Danez Smith is a Black, queer, poz writer, and performer from St. Paul, MN. Danez is the author of Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017) and [insert] boy (YesYes Books, 2014), winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. They are the recipient of fellowships from the Poetry Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, and is a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow. Danez’s work has been featured widely including in/on Buzzfeed, The New York Times, PBS NewsHour, Best American Poetry, Poetry Magazine, and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Danez is a member of the Dark Noise Collective and is the co-host of VS with Franny Choi, a podcast sponsored by the Poetry Foundation and Postloudness. Find more at www.danezsmithpoet.com.
for Michael Johnson
the bloodprison leads to prison
jail doubles as quarantine
chest to chest, men are silent
you’re under arrest, under a spell
are you on treatment? PrEP? (wats dat?)
i got the cellblock blues
the diagnosis is judgment enough
you got the suga? the clap? the mumps?
i say mercy, danger & white boys hear what they want
it was summer & everyone wanted to be in love
i been drankin, I been drankin
i just wanna dance with somebody
it could all be so simple
but you don’t know my name
don’t ask. don’t tell
many stories about queerness are about shame
…shall not lie (with mankind)…
i got the cell count blues
inside a cell: a man/inside his cells: a man
can you keep a secret?
a history of blood: from sacrament to sentence
the red the white the blue of my veins
singing recklessly out of a boy’s/throat, driving recklessly with boy/hands, lay my mouth on a man/as you lay a boy/into bed/ruin a boy like a boy/running recklessly/in the rain in Easter white/as boys do/eating recklessly with a boy’s/hunger, praising recklessly whatever was near/knelling/recklessly with a boy’s knees/in front of convenient gods/when morning came & still i was/recklessly a boy’s throat/until he was done & everywhere on my body was a boy’s throat/yes, i was his if only once/& i was his/as well & i was/everywhere, like a god/or a virus & i was everything/required of me & i was anything/but tame/& so, so long from then/i stand in the deepest part of night/singing recklessly, calling/what must feast/ to feast.
– a love story –
& then he left
but he stayed
as smoke from the lips
cycles into the nose
as the car filled with bass
niggas & smoke smokes your hair
as the car rolls into his garage
as you become a kind of garage
as the skin breaks as the skin do
as salt overwhelms
your simple palate as you sing
salt devotion as salt
gives way to salt as you are
a body boiled down to desire
as a noun, as to say desire
all over my face or say desire
coming down my leg
or desire feels cold
which lets you know
desire was warm recently
shot from inside a body
into a body, strange
little birth, happy death
ritual, sweet lord
i’ve seen thy wrath
& it taste like sugar
lay thy merciful hand
around my neck
it’s not a death sentence anymore
it’s not death anymore
it’s a sentence
i told him what
happened to my body
but all he could hear
was light falling
between my legs
next time a man comes
over, i’ll cut the veins
out my arms, arrange them
like cooked spaghetti
on the kitchen table
in the shape of a boy’s face
& say here’s what happened
in our blood
men hold each other
like they’ll never let go
then they let go
An Interview with Danez Smith
Note: This interview began Aug 28th, 2017. Since then, Danez’s book, Don’t Call Us Dead, has been longlisted for the National Book Award. Vinyl would like to extend a warm “Congratulations!” to Smith
Phillip B. Williams: Thank you so much for taking time out of your tremendous schedule to speak with me. I want to first ask about your book Don’t Call Us Dead as an object. Can you talk about your cover art choice and where you came up with the title? Did you write this book with some ideas already in mind or did you find that the poems spoke to you as you wrote them individually?
Danez Smith: I first saw the cover image, Shikeith’s “The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease forever to be able to do it”, when a portfolio of his work came my way through a listserve made up of Black, Queer, male bodied writers. And how can I not gaze at Shikeith’s work having the body I have and not feel humbled, wondrous, and mortal? Can’t. I wasn’t writing with this book in mind at the time, but I held those images close to my heart. I kept returning to them, put them on my computer and phone backgrounds, lived with them in the time when i was writing these poems. The title is a line from the first section of the first poem, a long poem called “summer, somewhere”. The book moved through many drafts and many names, but what stuck was this statement, this declaration that feels true & mighty for many of the characters in these poems. The book was two books, one that held a lot of poems written in the year following my positive HIV diagnosis and other written around the continuing narrative of state-sanctioned and home-grown violence against Black people in the USA. But at my editor’s suggestion and through trial and error, these two books merged and became something a lot larger, that centered many different thoughts on mortality and living, and surely a lot of the poems that came wouldn’t have been possible without the project itself changing. For me, when I’m “writing a book”, the poems first lead to the larger project through their individual investigations and how they are speaking to each other. But after a certain point, once the book dares to announce itself as a book, the project starts to demand certain poems or experiments to complete itself. We are each other’s masters in that way.
