There’s something about experiencing a pandemic with 7.5 billion people that makes you brave enough to reach out to a Ruth Lilley Fellow and two-time Rustbelt Individual Champion, whose book has been featured on Good Morning America. When I first heard Danez Smith’s name, I knew it was synonymous with incredible talent by the way it rolled, casually but with a dash of worship, around my buddy’s tongue. It wasn’t until I encountered “dear white america” in a workshop that I truly started to grasp the dexterity and power and reach of this poet.
I’ve learned a lot since that workshop. Enough to feel a little intimidated by a presence even non-poets recognize. But, again, there’s something about isolation and global anxiety that makes you think a famous poet might want to have a conversation. And, really, I had nothing to fear. Yes, Danez is a powerhouse of ideas: they have won the frickin’ Lambda Literary Award. But they’re also the kind of person who, when I mentioned I’d received a devastating rejection just two minutes before our interview, was gracious enough to offer words of encouragement.
Barren Magazine: Based on watching your Button videos, reading your interviews, devouring your poetry, and following you on Twitter, you appear to be an extremely compassionate individual. This may be a silly question, but how are you? How are you responding to the world literally being on fire right now?
Danez Smith: I’m good. The last couple weeks have been sort of familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. I don’t think Black people are used to mourning and uprising and protesting the deaths of our community and our family members. I was tired and frustrated and angry, but I really started to feel hopeful somewhere in the middle of it. Hearing institutions and the city council saying things you pray for years that they would say, I actually started to imagine what it would be like to live in a city without cops. It started to give me a lot of energy and hope. So, I feel exhausted by a history of violence but hopeful because it seems like there are several abolition streaks becoming a reality.
BM: On Twitter recently, you mentioned possibly posting your newest essay – written in response to the protests surrounding George Floyd’s murder – making the essay free to all. It was, however, ultimately picked up by The New Yorker. And you called out Financial Times for sharing your work while maintaining a pay wall, which they ended up taking down. It seems accessible arts are important to you. I’m curious if it’s all art, some art, or maybe just art that provides powerful messages, such as “say it with your whole black mouth,” which is a direct reference to police brutality.
DS: Art should be, if not free, accessible to folks. In the current internet economy of reading articles, I really wasn’t interested in having my essay in a place where if you’ve already read three articles from that place that month, you’re assed out. When The New Yorker reached out, my immediate response was, if this will be behind a paywall, then no. But they’re not putting up a wall on any articles that are about either COVID or about uprising, so I was appreciative of that. A reader wouldn’t expect somebody to feel ambivalent, or even gleeful, about the burning of capitalism in a New Yorker article. And so I was interested in pushing it into that space because of, not only its wide reach, but because of who might encounter it.
I think we, as artists, have to think purposely about where art is. Where it’s reached. Where it’s going to be. If you say your art is for Black people, how does that piece of art find Black folks? If you say your art is for queer people, then where can you put it where queer people will find it?
We have to think about our poems as graffiti, as propaganda, as pamphlets. We have to use everything in our ability. I think that’s why I like Instagram poems or Tumblr poems or poems that are shared on Facebook. They can be so powerful because that avenue of publication allows us to push our own human urgency up against the urgency of the poem and not delay their connections.
BM: I see you’re collecting funds to provide Minneapolis with food, supplies, and even kids’ toys. Last I heard, you’d been able to raise over $50,000. That’s incredible! How did you settle on that course of action, and did you ever imagine a response like that?
DS: I saw one of my best friends, who has nowhere near the kind of following I have, post on her Instagram, “Send me money. I’m going to get supplies.” She ended up with close to $3,000, and I was like, “Oh crap!” I have a super huge Network, and I knew it could be a lot. What it turned into was over $70,000. The community has really showed up in amazing and beautiful ways. The money, for the first couple days, was going to be putting supplies in people’s hands: groceries, toys, and books. There was a community takeover of a hotel that turned into a shelter for folks experiencing homelessness. We’ve had a book drive for Black and brown kids throughout the city. It’s kind of too much money to spend on diapers and food, and places honestly don’t need me to show up with a U-Haul truck pulling that stuff. So, I’m looking at bigger donations to give to organizations invested in the long-term care of the community, as we imagine ourselves in a world without police. There’s been a lot of wage loss. Our young people are angry and not only need healing but need direction. How can we help our young people that also helps our community? How can we start to imagine long-term care? How can we reach each other that isn’t based in crisis but is based in practice? In short, I have a lot of money. It’s going to be a fund that is thinking about long-term mutual aid and the healing and organization of young people in the city for months and years to come.
BM: Your poetry is being wildly distributed during these charged times of global protests. Understandably, people find it inspiring. When you need inspiration, in writing or in life, whose poetry or prose do you reach for?
