comScore

Meet Danez Smith: St. Paul's internationally celebrated black, queer poet (and selfie icon)

Emily Utne

Emily Utne

It’s inked on Danez Smith’s inner right arm in handmade, all-caps letters, set vertically from up near their shoulder down to just above the crook of their elbow: fearless.

On their left arm—same font, same size, same placement—the word “limitless” appears. Tattoos that seem part description and part reminder. Because at just 30, Smith has already claimed a place in American poetry’s upper echelon thanks to work that’s fearless in its confrontations with truth and limitless in how it both embraces and upends form and tradition.

Smith and I first met in 2015—before they signed with Graywolf Press, before Don’t Call Us Dead was published and shortlisted for the National Book Award, before they became the youngest poet ever to win England’s prestigious Forward Prize. And before the publication of their widely anticipated and highly praised third collection, Homie —released January 21—which has already awed readers and critics alike.

“I’d like to invent or order up new adjectives to describe the startling originality and ambition of Smith’s work,” Parul Sehgal wrote in a rave New York Times review, calling Smith one of the most acclaimed poets of their generation. “I’d like to unwrap some brand-new words, oddly pronged words, to convey their wary intelligence and open heart.”

Here in Minnesota, friends who know Smith well touch on similar themes. Smith is simultaneously exceptional and normal—utterly uncommon yet down to earth. “It goes without saying that they are brilliant,” says Tish Jones, founder and executive director or TruArtSpeaks, who attended Central High School with Smith and was active with them in the early days of performance-based poetry.

Jan Mandell, the highly regarded St. Paul Central High School theater-arts teacher, shares similar sentiments. “Danez tells me everything—where they hurt, who they love,” she says. “Danez is not interested in being with anybody in an inauthentic way.” And they strive for excellence: “To Danez, writing is not something you do when you’re inspired. You do it because it’s your discipline; you write every day... I don’t know many people who have that kind of rigor and that kind of humanity.”

Emily Utne

Emily Utne

When we spoke last week, a few days in advance of Homie’s release, I said when I think of them, two adjectives come to mind: candid and fast. “You think fast and talk fast,” I remark. “You move fast and process fast, and this is probably unfair, but you seem to work fast too.”

“I would probably say I’m fast, but I wouldn’t be talking about how I work,” Smith replies, laughing.

“I feel like a very happy ghost that everybody has decided to see. And that is how I move through the world. I’m just grateful that people have decided to see me and my little ghost self. I feel like a ‘regular-degular’ ’90s kind of girl. And I just write my little poems and try to call my mama.”

“The poems,” they add, with a measure of seriousness, “are part of how I pay attention to the world. I’m happy to be a part of it. I don’t know how to describe myself. I like to teach. I like to write, and I like to dance. I’m normal, but I think I’m cute and funny.... That’s how I feel.”

The poet and the person

Fearlessness. Limitlessness. Brilliance. Transparency. Authenticity. Humanity.

I think about Smith’s poem “The 17-Year-Old & the Gay Bar,” a stunning work of art that’s simultaneously sacreligous and sanctified, offensive to those who view God in specific places, holy to those who know the divine is ubiquitous. It opens:

this gin-heavy heaven, blessed ground to think gay & mean we.

bless the fake id & the bouncer who knew

this need to be needed, to belong, to know how

a man taste full on vodka & free of sin. i know not which god to pray to.

Smith is Smith wherever they go, on the page, on the stage, IRL, and online. Especially on Twitter and Instagram, where they promote sex positivity and body positivity in ways that seem simultaneously automatic and intentional. “In the early days of the internet, I had a lot of folks who were like, ‘Hey, you might want to calm down a little bit of who you are or how you are,’” Smith says.

“I think from an early point, before I was considered Anybody’s Known Poet, I was like, you know what? If my poems can cuss and be nasty, if my poems can get fucked, if my poems can have their asses out, if my poems can have sex and I can’t, if my poems can be about sex work, but I can’t actually say that out loud, then what’s the point? Most of my [poetry] modes have been confessional or personal—even if it’s not me, there is skin in the game for me in everything I do. So, to me, I can just be real online.

“I suck dick in poems,” Smith continues. “And guess what, I suck dick in real life. Sometimes, I talk about that.”

