest and good conversations.

 

Q

The White Review

—  As youll know, theres a transatlantic conversation happening around poets of colour, or BAME poets as we call them in the UK, and the ways in which their work is perceived against a kind of white, predominately lyric mainstream style. Thinking about your own experiences in the US with writing organisations, communities and collectives like Cave Canem, do you have any sense of similar emerging communities for People of Colour here in the UK?

 

A

Danez Smith

—  On past visits to the UK, Ive been able to meet with Dub poets in Manchester and the spoken word organisation Apples and Snakes in London. There are a lot of amazing poets of colour here. But Britain feels too far behind the US in terms of celebrating their poets of colour. When you look at the T.S. Eliot Prize in the past year, which Im so glad that Ocean Vuong won, I think its ridiculous that Vuong was the only poet of colour on that list and that the only poet of colour on that list was coming from America. Its ridiculous to me that Kayo Chingonyis collection wasnt nominated, that many other collections by POC writers werent up there. And I have a sense of hesitancy around my own book. While I do hope that the book does well here, I also hope that my doing well doesn’t take a spotfrom a British poet of colour. Poets of colour here are doing a lot of interesting, inventive work and I think POCs understand the dangers of individualism, so we tend to collectivise in the interests of community just because thats how were raised and how we survive. So Id be interested to hear how British poets of colour are already finding themselves collectivising, who they recognise as their pillars and advocates.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Do you think that the publishing industry, and problems of canon-formation, will change?

 

A

Danez Smith

—  I think it is going to change. I think there are a lot of poets of colour who realise that there are other places to go besides academia in terms of where our work lives. And I think the imagined audience for poetry is broadening. I dont know how much mind I pay to canon-formation. All our canons are personal. What reading many reviews of POC poets by often white reviewers in the States has shown me is that there is a clear dissidence between what folks consider canonical. Often my poems are talked about in relation to a canon that couldnt be further from my mind or my heart. I also very much think that we need more POC critics, reviewers, folks who are able to actually speak to the lineage, the trends and the cultures that exist in the art to be able to get down to the craft of the work. When I see a lot of white critics reviewing books by poets of colour, theyre actually reviewing the culture. Theyre reviewing the funk of the poem but theyre not actually able to talk about it in the sense of the lyric or the line, all the amazing things POC poets are pushing and inventing in terms of craft. Theyre actually just amazed at the brownness of the stories. That has to change. We need folks who can actually hold the work to be able to shout it to the mountaintops and properly critique it.

 

Q

The White Review

—  How does your poetics respond to your background in performance?

 

A

Danez Smith

—  For me, it’s about writing a good poem. The questions of page and performance come later. My first allegiance is with what the poem wants to be, in terms of how it looks. The question of performance is something I ask myself at a later date once the poem is finished, when I ask myself, ‘can I read this to an audience one time through and be able to make them feel something?’ Some poems are just easier to translate to a space of performance than others. While I do consider myself a performer, at this point in my career I don’t think I enter into a poem seeking to write a performance piece. I think I very much used to, but right now I’m just trying to write good work. I think what I carry over from performance is a sense of duende – doing a thing with feeling. And I never want an audience – whether they are holding my work in their hands and taking it in with their eyes or whether my body is present and I’m able to give it to them through their ears – I never want them to feel the same at the beginning of a poem as they do at the end. I never want someone to leave my poems bored.

 

Q

The White Review

— Tell me a little bit about how your earlier chapbook, Black Movie, from which some poems appear in Don’t Call Us Dead, relates to the visibility or spectacle of black bodies in media, folklore and other cultural and social spaces.

 

A

Danez Smith

Black Movie is a catalogue of how I was feeling at the start of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. I think of Black Lives Matter as being not only a direct result of police violence but of how black death became an obsession in American mass media. It wasn’t that we hadn’t been being killed or weren’t dying or that police violence had lessened in the years prior, but rather American media decided to turn its attention to police brutality once again in 2013 and 2014. So I really just wanted to capture that moment and what it was like to feel that black death was inescapable both on the TV, via social media, and all these ways in which we were being bombarded by images of black death, while also capturing the depressingness of how that was calling toward a kind of justice that we’d been waiting for for a long time. Because while cases like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown felt very harsh, in our mindset if you are Black American you knew that those stories were not new and that they had been happening since forever.

 

Also I think in order to write about such harsh topics there has to be an element of play. For any author to be able to delve into depressing or hard topics you need something, and so this idea of films, these sort of mini-movies, this idea of image-making, was a tether that I used to help myself buoy into the work. Because without that construction of thinking about, ‘how do I frame this in a thematic kind of way towards this thing I’m building?’, I would have really lost myself in the work and not been able to do what I did.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Thinking more about the spectacle of black death, I’d like to ask you about the poem ‘Short Film’ that is expanded in Don’t Call Us Dead and retitled ‘not an elegy’. Elsewhere, in ‘the politics of elegy’, you write about a (presumably white) woman who tells you that she really enjoys your work and how strange that is, given the subject matter. How does elegy function within the spectacle?

