The Rumpus Interview with Danez Smith

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When I read Danez Smith’s first full-length collection [Insert] Boy I couldn’t help but think about NPR. Back in September, the news organization published the article “Where Have the Poets Gone?” which asked if modern poetry has lost its vibrancy and place as the “language of protest” in America. I wondered if the writer had read Smith. And, if not, then maybe I should send him a copy of [Insert] Boy, a collection full of energy and unflinching honesty.

For Smith, the body is a political subject; a place where violence is enacted and, still, where desire lives. His meditations on queer life and racism in this country demand attention. These poems make you stop what you’re doing and feel something. They look you in the eyes, hold the gaze, and never look away, not even to blink.

From “The Black Boy & The Bullet”:

both spark the same debate
some folks want to protect them/some think we should just get rid
of the damn things all together.

The book’s poems tackle weighty subjects while he brings a seasoned ear to the page. As a performer, Smith was named a 2011 Individual World Poetry Slam finalist. He’s also a two-time Rustbelt Individual Champion. In preparing for the interview, I searched YouTube for Smith’s spoken word performances. “Dear White America” and “Genesissy” are good ones to start with. A few of these poems are included in this collection, and it’s exciting to see them seamlessly translated from stage to page.

During the week my home state Florida legalized same-sex marriage, he and I chatted on the phone. We talked about poetry’s responsibility, the power of specificity, and what it’s like for strangers to read his diary.

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The Rumpus: How conscious of politics, even when not overtly political, are you in your poetry?

Danez Smith: Poetry has its place in revolution and protest. But I don’t know if I’m actively searching for that. It’s kind of the only way I know how to create work. A lot of my foundation in the arts—even in high school stuff—was always social justice based. But what that taught me wasn’t necessarily that every poem needs to be a protest song or that every poem has to be political, but that the personal is political. I create art for necessary reasons. It’s not a frivolous act to me or for the people that taught me about art-making. It’s not something that we should take lightly. Everything we write is an opportunity to speak something true or construct or deconstruct something for either the self or for people or community or another person that we love, hate, whatever. I don’t think politics necessarily come into play when I’m writing or when I’m editing, but it’s more just how I know how to be. To have a certain amount of agency, when I’m approaching the work, and I can’t be devoid of feeling. Poetry is kind of moving away from that apolitical, anti-emotional, anti-sense-making thing that popped up in the ’90s. Academia took a grip hold on poetry, and I’m very much anti that. I want to push away from poetry devoid of the “I” or feeling or a politicalness or a meaning.

Rumpus: The book’s organization lets you really focus in on that.

Smith: [Insert] Boy allowed me to dissect the body and do different section titles like ‘black’ or ‘rent’ to talk about different types of boys I am or have been. I’ve been so obsessed with the idea of intersectionality for a long time. But the idea of trying to section off those intersections came to me, and I call the book a failed attempt at that. Even though I can separate major themes, they still hop up in other sections. That felt important. There’s power in trying to speak to one self at a time. I wanted to talk to all the different boys that I am and give them a chance to say whatever it is that they needed to say.

Rumpus: You write about heavy topics in the books, but there are also times of playfulness like in “Genesissy.”

Smith: One of my favorite things to is play with the Bible, to put God in gay situations. He’s everywhere. I think I’m a failed comedian, so sometimes I try to use humor to talk about more difficult subjects, especially things that are in the midst of grieving. I remember writing the poem last year, and I was feeling very overwhelmed by a lot of the black bodies and in this poem black trans bodies that were dying so senselessly, because of no cause of their own. I needed to celebrate while I mourned. And how I know to celebrate is to laugh. The reading of this poem is always very interesting, because it’s a laugh fest at first but then it punches you in the gut toward the end of the first section. I try to subvert the mourning because this could be a very sad book, but there’s moments like in “Genesissy” where you get some amount of joy in there. Even in the midst of that joy we can’t ignore what’s been going on, and that still overtakes the comedy by the end of the poem. It’s a tool. I think sometimes comedy is the darkest art.

Rumpus: There’s also a type of coded language in that poem, like “duck walk” and “death drop,” that not every reader’s going to get. I like how there’s moments where you’re specifically speaking to a certain audience.