From “a note on the phone app tells me how far i am from other men’s mouths”:

itemprop

headless horsehung horsemen gallop to my gate

dressed in pictures stolen off Google

 

men of every tribe mark their doors in blood

No Fats, No Fems, No Blacks, Sorry, Just A Preference :)

 

I’m offered eight mouths, three asses, & four dicks before i’m given

a name, i offer my body to pictures with eyes

itemprop

On Instragram, Smith is a master of selfies—everything from come-hither selifes to back-the-fuck-up selfies. Here they are at work, behind a microphone, or in more intimate settings, dressed for a night in or a night out, wearing a robe or a cheetah costume, topless or almost bottomless—drawers only.

Smith says this presence isn’t contrived; it’s important to them. “I’ve struggled with my body and with body image all my life, and it just became a way to check in on myself and actually feel good about myself. I don’t think it’s too intentional, but it is a public way to share the joy I’ve found in private. To look in the mirror and say I like what I see there and who I am there; I think it’s powerful.”

It’s not that sex was something that was shamed in Smith’s family or community. “People talked about it; people had it. But it was straight sex. It was not queer.”

“I don’t believe in that particular kind of respectability. People have sex; we can talk about it. People go to strip clubs; we can talk about it,” Smith says. “Blame it on Myspace—my morality went out the door a long time ago.”

Asked how they first took an interest in poems, Smith replies: “A lot of us were sort of tricked into writing poetry.”

Smith was enrolled in Jan Mandell’s St. Paul Central High theater class, and says it naturally lent itself toward poetry just as performative poetry was gaining national attention. Mandell brought in celebrated Minnesota-based black actors, playwrights, and directors: “She had Marion McClinton come through and work with us and folks like E.G. Bailey and Sha Cage. Who she had us working with—and the way theater manifested itself in that class—called for poetry.”

Timing played a role as well. Smith became interested in poetry during the rise of the HBO show Def Poetry Jam and during the early days of slam poetry. “So all of a sudden,” Smith says, “for us at least, poetry was exciting. There was poetry on TV… and it was all over Minneapolis too.”

Mandell says when Smith first came to class, Smith had so much energy, they spent some of it “rolling around on the floor.” But in the Black Box Theater, Central’s acclaimed performing-arts incubator, Smith “found a safe space and began to direct all that energy.” The class was designed to provide room for each student to create work based on their life story, and Smith’s work shined. “When someone speaks their truth, everyone rises to their level,” she says. “With Danez, it was never about ego or standing out, it was always about: Who can I bring along?”

Soon after Mandell’s class, Rock the Mic, the erstwhile Minneapolis-based performance poetry organization, started sending a team to Brave New Voices and the International Poetry Slam. Smith was involved from the beginning and went on to have an illustrious slam poetry career. They were an Individual World Poetry Slam finalist. They were twice named Rustbelt Individual Champion, and they were on the 2014 Championship team Sad Boy Supper Club with three other poetry superstars: Cameron Awkward-Rich, Hieu Minh Nyugen, and sam sax.

It all started here in the Twin Cities. “Poetry was happening in a very bright and abundant community all around the Cities from when I was 14 and 15 on,” Smith says.

Smith has maintained a strong connection to performative poetry, but during their time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, they began devoting more attention to written work. This increased interest in poems on the page came about in part when Amaud Jamaul Johnson, a Dorset and Pushcart Prize-winning professor and poet, asked, “Danez, are your poems only going to be good when you’re around to read them?”

“Poetry was, for me, a performative art,” Smith said. “So writing was a form of wanting to eventually get it to the stage. [Professor Johnson] was trying to make writers out of us. He wasn’t interested in perfecting us as performers or spoken-word artists. He didn’t shame that particular branch of poetry, but he was like, ‘Be about this work, about the page,’ and that shit shook me up.”

Smith began to think about writing with more curiosity, eventually studying Patricia Smith and Willie Perdomo and other poets who’d made a successful transition from the stage to the page.

“I think it was helpful to me to really think deeply about spoken word. But eventually, you just want to be a good poet and a good writer and a good maker of things—no matter what that is.”

The Written Work

Smith began to garner widespread attention for their written work with the publication of 2015’s [insert] boy, which established them as an urgent poetic voice for their compelling consideration of violence against black bodies.

