Poet Of The Week

Danez Smith

     September 4–10, 2017

The recipient of a 2017 NEA fellowship, Danez Smith is a Black, queer, poz writer and performer from St. Paul, MN. They are the author of [insert] boy (YesYes Books, 2014), winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry, and Don’t Call Us Dead, forthcoming from Graywolf Press. They are also the author of two chapbooks, hands on your knees (Penmanship Books, 2013) and black movie (Button Poetry, 2015), winner of the Button Poetry Prize. They are the recipient of fellowships from the Poetry Foundation and the McKnight Foundation, and their work has been featured widely, including on Buzzfeed, Blavity, PBS NewsHour and the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. They are a two-time Individual World Poetry Slam finalist, three-time Rustbelt Poetry Slam Champion, and a founding member of the Dark Noise Collective. Smith will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series on Friday, September 8, at 100 Bogart with Nicole Sealey and Emily Skillings.

You’re Dead, America

 
i fed your body to the fish
traded it at lunch for milk

i know where they buried you
’cause it’s my mouth

they tell me bootstraps
& i spit up a little leather

they tell me Christ
but you don’t have black friends

during the anthem
i hum “Niggas in Paris”

i cha cha slide over the flag
c-walk on occasion

i put a spell on you
it called for 3/5s of my blood

apple pie, red
bones & a full moon

but instead i did it
in the daylight, wanting you

to see me ending you
stupid stupid me

i know better than to fuck
with a recipe

i don’t make chicken
when I don’t have eggs

look at what i did: on the TV
the man from TV

is gonna be president
he has no words

& hair beyond simile
you’re dead, America

& where you died
grew something worse—

crop white as the smile
of a man with his country on his side

a gun on his other

     //

tomorrow, i’ll have hope

tomorrow, i can shift the wreckage

& find a seed

i don’t know what will grow

i’ve lost my faith in this garden

the bees are dying

the water poisons whole cities

but my honeyed kin

those brown folks who make

up the nation of my heart

only allegiance i stand for

realer than any god

for them i bury whatever

this country thought it was

 
—From Don’t Call Us Dead, Graywolf Press, 2017.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

During the 2016 election cycle, white people were losing their minds everywhere in every way (still are) over the dying of something that had, in my eyes, been long dead. This poem was just me trying to capture that feeling real quick before I hopped on a plane while watching the foolishness on CNN in the airport. The second part of the poem was written late on the night when that nazi dorito was elected, when I was very tired and scared and thinking, as I always am, of the homies.

What are you working on right now?

My student loans, credit, my anxiety, being grown, my chest and my glutes. Art wise, I feel kinda in a chill space. I’m writing without a project in mind, which is super freeing to do for a while.

What’s a good day for you?

Great sex followed by breakfast, a quick run, a good blunt, a plate of food on my grandmother’s porch, a drink with the homies, leaving my phone at home, pulling books off the shelf as the sun goes down trying to figure where a line stuck in my head comes from, rain.

Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?

Home is the Twin Cities. I’ve lived a bunch of other places but my blood is in the dirt here. I was born here. I always choose to return here. Too many people live here now. Transplants that aren’t from here come here and try to build something on top of a place that already exists. White people from here still aren’t used to Black people from here. Cops are the devil. But the people are good. Or the good people are really good. The winter keeps the bad folks out. The rent’s cheap. Don’t move here.

Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.

Brooklyn cool … I ate some places and waited on some trains. Really, I don’t know anything about it, but some of my favorite people live or have lived there. I can’t really speak on BK in a heartfelt way, but I’m thankful to any place that holds anyone I care for.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?

The word “community” can be hella tight and hella sus. I’m more and more cautious to say I’m in a community with someone just cause we all write poems. You know how many people write poems? Too many for me to want to be in community with all of them! I prefer small circles over crowds, a good village over a city, a lake over the ocean, etc. To me, the best kind of poetry community are people you can text, cook for, facetime and love on all through the work as well as the life.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Not originally from Brooklyn, but Angel Nafis and Shira Erlichman hold a special place in my heart. Their work is, like their hearts, furiously sharp and abundantly giving, and they are the best people that come to mind when I set my heart on BK.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

Too many to name, but I will shout out Chris Walker, who is a dance professor I had in college who became one of my best, best mentors, big homies, and friends. I learned a lot about being a writer under Chris’s artistic direction of a performing arts program at the University of Wisconsin called First Wave. Chris taught us a lot about creation, about process, and about problem solving through art. Once I realized I was a creator and not a poet, that poetry was just a medium, it really freed me to see the possible learning in every medium. Chris helped me learn how to see and move my way through an idea, which is a task all artists must contend with.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

The book I keep returning to this year has been Whereas by Layli Long Solider. It is such a grand experiment in language and code and still filled with so much heart and urgency for justice, for radical remembering and re-membering. Lord, I love that book so. It gives me something new each time I submit to it.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

My reading habits depend a lot on what my life is looking like. I’m a big travel reader, be it public transit or flying around for gigs. When I get to sit and ride, be it for ten minutes or a few hours, that’s when I really get to dig into a single book. I try to read each poetry collection in the order the author laid it out for me, and I try not to read two books at one time. I also have to pick the one or two books that will go with me for a day or for a short stint out of town. When I’m at home, it’s more wild. I pull books off the shelf all day, a poem in one leads me to another, it takes a lot for me to be settled into just one book when I have all my books in front of me. I also try to stay up on new poems. A few journals keep my attention (Adroit, Apogee, Poetry, Vinyl and Muzzle are some faves) and the main reason I still have a Facebook account is to see what poems have folks talking.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I want to learn how to write good poems for children. And then publish them under a different name ’cause I write dirty poems and my googles are dangerous.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate Monica over Brandy
And what I believe you will not question.