The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Danez Smith about their new collection Homie (Graywolf Press, January 2020), how winter can break you, the white gaze in art, and how violence can be an act of love and what the implications of that are.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here. Upcoming poets include Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers, Eric Tran, Mary-Kim Arnold, Ariel Francisco, Heather McHugh, and more!
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: There’s so much in this book that I want to talk to you about, but I’d like to start with the poem “i’m going back to Minnesota where sadness makes sense,” in part because now that I’ve lived in the Midwest for over eight years, I’m starting to feel like I can really understand that sentiment. What is it about Minnesota for you, other than it being home, that makes this feeling so strong? Or is it home that makes that pull so hard?
Danez Smith: I think living in a place where the air is brittle and everything, from trees to the fields to social life, is effectively dead for half the year changes a person. There is a particular way that sadness is ordered and right with winter, dangerous as it may be. That is what makes you Minnesotan, I think, a bond with the cold and all the metaphors and silences it holds. Maybe it’s that way for all the Midwest, but Minnesota is my strongest connection to the feeling. Plus, yeah, it’s home, and that’s impossible for me to shake.
Brian S: I’ve had to learn that. I grew up in Louisiana and Iowa is the first place I’ve lived that actually had winter. I learned about just how dangerous ice can be last February. And I didn’t think I would ever come to, if not appreciate it, at least understand it, but I think I’m getting there.
That thing about the whole world being dead for half the year really is important. Something about it that forces you to stop and be still.
Danez Smith: Winter breaks everyone eventually.
Brian S: It broke the hell out of my left elbow, that’s for sure.
Danez Smith: Oh fuck. Screw winter.
Brian S: When we had snow for Halloween, I thought about just getting in the car and driving south.
Danez Smith: Snow in October is always the most disrespectful. I cry when I hear Prince’s “Sometimes It Snows in April” but I cry for veeeery different reasons when sometimes it snows in October. And that “f- you”ness of winter will force your stillness, which is good for breeding poets.
Brian S: We had snow in May a few years ago and I was ready to fight God.
I wrote about the two titles of this book in the piece I wrote about why we chose the collection for Poetry Book Club, and I know that on Twitter, you talked about how it had one title for the world and one for your people. Could you talk some about that decision? Did you have to do some major convincing for it with your publisher?
Danez Smith: No, no one had to be convinced. Graywolf gives folks on the list a lot of creative freedom; I wouldn’t publish with them if that wasn’t the case.
Brian S: I thought that was probably the case, but I’m glad to hear it all the same.
Danez Smith: I used to worry, and later bore, myself with questions about the white gaze on my work, and I would rather invite the eyes of those who I want to speak to instead of sweat those whose looking has always been assumed, privileged. That title fake out is the first of many calls or marks of community and intimacy in the book. I think my book very much knows who it is and isn’t for. Granted, art in the public is for everyone; I think all my projects have a most tender, urgent, or beloved reader in mind.
Brian S: I really appreciated that about this book, that you had a sense of who you wanted to read it. Not like in an exclusionary way, as though there were groups you didn’t want to read it, but rather a sense that certain groups of people—like me, honestly—weren’t the primary audience.
Danez Smith: ’xactly.
It’s like, “You can be here, take off your shoes, don’t touch that word, make yourself comfy, leave before someone has to ask.”
Brian S: Right. And I’d add, “Don’t act like a tourist.” Don’t point and gawk and act like shit is exotic just because it’s outside your experience. And if it is exotic to you, maybe try to figure out why?
Danez Smith: Or just be comfy in your unknowing; you don’t need to know and no one has to explain. But like, feel free to feeeeeel.
Brian S: Speaking of being free to feel, I want to ask about the poem “jumped!”
Danez Smith: Surely! one of my favs.
Brian S: I had these kinds of friends growing up. That whole sense of “she bad & only we can say so / & when we bad she has permission // from our mamas to beat us like we hers.” Like, literally. I caught whippings from lots of church mothers growing up, and my dad doled them out as well.
But the turn, where the speaker is the one getting beaten up, and feels it at the end as a kind of love, is just an amazing place to go with this poem. It’s kind of reductive as a question, I guess, but how did you come up with that?
Danez Smith: I think one of the dangers the book embraces all over is if and how violence is a act of love, so to really take that thought all the way thru it can’t just be love when violence is dished out to a common enemy—love also has to be what is received.
I don’t think it manifests like that in real life, but it’s a fun and juicy idea for a poem. If part of the work is to imagine all of our capacities love and good and evil, I want to let some of those lines blur.
Brian S: That makes me think of the current political situation, and what Kaveh Akbar has been tweeting in response to some hateful stuff about Iran, about how much violence this country’s leadership and a good chunk of the population is willing to dish out. But do they not want to take it.
I say “current” like it hasn’t been going on forever. And I just saw your poem about that as I was paging through my copy here.
Danez Smith: Lately has been a long time…
I think it’s hard to write and live in English when it signals violence, physical and economic and spiritual and climate violence for so many all over. Kaveh asking that question makes me mourn how this language came to be the language of so many of us, thru terror and survival. Thinking thru violence, to me, is both terrifying and thrilling, complicated cause it is thinking thru a tool of the oppressor in the oppressor’s tongue and [Audre] Lorde already say where that lead, str8 to “don’t” and “can’t” and “won’t.”
Brian S: Which of these poems are your favorites to read in public? And who are you reading lately? Anything on the horizon we should be looking out for?
Danez Smith: My favs to read are probably “my president” and “acknowledgements.” “self portrait as a 90s R&B video” is pretty fun, too.
I’m really excited about new books from Justin Phillip Reed [The Malevolent Volume], Destiny Birdsong [Negotiations], Natalie Diaz [Postcolonial Love Poem], Roy G. Guzmán [Catrachos], and Cameron Awkward Rich’s recent joint [Dispatch].
Brian S: Cameron’s collection was our featured book last month! And I just read Natalie Diaz’s book a week or so ago.
Danez Smith: I’m working my way thru Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman a third time in a row, trying to write some plays and studying one of my favs intensely.
All the poetry coming this year is overwhelming! I need to get my hands on Carl Phillips’s new joint [Pale Colors in a Tall Field] if it’s the last thing I do, galley gods be with me.
Brian S: Thanks so much for joining us tonight and for this wonderful book. Are you ready for it to be out in the world officially?
Danez Smith: No but here we are! lol
I’m always nervous about releases but i’m excited to see how folks respond and hope it’s useful in the world.
Photograph of Danez Smith by Tabia Yapp.