A Conversation with Danez Smith
BY SARAH NEILSON
Danez Smith is a Black, Queer, Poz poet and performer from Minneapolis, MN. They are the recipient of numerous fellowships and prizes, including from The National Endowment for the Arts, The Poetry Foundation, and Lambda Literary. Their previous collections include [insert boy] (YesYes Books, 2014) and Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf, 2017), the latter of which was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the Forward Prize for Best Collection and the Midwest Booksellers Choice Award. Their newest collection, Homie (Graywolf, 2020), is rooted in the vitality of friendship and community.
Sarah Neilson, Interviewer: I’d love to start with talking about the poem “dogs!” Dogs are called “man’s best friend,” which fits with the theme of friendship in the book, but here you explore the context of the multitudes of meaning behind the word “dog.” The obedient dog, the dawg, the way calling and/or treating someone as a dog is a tool of dehumanization and assertion of power, the actual dog above you that barks all the time, even CatDog. You also call Air Bud the “talented obedient beast” who is exploited for the “roar of the eggshell crowd,” which is a direct metaphor for the exploitation of Black and Brown bodies in sports. Can you talk about the genesis and development of “dogs!”?
Danez Smith, Poet: Yeah, I just wanted to write a poem about dogs. And so I said, Cool, I’m going to write one. That’s pretty much it. You never know what comes out of that exercise, but my thesis for the poem, for wanting to write the poem, was not that grand. It was just literally like, “You know what I haven’t wrote about before? Animals, or dogs to be specific.” So then put yourself to it. And it makes sense, race and gender and power and violence are things I’m thinking through all the time.
SN: “on faggotness” is such an electric poem for me. It’s a beautiful example of form marrying function: the punctuation consists of periods everywhere, periods where they “shouldn’t” be. This forces a kind of start-stop, halting, confusing experience for the reader, which in my mind perfectly mimics the experience of growing up queer. It’s like forcing the reader to ask, “How do I read this?” the same way the queer kid asks, “How do I live?” Can you talk about the process of writing this poem, and how you arrived at the specific use of punctuation?
DS: Yeah, I think I wanted to write about being a faggot, like I always do. The periods, I think, were just sort of a thing [I tried out]. I can’t remember if those were there from the first draft or not, but at some point they became part of how the poem was functioning. But yeah, just trying to think through a few little thoughts about faggotry. Because it’s about having fun. It’s really about improvisation. And so I don’t think I’d go into poems with these scaffolding ideas of like, “I’m going to do this, and this, and this. And it’s going to have this effect.” But it’s rather I have an idea, and maybe there’s something about the visual aspects on the page that also affects, and it’s how far can we take this, what will happen. That’s really what it’s all about. The making of the poem is a unburdened process because all of it is to try and attempt, for me.
SN: In “shout out to my niggas in Mexico,” you imagine onto the page a joyous community party for all the Black folks across the Americas and the globe. This poem is followed in the book by the poem “white niggas,” which ends, “come to my door thirsty, i’ll turn the faucet & fill / the glass. if i come to your stoop, don’t shoot.” Can you talk about the decision to place these two poems together in the book, in this order? How are they connected or juxtaposed against each other for you?
DS: Yes, it’s intentional. They were never invited. I think I spent so much time in my early days wondering what to do with the white gaze, until I realized that you didn’t have to give a fuck. And the book itself starts off with that author’s note, that is just saying, indeed, who this book is and is not for. And so “white niggas” is just like, “Oh, if there’s going to be a poem with the book for white people, maybe it’s this one.” I knew I wanted to have a poem about white people in some way, but I didn’t want to have a poem that was like, “Hey, I have a white friend and that’s great.” Because that’s corny and not productive in any type of way. It’s like, Okay, white people, let’s talk about why you didn’t get an invite. It’s because I like to shoot shit up.
So yeah, it’s just one tiny gesture to who I know was reading the book who might be someone who bought the book, might be reviewing the book, whatever it is. Because we live in a white dominant culture, but I’m not ignorant of that. Even though I really could give a true fuck about what a lot of white folks think about this book. I guess that poem is there just to make use of publishing within a white dominant culture.