In “THE BLACK BOY AND THE BULLET,” Smith writes:

one is hard & the other tries to be

one is fast & the other is faster

one is loud & one is a song

with one note & endless rest

one’s whole life is a flash

“I worked really hard on [insert] boy, and I realize that it’s complicated because my name started to be recognized more because of what I was writing about out of need and anger and protest,” Smith says of the outpouring of recognition. “The first time I felt in the national spotlight was for that work, but it was hard to feel like I had this rising star that was feeding off this elegiac mode or the death of these people.

“You’re happy to have your work recognized,” Smith continues, “but having work that was so personal also be the cause of attention like that means the applause comes with complications.”

After [insert] boy came 2017’s Don’t Call Us Dead, which was published by Minneapolis’ Graywolf Press to national and international praise. There was a glowing review by the New Yorker’s Dan Chiasson: “I hope this book brings fans of Smith’s astonishing performances, all readily available online, to the printed page.” The collection was shortlisted for the National Book Award, and Smith won the Forward Prize.

Speaking about the reaction to Don’t Call Us Dead, Smith says it was difficult.

“I mean, I’m a Minnesotan! It was exhilarating and frightening and all those things. I am very much a Leo. A Leo should never be given that kind of attention for a thing they did, because their egos can get out of control. It can be damaging for their egos too. You start to think—when is everybody going to realize that I’m a fraud, you know?”

To be clear: They’re not. I asked Douglas Kearney. Kearney, a Whiting Award-winning poet and performer, and an assistant professor of poetry and creative nonfiction at the University of Minnesota, says “[Smith’s] poems are rigorous. They reflect a keen composition. But there’s dirt in there, a kind that shines anyway.”

“So when we encounter the familiar in a Danez Smith poem,” Kearney says, “Danez doesn’t ‘elevate’ it because that would suggest it was somehow lower, lesser. What Danez does that strikes me is get at the capital-B beauty that Robin Coste Lewis talks about. It’s not pretty or delicate; there’s energy and pain, blood there—and heat. I find tenderness in them, too. When Danez leaps into the speculative—[the poem] ‘summer, somewhere’ for example—maybe they are the most tender, and I think that might be because that’s a world they build and not one they inherit.”

From “summer somewhere”:

there, my mother cried over me, open casket

 

but i wasn’t there. i was here,
by my own

water, singing a song i learned somewhere

 

south of somewhere worse.

now everywhere i am is

 

the center of everything. i must

be the lord of something.

“I knew I had wrote a good book,” Smith says. “I knew that when the last I was made lowercase and the last T was crossed that I did my thing. I poured my guts into that book. I think that’s all you can ask of yourself as a writer—that you surrender to the piece in a particular kind of way—and I knew I did that. I was grateful for the response to it, that the book was resonant or challenging or whatever it was for people, that it resonated with them in a particular way—I’m so grateful for that. The one hope I have for my work is that it’s useful. To feel the poems did a lot of work for folks or were of use, was more than I could ask for.”

Homie

Asked where Smith’s work fits within the modern American canon, Kearney summarizes it as “deeply fluent in its present—especially in the ways Danez writes about how physical intimacy is managed through what often amounts to vast and impersonal networks of connection. Erotics and exchange. The tension between that kind of logistical, algorithmic understructure and the precarity of how Black people and their bodies get moved and managed through large systems. I think those two elements slow grind in a lot of Danez’s poetry.

“These are long-held concerns,” he continues, “but the distance between the figurative and the literal swings over time and I’d say Danez recognizes that shit acutely. The body as a site of pleasure and danger is not abstract for them.”

Smith’s work, Kearney concludes, is where “that urgency meets parts of the tradition.”

Homie , Smith’s third full-length poetry book, was released Tuesday. It has already garnered high praise in Publisher’s Weekly, the Star Tribune, from Parul Sehgal at the New York Times, and in a reverential Brontez Purnell essay published in the journal Poetry.

Homie includes “how many of us have them” a poem that takes its title from the rap classic “Friends” by Whodini. A poem I still remember knocking me out in my kitchen, where I stood at the end of a long work day, jacket still on, stack of bills in one hand and Poetry magazine in the other, staring slack-jawed at lines and ideas like

...roast me. name me in the old ways, your shit-talk a river i wade, howling until it takes me.

i can’t stop laughing, more river wades

down my throat. could be drowning

could be becoming the water, could be

a baptism from the inside out.

