Danez Smith Shares Their Insights About Poetry as Resistance
by John Francis Leonard
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Brent Dundore–BrentDundore.com & BDPortraits.com
The poetry of Danez Smith, the young, lauded and accomplished genderqueer poet, transcends labels. As a poet, their talent smashes pre-conceived notions. They are the author of the poetry collections black movie (Button Poetry), [insert] boy (YesYes Books), which won a prestigious Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ poetry, as well as the transcendent Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press), which was a finalist for the National Book Award for poetry in 2017.
Don’t Call Us Dead is a deeply moving homage to young Black men, the violence they face and the shocking problems of HIV/AIDS that they deal with at higher rates than almost any other community. There is an urgency to Smith’s poetry, and they illustrate these very real problems in ways that make us all think and wonder at their senselessness.
Smith illuminates the mortality of the young Black individual due to systemic violence at the hands of white police officers or an HIV diagnosis poignantly in Don’t Call Us Dead in lines such as: “history is what it is. it knows what it did. bad dog. / bad blood. bad day to be a boy.” The beautiful poetry of “it won’t be a bullet” delves further into the issue of HIV: “i’m not the kind of black man who dies on the news. / i’m the kind who grows thinner & thinner & thinner / until light outweighs us, & we become it, family / gathered around my barely body telling me to go / toward myself.” It’s in lines like these that Smith via the poem’s speaker grapples with their own mortality as a person living with HIV. Their verse excels in the personal as well as the political.
Smith is active in poetry slams, the powerful, oral reading of their work and has twice been a finalist in Individual World Poetry Slam, placing second in 2014. In 2017 they won a National Endowment for the Arts Grant. Along with Franny Choi, Smith hosts the Poetry Foundation podcast, VS.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Smith about influences on their poetry, writing in this newest wave of attacks on communities designated as Other, and how living with HIV shapes their perspective.
John Francis Leonard: At what age did poetry begin to interest you as an artistic genre? How did you begin expressing yourself through it, what was its draw?
Danez Smith: So, I began writing poetry in high school. There was a certain teacher who encouraged me. It allowed me to be serious and political and thoughtful in a way that allowed a fourteen year-old boy to be more than the class clown. It made something serious out of me.
You’re known for Poetry Slam and the dramatic reading of your work. I’ve watched your performance of several pieces through YouTube and they’re very moving. How important is the oral performance of poetry in your work? Do you write poems with their oral expression in mind?
It’s very important. I would like for people to not be bored when I read my poems aloud. I think anytime you get people to sit down and listen; it needs to be a good experience. Then I need to be at least decent at it. I understood poetry as a performance, but I didn’t start reading it aloud until college. My first experiences with poetry were spoken word. It comes alive when a poem is performed well on the stage. I come from a long tradition of spoken word artists, and I try to honor that tradition.
When you write poetry now, do you think of it in the context of reading it aloud to an audience?
I don’t. My job is just to write a good poem and afterwards I figure out if it’s a poem that lends itself to performance or not.
Let’s talk a bit more about that oral tradition of poetry that influences you.
There’s just a long tradition of folks; the Beat poets, the Black Arts Movement, the Def poets (my first heroes in poetry), many traditions. Just being Black is an oral tradition—how Black people pass on stories and family history. We are an oral people. So spoken word comes very naturally to me. I love watching the whole family tell stories all the time, watching and receiving the oral history of my family. Mostly through stories, sometimes through song. I feel like I come from many oral histories—so poetry just makes sense. And poetry is an oratory art. Writing poetry down is actually much newer than speaking it. Poetry is an oral tradition. It’s an old spoken art.
Tell me about The Dark Noise Collective. How did it begin?
The Dark Noise Collective is six different artists. We’re all the same age, all at similar points in our careers. Back in 2013, we got together and started supporting each other and our moves through the literary world. They’re my homies, my family. We’re just a collective of artists trying to figure it out and support each other
The subject of HIV/AIDS in the Black community, especially among young Black men, comes up often in your work and with much resonance. Is there not enough outreach? Is there a lack of access to medical care and information available?
I can’t answer the question about outreach because I don’t live everywhere that Black people live. I think some places have amazing outreach—in some, it’s not. It depends on where you are. Are you a rural Black person, or do you live in the city? Do you live in a city that’s progressive? Where is the clinic in your neighborhood? Does the clinic in your neighborhood have free services that you need, or is there another cross-town? I think there’s many questions you need to ask to answer that question—whether the outreach is there or not.
What are you thoughts about the alarmingly high HIV rates among young black MSM?
It’s sad. I think there’s a narrative there and that we can’t be lazy and assume that it’s just one thing or another.
How does your own community’s attitude towards HIV/AIDS influence the situation?
