Poetry, Blackness, and Friendship: Danez Smith on Language, Connection, and ‘Homie’
In Conversation with V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell on Fiction/Non/Fiction
In this episode, acclaimed poet Danez Smith discusses the role friendship plays in their most recent collection of poetry, Homie. Smith talks to Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell about the isolating effect COVID-19 has had on black communities, using space on the page inventively, and writing about money. This episode is presented in conjunction with the Loft Literary Center’s literary festival, Wordplay, which this year is a virtual event. An edited video of this conversation will appear tomorrow.
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Selected readings for the episode:
Corona Correspondences: #28 by Danielle Evans (The Sewanee Review) · Review: ‘Homie,’ a Book of Poems That Produces Shocking New Vibrations by Pahrul Sehgal · Frank O’Hara · As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner · Angel Nafis · Hieu Minh Nguyen · Douglas Kearney · 1977: Poem for Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer by June Jordan · Recordings of June Jordan from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University Digitized recordings and more digitized recordings · ‘Feet’ and ‘Spoon’ from Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay · Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone by Eduardo Galeano
Whitney Terrell: There’s a line I really liked—among many lines I liked—from your poem “how many of us have them?” You write, “Andrew used to say / friendship is so friendship & ain’t it?” And that line gets to the unspeakable part of what friendship is, what it means, how it is defined. Because in real life it isn’t defined. Part of the thing about friendship is that you know it when you have it, but you don’t often say what it is. So what made you decide to write poetry about this unspeakable thing? And how would you define it?
Danez Smith: For me, poems and books sort of happen just through letting the mind and the work wander. You write a poem because it’s what’s on your heart, what’s on your mind, it’s what brings you joy or play for that day, or peace for that day. And by the time I looked up, I just had a bunch of work that was about friendship. I didn’t really know that I had been writing a book about it until I went looking to see if I had written a book about anything.
It makes sense that I was attracted to it. My friends had just been a really big part of my life, especially in my 20s. And, as I moved farther away from my family, and I really didn’t find myself in that many long romantic relationships, friends were a big part of how love happened in my life. And I think love is one of those natural things that we write about when we turn to poetry. Love, what it means to be a human, death and what it means to be amongst other humans. All those things, when I think about them, friends’ names come to mind, whether in joy or in sorrow and so I guess it kind of felt natural. It felt like if I was to evidence my life in this work, if I’m going to confess about something, then friends might as well be it.
WT: The directive of your previous book’s title, Don’t Call Us Dead, can be read as aimed at a non-black audience. But Homie addresses black readers, black friends, and celebrates black friendship. It’s particularly moving and painful to read knowing the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on families of color, friends, and communities. Also, COVID-19 is a lonely disease—could you talk about how it is affecting the friendships and communities you write about in Homie?
DS: I lost a cousin to COVID. I have other family members who are sick. It’s harder. I think COVID forces us to not act how we know how to act, to reach out, to touch, to commune and to do all those things. The measures for it feel very anti-human, or just the opposite of who we are. Like the opposite poetry. Poetry is about connection and that’s exactly what is dangerous right now. [This disease] hurts poor black people more. It hurts poor people more. We’re talking about the people working at grocery stores, gig workers working for Instacart, delivery folks. When we are in the hospital, my black folks are just believed less in the medical system. Our pain is not real—particularly, when a black woman says she’s in pain in a hospital, does anybody hear it?
Like anything in America, if it hits us, it’ll probably black people hard. It’s the same script, new drama.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I was thinking about your poem, “what was said at the bus stop,” which has this great scene and conversation in it. It suggests really complex things about solidarity and the usefulness and also inadequacy of comparison as a connection between communities of color and I just was thinking about it—I mean not just the pandemic but all sorts of things, where people compare, ‘Oh I understand because of x and y,’ and it really isn’t the same even though it might provide a little bit of a bridge. I wondered if you could read that poem for us.
DS: I’d be happy to.
DS: That poem is about waiting on the Megabus really early in the morning. The Ann Arbor stop, trying to get the hell out of there. It was far too early for some white man to be asking us questions. And when I woke up on another side of a nap, I wrote this poem.
VG: I feel like I can see that scene so clearly and perhaps have been in that scene. There’s that line about comparison being foolish. And then all those great comparisons, reaching and failing in that penultimate stanza. What role does comparison play in your thinking about art?
DS: I think it’s how we learn to do things. It’s fundamental to everything, like how we teach is by comparison. We wouldn’t have the metaphor if it wasn’t for the basic function of comparison to hold two things by each other and say, ‘how do these differ?’ and ‘let me show you how similar they are.’ That’s like half of the trick of being a writer, especially being a poet: to take something complex and show how it’s been the same as us or been the same as the birds all along.
Like anything in America, if it hits us, it’ll probably black people hard. It’s the same script, new drama.
I don’t think the poem is about actual connection because really, the only moments we connect is looking at each other. And then I just do my poet thing and just talk too much in my own head. The poem just uses that one moment of unclear connection—maybe we are sort of in a sense of oneness right now; or maybe we’re just just looking at each other—and it just takes that moment to expound upon my own selfish thinking, as most poems do. I feel bad for this lady. Sometimes I feel bad for anybody I’ve ever put in a poem. Nobody asked to be in a poet’s sight. That’s awful! [laughter] Because all I do is take my one side of the experience and try to spin it for my own selfish thinking!
