Danez Smith: A Minneapolis-Based Wordsmith On The American Poetry Renaissance

“It’s not that poetry is dead. It’s that a kind of poetry is dead,” says 28-year-old poet Danez Smith, a clever response to the question that surfaces in mainstream media every few years: Is poetry dead?

“It’s a kind of poetry that’s dying,” Smith repeats before clarifying. “A poetry of privilege is dying, a poetry that says poems about our Black, our women, our queer, our brown lives aren’t real poetry.”

For the Minnesota-born writer, that specificity is key. The kind of poetry with “a lack of urgency, interested in reflecting a world that none of us actually live in” is fading, finally making room for what Smith calls “a new renaissance” taking place across the poetry landscape.

It’s a fresh viewpoint; a welcome alternative to an otherwise dull and unimaginative conversation about the uses for poetry in our contemporary world. The idea that poetry might be insignificant seems like a silly thing to even suggest to a poet with Smith’s list of accolades: 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow; winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry; fellowships through the Poetry Foundation and the McKnight Foundation—and most recently, a 2017 National Book Award Finalist for their newest collection of poetry, “Don’t Call Us Dead.”

Raised in historic Rondo, a majority-Black St. Paul neighborhood, the Minnesota-born Black, genderqueer poet, who goes by gender-neutral pronouns such as “they” and “them,” found the world of slam poetry and spoken word thrilling from a young age. It appealed to their competitive nature and background in theater—early signs of what has become a successful spoken-word career. While attending the University of Wisconsin as part of the university’s inaugural First Wave program—a hip-hop and spoken-word scholarship program—Smith began shifting their literary focus to the written word, soaking up the “validation and wild possibility” of writers like Carl Phillips, Jericho Brown, Tracy K. Smith and others.

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Fast-forward through seven poetry collections and countless poetry slam competitions, Smith is now a full-time poet with a packed tour schedule that has taken them across the globe. A two-time Individual World Poetry Slam finalist, Smith is known for delivering exceptionally compelling performances, leaving audiences captivated with a performance style as mesmerizing as the poem itself. Their poem, “Dear White America,” has been viewed on YouTube more than 300,000 times, a testament to their laser-sharp talent, both in language and performance.

Their most recent full-length collection, “Don’t Call Us Dead,” has been widely celebrated for its inventive approach to the experience of Blackness and queerness in the U.S., animating history and mortality. The title of the volume itself is an important declaration, a meaningful place from which to begin.

“That title is a way to automatically, from the very beginning, trouble the idea of what death is and what mortality is. I wanted to attempt some type of reclamation of grief, or build something beautiful for the lives of these people we’ve mourned so publicly and so digitally,” Smith explains, in reference to the series of recorded police shootings documented on social media. The book was a way for Smith to lean into the idea of Afro-pessimism—or, “the idea that Black people are always existing a couple moments away from death, or existing in constant fear of this oppressive, murderous country”—while rejecting it at the same time. The poems struggle with the reality of injustice and mortality for Black and queer people, reckoning with its weight while refusing hopelessness.

Unlike their other collections, “Don’t Call Us Dead” was the first time Smith began the writing process by making the conscious decision to write a full-length book of poetry—rather than piecing together a manuscript with poems written here and there. The completed text explores poetic form with rigor, mirroring the structure of sonnets and hip-hop verses and relying on the grace and power of lyrical, sound-inspired lines. The poems are also characterized by a mix of both formal and colloquial language, switching syntax and vocabulary seamlessly. With this collection, Smith wanted to dive into the “magical possibilities about what it means to take something back from death and continue a story beyond death. And also how Black folks, and queer folks and Blackqueer folks continue to live and live well, even while riding so close to that line.”

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“Don’t Call Us Dead” is a deeply personal reminder as well. “The book is just as much about my own mortality dealing with being H.I.V. positive,” the poet admits candidly. “When I first was diagnosed—and this is the state of mind a lot of the poems about H.I.V. exist in—I did kind of pronounce myself dead, even while I was still alive.” In the years since, Smith worked hard to make room for vulnerability and honesty around the daunting diagnosis, giving birth to incredible poems that add an intimate layer to the collection.

Smith’s sense of self is most wholly nurtured in their hometown of Minneapolis, where many of the matriarchs of their family still reside. As a full-time artist, the city’s uncharacteristically high amount of grant opportunities and arts funding make it a community rich with opportunity and inspiration. The city’s arts focus has given rise to publishing staples like Coffee House Press, Graywolf Press, and the famous Guthrie Theater. “Everybody and they mama in Minneapolis got a grant to support artistic work!” says Smith, chuckling over the phone. “That sort of support, even if it’s on the smallest of scales—knowing that your city has not only art, but artists, on its mind, is comforting.”

There’s a lightness in Smith’s voice when the conversation turns to Minneapolis, family and community. It’s the same visibly defiant joy that sneaks into Smith’s poems time and again, regardless of topic or tone.

Perhaps that’s part of their brilliance. “Joy is what tethers my work. And I know as long as I keep the arrow pointed towards joy, I can dive as deep into the darkness as I want to,” declares the poet. “I try to have that in my work: the idea that even in the worst of it—even when justice doesn’t feel possible, even when the self doesn’t feel possible—if you can hold out for joy, then maybe it will come.”

 

This piece originally appeared in ALIVE Issue 1, 2018. Purchase Issue 1 and become an ALIVE subscriber.

Photo credit: Attilio D’Agostino.

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