P: So much about writing a book involves ordering its poems, it seems. You get to a certain spot and realize that the energy is off in a section or one poem rushes an idea into another and the only thing that can rectify that quickness is a poem to buffer the edges, so to speak. I am also thrilled that you got the cover art of your choice. Shikeith’s artwork seems custom-made for the book. Those Black boys flying off to somewhere hopefully better, but who’s to say? Luckily, we get to imagine better.
Tell me about “recklessly.” It moves across its seven sections with seamless energy. Before we talk about it in-depth, can you speak about the process of writing a poem that is fragmented? When did you know it was time to end? How did you know you had everything in the right order? With a title like “recklessly,” there is a bit of recklessness in how it looks, but when I read it the structure of the poem seemed inevitable.
D: To me, writing a poem like “recklessly” is all about collage. Collage is one of the freest forms of play. Fragmentation allows me to move away from sense, or towards an understanding deeper than “getting it”. Maybe I’ve been watching too much Law & Order, but I think the collage-centered, fragmented style is kinda like setting up a scene for the reader to investigate, for them to take up all the pieces and figure out what happened and what the person who left these words was trying to say. In terms of ordering, I tend to follow sound and emotional arcs. The shorter sections allow for breath so those are littered about so the poem doesn’t exhaust itself. But I’m also trying to bait that exhaustion, especially in a poem titled “recklessly.” I tried to write this in a more structured, regimented form, but given the nature of the story and how it was coming out through me, I had to move towards poems (I think a poem can be made up of many poems) that were in chorus, but still unique from each other. More an act of juxtaposition than of flow and unity in, say, a crown of sonnets.
P: And that fragmentation comes through in the first section when all these song references appear: Alicia Keys’s “You Don’t Know My Name,” Lauryn Hills’s “X-Factor,” Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” and Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love,” among other pieces of conversations and blues iterations. How did you want music and the body to interact in this poem? What is special about this dance, its “venom:sin:snake:cocksize” appearing with “the red the white the blue of my veins”?
D: Well, the question of the speaker in this poem led me to reach towards those songs. I don’t know who is speaking in this poem, or I’m not sure who they all are. At times, it could be the voice/character of Michael Johnson, at times the men who sued and eventually imprisoned him, at times me, at times who knows. I reached for the music in the absence of this knowledge. When I don’t know what to say, I reach towards sampling. Or maybe it’s more like at times, the most urgent language already exists. Plus, don’t them songs set the mood? If you read those lines and recognize them lyrics, you know I’m reaching for love, for desire, for betrayal, for lust, for the body and how it is in concert with others.
I also think of “music” in the poetic sense too here. Rhythm and sound are my main ways of finding my way through a poem, so that tends to be ever present. I wanted the sections to move well, to sing. I often try to dress the body in music. I don’t know how to talk about the body without reaching for the rhythms and soundscapes that are native to it. I’m black as fuck so I’m polythymic as shit. Music ain’t a choice, it’s an instinct.
And I don’t know what makes the juxtaposition of such lines important. In that first section, each line is its own little world. What is special about it to me is meant to be different for the reader. I just want to dump all this language on the table and be like “what you think this is?” Thinking especially about the trial of Michael Johnson, where who said or who didn’t say what was always a critical question, I wanted to get lost in language, to question and erase and repeat and overspeak and underhear all through the poem. I wanted to make a mess. Then I cleaned it up a little.
P: You write:
it’s not a death sentence anymore
it’s not death anymore
it’s a sentence
Can you talk about your feelings around Michael Johnson and his trial? I think part of the speaker being blurry is that the speaker sees himself as being very similar to Johnson and has a hard time separating himself from the case, the abusive sentence, and the stigmatization of HIV paired with racism that led to Johnson’s incarceration to begin with. Would you say that is a fair reading? So much of this poem seems to be a letter to the self while thinking about Michael Johnson, while loving on him from afar.
D: That trial really messed me up. Cause I’ve been on both sides. Well, not exactly cause whiteness was a rather large actor in that drama. But I have been on the other side of what I considered withheld information (though I don’t believe Michael withheld information). I had to deal with the shame of being poz complicating my desire. I feel like I have been all the bodies concerned in that case. But when they found him guilty, when they put him in jail for having blood and a body and desire like mine? I was shook. I was scared. I was angry. I was indeed blurry as you said. In a flat-out way, I am anti the criminalization of HIV, but that felt like too easy a thing to say in the moment of writing the poem. I realize now that I’m interested in how we internalize the justice system, which I think is thread that arose in the book without me consciously doing so. How do these verdicts, whether in the courtrooms, our neighborhoods, or the verdicts we pass in more intimate spaces, become a part of us? How do they augment us? How do they live in us? What do we do with them?
