Interview With Danez Smith

I met Danez Smith in a low-lit corner of bookshelves at The Miami Book Fair this November. I’d spent weeks with their book Don’t Call Us Dead, reading and annotating it for a review, and thought the opportunity to speak to them at the event was something that could compliment the things I was exploring during my reading. The timing was attractive as well—Smith had just returned from the National Book Awards ceremony where they were chosen as a finalist for their second full-length collection. Considering the number of interesting topics that can be pulled out of Smith’s work and closely examined, this interview touches on just a few important elements of the work being done. Below, you’ll find a conversation about process, publishing, artistic influences, and even a hint about what is forthcoming from Smith’s next poetry collection.

 Sam Leon: You just returned from the National Book Awards. How was that experience?

Danez Smith: Uhm, drunk. They feed you alcohol from the time you show up to the time you leave. It’s all very free and very available. But it was a magical experience. It’s like a writer’s fairy tale, you know, it’s like the Oscars for us. We had a little red carpet and everything. It was good—I wasn’t expecting this kind of confirmation this early in my life and in my career. So, I think the National Book Award is a long dream that I did not expect to show up at 28. So, yeah it was wonderful. I just got really drunk and wore a really blue suit, with the fur. It was a lot fun.

S.L: I saw your outfit on Instagram, it was great. It looked really fun. Any memorable moments worth mentioning?

D.S.: I think being able to see Frank Bidart win the award. Frank’s been up for it so many times and won. He’s had such a storied career and has opened so many doors for weird queers to be weird and queer. That was really beautiful. To be able to meet Nick Flynn, who was one of the judges and made me cry on the dance floor with his kindness. Getting able to see Jasmine Ward and her fly-ass mama. Shout out to Jasmine Ward’s mom, who is an inspiration and style god. It was just a beautiful time, writers really being able to be happy and supportive of each other is always a beautiful thing.

 S.L.: So I want to talk about Don’t Call Us Dead. How does it function as a collection? I read an interview that you did last winter where you talked about your first collection. About how maybe it felt a little disjointed or like it was a series of little failures where you kind of trying different things out. How does Don’t Call Us Dead feel as a collection?

D.S.: I think all poems are little failures. I think about poems as just like attempts to answer a question that never quite get there. So I think Don’t Call Us Dead is also in my tradition of failures. I don’t find “failure” to be a scary word, I actually find it to be a rather empowering thing because it means that we can try to continue to seek answers for these questions. I felt good about Don’t Call Us Dead. It was two books beforehand that I wound up smashing together. One book contained a lot of poems that were along the lines of police brutality and thinking about the many violences that America acts upon the black body. Another book was thinking about my sexual history, thinking about my HIV diagnosis. Jeff Shotts, the editor at Graywolf, was really helpful in having me see that I was having a larger conversation about mortality in the black body and in my black body and how those conversations were actually not as separate as I thought they were, but rather enriching to each other. There were a lot of poems in the book that only came about once I started having those two conversations at one time, in the same space, and could see them as one conversation. I was proud of it. I think it’s a much more mature book than my first book. I love [insert boy] but I think the poems are better in Don’t Call Us Dead. I think I understand my relationship to the lyric more, I think I understand my relationship to form more. So yeah, I was very excited to write that book and now have it be in the world and go off and write the new things.

S.L.: Sounds like a great place to be. So, I’m really interested in this world you’ve created in “summer, somewhere”. I read that you started this utopian paradise that you imagine for black boys where they’re not subject to violence in “Song of the Wreckage”. The idea was born there?

D.S.: Yeah, it was born there. For the sake of the interview, “Song of the Wreckage” is a long poem that was in a later section of my first book, [insert] boy. It was originally a quadruple sestina, so 24 24-line poems, and that failed miserably. A lot of those are really, really trash so I just took the top eight. There was a world that got trashed in there because I was trying to do a little bit too much or didn’t really get the reigns on the form. I knew I wanted that world to still happen and I think there’s a peek of that world in “Song of the Wreckage.” I wanted to try it again. And I didn’t know I wanted to try it again. I think it was Saeed Jones who told me you should keep going on this idea and halfway through I realized, Oh, this is the same world that I’ve kind of failed to build on the first attempt. I think it came out good this time.

S.L.: Me too, I love that piece. Are we going to see more of that world in future work?

D.S.: I don’t think so. I think I’m good on it for right now. I think they’re safe and I think I just want to leave them alone to be happy and gallivant in the sun, like an eternal summer. Right now I don’t think we’re going to return. My newer poems are thinking about friendship and that type of love. I think it’s a very clean love—some of the greatest non-familial loves in my life have all been with friends. I want to write about them and write about how we love on each other.

S.L.: You have a lot of great hip-hop and R&B references. Can you talk about how music influences your work, who’s releasing stuff this year that you love, whose albums you love?