SN: That actually makes me think a lot about the specificity of the language in the book, specifically the use of the n-word, bitch, fag, etc., as a kind of love language. You have a great Twitter thread, as well as a note at the beginning of the book, in which you talk about choosing to use the n-word both in the real title of the book and throughout the collection, and about not wanting white people to read some of these poems out loud. In a 2018 Granta conversation with Kaveh Akbar, you said, “the urgency in this collection was love… For a sec I was writing to write a book about friendship when what I needed to be doing was writing a book for my friends.” Can you talk about making public art out of those words, and more broadly that intimacy and language of friendship?
DS: I don’t think reclaiming words or using words that are offensive when handled by some, but maybe communal or of love when [used by others] is a groundbreaking concept. And so I don’t think I’m doing anything but participating in a long tradition of using the words for us to love us across many different fields and to announce, maybe. I don’t think that’s really grand, but rather that I use the language I know. And that’s something that I wouldn’t ever try to shy away from in poetry.
The language of friendship? I think it all is about a question of audience. Knowing who a poem is directed towards and tethering language directly to that person or those people as you’re writing it. It raises the tension of the language. It makes the lyric and the image specific, and my poems are all about the building and relief of tension. I think you can build tension between two people, between a group of people and allow everybody else—the reader—to feel that. I don’t think it always has to be about some anonymous reader, but rather I’m going to write to these people and you all can eavesdrop. So that’s what I think the language of friendship is, about how you make the language as precious and precise as possible.
SN: “my bitch!” is a poem I had the privilege of seeing you perform when you were in Seattle last year, and you also recently performed it on The Paris Review podcast. The line “bitch sesame” gets me every time. When you read that line at the Seattle performance, you paused to say how proud of yourself you were when you wrote it. I’m curious about how you actively cultivate joy and discovery into your writing practice?
DS: That’s just about being proud of yourself, and I don’t think that’s a strategy. We’re all writers. You write something, and you’re like, “Oh, that was a very good line! I surprised myself with that!” You feel happy and then you keep on writing. I don’t have to trick myself into that, and I hope that nobody else does. I think that’s something you have to work towards, being able to be proud of yourself, or to be engaged in the pride with yourself in the process. And to recognize, when you’ve done something that felt hard or difficult, that it was exciting.
But yeah, that’s not an active thing. That’s not a thing I have to cultivate. I’m lucky that I don’t hate myself most of the time. Sometimes I really do. Sometimes I think I’m the worst writer in the world, and for the love of god I’d never think I’m the best writer in the world. But sometimes I think I’m pretty good, or I have fun doing it. And sometimes I hate doing it. It feels really good once something actually fucking starts working because I hate doing it. I just write, but I don’t have to trick myself into being proud of the hard work. Thankfully.
SN: The poem “my poems” turns the word “poem” into a verb. How do you conceive a poetry as action in this collection or in your life?
DS: That is a good question, one that I don’t know the answer to. I think maybe a background question of the book is being frustrated with poems and their inactivity. And also, poems save lives. They’ve saved mine before. In that poem, really, I was just trying not to get arrested. The background question of the book is like, Will poems not be enough? And if art can’t save us, what can? And what are your prerequisites for violence? A lot of those questions were just needed inside of that poem as a verb. [It was also maybe a] need to still believe in poems in some type of way, or the hope that we can believe in poems to be things that are active for doing words. But who knows? I don’t know. Every day I go back and forth between believing in poems and being frustrated with poems. The world is going to end, right? We don’t need to go down this road! I mean, the world is in a spiral.
SN: Many of the poems in Homie read as odes. “for Andrew” is an intensely moving poem for a friend who passed away; “the fat one with the switch” is a kind of ode to QTPOC and Black trans women who are murdered at epidemic rates. There’s even a poem with “ode” in the title: “ode to gold teeth.” Odes are “lyric [poems] usually marked by exaltation of feeling and style.” Exaltation is definitely palpable in this collection, even in the pain. Do you see these poems as odes? Or do you not really mess with genre/labels like that? How did exaltation play into the crafting of this collection?
DS: I guess I was trying to weave something. I mean, I was writing a book loosely about friendship, so happy was definitely part of the situation. I guess I do see a lot of the stuff as odes. Maybe not actively, but I have been a lover of odes for a while, from Neruda to Sharon Olds. I’m a fan of the love tradition, of loving on objects and moments and people. So yes, I think the ode is something I feel very comfortable and familiar with. So, maybe I’m writing an ode when not actively thinking about stuff that’s like odes.