Smith: My most annoyed thing from workshop in undergrad was somebody saying,“I don’t understand what this is” or “I don’t know what this is, so you should take it out of the poem.” What that translates too is that you’re creating poems for the most middle-of-the-road, straight, white, Midwestern aesthetic of a person, which maybe poems do. But sometimes I write a poem, and it’s for fat, black, gay dudes who eat too much chicken on Friday. Whoever else shall gather in this poem and find themselves—or get a kick out of it: “Sure, you come along, too.” But I wrote this with fat, black, gay dudes who eat too much chicken on Fridays in mind. And that’s who the hell this poem is for. We can’t shy away from that, because I think when we shy away from it that’s how poetry becomes bland and uninteresting. It doesn’t move the masses. There’s power in specificity. Once we try to make our poems for everybody is when we make our poems so wack, so damn wack. My book is for everybody, but I really hope there’s young, black, gay, or queer men that get this book in their hands. I wish I would have had this book when I was sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. I want this book to do for others what Jericho Brown’s Please did for me. I think every poem is for a somebody and the worst poems are for everybody. 

Rumpus: A couple of your poems—“Not An Elegy For Mike Brown” and “Alternate Names for Black Boys”—were re-published on Buzzfeed, reaching a whole different audience. How does it feel to have that level of visibility when the poems in [Insert] Boy are so personal?

Smith: It’s super weird. There’s something different about having it be a book, because I’ve been performing some of the poems in the book for years. I feel like with the book people have access to my Microsoft Word, and they’re looking at my private things, though I definitely signed a contract for this to come out. But I think I have to be comfortable with that weirdness, because by letting people peek in, there are some people, hopefully, who’ll be able to see something in themselves that they’ve never been able to see before. Or didn’t know they could say out loud. It’s uncomfortable as shit, but I think that’s exactly what poetry is supposed to do. Things I’d never tell my mom are now sitting on her bookshelf. I’m getting used to this new type of weirdness—of seeing strangers tweet my diary.

Rumpus: Around that time, too, you wrote “Open Letter to White Poets,” which talks about Darren Wilson and George Zimmerman and calls for writers to be the new guard. What kind of conversation do you think poets needs to be having?

Smith: We need to make poetry less insular. I think the reason why an article like “Where Have the Poets Gone?” happens is because we need to buy each other’s books. We write in an art form that has so much potential to impact change. If we don’t live up to that, we’re really doing ourselves and our genre a discredit. I wrote that post, and I was flooded with white poets sending me their poems, and sending me messages saying,“Thank you, but I did this in my book.” My thing was that it was an open letter that I didn’t necessarily need anybody to write back to me about, but I needed people to write back to the communities they could influence. It wasn’t about showing the black poet who wrote the post, here’s what I’m doing or here’s what I wrote one time. I think what people skipped over was the call to go into your own community and really try to do the work. For me, it’s about talking about the injustices that go on in our country so effortlessly and systematically. Not just for black people, but violence against trans bodies, violence against so many different bodies that don’t fit this white, Christian, male, and/or female aesthetic or form. It can’t be us patting ourselves on the back for just writing the thing. It also has to reach passed ally-ship and go into advocacy. Everybody can be your ally, but only people who are willing to go up to bat for the things you’re concerned about or that a community truly needs can be an advocate. We need more advocates and less allies. Ally-ship allows folks to sit in that thank-you-for-writing-that email and then move on. The frustrating part about writing that was seeing all these people reach out—it was truly overwhelming—and feeling like people were seeking validation. It concerned me that a lot people were reaching out to excuse themselves from the masses. That was not the tea at all.

Rumpus: That’s wild to me that people took it as an opportunity to send you a poem. It seems so self-serving.

Smith: I was blown away. It showed me how surface level we can reach it sometimes. If someone really read what I wrote, they’d know that just wasn’t the thing to do. Or maybe that’s the nature of whiteness and how it protects. I don’t need recognition or a ‘thank you’ and all that. What I really need is America to fucking change. I really don’t need to hear how the thing I wrote made you write a poem. I don’t give a shit. But I do care about you going into your communities and doing this work and being an advocate. I do care about you sharing that work with the people you feel it could influence. I don’t need to hear that poem, but I’m pretty sure somebody in your friend-group, family, or community needs to. I know that might be really harsh to say, but I think oftentimes it’s peoples’ nature to be like,“Oh, well as long as I let this person know I did this thing that I did my part to change America for the day.”

