Danez Smith: My Grandparents Were the First Poets I Knew
The Author of Don't Call Us Dead in Conversation with Peter Mishler
For this next installment in a series of interviews with contemporary poets, Peter Mishler interviews Danez Smith. Danez Smith is the author of [insert] boy, winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Smith has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, and lives in Minneapolis. Their second collection, released in September by Graywolf Press, is Don’t Call Us Dead.
Peter Mishler: I’d love to know a little bit about your upbringing and youth. When did you start to develop a sensibility that you now see as integral to your poetics? And what did your early development as a poet look like?
Danez Smith: My first interest in language was being mesmerized by the preaching I saw on Sundays and on the porch the rest of the week. I didn’t really fall in love with the written word until much later. The deepest roots that lead up to me being a poet are oral, how language lives and is performed by the body, transfixed just as much on the speaker as what’s being spoken.
I think of my grandparents as some of the first poets I knew, the stories my play-uncles told over and over are the first epic poems that come to my mind. I think of all the language invented in those earlier years on black tops and in basements and I’m amazed that everyone I know isn’t a published author, because the gold they make off the cuff is better than what I can try to mine for today. When I started messing around with poetry proper it was firmly in the realm of spoken word and poetry slams. Writing and performance went hand in hand to me for a long, long while until a professor (The Gawd Amaud Johnson) pushed me to consider the page. How he put is was, “Are your poems only good when you’re around to read them?” That flipped my whole shit. And I’ve been trying ever since to make sure that doesn’t happen.
PM: What were some of the earliest measures you remember taking to follow this advice?
DS: I read. For so long I was a strictly auditory lover of poetry. I had never really considered what was unique to the written traditions, so I read. I was a ferocious reader of poetry for my last few years in undergrad and that was the most important step. Reading led me to imitation, and good lord knows I spent a good year trying to write a Patricia Smith poem. Imitation led me to invention, and all that led me to more questions than answers about what a poem on the page is vs. a poem in the air.
For a while, I needed there to be a difference between “page and stage” just so I could figure out my relationship to both. I hate that binary now. It’s a one phrase that makes me blank out with boredom and rage. A good poem is a good poem is a good poem. Every poem should be read out loud with passion/care and every poem can be written down with intention/clarity, but for those few years in college, I had allowed the page to take up more space in my mind so I could reimagine and re-meet this art form I was already so smitten with.
PM: I wonder, after having published your first full-length book, how you thought about a second collection—what did you want to accomplish in terms of complicating or disrupting what you’d already done in [insert] boy?
DS: I started writing the books that would become Don’t Call Us Dead before [insert] boy was published. For me, each full-length book and chapbook is its own unique project with its own code and concerns. Sure, they share themes and signatures, but for me I can’t really think of the next project if I’m stuck thinking of the previous one. What I learned from writing the first book was that I am more of a formalist than a younger version of myself would like to admit. I was, for some time, slightly hostile to the notion of “form” because it represented something white and privileged to me, but writing, researching and refining [insert] boy made me complicate and broaden my stance on form.
Writing that first book made me grow up (I was only 23 when it got selected for publication). I had to re-meet form, its histories and ways, to engage with black formalism, to submit to study in a way a young and pointlessly sassy me wasn’t able to do. So what’s different is I went into this new collection knowing myself better as a poet. I knew going into this one that I am a formalist and that surrealism is one of my strongest tools. I knew myself more as a poet, which allowed me to go deeper into my unknown self and surprise myself in the process.
PM: One poem where this surrealism stands out is “seroconversion” which reads like a series of fables, but is grounded by its title, in our world, in lived experience. I wonder if you could talk about your approach to the surreal in the context of this poem: do you find yourself led more by the actual into the surreal, or the surreal into the actual? The poem itself seems to move toward the actual, for instance, toward the real boys, the earth…
DS: I think what the surreal is to me is just the process of opening my eyes a little bigger to see the strangeness of the world in plain view. In this poem, I think it starts and maybe ends in the actual, but who is to say the actual world isn’t surreal its damn self! Maybe magical realism is a better term. Can a poem be surreal and embody magical realism? What’s the line between the two? Where does realness end? In many of the poems, I think surrealism was the only way I could make sense out of what was happening in the world, in my body. It’s a little “Through the Looking Glass”ish, I had to wade into the strange in order to find out what I was actually thinking, feeling, and dealing with.
PM: Back to what you were mentioning about the “unknown self”—how do you begin to go into the unknown when in the process of composing something new?
