“Even the dirtiest things deserve to be pretty.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
You just won a Lammy! Congratulations for that.
Can you talk about how the overwhelming positive reception for the book has reached you?
It’s been really unexpected for me. It’s my first book, you know? I was writing some of these poems when I was a sad undergrad. I never expected anything of them. I had a lot of anxiety about them being in a book. I come from a spoken-word background and didn’t start out thinking of myself as a page writer until three years ago. A book means a completely different thing in that realm. That was a little daunting for me, thinking about people having a collection of my work that my physical voice is not attached to at all.
The Lammy’s were crazy. I was in a category with Jericho Brown, who is one of the reasons I’m a writer, and CA Conrad, who is the Supreme of the queer coven, and Timothy Liu, who is one of my heroes, he’s just dirty and fabulous. I was just happy to be at the party, and then they told me I got to be prom queen.
Right? It’s so strange. I’m grateful. I’m humbled and I’m grateful.
Jericho Brown’s Please was big for you, right?
And you’ve created a work that’s very much entered into that same conversation.
It’s weird. It’s given me a lot of good questions about how canon is created, or how a school of poetry is created. For me, reading Please was huge, but that was his first book too. There’s not a huge range of time between us. His first “utterance” as a poet hit me when I was nineteen or twenty, and now we’re being grouped into this same conversation. I don’t know how to say anything about it other than that it’s very weird. It’s how poetry happens. You look for people who’re creating a little bit ahead of you and alongside you, having this living conversation.
It’s so wonderful, and it seems so true to the spirit of what it is to be a person who writes poems to be in a community where we’re pulling each other along. It doesn’t have to be the crab bucket where everyone’s trying to climb over everyone else.
Yeah! At least I hope it’s like that. I hope nobody’s trying to sabotage anyone else in the poetry game. We all want better poetry. We want everyone to have what they need in order to be able to write.
Right, and I think poetry is as close to being a true meritocracy in that way as we can reasonably hope for. You write a poem as good as “Dinosaurs in the Hood,” and it doesn’t matter who you are or where you came from or who you’re writing for, it can end up in the pages of Poetry.
I hope so!
To segue into talking about the book itself, it seems the central concern is this sort of celebration of black bodies, this deep love for black bodies in spite of the fears surrounding them.
That message has become particularly trenchant of late. The world maybe hasn’t changed much since you wrote these poems, but that issue has certainly moved to the forefront of our cultural narrative. Trayvon Martin is mentioned in the book directly, but the world has provided all these additional nationwide occasions for grieving black bodies. What happens in the book has continued to expand into our daily lives—those fears you document have been explicitly, tragically given bodies and names. How has it felt to watch the themes of the book become a national dialogue?
While it is here, while we are focusing a lot of attention on the attack on black bodies and blackness in this country, I’m glad we’re having it. I hope it can be nuanced and productive and not centered in how white folks feel about what we’re saying. White folks’ feelings have held up progress for god knows fucking how long. I hope we can do something besides just talk about the bodies, to actually make sure the bodies remain alive.
I want to do more than talk beautifully about dead black people. I want to make sure black people stay alive. I’m hoping that’s where the conversation will go. I hope it can bridge beyond conversation into action. I don’t want the energy to just move on to the next thing.
Absolutely. Now that people are listening.
That’s the hard part. It’s a “new” conversation to be entering the national consciousness but it’s not anything new for black people. Everybody’s now ready to have this conversation that we’ve been trying to have for years. It’s this tension of, sure let’s have this conversation now that you’re ready to have it, but also I’ve been living this conversation for decades, my people for centuries.
You’ve written that “black people, and surely the people of any marginalized, systematically oppressed community, don’t have the privilege of being idle citizens.” That’s not something that enters often into the consciousness of the average white American, the privilege of not having to be an advocate for one’s self. Is there a burden or a responsibility that comes with having a platform and having a voice people pay attention to?
I don’t want to speak for anyone else beside myself, but I think about blackness as being defined by survival. We don’t have the luxury of being unengaged citizens. We don’t have the luxury of falling into mundane ways of living. By virtue of our being alive in this white country, we are performing an act of survival. We are all survivors.
