The Fourth River

Lifting the Veil/Exposing the Cracks: An Interview with Danez Smith

By on October 31, 2017

By Cedric Rudolph for The Fourth River


Danez Smith is a writer and performer from St. Paul, MN. Graywolf Press released their latest poetry collection Don’t Call Us Dead in September 2017. Their previous books include [insert] boy (2014), the chapbooks Black Movie (2015) and hands on ya knees (2013). Varied websites from PEN America to Buzzfeed to the Huffington Post to Advocate have published Smith’s poetry and blogs, as have literary journals Pank, Beloit, and more. This year also saw the National Endowment for the Arts grant Smith a literature fellowship. Cave Canem, the Poetry Foundation, and the McKnight Foundation are just three more examples of institutions that have awarded Smith fellowships in the past. They received the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. Smith is the three-time champion of the Rustbelt Individual Poetry Slam, a two-time finalist in Individual World Poetry Slams, founding member of the spoken-word based Dark Noise Collective. Smith was a First Wave Urban Arts Scholar while they earned their the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Smith performed and spoke with Adriana Ramírez, Li-Young Lee and Cornelius Eady at Chatham University’s spring 2017 event Dialogues: Writing in Divided Times.

The Fourth River: The Fourth River is a placed-based and nature journal. What place feels the most like home for you?

Danez Smith: If it is a place-based answer, Minneapolis, Minnesota. I also feel very at home in Mississippi where I have a lot of family. But I think it is because of that blood memory. Or because of the people that I recognize as making home for me in these spaces. Wherever my people are, I am home. Wherever there are folks who love to laugh and dance and mourn. It’s not necessarily tied to any location. In that way, my Mecca is moveable.

TFR: You mentioned “blood memory.” Do you mean actual familial blood or can that term be expanded to friends and associates?

DS: I think blood is the world. I think it’s also the kinfolk, the famous “n nem.”  When I say “blood memory,” I mean anything that is old and in the world that you might remember somewhere from one of your past lives. I think of queerness as a kind of blood running through my body so that I might know…If I’m in those spaces, there’s also a memory there because of this thing that is of me, or that I am of. I don’t know which came first—the gay, or his gayness? Blood memory is a far-reaching thing. There’s all different types of blood. There is the family blood, but there is also the blood of country, the blood of city. There is the blood of friendship as well. We’re all just brief events in this world, but all our matter has been here before. You remember something from when you were a seed. Sorry, I’m getting very “woo woo.”

TFR: [Laughing.] The speaker in the Black Movie’s final poem pitches a movie called Dinosaurs in the Hood. The central image of that movie would be a “little black boy on the bus with a toy dinosaur.” A black boy who is not holding a gun, not being anything other than the child he is. The speaker makes a special note: “Don’t let Tarantino direct this.” If my reading of Black Movie is correct, this chapbook offers the reader alternatives to media images of Black people. How would you describe the popular image of Black men, Black women in the American imagination?

DS: We’re always dying or working against dying or in some state of chaos or mourning and violence. Or we’re hyper-sexualized, and dying. Or we’re hyper-athleticisized, and dying. Or hyper-whatever-you-want, and dying. Always dying. Black Movie is attempting to subvert that and engage that too.

Black Movie comes out of the media’s heightened obsession with Black death that happened around 2013-14, when it became a topic on the news again. For Black people, we knew police brutality had never gone away, but there was this moment in 2012 around the murder of Trayvon Martin where it starts getting popular again. All of a sudden it’s on all the news channels, again. Not that it ever went anywhere, but it felt like it was entering the consciousness of White folks again.

I was also thinking about: What are the media images? Who are we allowed to be on TV? How are we allowed to see ourselves on the news? How are we allowed to see ourselves as public figures? I think what’s dangerous about this too is that it lends itself to some W.E.B. Du Bois “talented tenth” reading, which I friggin’ hate. But I think we don’t get a balanced view of what a Black person is in the media. Black people are what we see [on TV], and more. We are what we don’t see. There are also regular, boring Black folks that we just don’t get to talk about. Our image on the news is a dangerous one, one that makes our killing possible. Black Movie is trying to lift off that veil a little bit and expose the cracks in that image.

TFR: Was there a particular image or movie that sparked Black Movie?

DS: Black Movie as a chapbook started in Terrance Hayes’s “We Should Make a Documentary about Spades.” I read that poem and I was like, “This poem is the shit! Terrance Hayes is brilliant.” I loved that he could just make the film he wanted happen in a poem. After I read [that poem], I said that I wanted to try to do that. “Dinosaurs in the Hood” is after Terrance Hayes’s “We Should Make a Documentary about Spades.” A month after I wrote “Dinosaurs in the Hood,” I wondered if I could do that again, and I wrote “Sleeping Beauty in the Hood.”

Once I find a vein, I like to play in it for a little bit. I write a lot in series, so it became just trying to see how many of these things I could make happen. … It became Black Movie, which is looking at this American image of Black folks and how we are recorded and cinematized, and trying to complicate that. This is also around the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and so there are poems in Black Movie that are written outside this lens of film that I then put in there. There’s a long poem in there called “Short Film,” which includes all these things called “not-an-elegies”: not an elegy for Mike Brown, not an elegy for Renisha Mcbride…I was talking about Black Movie earlier with some friends, and we were talking about the idea of the “project book,” which I think is the overarching mode of creating poetry books nowadays.

TFR: In our final year, the MFA students have a thesis project where we assemble a book-length collection of poetry or prose. The idea is that there are supposed to be threads between the poems, and it’s supposed to be pretty cohesive. Your chapbook Black Movie is tightly woven. I think the same thing about [insert] boy. The poems in [insert] boy are in conversation with each other. Do you have any advice for creating a book-length work?

DS: That’s the exact note though. Make sure your poems are in conversation with each other. If there’s a part of the conversation that doesn’t make sense, even if it’s a great poem, maybe it doesn’t belong there. If we’re all sitting around talking about the complications of Black love and desire and joy and how that all muddles together, and then somebody walks into the room and is like, “Bananas are great,” then we’re all gonna look at him and go, “What the hell are you talking about, G?” The point is to remove the guy from your book that’s going, “Bananas are great!” Tell him, “Fool, we’re over here talking about how we love up on each other and how we’re happy together and how we hurt each other sometimes, and you just want to talk about fruit!”

You’ve got to lay your book on the ground or tape it up to the wall and say, “Which one of y’all don’t make sense? Which one of y’all is saying something unnecessary in this story?

TFR: You performed at Chatham’s Dialogues Event last night. You’re a dynamic performer. A lot of times, I feel, in literary circles, we focus so much on a poem’s content, its form, but we pay no attention to how it should be performed. Why is performance important to you? Why is reading a poem out loud important at all?

DS: I hate boring readings. There are some poets—and I’m not going to name names—who I’ve seen read their work, and it becomes lifeless. Something that feels very alive on the page is then “deaded” in the air. I believe it’s important for poets to put as much work into the performance of the work as they do into the writing of the work. Cornelius Eady and Li-Young Lee aren’t spoken word artists, but they are phenomenal readers of their work. You can tell they put care and put thought into how they’re going to read their work. That is all spoken word is: care in how you read your work. It just happens that, in spoken word, that becomes the expectation, that you think about how you’re going to read your work. In spaces where writing is the expectation and not performance, it becomes an extra treat when you know how to read your poem—which I think is bullshit…I care about my audience. I care about my poems.