Behind the Lines: An Interview with Danez Smith
Editor’s note: Danez Smith’s forthcoming collection, Don’t Call Us Dead, is splendid and complex. Its elegies, odes, and love poems resist the psychic and physical violence against bodies that are black, queer, HIV-positive; that hold desire, passion, joy; that want to vogue, parade, sing songs. I was grateful to sit down with Danez to discuss the role of myth and surrealism in their poetry, transformation in the collection, and the “despite” of the book.
Don’t Call Us Dead follows Danez’s collection, [insert] boy (2014) and their chapbooks, black movie (2015) and hands on your knees (2013). They are also a two-time World Poetry Slam finalist and a three-time Rustbelt Regional Poetry Slam Champion; a recipient of the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship, the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry, the McKnight Foundation Fellowship, among others; and finally a co-host of VS Podcast through the Poetry Foundation.
Irene Hsu: I want to start with the cover—this image from Shikeith’s The Moment You Doubt Whether You Can Fly, You Cease Forever To Be Able To Do. How did you come to this image for your collection?
Danez Smith: I first saw the image in a portfolio of Shikeith’s that had been published online. I was part of this group of black queer, often male-bodied writers. We would have this list-serve where we would send things that we thought interested us. I saw the images there sometime around 2013, before I really even knew a book was going to happen, but I thought to myself, I want to write a book that is worthy of that image. I think that Shikeith’s work just captures something vulnerable, but also something so mystical in a way that feels real. It’s supernatural without being superficial. I really loved that aspect of the work, and saw obvious connections because so much of what I try to do is to explore magical realism and explore the surreal—but always the surreal and how it exists in the consequences and trappings of our real, lived world. I saw that paralleled with his work, so I was like, “Ah! I guess I need to do the book. I already know.” In my heart, this has been the cover since before the book.
IH: Does that mean you had this image in mind when you were writing the collection—especially the myth-building and world-building in the first poem?
DS: Maybe in ways. When I like a visual artist, I tend to place their art where I’m likely to see it most. For a while, Shikeith’s work was both the screensaver of my phone, but also the background of my computer, so there were always peaks of images that meant something and would enter my brain.
There were a couple other visual artists that I had in mind—Jonathan Chase, who did the cover and artwork of my first book. There’s was also the work of Lynette Luna. I was trying to look at images that included black men being vulnerable, usually with a nude body, images that were dealing with elements of surrealism, or were putting those bodies into natural spaces and thinking about trees, flowers, water. Populating my room and my technology with those images made it so that I was able to swim in images I was attracted to.
IH: What is the role of surrealism in your work? As well as the garden image, which in this collection functions as a space of refuge but also the aftermath of destruction?
DS: The function of the surreal for me, at least thinking about that first poem, “summer, somewhere,” was a way of discovering what was possible through form,to pull me through these ideas in a poem. I wrote one section one day that was 16 lines long, and I wanted to see if I could do that again. I was thinking about the 16 bars in a rap song, and it became a formal exercise. I think because the first poem had a lot of surreal qualities, I wanted to carry that quality through the rest of the sections, that then became the whole poem.
I don’t want to say it was surreal by accident, but I know I reached for the surreal because it helps me articulate things I don’t find the language for in daily life, and an image I can’t explain can be explained through showing you what you can’t possibly look at, beyond, through the mind’s eye. I think that’s why I always reach for surrealism, because it helps me make sense of the muck of all the rest of this shit, the muck of living. When you stick too close to realism, you can get stuck at the edge of your memory or at the edge of your experience. But the surreal is what lets you catapult off your experiences and go into something more imaginative or visual. The well is infinitely deeper because you’re not depending on anything that’s real.
IH: Being on the edge of experience reminds me a lot of Shikeith’s interview in Vice i-D, about this recurring dream he was having, where he was being chased to the rooftop by a group of black men. He talks about how he has the option to take hold of a balloon and float away, but he had to build up the courage to leave the rooftop edge. Do you feel like there was a moment you were afraid to reach for surrealism and imagination?
DS: Earlier, I didn’t necessarily see the use of it. I felt like a cheat. There are too many real things going on in the world. Who are we to write about made-up, imaginary things? I think I was reading people like Octavia Butler, or reading people like Franny Choi, or reading Toni Morrison, or Douglas Kearney, a lot of different folks who helped me expand my mind and helped me think about things I already was interested in, like the political nature of something like X-Men. Just knowing that you can do science fiction, you can do surrealism, with a purpose, and use it as a lens to talk about the rest of the world—I think I had to remind myself that to imagine was not a waste of time. The struggle for me was knowing that my work is inherently political or directly political, but also knowing that my imagination was not something that necessarily had to contradict my political stances. They weren’t masking each other.