Rumpus: The overall response you got from the piece makes me think about the recent Azalea Banks interview on Hot 97 when she’s talking about the “cultural smudging” of black artists.

Smith: When it comes to hip hop, which is another type of poetry, there’s this movement. The globalization of hip hop has led to its whitening in America, and I think it’s a problem. I love that interview she did. I think she uses a lot of sharp language—she’s calling T.I. a coon and stuff like that—but if you can move some of that language around and get to the root of what she’s talking about, she’s a genius. When you talk about Macklemore and Iggy Azalea and Eminem and they’re the nominees for like the American Music Award it makes me think we’re in different space in hip hop. That in itself isn’t problematic, because they can definitely participate in the culture, but when we’re talking about what hip hop is and what it represents that was very problematic. It was started as a black revolutionary art form. Iggy Azalea is the absolute worst. She can’t even freestyle, which is the bare minimum you need to be able to do as a rapper. It’s very scary to see her get so much popularity for putting on a black woman’s accent over her Australian one and parading around stage. We have to talk about how she’s styled after black women, even down to her plastic surgery, styled after a black woman’s body. An ultra-white girl possibly seen as the ultimate light-skinned image. It’s fucked up. It makes you concerned for art. That’s why I’m really glad I’m a poet because ain’t nobody going to take these words away from us.

Rumpus: For Winter Tangerine Review, you’re helping to guest edit a special issue called “Hands Up Don’t Shoot: Exploring What it Means to be Black in America.” How has the response for work been?

Smith: I’m really happy that while we’re definitely getting a lot of established artists, we’re also getting stuff from people who are submitting work for the first time. The people who don’t really have a strong interest in publishing or poetry careers, but they definitely write poems. As the editors we had a lot of conversations about exclusive space—whether we wanted the issue to be open to all writers or just to writers of a black diaspora. Ultimately, my main point, was that it should stay only black, because who else knows what it is to be black in America. Other people know what it is to live with blackness or black people. That being an exclusive space has opened up for people to feel like their work will be received in a way that they don’t have to worry about their craft not being judged because it’s a race poem. Whether it’s a male editor reading a woman or white editors read work by people of color sometimes the presence of a difference can make them judge the poem in a certain way. But there’s also journals exclusively for black folks like Kinfolk and BLACKBERRY, which is a journal for African American women.

Rumpus: How does your background in spoken word affect how you approach the page?

Smith: I learned a lot from spoken word as a form. And sometimes it’s hard for people to recognize it as a form of poetry. There are rules to it just like a sestina or a villanelle. When we’re operating in spoken word, we have to keep in mind that the audience is going to be able to hear it once. And that’s it. We need to be able to get as much to them in the writing of the poem as possible, so we’re not able to hide as much. You’re not able to play around in some ways that you’re able to on the page. It’s just you in front of a mic for somewhere between one to five minutes or however long your piece is. It taught me a lot about being transparent in poetry. I need to be as clear as possible. One thing I really like about the page—and I’m still trying to teach myself—is the ability to hide and to mask and to let my reader do a little bit more work. Spoken word requires the author to do a little bit more work that the audience isn’t able to do because they can only go through it once. Whatever divide we feel between spoken word and the page is bullshit. I wonder what it is about the ability to read a poem out loud that scares some of the gatekeepers of the page world. 

Rumpus: I was listening to a YouTube video of you performing “Dinosaurs in the Hood” while reading it at Poetry, and there were subtle differences—some asides—because you were playing with the crowd too.

Smith: That was written as a spoken word piece, so I’m hyped it got taken inPoetry magazine. In that poem, I’m trying to be intent for people to get as much as possible in the first time through, which I don’t think does it a disservice on the page, either. I think it makes it more accessible.

Rumpus: It seems like people are responding really well to [Insert] Boy, and that has to feel good for a first book.

Smith: Yeah, I’m super excited. I’m waiting for my scathing review. I’m wondering who’s going to write it.


Tyler Gillespie has written for Rolling Stone, Salon, PAPER, and The Daily Beast, among other places. He's the co-author of The Awkward Phase, forthcoming from Skyhorse. His Twitter is pretty decent. More from this author →