Poet and performer Danez Smith takes on police brutality, HIV and racism, while also revealing and imagining worlds where victims of these harms can find joy and freedom. Ahead of their appearance in Seattle, here's what they had to say about language, disrupting racism and how the literary world has changed.
Reading Danez Smith’s poetry is like walking face-first into everything you’re afraid of looking at for too long. Everything painful, sad, discomfiting, true — Smith writes about it so beautifully that you no longer want look away. In “Don’t Call Us Dead,” they take on police brutality, HIV and racism, while also revealing and imagining worlds where victims of these harms can find joy and freedom.
In conversation, Smith does the same, approaching difficult subjects seriously, honestly and unpretentiously, but with laughter always nearby. We talked and laughed ahead of Smith’s Nov. 26 Seattle Arts & Lectures appearance at Broadway Performance Hall. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow.
A lot seems to have changed for you over the past few years. Can you talk about the evolution of yourself as a poet and through each book?
That’s the thing. It’s just a lot has changed in my material life, but that does not help me write the poems. My poems have remained interested in exploring the confessional, the political and understanding the political. To me everything is political, so even if I’m writing about my grandmother or flowers or sex, that is a political act, maybe because I have a very political body, formerly being a Black dude. Now, I identify as genderqueer, so being queer … being HIV-positive, being where I’m from and who I am. I don’t know how not to be political.
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I try to comfort and exalt the myriad of loves in my life and in my communities and I don’t think that has changed just because more people know my name.
You’ve been described as part of this new vanguard of people writing and changing the poetry scene, making it more “accessible.” How do you feel about that characterization? Do you feel that there has been any shift in the poetry scene?
I will say that for me, in my personal life, it’s always felt like poetry was respected, was desired, was cool. And so what does feel like a new day to me, especially in the literary world is just how many different kinds of people are allowed to take up space and tell their stories and tell the stories that they’re interested in telling. That’s just like so much more diverse, right? These rooms that used to be boys clubs.
So that, it’s a breath of fresh air, because you look at certain prizes or even articles about who people are interested in reading and being poets and it’s so lush and golden at this time … Maybe what’s also happening, when I’m talking about that lushness, is more people are finding poets that are better speaking their story or that are speaking the language that sounds familiar to them. And God bless that.
You have this line [in “summer, somewhere”] that messed me up: “dead is the safest I’ve ever been./i’ve never been so alive.” I’m wondering what your relationship is to safe spaces. Do you find that there are places on Earth that you feel safe in?
For me a safe space is really a place where your joy has as little chance of being interrupted as possible … To not disturb the groove if you will. That’s what that poem “summer, somewhere” is trying to get at, right? It’s trying to offer some type of peace for the price of the interruption of racism and the interruption of police brutality. That thing in return will be a joy uninterrupted.
And it’s like only by little hope and dream, what I’m trying to build, this little world. If I can offer comfort, if a poem might possibly be a vehicle for that. If I believe in the spell of this thing even a little bit, then maybe I can offer them a little bit of peace for the ultimate interruption, you know, the end stop, in some way. So let me offer something past that, let me offer something past that interruption and just make it an interruption and not an end stop. So that’s what the poem is trying to do, and that’s what I think about even the safe spaces that I have.
In “Don’t Call Us Dead” there’s this thread of blood and body and bodily fluids and then you’ve got words [tattooed] on your body. What is this interrelationship between body and words?
I think all poems are trying to get at something about the experience of having one of these things, especially my poems. And you know I think that’s the most basic principle across all work is just like this is what it feels like to have a body, today or ever ….
To me, I’m very Christian and like words becomes flesh and blah, blah, blah. So it’s all gonna come back to language and the body. ‘Cause those are the two things we use to communicate is language and the body. So I think it’s just a big mix of things, and I just like tattoos. I think it’s kind of separate. I like words as tattoos. I want to be a little library by the time I die.
In an interview between you and Morgan Parker (so jealous) you asked a really hard question that I am now going to put to you: What is your relationship to the sentence?
I have a weird relationship to sentences, because I don’t really know how to make a correct one. [laughs] So, for me, I think the sentence is almost like a hard idea for me. I understand that I work with words, and I think about those words as tools in which I deal with rhythm or deal with music, or deal with image, and I think maybe it’s a discomfort — just like maybe it’s an academic shame that I don’t know how to like write in proper grammar, that I sort of don’t understand the integrity of the English sentence. A lot of my work tends to play around with that ’cause I don’t actually know what I’m doing with it. [laughs]
So I think me and the sentence actually have a dysfunctional relationship, but me and words have a great one. It’s just that the sentence is our little dysfunctional house that none of us really knows how to clean. [laughs]
I love seeing vernacular in there too!
Yeah, that’s what it is, right? Like many of the tongues I was raised in or know how to speak are called undignified, or incorrect, or unproper English in some way, and so, in that case, then it’s like, “Screw these sentences, I’m jus’ gon’ talk!” [laughs]
As a Black, gender nonconforming person, in front of different audiences, do you ever feel like you shift identities at all?
No, I don’t really codeswitch for much of nobody. And I especially won’t codeswitch my body or how I am in space. [laughs] So no. I mean, there’s another conversation I could have with primarily Black or primarily queer audience[s]. But the fundamental part of me and what I’m doing does not change. [Sometimes] I just speak as if white people are in the room, which maybe makes me just a little sassier.
Is there any question that you wish somebody would ask you?
Not really. Everybody that asks that question, I’m like, “Nope.” I wish somebody would ask me what I want in a man and then immediately have an answer.
So what do you want in a man? [laughs]
Do you have a man for me?! [laughs]
Look, I might!
Find me somebody above 5’11”, 5’10”. A strong 5’9” is fine too. Um and I want him fine, preferably country. Any type of race … Give him a little bit of passion and an upwardly mobile job and send him my way!
I’ll put the résumé out there and see what happens.
There we go! Tell him to send a CV and two references.
CV and two references. Dang.
Yeah, references. Two friends, one ex.
One ex?! Oh no …
I’m auditioning people, OK.
Well, look, if the line’s not too long after the Q&A, I’ll bring by some friends.
Bring like four. I’ll pay you a finders fee.
Danez Smith will speak at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 26; Seattle Central College, Broadway Performance Hall, 1625 Broadway, Seattle; $10-$60; 206-621-2230, lectures.org