Danez Smith is a writer and performer from St. Paul, MN. Graywolf Press releases 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 B.A.at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Smith performed and spoke with Adriana Ramírez, Li-Young Lee and Cornelius Eady at Chatham University’s April 6 event Dialogues: Writing in Divided Times. In the second part of the interview, Smith discusses with The Fourth River, art and politics.
This is part 2 of a 2-part interview. Read part 1 here.
The Fourth River: The poem from Black Movie I keep rereading is “Scene: Portrait of a Black Boy with Flowers.” It’s like a still from a movie. You create a classical portrait, writing, “& he is not in a casket / nor do I say roses all around him / & mean a low blood tide.” I used to work at The Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama. In that museum hangs John George Brown’s Three for Five, a painting of a boy flower seller. When I first read your poem, I immediately remembered that painting. Throughout American visual art, we’ve had hundreds and hundreds of representations of white children as innocent and beautiful. Would you agree that the same can’t be said for representations of black children?
Danez Smith: It does take a Black eye to render us innocent and to render us beautiful the way we see ourselves. I think that’s why [the 2016 film] Moonlight was so refreshing for a lot of people. Just that first section with Little and how innocent and scared and curious he is about himself and about the world around him…Or [the 2012 film] Beasts of the Southern Wild. All these films that show Black children in innocent ways that we’re not allowed to see. The opposite of that seeing is what killed Tamir Rice. It’s looking a Black child and seeing a scary Black grown monster. It’s what makes Darren Wilson describe Michael Brown as a beast, as a monster, as this thing. It’s what “thing-a-fies” us, if I can make that a word. It’s what “monsterizes” us. It’s important for Black artists to not let our gaze be the White gaze. Sometimes we say something hard and true when we think about death, but it’s always important to talk about happiness and stillness and childhood and love and the beautiful things that we are sometimes seduced into ignoring.
TFR: I just read a short nonfiction essay by Alice Walker called “Looking for Zora.” Originally, Zora Neale Hurston’s grave was unmarked. Over the course of the essay, Walker buys Hurston a tombstone complete with name and epitaph. I connect that story to the type of honoring of the kids’ lives in “The Secret Garden in the Hood.” You list children’s names—Jonathan, Devon, Sharlenne. Why is naming important for you?
DS: There is power and a scary kind of justice and responsibility that comes in naming. Naming makes anything more personal. It’s easy to say that five people—five infidels—were killed and attacked today. It’s easy to say a number. But to put a name on someone is to put a soul on them. To say that the police shot a man today on whatever side of your city is passive, but to say Michael Brown was killed, to say Jamar Johnson was killed, to say Philando Castillo was killed, makes it harder to rub away. You can’t scrub off a name. A name sticks with you. A name stains your memory in a particular kind of way. That’s what I’m interested in. In poems, I’m interested in imprinting something there that is not easily shakable. That’s why I think you must name in your poems. It’s what makes the poem unbreakable. It’s easy to break down a thing you don’t name. I think when you name a thing, whether that be naming an actual person or naming your enemies or naming your loneliness or naming your joy or your sadness. When you name it, it makes it impossible to ignore. It makes it impossible to destroy.
TFR: I’m thinking about this idea of being specific. Sometimes, when you’re not specific in your poem, it can be co-opted.
DS: Poems are to be misunderstood. But my job as a poet is to keep you from misunderstanding anything I don’t want you to misunderstand. That’s why naming becomes important. I don’t want you to fuck this part of it up, and so I’m going to say exactly what I mean, and if you mess it up from there, it’s on you…There’s always going to be somebody dumb who can’t read instructions.
TFR: In a poem from [insert] boy, “Dancing (in bed) With White Men (with dreads),” a Black speaker sleeps with a white man and this relationship brings up conflicted thoughts within and memories like “playing with white barbies.” There’s a tension there, but I don’t feel in your work that your speakers are needing to apologize for anything. At the Divided Times event last night, we discussed being divided as a country. What about when a person is divided within his or her own mind? For instance, when someone is afraid to come out as gay, lesbian, or trans, or afraid to come out politically.
DS: I don’t apologize. I don’t have time for people that are scared. I roll with some real radical, funky, weird, queer, colorful motherfuckers. I ain’t really got time for the meek. That’s not who I associate with. We all come into ourselves on whatever timeline we may be on with whatever catalysts we may need for being our true selves. But I’ve been loud and bold and very much myself my whole life and don’t really do much hiding. I’m not scared to be a mess in public. I really don’t code-switch for anybody. I just use all the languages that are available to me. I wish them well, those people who are in whatever closets that they may be in, whether that’s related to queerness or gender, or not. I don’t understand the person who keeps their politics close to their breast especially when those politics might save somebody’s life. I don’t understand the quiet comrade or the meek ally or the bashful radical. I don’t think those things can coexist and still be true.
TFR: There’s a threat of losing funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). There’s a threat of, on a national level, losing a lot of our educational programs. On a micro level, there’s always a threat of art programs being cut. Would you speak on that topic?
DS: As far as funding goes, I believe in the arts in this country. I think education has always been under attack because there are forces in this country that would love a very dumb and unknowing population. It would make their dreams easier to manifest…I have even the most minute hope in Americans. As far as the National Endowment for the Arts—if it does go—I’d be sad to see a lot brilliant organizations lose their funding. I’m not really worried about the individual artist grants. That’s great. I got one, but the first time I was affected by the NEA wasn’t an individual grant, it was a program in my city that was able to fund some program that turned little Nezzy [Danez] out and freaked my little mind. It exposed me to something good and necessary and artistic and worthy that I wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. That’s what I think about when I think about the NEA. What play won’t get staged? What child won’t see a piece of art that might lead them on whatever their path is supposed to be? Cutting the arts is a tool for destruction. When you want to control your population, you cut the artist. You cut the things that make them think. You take funding away from the schools. You change the schools. You try to revise history. You take away the things that help people question. You limit the scope of their inquiry…NEA or not, we will continue to create.
Cedric Rudolph reads about religion, history, and 90s singer-songwriters in his spare time. He teaches writing to jail inmates through Chatham University’s Words Without Walls program, the same school at which he studies poetry and pedagogy.