DS: We all have our ways of unlocking that door. Sometimes the key is the right kind of music, sometimes it’s about surrounding myself with quietness, sometimes I need to smoke a joint, sometimes I need to have some sexy time with my boo, sometimes I need to make tea (I often make tea and forget to drink it, but it helps lol), sometimes I have to go for a run first, sometimes I need to read the poems of my homies and heroes to just start me, sometimes I catch a sound or a sentence in public that just sends me off too. I wish there was a singular way that I could call on, but that unknown self likes staying unknown. My job is to just let the poem take me where it decides to take me, listening to whatever little instinct or curiosity whispers “this way.”
PM: I’d love to move on to your sonnet sequence “crown.” What observations do you have about what this form determined for you or dictated to you as you wrote?
DS: Lol I love that poem so much. It was so fun to write. Form, for me, for others, has this way of allowing for delight even when writing about something traumatic and tender. Sonnets are maybe my favorite form. I write so many “loose” sonnets. Loose in the sense that I don’t follow every rule each time, cause where’s the fun in that? But I love having 14 lines to say what I mean and shut up. I love a good volta too. Sonnet crowns are just… so cool? Like, they geek me up. Because they floor me, open me, catch me up in their music and wreck me. I think of great sonnet crowns like Marilyn Nelson’s “A Wreath for Emmett Till” or Patricia Smith’ poem “13” which is a kind of sonnet crown variant in my eyes. When I think of sonnet crowns or other large, expansive forms, I think of submitting to a topic, really allowing yourself to be taken by the poem into undiscovered thought.
I started writing “crown” in the airport waiting to come back home. It was just the first section. I thought it was just a random chunk of lyric. I didn’t know what it was about until I decided to open those 14 lines to the possibility of a crown. At times I felt led by sound, other times by image. What unraveled before me was this investigation of legacy and illness. I felt so open after writing this, but also elated because pulling myself through that sonnet made me use my most athletic skills to find the proper music and get the scene right. That’s what form does to me. Once certain decisions have been made by the conceit/structure of the form, the poem —or rather, the space waiting to be turned into a poem—asks, “what else can you do?”
PM: One of the things I notice about the longer works in your new collection is that you’re willing to question your own thinking across the poem, and, because of that questioning, the poems veer in new directions. I’m thinking of a poem like “not an elegy.” What does your experience of writing a longer poem look like?
DS: I think there are two ways I tend to write longer poems. One way I build them is more editorial: I will have a whole bunch of poems that are all speaking to a similar center that I will arrange together into a kind of choir under the same title. While I think all the poems in a book “speak” to each other, some need to lean into each other a little more for them to create the conversation that I want. “not an elegy” is one of these poems. Each section was originally titled for a different black person who has been murdered by state-sanctioned or state-influenced violence and the final section written for a childhood friend who committed suicide. In collapsing them into one poem, my hope was to push past the limits of media-approved sympathy, to make the reader open themselves to feeling without the trigger of a recognizable name. I went back and forth with that decision. Naming holds high value in my poetics, but I think this was the right way for these poems to live in this book.
The other way I sometimes find my way through these longer poems is an exercise of limits. I will take a sound/an idea/an image and try to follow it for a long as I can. When I reach my limit with that path, I pivot. I love to write in this fragmented way. I always felt like I was trying to write entire poems out of these short bits, and it led to a lot of unneeded lyric. But these fragmented sequences (I’m thinking about a poem like “recklessly” or “every day is a funeral & a miracle here”) allow me to find comfort in incompleteness and find the space between what is said.
Both are types of collage, I guess. I tend to think about more musically, like a choir, or a 7-part harmony, or a song made up of 10 different bridges with nary a chorus or verse. It allows me to say what I’m trying to say in a few different voices, add them up to a whole. It also, in the process of writing, allows me to wander and not feel guilt for it.
PM: The book features at its opening and closing poems which project both a picture of a paradise or afterlife (“summer, somewhere”) and a beautiful, affirming retributive creation myth (“dream where every black person is standing by the ocean”), and I wondered if you could talk about your experience of writing these poems. What is the relationship between visionary poetics and your work?
DS: Visionary and speculative work keep me optimistic about the world. There are works by Octavia Butler, Franny Choi, Rigoberto Gonzalez, and a heap of other folks I hold firmly to my heart because of how wildly clear their imaginations see our tangible world. At this point in my writing, I am best able to witness and transcribe the world if I’m allowed to see what could be, to peer over the surreal edge at another version of us. I don’t know exactly where that interest came from, but I trust it. I trust imagination, I trust these queer and mythical lenses. Maybe this is where my comic book nerd self starts to bleed into my poetry self?
When I am building a world in a poem, I think “Who could we be? What must I leave recognizable so we can see ourselves here and where do I have room to play?” These questions lead me down a visionary path, where I can’t see until I get up close, where I have to stretch my sight to see.