 

don’t save me, i don’t wanna be saved.

Smith explains how Homie fits in conversation with their earlier work [insert] boy and Don’t Call Us Dead and their chapbook black movie.

“I think there’s this sort of thread of myself as a confessional elegist happening throughout those three books. I think I am checking in with myself at three different points within my 20s—and all the poems that held me in. I’m returning to these thoughts and often to the same memories across these books, thinking about what violence looked like as a young boy running around St. Paul. Every book is thinking through mortality in some way and thinking through intimacy. It’s thinking through what it’s like to be black on this particular land, thinking through all these things and assessing and checking in. The books are speaking to each other, but sometimes there are different threads.”

Of course, this presents the question: What’s next artistically?

“I also feel myself very naturally and slowly turning toward other things, other styles of being,” Smith says. “[The earlier poems] are closing off themselves, and I’m thinking, ‘I did that.’ Not to say they won’t also echo each other, but when I look up and see what I’ve been doing in poems [lately], it feels like a very different thing than Homie and the other two books all together.

“But that’s the work of the artist,” they conclude. “You can’t keep doing it the same way forever.”

Home

Through their art, Smith belongs to America and to the world. Their work is powerful and portable; they could live anywhere. Plenty of poets pick New York, or the Northeast.

So, why Minnesota?

“Because it’s the best place,” Smith says. “And even when it’s not the best place—because Minnesota often be trippin’—it’s the place, often, that I feel the most urgent sense of love and how to do it right.”

Here’s Smith’s “I’m Going Back to Minnesota Where Sadness Makes Sense,” first published in the summer 2015 issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review:

O California, don’t you know the sun is only a god

if you learn to starve for him? I’m bored with the ocean

 

I stood at the lip of it, dressed in down, praying for snow

I know, I’m strange, too much light makes me nervous

 

at least in this land where the trees always bear green.

I know something that doesn’t die can’t be beautiful.

 

Have you ever stood on a frozen lake, California?

The sun above you, the snow & stalled sea—a field of mirror

 

all demanding to be the sun too, everything around you

is light & it’s gorgeous & if you stay too long it will kill you

 

& it’s so sad, you know? You’re the only warm thing for miles

& the only thing that can’t shine.

Promoting the work and performing the work takes Smith away from home a lot. They estimate they traveled 150 days in 2019.

“And it’s sad, too. One of the things I’ve been telling myself is I want to slow down a lot, because with the constant traveling, sometimes I feel like I live here, but I’m not rooted here. One of my actual goals is to be more like a Minnesotan, like somebody who actually lives in the Twin Cities. I want to feel more rooted here in a deeper way, because this is the place where I think about things like how good people treat each other. And I’m not talking about your average Minnesotan, like ‘We’re so nice.’ I do think that, particularly among the black and immigrant population here, I have truly found great love, great friends, great people, great art. That’s the Minnesota I hold deep and dear.”

We run a few hypotheticals and explore alternatives, where they might go if they went anywhere and what might be different. “Every place is complicated, right? I mean, we live in America. There is no heaven for black people in America besides the place where we actively make it, and that’s always in danger of destruction from white supremacy. Because [white supremacy] is everywhere. It’s the institution America was founded on.”

Here in Minnesota, at least, there’s a uniquely high regard for the arts. “Minnesota is a great place to be an artist,” Smith says. “There is a reverence. Minnesota is a place where you can say, ‘I’m a dancer, I’m an artist, I’m a writer of some kind,’ and you’re met with a kind of reverence or respect. People here know that art is a thing that is necessary in order for people to live well.”

“Besides,” they add, “I’ve been an artist here my whole life. I used to go when Desdamona was hosting at the Blue Nile back in the day, sneaking in because I wasn’t actually 18-plus.

“This is the place where I learned to write poems.”

Danez Smith is the author of two chapbooks— hands on your knees (2013) and black movie (2016)—and three full-length poetry collections—[insert] Boy (2015), Don’t Call Us Dead (2017), and Homie , published January 21 by Graywolf Press. They will be appearing at Moon Palace Books for “Danez and the Homies” on Monday, January 27, and later this spring at the Parkway Theater as part of “This Movie Changed Me” (date TBD).