To me, I wonder how I think the ode has a big shadow of any sort, across any projects that are thinking about love and intimacy. I think the ode is sort of something that is already in the room even when you haven’t necessarily invited it there on purpose. Just because I think it is how many poets are across the canon, you know, everybody doing the ode. That is how we love. It is the form of love, right? Because it obsesses over a thing, and thinks deeply through its beauty. A book about friendship is a book about love, is a book about intimacy. Therefore, odes.
SN: One of my favorite parts of this collection is the “notes & acknowledgments,” which are their own poems at the end of the book. “notes” is a series of notes to suicide, as opposed to suicide notes; “acknowledgments” is a long love note in the language of friendship, inside jokes, and family. How did you come up with the idea to make your notes and acknowledgments into the final two poems (and how much fun was it)? How do you see them working in tandem with each other?
DS: “notes” came first and was just called “notes,” and that was more because of the epistolary mode than it was about where to place it in the book. And “acknowledgements” was titled something else for a while. When I was placing it in the book, it was at the end, and then I looked at it and I just said, “Oh, well, duh. It’s shared. It’s about people. That’s love. It’s at the end of your book. So it’s called the acknowledgements section.” So that was, I guess, coincidence. It was a thing that happened and I enjoyed it, just because I realized, with the arbiter at the beginning, Okay, there’s already a lot of things in here that are sort of thinking about the structure or the object of a book. And so it felt almost correct that at the end of the book, just like the beginning which has this re-titling, that we’re also playing around with the idea of what the back matter of a collection can be. So that was a halfway happy accident… An intentional accident? A well-set-up accident. Yeah, let’s call it that. Or an accident that presented itself as a choice. There we go.
I think “notes” is a very dark poem [followed by] a very light calm back-to-back at the end [in “acknowledgments”]. And I wonder what that experience is like for somebody reading the book for the first time. I don’t know because I’ve been in the shits with it for so long. So I wonder what that experience is like, because I think “notes” offers this false hope in the second to last stanza, which is talking about beating up suicide [and then becomes about how] I’m really sad. Then you have “acknowledgements,” with six pages of bright, happy shit. And I think that’s really jostling at the end. It’s something to hear from readers about what that experience of the end of the book is about, especially because I think it’s triumphant, and triumphant, and triumphant, “notes,” and then “acknowledgements.” I think the end is kind of rocky, emotionally. So I’m interested to hear about readers’ experience of that.
SN: In a 2017 LitHub interview, you said, “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.” How do you think Homie rejects the binary of a poem on the page vs. a poem read aloud? And what makes a good poem for you now?
DS: I don’t think it’s actually rejected the binaries, because it’s not thinking about it. It kind of lives in this space now where it’s, like, a good poem is a good poem, right? And I think that if a poem is on the page, then it should be worth somebody’s time. And if a poem is read out loud, then that’s about choice, right? Because I don’t have to read you out loud when I don’t want to read you out loud. But that should also be worth somebody’s time. That’s about my own aesthetic value about what’s good.
I don’t know what a good poem is. There’s so many different kinds of it. It’s about everybody’s bringing their own different stank and different funk. The field of poetry, and the stories that we can tell, and the ways in which we can use poetry are too varied and vast for me to have any type of prescriptive answer about what a good poem is. It’s just some shit that just feels right. You know a good poem when you hear it, when you’re moved, when it feels like the author really touched a piece of something unknown when they got to it. And that’s a great poem. Then there are good poems, there are amazing poems, and a lot of bad poems, too. There are a lot of very well-crafted, technically-sound bad poems, or boring poems, I guess. Great poems find you in the moment. Sometimes you’re not ready for them. Everybody can be different. That’s what I love about poems, and how we listen to them, and how we interact with them. Ten people could sit in the room and five people could be like, “That poem is the best one I ever heard.” And the other five people like, “That was shit.” Because we have different tastes.
But that divide has no interest to me anymore. I do think that Homie itself is in a much more talky, maybe seen as like spoken word, or like pulling from oral traditions, as a voice that I think my previous collection wasn’t, which maybe has a greater nod to some of the voices and styles that I’ve learned. But to me that’s, once again, that’s just about good poems. And it’s not thinking about the page. I wrote a book, and my allegiance is to the book. I’m not thinking about touring, performance, when I’m writing a book. Then I’ll go tour this joint across the country, and I’ll only read poems out loud that make sense for me to read out loud. So that’s when I think outside the binary. Nobody has time to think about page to stage because there’s too many poems to write.