IH: What you’re saying about trying to work with your imagination but also your political stances, reminds me of what Solmaz Sharif said in an interview with the Paris Review—poetry is political because, because poetry is action and action is political. What are your thoughts on this—whether poetry can be action, and whether imagination can also be action?
DS: I’m a firm believer that the personal is political and the political is personal. Politics is a word that removes us from what politics actually gets at. We’re talking about survival, redistributing resources, and really, love, when it boils down to it. Political angst or anger comes from a place of love. Or hatred! Or bigotry! But for me, love.
I think that as poets, it’s important we let our poems hold whatever. I love writing funny poems—but poems have to capture you as an author, as a whole person, and if you are also a political person, then your poems will also be political. I think it’s impossible to efface that. I think it’s the wrong thing to fight against that. All poems are political because they’re little statements. When you are a writer willing to take the time and space and resources to put words down on the page, it’s very political, then, what you end up putting down, and what you’re taking the time to say, and what you think people should take the time to read. You are putting action toward something. The act of writing is an act toward something.
IH: I want to turn toward a question you asked of Eve Ewing, on the first episode of VS podcast. What are your rules for writing about living communities, and communities you care about, and communities you’re involved with?
DS: The first rule is to go forth and write it, because you never know what’s going to happen until you put pen to paper.
The second thing is, you have to have a particularly judgmental eye on your own work, and to really make sure that you’re capturing people in a way—like, never write a poem about somebody that you wouldn’t read to their face. That kind of thing. Make sure that if it’s something you’re willing to say to the world, it’s also something you’re willing to say in the most intimate of spaces as well. Would you say it to their face? Would you say it to their face in public? If not, I don’t think the poem needs to be written or shared. But I think all you can do is try, and know the people you are writing about are whole people—not characters, not artifacts.
IH: Can you talk about this complexity, and the mythic, shape-shifting quality in your poem, “seroconversion”?
DS: “seroconversion” is the moment in which HIV becomes detectable in the blood—so I think that poem was a little exercise. What are all the ways in which I can describe this thing that happened to me, that, if I had never heard this word before, how would I explain this to somebody else? What does this thing look like? I think about this poem as a funhouse—how many times can I make this happen with all these little stories? How can I go through this little machine?
I was writing a lot of poems that were very realistic, or dealing with my body—but also dealing with things that were a little too tangible—poems like “everyday is a funeral,” or “you’re dead, america.” I decided to go off from that and figure out how to do this when the toolbox is infinite. How can I get away from language that is already too close to the self? In this poem—I don’t know what a boy made of teeth looks like. I don’t know what a boy made of stale bread looks like. You have this shape-shifting pig sex in the first section, then in the second section, the god of soil and the god of shovels. What does that look like? I wanted to start reaching for things where the picture was blurrier, or made the mind stretch to give it shape, as opposed to saying, “Look at me! Look at me talk about myself.” I wanted something that the reader had to look a little harder at to make more tangible.
IH: That’s interesting—making the reader see harder, using the mind’s eye—because when I was reading your poems, I felt like it was only when I read them out loud that these images took full shape for me.
DS: That has a lot to do with the rhythm, I think—there’s an intentional rhythmic and metric nature to the poems—especially this one. It’s kind of run-on-y and it keeps going. I do think about poems in an oratory way, so you have to follow them with your tongue. And I like the images that [run on], too because you have to fill in stuff when the story itself is not interested in too much detail.
IH: These sections in the poem are filled with death and betrayal, but the end of the poem feels like there is a sense of invincibility. Two boys lay with each other, then “the boy with the difficult name/...walked the rim of the lake & though nothing burned,/something was growing from ashes, for/mosquitos flew away from his skin, ticks/latched onto his ankle & turned to/smoke, weeds & willows bowed green/spines to him & he swore he heard the/dirt singing his name//saying it right.”
DS: You don’t want the dirt singing your name and saying it right! I don’t like the dirt to know my name. You don’t want to be in the garden. It’s beautiful, but it’s death.
I don’t read this section as a sense of invincibility. So much of this book is about mortality and death—in this section, he’s touching his mortality. It’s steaming out of him but he doesn’t even realize it’s death. The mosquitoes flew away from his skin because they didn’t want to suck his blood. The tick latches onto his ankle and turns into smoke. We see him becoming dangerous—a caution—without even knowing it. It’s a power, but a power he is neither aware of nor wants. He’s been betrayed without even knowing it yet. In a sense it’s out of sequence—this [last section] comes before the realization that [the previous scenes] have taken place.
IH: Can we talk about “at the down-low house party”? There are these violent slurs—yet they mask vulnerability and a desire. I’m curious about the process of turning something destructive into something that allows us to see hate in a different light within poetry.
DS: This poem is trying to get at the violence that we do upon ourselves, like hiding, shaming ourselves, and shying away from our desires. It’s also hinting at how a lot of men might have violent outbursts because of their own desire, going against their heteronormativity. I was trying to make something beautiful out of that—I’m interested in playing with different registers in poems, in terms of language. Being able to say stuff like—“wats gud meaning i could love you until my jaw/is but memory,” or “we say yo meaning let my body//be a falcon’s talon & your body be the soft innards of goats”—is just a blunt way of talking about different registers and how we translate across code, even within our own mouths and languages and tongues. It’s easy to make an ugly thing ugly. It’s easy to make a beautiful thing beautiful. It’s the harder task to connect the two.
I wrote a poem recently that would probably call this poem an idiot, and would not talk to it at a party. Some days I think this is a really empowering poem—but some days I wake up and I think this poem is bullshit, and is making excuses for people who are very violent, who are so wrapped up in their own shit that they don’t see how they’re putting violence upon other people.
But this poem is definitely interested in unmasking something, or in playing drag with the body and desire—drag being about re-masking, in a way, rather than an un-masking. Or understanding that it is about performance, about how we transform. This poem does that through a linguistic standpoint. Yeah, there’s a lot of transformation in this book, I’m just realizing.
IH: In one of your interviews, I remember you talking about a collection of poems being a whole song. I’m interested in your organizing principle and what kind of song you see in Don’t Call Us Dead.
DS: I don’t know if this is one song. If it is one song, it’s like an Erykah Badu song—one of her ten-minute joints that has three acts. I think of “summer, somewhere” as a long instrumental intro, with a lot of horns and a lot of strings. And then...some drums come in at the very end. That’s the beginning of the second section. Then, as we bridge from thinking about racism, police states, brutality and murder, insert muddling that with desire, learning about the body—that’s where the singer comes in. The third section would be a chopped and screwed bridge done by DJ Purple. And then the fourth section is a wicked drum solo with someone singing in a real high falsetto in the background. It’s pretty, joyful, but it’s also a little bit sad. It’s a really weird song, used to be two songs—two books. When Graywolf first reached out, I had two manuscripts. One was strictly about my HIV diagnosis, about queerness, desire, sex and love. And another one had “summer, somewhere,” and a whole bunch of other poems that were thinking about race and brutality. Jeff Shotts at Graywolf was the one who was like, “I think these might be the same thing.” And I thought he was crazy. Then I started working on it, and realized, “Oh, there might be something here.” It makes for a more interesting, complex song. Then, like a DJ who transitions between songs, I had to find the ways my poems synced up. That’s the geeky, fun stuff about poetry—I like the challenge of, “how do I make this happen?”
IH: Can you tell me about the role of joy in your poetry? Joy or playfulness—whether through your imagery, through wordplay. For instance, in your poem, “dinosaurs in the hood,” when it starts out with this simple image, “a little black boy is playing/with a toy dinosaur on the bus.” Then this moment gets swept up in violent cultural forces, historical forces—Tarantino movies, black pain, murder—then you come back to the boy and his toy dinosaur again. There’s more weight and complexity to it—but it retains simplicity and joy
DS: I think about art-making as experimentation and play. For that poem, “dinosaurs in the hood,” I read a Terrance Hayes poem, and then said, “That was fun. He made a movie in a poem. Can I do the same thing?” Trying it out was just the inherent fun in poetry.
As for joy, I’m not interested in prolonged sadness, or performing sadness for too long. I’m not interested in pure sadness, nor pure joy, either. What even allows a poem to reach a moment of joyful ecstasy is when you’re able to acknowledge pain, and emotions other than joy, in your quest for it. I think that joy is one emotional element I’m interested in playing with, while also being the thing my poems are trying to reach for at the end of the day—but they take their time getting there. I’m not interested in joy that doesn’t acknowledge what it took to get there, or what was on the opposite end. It’s a very Afro-pessimistic idea—this school of black theory interested in the idea of despite. I am alive despite all the rest of this, I am happy and joyful despite all the rest of this shit in the world. I identify with that a lot in my work. Joy is always juxtaposed with what it’s up against.
IH: Can you tell me more about this last image in the last poem of the collection—”dream where every black person is standing by the ocean”?
DS: “& then one woman, skin dark as all of us/walks to the water’s lip, shouts Emmett, spits//& surely, a boy begins/crawling his way to shore.”
That poem actually used to start the book. I think what it’s trying to do is bring the poem back to the start of the book—it propels us back to the world of “summer, somewhere.” It was to create something circular that would return us to the book. I love that poem—it used to be three pages long. It was about a parade where every black person in the world left their house and emptied into the streets—a global parade that emptied into the water. It was great—but this poem was the best part. I liked the rest of the poem, but sometimes you just have to write a whole poem to get the ending.
IH: You said that you came to poetry through theater, accidentally. Was poetry ever intimidating to you?
DS: I think poetry just didn’t interest me for a long time. The people we were taught in school were usually dead. Even folks who were good, like Langston Hughes, I liked them but only in the way that a ten-year-old likes something they’re assigned to read, then forgets about it the next week. I wasn’t interested in the medium. I was a hyperactive little child. I liked to read but poems didn’t necessarily have the energeticness that I was interested in. I wanted to read kids’ fiction, where things were exploding, or mystery. But no, poetry was never intimidating. What happened was, the older I got, through spoken word and through schoolwork, through reading, I realized how diverse an art poetry can be. That’s what propelled me into it.
IH: What was the first poem that stuck with you?
DS: A poet from LA, Shihan, had this poem on Def Poetry called, “Love Like.” He was super cute—I was fifteen. He had really nice hair, he was a really good performer and his poem was funny. I was like wow—that’s cool. He’s very cool. And he’s a poet. It’s cool that you can be cool and be a poet.
IH: That’s a real sentiment that people don’t always come to.
DS: Yeah—that was my fifteen-year-old deep thought. There were a lot of poets on Def Poetry—that was a fundamental thing. Every Saturday I would go down to my basement and turn the TV up to the maximum volume. Then I would write during whatever came on after that. Folks like Mayda del Valle, Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Suheir Hammad—since that show was so diverse in style, I wasn’t intimidated by poetry because I knew there was no standard. If I had only known Shakespeare, then maybe I would have been intimidated. If I had only seen Louis Glück, or someone who didn’t sound or look like me, I would have been intimidated. I like her poems, and I’m glad I ran into them when I did, which was not when I was trying to figure out if I liked poems or not. But I was introduced to poetry in a way that made me realize there was space for a voice like mine, for people who look or speak or think or act like me. I never felt like there was a room I was excluded from.
IH: I’m curious what books changed the course of this collection—or the course of your life.
DS: Lilith’s Brood, by Octavia Butler. She’s just an amazing world-builder, and what she was rebuilding in that book was Earth. It was very cool to look at the Earth with new eyes, and I think that influenced “summer, somewhere.” A lot of D. A. Powell’s work, I was thinking about a lot. Essex Hemphill, and the legacy of HIV-positive writers. Jason Shinder’s Stupid Hope, a Graywolf book—some friends gave me that book the year after I was diagnosed. Listening to him think through illness and mortality—unfortunately, he passed away—but reading that book, it changed a lot for me, in terms of thinking about work that deals with your mortality, about inevitability, which at the time I was scared of going through. I really needed that book to give me hope and give me freedom from hope.
IH: You also mentioned you had a lot of visual artists you looked to—
DS: And a lot of musicians, too. There’s a band called KING, who I listened to a lot while I was writing this book. A friend of mine is a local musician, called K. Raydio. Also, Kendrick Lamar—and a lot of Kendrick Lamar’s videos, too, because they’re very surreal, and in that same vein of playing around with surrealism and real-world artifacts and objects. For KING and K Radio, there was a lot about their soundscapes. In a lot of my writing, there’s definitely a soundtrack in my head. When I hear stuff that has a very lush sound, I’m able to scale a world or experience or emotion upon that sound.
IH: Are there song you imagine reading your poems to?
DS: Nah, but I imagine, like, if I have a drummer, what would he be doing? Or maybe I have a violinist. Maybe a very angry child on a drum.
IH: What’s been filling your time these days?
DS: I travel so much for performing, teaching workshops. When I’m not doing that, I make sure I sweat a lot. I try to take care of my loved ones, spend time with them. And get to writing and reading and creating. I plug in so much of my own day, since I don’t work a day job, I try to read a bit, write a bit every day. Or take in art. Sometimes it’s books, sometimes it’s movies or music. I try to make sure I look at poems every day. If not writing, then editing.
IH: What’s one thing about this collection that you want people to walk away with?
DS: Every reader comes to it with their own experience. I hope people find it useful.
Irene Hsu is a recent Minneapolis transplant from the Bay Area, where she spent most of her childhood and college years. She is a current Marketing & Communications Intern at the Loft, as well as an Editorial Intern at Graywolf Press. Her poetry has been recognized by the Ina Coolbrith Memorial Prize and has appeared in the Asian American Writer's Workshop's editorial platform, the Margins. She is currently working on a personal essay about studying literature in the Silicon Valley.