So, I think if you recognize that you have some kind of voice, you have to be highly critical of yourself. It’s this balancing act of saying what is necessary for you to say, but also making it clear you are not speaking on behalf of everyone in your community.
This has come up a lot in poetry in a really beautiful way. I love the way, with spoken word and with the internet, we’re able to put it out into the world in a real way, not hide it away in journals or academia. People can actually hear and touch work that is celebratory, that fuels our survival, that engages us at our most human level. I’m glad we’re making sure those poems aren't hidden in super guarded, protected institutions.
If we were all writing these poems in TriQuarterly or the Indiana Review, while fine journals, we wouldn’t be doing our community any service. But when we’re posting them online or we’re doing these events, we’re actually able to give folks something to touch, to give them inspiration, to put some light in the lives of black people.
There are these places now like Kinfolks and Blackberry that are dedicated to publishing black writers. You also edited an all-black issue of Winter Tangerine. Can you talk about the value of those kinds of spaces?
Yeah, absolutely. They give writers a chance to talk about blackness in a way that traditional journals, that a lot of the whiter institutions, can’t necessarily engage with. It’s the same reason a place like Cave Canem is important. Some of the bravest poems I’ve ever written were at Cave Canem, in those workshops. When I went to Cave Canem, I never really left. I still carry that space with me wherever I go. It says I can write in an authentic way even when the white literary world tells me I should not. Often, the whiteness of the literary world says I should whitewash my work, or present my blackness in a way that is palatable. Those spaces allow us to be unapologetic. I hope we can move all literary writing towards being unapologetic. Or, move to a place where not everybody feels like they need to understand.
I’m sick of everybody needing to understand. I don’t need to understand shit. I don’t need to understand what it is to be a woman to engage in women’s writing. I don’t need to understand how somebody identifies as trans to engage with the joys of trans writing and trans art. I don’t need to understand shit. I just need to engage.
As guest editor of that issue of Winter Tangerine, I think I was able to get something with those poems that another person might not have gotten. We made an equal playing ground. Do you understand what I’m saying?
Absolutely. I think the editorial or curatorial aesthetic you’re describing is also a prominent feature of your poetry. You’re not interested in saying, “my speaker” when talking about your protagonist in [insert] boy. You say, it’s me. It’s Danez. That’s extremely bold, ditching the plausible deniability that comes with writing through a character. I’m thinking of a poem like “Genesissy” where you incorporate the vernacular of voguing, words like “duckwalking” and “death dropping,” that a huge part of your audience won’t immediately recognize. Only Danez Smith could be speaking these poems.
For me, writing through a persona moves me further away from my own honesty. One of my biggest mentors as an artist was this guy named Chris Walker who always said to bring my full self. I needed to bring my faith, my sexuality, my gender, my race, my every experience into every poem. Whatever happens happens in that created space. Even if it’s not necessarily me all the way through, it’s 80% me, so we’re going to go ahead and say it’s me. It’s given me access to something that feels real and true. When I move further away from that id, I find I don’t like my own work. It feels contrived. I’m still feeling out fiction. That’s when it starts to feel like it’s trying to perform for somebody.
Yeah, there are all these boxes you can check. I think when you’re writing from a place that acknowledges all those boxes, it creates a sort of sincerity that flies in the face of the default ironic posture struck by lots of contemporary poetry. This book is a lot of things, but I don’t think it’s particularly ironic or snide or smirky in that way.
I am not trying to deny my personality or disengage with confessionalism. I am not trying to deny the things that are quintessential or the things I fear. I am not trying to outsmart anybody or be better than anybody. (Laughing) I’m just a really bad boy, you know? I’m just trying to be real.
Right! In “Song of the Wreckage,” you have this string of questions and one of them is, “If I played dead, would I be acting my age?” That’s very tethered to the tonal thrust of the whole collection, and when you’re asking questions like these, you’re directly confronting the reader, questioning their complicity. That’s a really interesting move to me, craftwise. I don’t know what I’m asking, really—I guess, what sort of responsibility does a non-black reader have in reading these poems?
They have the responsibility to shut up.