I’m not sure. I think that, again, there’s a false narrative that black people are more homophobic than other communities and I think that’s complete bullshit. But I also think it’s real for some folks. There’s a lot of shame that you have to move through. If you can’t move through the door of being openly queer, then how can you move through the door of being openly HIV-positive? I think there is something to be said for that, but I don’t know. Is it a lack of outreach, is it a lack of knowledge, do some folks think that crack is not a thing that exists? I meet folks every day who don’t know what crack is, who don’t know that there are programs they can have access to. I don’t think it’s about the Black community; it’s about America. It’s about class. It’s about religion. I don’t think it’s about Blackness; it’s about Americaness. And it’s about America not providing for folks that have limited access to resources. I don’t think you can single out HIV as an epidemic for Black people. We need to think about things like child mortality, income disparity and all the different health concerns that are facing Black folks across the board at higher rates.
For you, why is it important to talk about HIV/AIDS in your work?
I don’t know how to write what’s not going on in my life. For me, it was my own process, my own understanding of myself, problem solving for myself. All of that I have through poetry. So it was a thing that was happening in my life and I had to write about it.
Tell me a bit more about your personal experience with HIV.
I was diagnosed in April 2014 at a clinic. I received HIV the old-fashioned way. It was a really hard time; I was depressed for a while. Thankfully, I had health insurance and was able to go on medication. It made me get in touch with my life, connect with my mortality. I thought a lot about being Black in America and all the times my nation had tried to kill me. It was a hard transition, but it made me know that I was alive and that I was glad to be alive.
Race is another subject that you tackle in your work, especially in your latest collection Don’t Call Us Dead. Why do you think that we’re having this reckoning with race and our attitudes towards it in our culture right now? I knew racism still existed, of course, but I think many of us are upset at just how much there is. Were we naïve?
When have we not had a reckoning with race? America’s whole history is a reckoning with race. It’s nothing new; there’s no reckoning. Maybe white people are realizing they suck. Racism is a very real thing. There’s nothing different now than what was going on a hundred years ago. Nothing is new, maybe these Nazi rallies are new, but to a Black person, racism isn’t back, it isn’t retro, it isn’t having a moment like the eighties. Just because white liberals sort of looked away doesn’t mean that shit stopped happening. So I’m glad white liberals are realizing something. Maybe Trump was a good thing—it made folks realize that Obama was the U.S. president and shit still sucked for a lot of people. There is no reckoning, maybe an awakening for some folks, but I’m not someone who’s been awakened.
With all this hatred and blowback coming from the right in this administration, what are your hopes for the LBGTQ and Black communities? What do we need to do?
The most protected of the white folks might be waking up with this new awareness of race. There may be a lot of scary conversations folks need to have about a revolution. It’s scary. It’s not like Black folks and queer folks are silent people. We already have a strong sense of activism. We need to keep fighting and fighting in ways that are more inventive. We also need to think about what we’re not going to have time for. Because, the way America works, we’re going to have to show up at the midterm elections, make things tough for them. Get some folks in the House and Senate and, in 2020, in the White House that will continue to move us forward. Towards a culture that is plentiful for everyone, not just for some.
In reading Don’t Call Us Dead, I was especially moved by your words describing the aggression and violence perpetrated against black men and boys by law enforcement. What role can poetry play in raising awareness of this epidemic?
I think cops are unneeded and unnecessary, and along with them the prisons. There are tangible steps but I don’t think that I, as a poet, am the one to be giving them. There are political figures and leaders I look to for these answers and not other poets. I look to organizations like Black Lives Matter, to political thinkers. I think there are a lot of answers, but people just don’t want to listen. There’s not much conversation to be had when the pattern is clear. I’m bored with these conversations and ready to get to the next steps. How do we reshape our society into a place that does not necessitate the death of my people? And that’s what rubbed me the wrong way about this reckoning, we only see some of it. The peaks and valleys of when the media is interested in the death of Black Americans. A reason BLM came around and was popular in the media was because Black death piqued the public’s interest. But it had always been happening. Who’s hearing about it now, white people? We’ve been going to those funerals, burying these bodies, packing up the victims’ belongings. Just seeing the accounts of these murders doesn’t satisfy me. What will satisfy me will be them putting a stop to it.
You’ve been shortlisted and won some major literary awards. Do awards and accolades mean anything to your work?
It makes me proud. I work really hard and it’s nice to be recognized that way. It doesn’t make me write any differently. An award for something you’ve done is great, but it doesn’t affect future work. Maybe it’s confirmation that I’m doing something right, but it’s not going to make me write a better poem. My concern is that at the end of the day, you have to ignore the awards and not let it get into your head. Just put your head down and write, write better than you have been writing.
What’s ahead for you in your career; what are you working on now?
I’m working on a book of poetry called Homie that will come out in about two years and that book is about friendship. I’m really, really focused on friendship. That makes me giddy; I love my friends. I’m also working on a novel that will be ready in a year, or a decade [laughs heartily]. I want to try my hand at different things like stand-up, try my hand at the visual arts. I know I’ll be a poet for the rest of my life, I’ve got a good handle on it. But I want to go out and try to mess up at other things.
For more information about Danez Smith, visit their website at: danezsmithpoet.com.
John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for fifteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he is a literary critic for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.