 

A

Danez Smith

—  The elegy is such an intimate form, and I needed to recognise the lack of intimacy that I actually had with these people. What happens with the spectacle of death is that it makes you know a person without actually knowing them. To only know a person because of their death is something different to being able to really celebrate the life, which is what I think an elegy should be able to do. It should allow someone in death access to a moment of their living. But I didn’t actually know the texture of these people’s living, so I was only able to love someone because of their victimhood. So ‘not an elegy’ allows a respectful distance, and in a poem like ‘summer, somewhere’ I’m trying to recognise that distance.

 

I also wanted to recognise the weirdness of what capitalism does to the making of art. I know that, for me, I felt insecure because a lot of the beginnings of my recognition in the poetry scene were attached to these poems about black death. So even though I was writing a wide range of work on a plethora of topics, it was ‘dear white america’, ‘not an elegy’ and ‘alternate names for black boys’, all these poems that are thinking directly about black death, that propelled my name into the American consciousness in poetry. That then meant that I could become a full-time artist and be doing all these shows and all of a sudden I had money in my pocket because of poetry. That was weird, and I had to deal with that, and I didn’t know how to. So I think ‘politics of elegy’ and ‘not an elegy’ is a way of recognising the muckiness of that. And, thinking about ‘Short Film’, I remove all the names when it becomes ‘not an elegy’, and that is to speak to the haphazardness of black death and police brutality and how it could be anyone. So I was really purposeful about removing those names and trying to let it be known that this list is ever-evolving. This applies to more than just the individual black person that we can point to and know, but is a continuous story that we need to address.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Listing and the erasure of names leads me to the final poem of the book, where there’s an apocalyptic image of black people standing on the shoreline interrogating the ocean which has swallowed their ancestors. Here naming, or calling, offers a moment of hope which is quite beautiful.

 

A

Danez Smith

—  Naming is important. In many black cultures you learn the importance of giving the right name or not naming things. So I try to be purposeful in Don’t Call Us Dead about where we get a name and also what types of names we use, right? So even that title, ‘don’t call us dead’, is followed by the line ‘call us alive someplace better’. It recognises that we can’t remove ourselves from sorrow, but we can reframe it. We can do it in a way that isn’t commodifying or objectifying these new ancestors we now have, who have been created out of systems of oppression and white supremacy. I like naming things, and I think what happens with naming is that it brings me closer to the work and it helps me to not make puppets out of my subjects, both when I’m writing about other folks and when I’m writing about myself. Because the book is very much about my diagnosis with HIV, which made me a very sad boy when I was writing, but one thing I never want to do is to feel like I’m masking myself or who I’m talking about in writing. So that act of naming brings it sort of blood-close.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Going back to your first collection {insert} boy, the poem ‘alternate names for black boys’ brings me to my next question, which is about the general name ‘boy’, which you use quite often in different ways. What does ‘boy’ mean to you?

 

A

Danez Smith

—  I like the word ‘boy’ a lot because ‘boy’ is a messy term and I like messy things. I like all the racial and sexual complications of a word like ‘boy’. Many folks feel a certain way seeing a black male body or person use a word like ‘boy’ in their work, because they immediately go to a repressive American society in which ‘boy’ is a term of disrespect used to keep a black man in place. Sure, that can be there as well, but it’s never the way in which I use it. For me, ‘boy’ comes from a reclaimed sense of the word. This is close to my feelings about the N-word as well. At least in terms of the more racially focussed poems, when I say ‘boy’ it’s to say something about kinship and to say something about friendship. To say ‘that’s my boy’ is to say that is my friend, that is my brother. And then in the sexual sense I think I’m very much interested in boyness, in how it relates to being a sub, how it relates to acts of submission and domination. But also there’s something too final and unimaginative about adulthood to me. ‘Man’ just feels like a very boring and final act, or a very boring object to be, whereas ‘boy’ allows it to be closer to childhood, which for me gives the poems more access to wonder and fantasy and magical realism and surrealism, so it feels like I can be stranger as a boy than I can be as a man. So I feel that even as old as I am now, and I’m not that old, I still feel a little attached to boyness in the work. And boys are allowed to be soft, too.
 

The full interview can be read in Issue 22 of The White Review, which is available to buy here.


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a poet, critic and Professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool where she co-directs Liverpool’s Centre for New and International Writing.

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