DS: Folks I reach for often are Patricia Smith, Morgan Parker, Nicole Sealey, Ross Gay…Lucille Clifton’s collected is my bible. Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Franny Choi…really everybody.
I think we are lucky to not only have a wide and diverse archive and canon to pull from, but it’s such a great day in American Poetry that folks from the masses down to the most emergent of folks are really working with some cool ideas and doing the poems in such divergent and imaginative ways. Whether it’s Cathy Park Hong or Paige Lewis, you can’t go wrong with the poems that are out there right now. I feel really lucky to be alive and reading poems right now because inspiration and complication comes at you from all directions.
BM: My personal favorite poem of yours is “dogs!” It begins with “scooby-doo was trying to tell us something when every time that monster mask got snatched off it was a greedy white dude,” which immediately drops the reader into the narrative. Is this pattern of American greed something you realized young, or did it take some time to sink in?
DS: I don’t know when I knew America was a greedy thing. Probably sometime young. I mean, I think I started becoming cognizant of what race meant around four years old. I remember turning to my mom one day – or the way she tells it – I turned to her after watching this commercial for Battleship, and I was like, “Mom, why does the Black kid always have to lose the game?”
About greed in capitalism, I’m not too sure when I realized. Growing up a fan of hip-hop, there was a glorification of capitalism, the shiny suits and chains and stuff like that. It’s hard to remain fully anti-capitalist in this society. I’d be lying if I said that I did not dream of comfort. But you do what you do. I think a lot of us, the second we get some money, we feel uncomfortable, so we start giving it away. And we help pull others up as we can. Paying folks’ fees for things, giving it on the low, or donating to orgs. Really putting your money where your mouth is, even if you don’t have that much money. So yeah, I don’t know when I really started to come into full consciousness of American greed. Maybe sometime in high school or college, reading some philosophers, thinking about the intense links between race and class. Article by article, poem by poem, lecture by lecture, I started to piece together what this thing of America really is.
BM: Children tend to harbor a lot of optimism and hope. How do you think they can maintain those feelings as they mature and learn about the white dude beneath the monster mask?
I think children have a rather untainted kind of optimism and hope, and I don’t know if it’s healthy to keep that as an adult. I think that’s a fantasy that some children have the privilege of holding onto for a long time that Black children, children of many different backgrounds, undocumented children…queer children even know it within their own families, even if they don’t really know what they are yet. I think it’s wrong that we would ever try to do our children the disservice of letting them hold onto this unfettered optimism. I think it is important to educate your child about the world they live in, so they can become someone who exists within it and not of it, and actually makes strides toward changing it. We’re trying to raise good people, not happy people. And I think if you do it right, you could find a way to let your child know that there’s a real world out there that it is a dangerous and sad world. That is a world that does not treat everybody equally. That is a world that does not treat everyone with the same care. That is not a world that parents us, but rather asks us to step up to the plate and use our energy and our resources to be there for other folks. That way they continue the fight. I don’t want to raise a happy and active person; I want to raise a hopeful, little marcher. That’s what I want. And in terms of what we do for children, it’s not to protect them from the realities of the world, but to give them the tools to reimagine it
BM: In “dogs!,” you also mention Sounder, which is a book about Black sharecroppers written by a white man. What are your thoughts on white writers telling the story of Black characters?
DS: It happens, right? If you want to write about any contemporary or modern world, people of different races exist. I don’t think it’s fair to ask any writer, of any race, to only write characters that are within their racial category. I think it takes a lot of hesitancy, care, patience, and self-criticality to write characters of different races well. Whether in fiction or essay or poem, I think we have to ask ourselves, especially in poetry, “How does this point back at myself? Who am I? How am I implicated in this work? Am I making mockery or light or fantasy of somebody else’s lived reality?” I think about the times in my life when I’ve written about people who share my identity markers but who are just not me. Writing about Black folks who have experienced police brutality, who were murdered by the police. Writing about those families. Writing about queer folks with HIV. Writing about anybody outside of myself. It takes care. You can’t write that stuff the same way you would write any confession or any autobiography. You approach it like you’re going to fuck it up, and you try to do that the least.
BM: There’s a letter circulating in response to Poetry Foundation’s lackluster statement that they “stand in solidarity with the Black community, and denounce injustice and systemic racism.” In the letter, many of Poetry Foundation’s fellows – including you – are asking for an inclusion of actionable steps and an actual commitment to improvement. I’ve seen other, smaller literary journals – ones without a $250M endowment – pledging anti-racism platforms, creating submission calls exclusively for Black and POC writers, and raising money for bailouts and relief funds. What are your thoughts on how the literary community is responding to the #BlackLivesMatter protests?