When I read books that are outside of my identity, I tell myself to shut up. I try to take people at their word about their experience. I hope people can engage with the book, but I also hope there are parts of the book that people are a little more puzzled by. I want them to just shush, and listen, and let me talk about this singular black experience for a while. I want them to let me talk about my feelings and not try to tell me about what blackness or whiteness or America is or isn’t. (Laughing) I hope we all just shush as we read.
That’s great. That’s a great answer. It reminds me of after you wrote that “Open Letter to White Poets” —
You sound delighted I’m bringing it up.
Haha, oh god, I hated that whole thing.
It was interesting. The huge dominant response you got was white poets saying, “Oh, look at this poem I had in my book about this,” as if proving to you they weren’t part of the problem meant that they weren’t part of the problem.
Yeah, exactly. That was exactly it.
That’s fascinating to me. In the wake of all these national occasions for grief over the destruction of black bodies, one of the things that has happened is that white people are contorting themselves wildly to say, “Look at this problem that’s endemic in everybody but me!”
Yes. I see it in a lot of white folks in workshops or workplaces, that need to say, “Oh, but not me.” There’s an acceptance of personal whiteness, but a denial of collective whiteness or of white history. I see it all the time. I guess I expected it, but not the volume at which it happened. I really think people should interrogate whiteness and blackness, and that doesn’t mean sending me a note saying, “Here’s a little shitty poem I wrote that includes a black character.” I mean, write those poems, but also talk to Grandpa Bob or the cop you know about how they talk about black people. That’s what I really need you to do. Sure, great, you published this poem in The Paris American? Oh my god. That’s so great for you. Now, also, go talk to your family. Go talk to your one cousin who jokes about hanging black people.
Truly, your little poems about my blackness, that’s something I could care less about. I get emails from grown white people all the time asking me about, who are the white authors writing about race that I really appreciate right now? And my answer is, quite frankly, I don’t know. I don’t need to hear a white person talk about blackness or race outside of whiteness. (Laughing)
I really like Sharon Olds, for instance, and she has a poem called “Ode to My Whiteness” after Evie Shockley. Sharon Olds is fucking amazing, that poem is amazing, and it’s also not changing anything about my blackness.
Haha, that’s a great way to say it.
I’m still going to get up from reading it and be a black man walking down the street and looking at the police, worrying they’re going to slow up right next to me. So, I don’t know what it is. It’s such a selfish desire, that need to say, “Not me,” or say, “Here, look at what I did.”
Writing is really great, but writing isn’t everything. Writing isn’t going to change the world. We might inspire somebody to change the world, but sometimes I can’t give a fuck about your little punk ass poems. I can’t even give a fuck about my poems. Sure, I might write a great poem, and it might, in theory, save somebody when they find it. But a poem does not stop a bullet. A poem does not pay the rent. A poem does not keep a police officer’s hands off of a twelve-year-old-girl. Hopefully we can add to a canon and culture that shifts mindsets, policy, ideologies. It’s just fucked, that need to say, “Look what I did,” in that broad selfish way. It pisses me off.
Well, and it was so strange that people saw you as the arbiter, the official spokesperson who could say, “Okay, yes, you’re one of the good ones.”
Hahaha, yes! It’s so strange. I am Danez, king of the down white people.
That’s hilarious. It takes us back into the book a little, too—I think one of the real triumphs of the book, what’s at the heart of what makes your book so powerful is that in the same moment, a line can be celebrating, exalting blackness but also lamenting the inherent tragedy of it. Poets do that in the space of a poem, but it’s in here even at the line, “a cold black body is a prophecy fulfilled / you have always been a dying thing.” What a gorgeous, wrenching sentiment! The grinding of exaltation and lament against each other in such a small space. I’m sure this has been said more articulately by people smarter than me, but it seems like that’s a real source of power for the book.
Wow, yeah. I think it has a lot to do with musicality. I’m always trying to find something that sounds beautiful and also makes you want to cry at the same time. All my favorite songs are the ones that have a really good beat, but when you listen to the lyrics, they’re just heart-wrenching. I think about Brandy, or a lot of these 90’s soul songs that have this dissonance between the quality of the music and the message of the music. I’m trying to play around with that a little in the poems.
I want to create poems that make you want to celebrate in one breath at the same time they make you want to mourn. A lot of the responses to the book I’ve gotten have said, “Oh my god, I don’t know whether to shout or cry.” I like bringing people up and down. It’s what I love most in poetry, not being directed towards one feeling but having a tension built or broken or spiraled.
I love that you bring in the musicality. Is it Nate Marshall who has the poem about how every black rapper talks about death on record?
Yeah, his poem “On Caskets.”
Right, right. It’s that same thing. Death is on the lips of every poem in this book. There’s not a poem in this book that isn’t kind of about death—and not in an abstract way, but in a way that really feels urgent.
It’s a very black book, in that way. With black joy, mourning is never too far away. That’s something I carry with me in all of my art-making. Even in the most joyous of spaces, the end for us is always lurking around the corner. Why not celebrate life, then, like wild animals? It allows the liquor to make you just a little bit drunker. You’re so happy that you’re not sad right now, because you know how easy it is to be sad.
That’s a beautiful way to say it. One of my favorite poems in the book, “Obey,” says, “I deem all the whiskey and all the weed and all the coke mine mine mine, and I dare a motherfucker to tell me different.” There’s an urgency even in the moments of joy, and the hunger is voracious.
That’s a poem that is speaking about an orgy where “everyone could be a mall santa or a senator.” It’s a poem about what is already a sociologically fascinating moment, something most people don’t have any experiential relationship to. Even a dry account would be interesting, you know? How do you elevate what is already a sensational experience into lyric?
There’s certainly the temptation to lay everything out plainly, very matter of factly, and let the spectacle of all these dirty gay things I do live on their own. I could just play on heteronormativity and make that my trick. But I’m not interested in that. Even the dirtiest things deserve to be pretty.
I use godly, holy language. I try to give it new life. It would be so easy to drop a whole bunch of lines about come and saggy white guys, but if I can give the poem another life, I would rather do that. I think about how these poems are going to play in the air, in performance. I want to give people something interesting in the music to drag them along through the story. I think the music might carry people along who might otherwise be a little squeamish or shy. I’m trying to give them a road.
You talk about writing a poem for the air, and you’re obviously a decorated spoken word and slam poet. You’re accustomed to a form of poem-giving where the audience has one chance to hear a poem, so you sort of have to make sure they’re hanging on with you. But in this book, there’s a lot of interesting work being done in the space of the page, too. Can you talk a little about the process of putting this together?
Sure. I think making this book turned me into a different poet—not in a bad way, of course. There were certain poems I was known for in slam spaces that couldn’t make it because they couldn’t make the jump to the page. I think it’s made me a better poet, a simpler poet. I’ve learned a lot about putting personality and the body into words. It’s been a constant question of how to capture all that can be communicated live.
I’m working on a second collection now and those poems are different, because there aren’t many poems that embrace spoken word in obvious ways. The ear of that writer is still there, though, the concern with saying something plainly but beautifully. It’s challenged me a lot, deciding what type of poet I wanted to become. I think when my poetics are at their best is when I’m saying something you only need to hear once, but that feels so sharp that it stays with you for a long time. It’s like looking at a very shiny penny. You already know what a penny looks like, but goddamnit, this one’s shiny.
Haha. I guess a good way to wrap things up would be to talk about that collection you have coming out. It’s with Graywolf in 2016?
2017? Oh, that’s terrible news.
Ahh, okay. That’ll hold me over, then. Do you want to talk about how the poems in the Graywolf collection compare to [insert] boy?
I feel like I’m a much stronger poet. I feel like there were techniques or ideas that were wonderful little failures in [insert] boy that I’ve a much better handle on now. It feels sharper, growner. At the risk of sounding cocky, I think it’s a fucking kickass book. I’m trying new things too. There’s a long poem in the new book about a magic paradise where all murdered black boys go that’s swallowed up so many hours and tears. Half of the book is about death, particularly black masculine death, and the other half is meditating on living with HIV, the space where that happens in a black queer body. I’m excited to see what people think of it.
That’s awesome. It’s awesome to hear you so excited about it.
Oh man, it’s so exciting. It’s so weird and exciting.
Interview Posted: August 10, 2015
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