D.S.: I think what people need to realize is that we all pull from the other arts. My favorite thing is asking other artists what other arts they reach for that aren’t in their genre. Some people reach toward classical music and visual art, I also like visual art a lot. You write what you know. I know R&B and hip-hop. That is gold in my culture. So I’m just trying to laden my poems with what my people consider gold. So for this year in music, I was really excited for the albums by—I became a big fan of Tyler, the Creator fan this year. I’ve always thought he could rap, but before I thought he was too immature.

S.L.: He switched it up.

D.S.: Yeah he switched it up. I think this is like his grownest album. You know, it felt not like the raps of an angsty adult. It was really great production and really great storytelling. I’ve been thinking about how he uses repetition, like how he always starts off a rap by saying the same word eight times, “I’m bored I’m bored I’m bored I’m bored…”. Who else? Joseph Chilliams, who’s a rapper out of Chicago in the Pivot Gang. His album—thinking about my book right now about friendship—his album is really about friendship and it’s goofy and it’s fun and it’s serious. It’s all the sort of multi-textured things that I think happen in friendship, which is the ability to laugh until you cry and cry until you start laughing. I think his album does that really well so I’ve been excited by that. I feel like I’m still listening to so many things that came out in 2016. Still listening to No Name’s album, I’m still listening to Neyo’s album. Oh, fucking SZA came out this year. CTRL was a monster and I’m really intrigued by SZA as a songwriter but also what she does sonically. I think R&B singers are where I sort of lock myself into to exist in these soundscapes. Nick Hakeem, that was a really crucial album in 2017. That’s sort of about the songwriting but more about these lush landscapes that people are creating in their music right now. I think in those soundscapes is where I can find stuff to ride as far as meter and really puts me in the mood to write poetry.

S.L.: So who are you reading?

 D.S.: Oh everybody. I think I’m having a very contemporary moment. I like contemporary poetry, I like to be up on what’s out. So, in the forefront of my mind are a lot of books that have come out recently. Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf, Eve L. Ewing’s Electric Arches, Rachel McGibbons’ Blood, Kamilah Aisha Moon’s Starshine & Clay, which shout out to Lisa Clifton for that. Chen Chen’s When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, Sam Sax’s Madness. Yeah, I’ve just been really excited for a lot of books. I’ve been returning to Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet a lot lately, I think just because I need my spirit to be tickled and to remember goodness and kindness and God. So I’m returning to that a lot lately. I’m trying to find new voices too, I’ve been trying to read more literary magazines and really find who excites me. There’s a writer in New Orleans by the name of Jae Nichelle and I love her writing so I’m super hype to see everything she does. Tiana Clark is another writer whose book will be coming to us sometime soon. She’s a writer that very much titillates my mind.

S.L.: You mentioned visual art and how you’re influenced by it. The cover’s gorgeous on Don’t Call Us Dead and I looked up the artist, Shikeith. Did you know the art before, did it seem like a good fit while you were looking for a cover?

D.S.: Yeah, that art came to me via a group of black queer writers that I was in a list serve with. I think all of us had been fans of Shikeith’s work and he had, in 2013 or 2014, on a website had published a portfolio of his work. We all start picking out book covers kind of arbitrarily, like, “I want that one, I want that one!” And I said that one. I wanted that picture. It said something to me. I didn’t know what the book was yet but I said I will write a book that will deserve this as a cover. I love Shikeith’s work. I think it speaks to innocence, to vulnerability, to healing, and to friendship and love in a way that is super beautiful, and also super bare, and literally naked, without reaching toward a hyper-sexualized view. There are so many penises and they never feel sexualized, they feel vulnerable.

S.L.: It’s hard to strike that.

 D.S.: It’s really, really hard.

S.L.: One last question, and it’s about “litany with blood all over”. I just want to know how that development came about. Did you have the idea for the formatting before you wrote the poem, or when you were formatting the book did you say, “this needs to span multiple pages”?

 D.S.: It happened in the writing of the poem. Especially thinking about writer like Douglas Kearny, Duriel Harris, Evie Shockley, a lot of great black experimentalists have shown me that sometimes the poem requires, what the poem wants to do requires you to break out of standard lineation and to break into something more visual, more felt, more experienced. I reached a point in that poem where I just kept on writing “my blood, his blood” and it doesn’t hit the same if it’s just lineated in all in a row. They need to blend, they need to merge. It needs to become a chaos. In that way, I felt that it became more than words, it actually became blood on the page. And that’s a moment of play. I think even when writing about super serious topics and things that might possibly be depressive or traumatic, there’s always I think for me a sense of play in the work. And that was a moment of like how do I figure this out? Then that was fun to sort of figure out how to make that happen.

By Sam Leon