DS: It’s good to see those smaller journals and some of the larger institutions responding. I think what we’re seeing now is a particular kind of fed-upness. And I think we’re really asking ourselves, “How are we going to continue as writers fighting for this justice?” Also, how are you going to start treating Black writers correctly in this long story, fucked up thing that we call the literary community? All I think about actions is that you act. And you figure out what you, from your position with your resources, can do. Every journal, every institution, every person, is going to answer that question differently. The important part is that you answer and that you do it.
Yeah, the letter was just something for us as collaborators of the Poetry Foundation and a lot of Ruth Lilley fellows to put our foot down, and I think a lot of us realize we had been silent for a little bit too long. There are a lot of folks who have been out there making noise about the Poetry Foundation for a long time. Folks like J. Dodd, Vanessa Angelica Villarreal, Yanyi, and a whole bunch of other folks. I just want to take this opportunity to give props to those people for pushing folks, pushing us, pushing the foundation to reimagine themselves, to disband, whatever your calls to the foundation are. At the foundation, there’s a president there who just doesn’t need to be. The chair of the board needs to go. Honestly, there needs to be a lot of change. It’s ridiculous that there are not any practicing poets, outside of hobbyists, on the board right now. Why does the Poetry Foundation have a board that does not, in some way, mirror the Chancellors of the Academy of American Poetry? Why are some of our most important elders and thinkers and stakeholders not on the board of one of the largest foundations for poetry in the country? Yeah, it’s time for a long change.
There was a letter by Philip V. Williams about why he, as a Ruth Lilley Fellow, wouldn’t sign the petition. I felt called and pushed by Philip’s letter. There’s a lot of things in there that definitely resonate with me. There’s also things that I don’t agree with. I think it’s up to us, as folks who have benefited from the Poetry Foundation, to make amends with those who we might have hurt along the way or who might have been waiting for us to use our influence and the power of our voices that we’re only using now. It’s a chance for us, as a literary community, to say that we’re not going to replicate the ways in which the literary community has shown violence and a sense of discare toward each other for decades. I think it’s brilliant because we’re seeing a new age in poetry. There’s more people of color, more women, more queers getting respect, getting attention, being published in ways that we folks thirsted for for decades. I feel very lucky to come into poetry in a time when the presence of diverse voices feels unquestionable.
BM: In your PEN America interview, when asked how poets affect resistance movements, you said, “Poetry brings more feet to the march, begs them to stomp harder. Poetry is food, water, and electricity for movements that don’t take these stanzas as casual buildings, but as safe houses for the people and thoughts that make movements happen.” Could you expound on the idea of poetry acting as a safe house?
DS: Poetry, even just by its form and brevity, often provides a brief respite and an energy to folks that are in dark periods of their lives. I can think of many times that a poem has saved my life in real time, or at least steadied me enough to imagine me saving my life, or imagine continuing to do the work. Outside of long poems, poetry is often these brief, powerful flashes of humanity and truth and imagination. That is a safe house you can go to. A safe house is a transitory space. You’re not supposed to be there forever. You come, you’re cared for, you’re safe, then you continue on your journey. I think that’s what a poem can do. You come, you’re fed, you’re energized, and then from the poem, you keep going. Poetry doesn’t provide us with the long shelter of the novel. It provides us with its particular and abundant joy in only a couple lines.
BM: In your opinion, what are some examples of poetry that “make movements happen?” You mentioned that there were some that saved your life. Would you mind sharing which ones those are?
DS: The poem that literally saved my life is Erika Sanchez’ “Six Months after Contemplating Suicide.” I love that poem, and it really helped me when I was going through a very dark, suicidal time. I continue to return to Amiri Baraka’s work to be saved, to Lucille Clifton’s, to June Jordan’s. To Ilya Kaminski’s work to figure out what it is to love and also continue forth in times of revolution and injustice. I go to Angel Nafis’ work when I need to feel saved or when I need to hear a voice that sort of sounds like mine. I feel a lot of kinship with her work. Tarfia Faizullah, Airea D. Matthews, Rachel McKibbens, Jamaal May. These are all folks that I really love and admire, whose poetry encourages me when I need it.
BM: How do you anticipate your poetry being affected going forward?.
DS: What’s been going on right now has been going on forever. We’ll see.
BM: Barren Magazine has a submission call right now with an UNREST prompt. There are young poets responding to current events, and we want to be there for them as a platform. What advice do you have for these impassioned poets?
DS: Tell the truth. Tell the truth that you know. Don’t try to tell somebody else’s truth. Be vigilant. Be brave. And write with no apology.
BM: And my last question: What does your protest sign say?
One day, I just had a “DEFUND THE POLICE” sign. The first day, I had “POLICE ARE THE VIRUS.” “DEFUND THE POLICE,” “ABOLISH THE POLICE,” “ABOLISH WHITE SUPREMACY”…all those things. Every slogan, I’m probably down for.
For those who wish to donate to Danez Smith’s long-term mutual aid fund, please send money to the following handles: