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Danez Smith was born into a devout Baptist household in St Paul, Minnesota. Smith’s grandmother still lives there, in one of only two black households on a street that was mixed but is becoming increasingly white. Smith grew up, on this border between the blacker areas and the white middle-class enclaves of the city, as a black, queer, God-fearing child.
The future poet and spoken-word artist would listen to family members and friends telling stories on the porch, impressed by their way with words. The friends came and went but there was always one constant: church. Smith may have struggled to fit in among the congregation but Sunday morning meant worship, and more importantly a sermon. It was that rousing religious oration that opened up the world of writing and performance.
“The first writing I ever loved was the Sunday sermon,” Smith says when we meet in Manchester, ahead of a live performance. “There are moments in a Baptist church when the pastor gets caught in the spirit … I think that’s what I’m trying to do. I just have to get it out. Just let me get it out.”
For the last decade Smith – who is non-binary and uses the pronouns them/they – has been letting the spirit take over. Three books of searing, brazenly queer and political poetry have made them one of the most discussed poets of their generation, and placed them at the vanguard of an African American movement that has seen spoken-word artists move from stages and backrooms to book deals and awards success.
Smith’s 2014 debut, [insert] boy, marked the arrival of a new voice; their 2017 collection Don’t Call Us Dead confronted issues that were raging in the US as the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum, holding a mirror up to America’s racism and advocating urgently for change, while touching on Smith’s own HIV diagnosis. It was a finalist for the National book award in the US, and at 29, Smith became the youngest ever winner of the Forward best collection prize, beating US poet laureate Tracy K Smith to take the top honour.
The poem “dear white America” became a viral sensation, with Smith’s intense performance of it earning comparisons to “Howl” – Allen Ginsberg’s exasperated condemnation of the US in the 1950s.
i tried, white people. i tried to love you, but you spent my brother’s funeral making plans for brunch, talking too loud next to his bones. you took one look at the river, plump with the body of boy after girl after sweet boi & ask why does it always have to be about race? … because Jordan boomed. because Emmett whistled. because Huey P. spoke. because Martin preached. because black boys can always be too loud to live.
Don’t Call Us Dead was a collection that spoke truth to white power and made Smith a literary star. But their new book Homie is different. “This book does not care about white people,” Smith says bluntly. “It’s about saying ‘hello’ to the people of colour in the room, ‘let’s talk’.”
In person Smith is softly spoken and polite, carefully crafting each response, though still standing out in the hotel where we meet, with their basketball shoes, nose rings and Whitney Houston T-shirt a hint of the performer that lies beneath.
“Maybe that was the thing with Don’t Call Us Dead, it was a lot angrier with white people,” Smith says. “With Homie I stopped asking myself: ‘What should I do with the white gaze?’ Because I realised I wasn’t interested in it. I asked myself: ‘Why am I spending so much time worried about this gaze?’ I think white people can learn a lot from the poems, but that’s not who I’m writing for.”
That imagined reader is a specific group Smith calls “Beloveds”: the largely black and queer friends and acquaintances Homie addresses. Originally, the book was going to have poems named after black people killed by “state-sanctioned violence”, with a section about a friend’s suicide. The latter part stayed but Smith decided to make the titles and themes more personal. “I was writing to friends, to family, to people I wanted to speak to. I had to shut off the idea that my poems are now being read by this wider audience. I’m still invested in this intimate and small table: I can name the people that my poems are for.”
Another reason for this more inward-looking perspective comes from Smith’s struggle with writer’s block in the lead-up to the deadline for Homie. They’d had bouts of it before but this was different – the usual stimulants of exercise, sex or weed (Smith says they have “a long-term relationship with marijuana”) were useless. “I was writing, but it was just all shit,” says Smith, who put it down to the strain of living up to their newfound reputation. “I felt a lot of pressure after Don’t Call Us Dead was a ‘thing’. It meant a lot to people and it won awards, and as much as I like to say that stuff doesn’t affect you, it does. It’s great, it’s a confidence booster, but it also fucked with me for a while.
“I was in my own head for a little bit, asking myself: ‘What does it mean if my next book doesn’t win the National book award or some big thing?’ I don’t like that side of myself. I felt like I had been to the top of something. I had to come back and say: ‘That is not at all why I started writing poems. That’s not why I still write poems.’”
The New Yorker said of Don’t Call Us Dead that Smith’s poems “can’t make history vanish, but they can contend against it with the force of a restorative imagination”. That imagination was honed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Smith studied before going on to form the Dark Noise Collective with other artists including Franny Choi, with whom Smith co-hosts the poetry podcast VS.
Today, Smith makes a living from book sales, touring and teaching in Minnesota, where they still live, but has struggled with the idea of making money from a book so expressly about black suffering. “You’re doing the work because you want real change for your folks, but that also means capital gains for yourself. I felt I was profiting.”
Don’t Call Us Dead pigeonholed Smith as the person the media went to for angry black poems; an easy fix for white editors and publishers looking to tap into the zeitgeist. “I want my work to be useful,” says Smith. “So it felt good to know a poem was good for healing and rage or whatever for my people. But it also felt really gross.”
“I couldn’t write Don’t Call Us Dead again,” they add. “There will always be America in the news and real black people will always be in my poems, but maybe that’s why the focus of Homie is a lot more personal. I didn’t want trauma porn and I worried about that. I don’t think that’s what I ever created but it was being used as that.”
Homie is deeply moving and funny, with poems such as “all the good dick lives in Brooklyn Park” combining a story about a booty call with the tragic decline of a lover dying from an unnamed illness. But it is a step change from Smith’s earlier work. With Homie, Smith decided to focus on the theme of friendship and what they refer to as a “deep investigation of the n-word”. That process starts from the very first page. A note says: “This book was titled Homie because I don’t want non-black people to say ‘My Nig’ out loud. This book is really titled ‘My Nig’.” If that doesn’t hit home, the contents page will. Poems titled “niggas!”, “shout out to my niggas in Mexico”, “white niggas”, and an explicit quote from a Lil Wayne song make the point again. It’s playful, provocative and serves as a kind of warning to those unprepared for what is about to come.
For Smith, it is important that Europeans include themselves in those conversations about race and language: not being a white American does not absolve European readers from the burden of racism. At readings in the UK and Europe, Smith often addresses the elephant in the room directly. “I think that sometimes folks forget that, just because America seems to be the most proud of what it does to its black, brown and indigenous folks, Europe invented that shit and spread it,” says Smith.
The poet has been coming to the UK for a decade, since being invited by Manchester’s Contact theatre, which has always been on the cutting edge of queer culture. Over that time Smith has observed the hypocritical standards of the race debate in Britain. “There was always this idea that racism was a thing that Britain was done with and had been for a long time,” they say. “But Meghan Markle is Canadian now. She convinced a whole prince to leave because you guys were racist. They tried to send all the Jamaicans back too. Look. You are still up to it. So it’s just to pull back from that moment and say: ‘Hey, I might not be talking about your particular situation but you can find yourself a seat at the table.’”
Many of the column inches dedicated to Smith have concerned performance and identity: either their own or their work’s exploration of it. But Smith says they are fundamentally a “formalist”, who loves to “geek out” over sonnet crowns and voltas. In her New York Times review of Homie, critic Parul Sehgal identified a new form invented by Smith in the poem “how many of us have them”, called the “dozen”, whereby each stanza grows by one line until the final one, comprising 12 lines. “I’d like to invent or order up new adjectives to describe the startling originality and ambition of Smith’s work,” she wrote.
Does the general focus on Smith’s identity rather than the work grate? “That is the story of the black writer throughout time,” says Smith. “I think that is true but it’s not particular to me.” Some reviewers, Smith argues, are “so blinded by identity” that they don’t realise they are being “marvelled by craft”. They are connecting to the work, but “they are having a different journey to someone who can understand the author’s point of view”.
“With a more forgiving eye, there are ways in which all of us come at the work with whatever references we have – because that is just what we know,” Smith says. “So there are people I have been compared to – more canonical folks – who I don’t even know. I might have read a poem or two in school but I don’t really bang heavies with whoever that might be. But there are ways in which other influences come to you. You might be a student of Whitman because one of your favourites really liked Whitman.”
For Smith, the bigger crime is that too few reviewers are aware of many of the established poets who have been influences – people such as Patricia Smith, Lucille Clifton and Amaud Jamaul Johnson. “If your understanding of black radical art starts and ends with Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez, then you don’t really know a lot of the archive. I think a lot of folks only know the ‘canon’, but there are so many canons to pull from,” Smith says. “All writers deserve that type of deep reading and seeing.”
what was said at the bus stop
lately has been a long time
says the girl from Pakistan, Lahore to be specific
at the bus stop when the white man
ask her where she’s from & then
says oh, you from Lahore?
it’s pretty bad over there lately.
lately has been a long time
she says & we look at each other & the look says
yes, i too wish dude would stop
asking us about where we from
but on the other side of our side eyes
is maybe a hand where hands do no good
a look to say, yes, i know lately has been
a long time for your people too
& i’m sorry the world is so good at making
us feel like we have to fight for space
to fight for our lives
“solidarity” is a word, a lot of people say it
i’m not sure what it means in the flesh
i know i love & have cried for my friends
their browns a different brown than mine
i’ve danced their dances when taught
& tasted how their mothers miracle the rice
different than mine. i know sometimes
i can’t see beyond my own pain, past black
& white, how bullets love any flesh.
i know it’s foolish to compare.
what advice do the drowned have for the burned?
what gossip is there between the hanged & the buried?
& i want to reach across our great distance
that is sometimes an ocean & sometimes centimeters
& say, look. your people, my people, all that has happened
to us & still make love under rusted moons, still pull
children from the mothers & name them
still teach them to dance & your pain is not mine
& is no less & is mine & i pray to my god your god
blesses you with mercy & i have tasted your food & understand
how it is a good home & i don’t know your language
but i understand your songs & i cried when they came
for your uncles & when you buried your niece
i wanted the world to burn in the child’s brief memory
& still, still, still, still, still, still, still, still, still
& i have stood by you in the soft shawl of morning
waiting & breathing & waiting
• From Homie, published by Chatto on 20 February.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Danez Smith: ‘White people can learn from it, but that’s not who I’m writing for’ | Books