P: I’m teaching a class on Black Horror and Afrofuturism this term. Before even delving into the literature, I asked my students to come up with definitions for horror in two categories. One category was how we express or show that we are experiencing horror. The second was how horror shows up in our lives. Eventually, I pushed them to think about history. What we decided was horror is a response to historical traumas and perceived threats to one’s culture that simultaneously offer catharsis and pleasure when we experience them outside of the context of reality. Alien movies, vampires, ghost stories…the survivor being familiar makes us the survivor. But what if “us” always dies first? I see so much (im)possibility in how we as Black people make room for imagining our history and our contemporary moment in a speculative way when for us the reality in which we live is itself a living, active horror and not for our pleasure. These verdicts you speak of feel like scene after scene of Black people dying on camera, like queer people of color fighting against zombification, and like escape is always a cliffhanger into the more frightening sequel.
In your book Don’t Call Us Dead, you have poems that deal with desire, HIV, systemic violence against Black people, homophobia inside and outside of the queer community, salvation, mythology, ghosts, healing as much as possible and also recognition that healing may not be reachable at times. I would like to know how you wove so many themes (and forms!) into a single collection without it feeling like an undercook pot of gumbo. You spoke earlier about the internalization of the justice system as a thread, which I think is brilliant when I recognize how carceral punishment teaches us how to punish ourselves. What other threads are there that readers should look out for?
D: Well, first off I wanna take that class cause it sounds lit.
In truth, the weaving of all the themes and forms is something you can only find through the magic of editing lol. There is another book that could be of the poems that didn’t make it in the book, but I always tell folks you have to write two or three books in order to edit down to one good one. There are only 29 poems in the book because I really found a home in longer poems for this collection, and I think that small number of poems also keeps it focused. There are pieces I love so much that I had to take out because they started to take the book in another direction that would have made no sense with the foundation of the collection. While I don’t think of the book as a long poem, I think collections can learn a lot from the long poem/book length poem. If someone is going to read my book cover to cover, I want them to feel as if they’ve read a project, not a gathering of work, and that desire steadies my hand and by extension tethers the book so the themes and moods don’t go too far off the deep end. As far as themes, I think for me the main thing that comes to mind is mortality: what do we do with it? what is it? does it end? if it does, then what? until then, what? how do I protect the mortality of others? can we live? I had to touch my own mortality in a way I never had when I wrote this book. I had to contend with the many deaths that could be planned for me, and it made me rededicate myself to living, really living. So…I don’t know. I hope that people who read this collection will lay a hand on their own hearts for a moment, say thank you.
P: What books, if any, helped you to organize this one? Were there any collections that served as mentors at all? There also seems to be a comeback of the long poem, be it serialized or a single part. Any thoughts on why the long poem may be utilized more frequently, assuming my observation is correct?
D: There are many books that I held close to my heart while writing this (D.A. Powell’s Tea, Jericho Brown’s The New Testament, Lucille Clifton’s Blessing The Boats) but the collection that influenced most the structure was Timothy Liu’s Don’t Go Back To Sleep. In it, he opens with a fierce long poem centered around the Nanking Massacre, then moves into a much more erotic and sexual sequence of poems. I had long noticed the tendency to put long poems in the middle, but something about opening with a grand, possibly exhausting poem felt like a very exciting and new risk, one I am glad to have witness and tried. But the long poem does seem to be making a comeback, right? Tommy Pico is doing amazing things with their book length poems, and many poets seem to be finding new legs in the extended sequence. For me, it offers room to breathe, room to do what brevity cannot. I love poetry because of how brief and small the moment can be, but maybe our world is starting to demand more out of us poets, maybe it is calling for poets to take up space. Poetry as a whole seems to be growing in the public sphere, no? Maybe we are mirroring that. Maybe the big changes needed in the world are forcing poets to expand our imagining and our looking to meet the task of writing us into better futures.
P: Thank you so much for sharing so much with us. I want to close out by asking if you can name three things you want to be remembered by, what would those three things be? Also, where can people find your work?
D: DAMN PHILLIP! MAKING ME INTERROGATE MY EXISTENCE! Ummmmm… I want to be remembered for how I loved my people in micro and macro ways. I want to be remembered for not my own poems, but for who saw themselves as a possible creator of art and change through my words. And I want to build something that will matter to people for years, even if my name is dust. Thank you so much for your mind and your questions and your heart, Phillip!
People can buy the book directly from Graywolf or whenever you buy your books! I’m always a fan of finding or ordering books at your local book store!