Sometimes being a poet feels like a thing of community and sometimes it feels like the most egotistical, selfish thing in the world, that I just get to run back to my notebook with everybody else’s stories and what I’ve made up about them in my head. And I get to look like a great person because I got to write the poem about solidarity and like, say all these wonderful things, but like, she got shit out the deal. [laughter] Just left annoyed by this old guy.
Danez Smith: [old confession & new reading]
That poem—I guess I was trying to stop writing Don’t Call Us Dead after it was already out. A thing I always find out with books is that even as you’re finished it, or you put the final draft out, you’re still in that same mode, and so there’s always a couple of joints that come up at the very end, and some get added, but some are just getting the book out of your system. And so I think for me, that first stanza really does once again just reanimate what half of Don’t Call Us Dead is trying to be about. And then, yeah, then just try to move on to something else.
I think I started thinking about money in poems. That’s always been an uncomfortable topic for me in my life. Probably my easiest source of tears is just to like, press the money button in my body. At least when I was young and very much in debt and didn’t feel like I had tools to be an adult with money. And having seen my parents go through that, and the only messages about money I got to be like save it—I didn’t know how to talk about it. So it felt new even in this poem, just to admit that dollars are in the world. And it’s something I guess I didn’t know how to talk about for a long time, outside of maybe a couple of poems about sex work in my first book.
So I think what that’s trying to signal is just doing the uncomfortable. I think you’re right—the poem kind of in that way is like the first friend that you whisper a thing to, and it was very scary, I think, to whisper into a poem that like, hey, I have money now.
Whitney Terrell: Yeah, that’s a hard thing to say. I mean, it’s a true thing, and I just respected and appreciated that. And I felt that it would have been scary.
DS: Yeah. Yeah, it’s always scary. I mean, I don’t know. I mean, money is always so confusing for me. I have more of it than I ever have had. I’m nowhere near rich. But because I’m a person who didn’t have money, who now does, I automatically feel like I have to give it all away and I’m uncomfortable having it. And the world still sucks and like, you know, taxes and stuff. I don’t know. Money is such a horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible thing. And gives me a lot of stress. And so yeah, I was much more comfortable, I think, being broke. [laughter] Than having to say that, yes, I’m thinking about buying a home. And I can like, think that. And thanks to poetry for that, in a weird way. But yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know. I actually need to read more poets—I want more poets to write about money. I want to read like, rich poems, you know.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: Rich poems! What would those be like?
DS: I don’t know. I just don’t feel like rich people write about being rich and maybe I’d feel better about being newly middle class, if… [laughter]
WT: Well, I don’t know about poets, because I don’t hang out with as many poets as I hang out with fiction writers, but fiction writers talk about money all the damn time.
VG: Do they?!
WT: They’re like stockbrokers. Oh, God, yes, come on.
VG: Not the ones I know.
WT: Oh, really?
VG: No. [laughter]
WT: I feel like they do and talk about contracts and who got what contract and how much so and so got paid. I mean that that is the thing, that doesn’t—
DS: The poets are like oh, you got a shitty contract! Congrats! [laughter]
WT: I know, yeah.
VG: Well, related to this—I’m curious, and I wonder if I can just sneak this last question in under the wire—but connected to what you’re talking about, there’s been this discourse around shelter in place about productivity and these articles that are like, don’t worry about being productive! If you are wearing your pajamas all day, it’s cool! Don’t give into the capitalist machine that wants you to just port all your work to home like there’s no difference! And I was thinking about that—a lot of which I find really appealing—and then also, it seems like, well, it’s kind of a privilege too, to be like, well, I will be here and resist this question of productivity and I can, I’m able to and still survive. And so I was curious what you thought about that. And also, are you writing? How is your writing life and your reading life in this moment that we’re in?
I want more poets to write about money. I want to read like, rich poems, you know.
DS: I both agree and disagree with that. I think, do not feel the pressure to be productive, if you have the option. It’s, for me, a mental health question. Like, if you have the headspace to write, please do, and if that’s something you want to do, if it feels like it’s going to bring you peace. Maybe you are somebody who feels like you finally have the time to finally get to writing that thing that you’ve been wanting to write. But I feel like I don’t want to be beat up. I feel like a lot of people are going to beat themselves up like, oh, I don’t have a novel. We’ve been in the house for, you know, three, four months at the end of this. And yeah, it’s so dangerous. I don’t know, because this is not—I feel like it makes sense to feel uncreative. I felt really uncreative at the start of quarantine. I just couldn’t muster anything. I tried to write just even for, you know, just the therapeutic reasons of that it feels like a thing to do and it helps you make sense of things. And I just—just poop came out. I was just writing the news again, you know. I was just like America sucks. Here’s why, today. [laughter]
VG: That might be a rich person poem. That’s a rich person poem.
DS: [laughter] But I feel like I hit a new vein in April with National Poetry month popping up and just had a couple of friends that wanted to do a 30-30 and get that out there. And at that point, we had already been in shelter in place in Minnesota for about two, three weeks at that point. And I finally felt like I had other things to think about besides the madness and anxiety and newness of the situation. I didn’t want to write about COVID. Maybe something will come out of—it feels like a pretty big moment in world history. But I couldn’t do it, especially as it was happening and I was adjusting to it. I couldn’t. And so, that’s my relationship to it, but I have been reading a lot more than I normally do. I’ve been trying to touch a couple of books every day.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Andrea Tudhope and V.V. Ganeshananthan. Photograph of Danez Smith by David Hong.