This Woodland Pattern interview series will document conversations between some of the writers, artists and performers who pass through Woodland Pattern and Milwaukee. Danez Smith read at Woodland Pattern on February 28, 2015 as part of Shift: Guest Curators from the LGBTQ Community. Below are excerpts from the reading as well as a conversation conducted in person with guest curator Freesia McKee before the reading.
Danez Smith, “Obey,” “my father gives a lecture on the power of good pussy,” “all spring we’d watch grandpa rub his knee and complain about rain,” and “Dinosaurs in the Hood,” recorded by Michael Wendt, Woodland Pattern, January 17, 2015
Freesia McKee: Okay, so before we talk about your book, I’m wondering if we could talk about the Hands Up Don’t Shoot edition of Winter Tangerine Review that you guest edited. I’d like to talk to you about the involvement of poets in the Black Lives Matter movement and how many people have pointed out that this isn’t a new movement; it’s a movement of hundreds of years. I’m wondering about your thoughts on how the role of poets and poetry is evolving in this current era of the movement where we’re at now.
Danez Smith: I think it’s important to recognize that poetry has a much broader reach than it ever has had the possibility to be. There’s X number of literary journals, YouTube has become a very interesting new thing for poetry, and we have the most literate society that we’ve ever lived in, so the ways in which poetry can come into contact with people is constant. It’s always up to whatever writer to think about the responsibility of a platform and having something to say.
Yes, poetry can have many different agendas. There’s a place for every type of poetry, no matter how frivolous—even if it’s just something like, “play with language,” because that’s something really political in its own way too. We have the ability to put the experience and the new types of knowledge into people’s hands with poetry when we’re talking specifically about the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Poetry can be a mourning, grieving, or celebration space for black folks and black poets. It also becomes a sounding board for continuing the conversation—a lot of what’s going on is just about keeping the conversation going towards realistic outcomes. As long as poetry is helping to sound off whatever the particular objective is, we’re doing our job.
It’s up to poets to keep writing and never be ashamed to share that. It’s how we change not only the canon, but our society, slowly but surely. It may feel like it’s a small chisel, but it’s a chisel, nonetheless. It’s an important role even though it can sometimes feel frivolous, or slow, or cathartic but not transformative at times. We need to keep looking for ways to support the movement—the movements—in more ways than just our writing, to become more active, writers that write about the world around them, but also take part in being active in it.
FM: Thanks. Of course, I also want to talk about [insert] boy (YesYes Books, 2014). I’m wondering about the importance of naming and being named. “Alternate Names for Black Boys” is one of the poems that open the book and then that poem is followed by, “For Black Boys.” You have this line: “whenever I open my mouth, ghosts raid/my poor tongue demanding names.”
DS: It’s important to name something so that nobody can confuse what you’re talking about. There are some things that can be left to the imagination or interpretation, but when we name stuff in our poetry, we’re saying “this is what it is,” you know? “This is exactly what I’m trying to hint at.” That is leaving less room for interpretation, taking that stance and not letting somebody else name something for you.
In the poem that you mentioned, “For Black Boys,” this idea of naming our ghosts is very important to me, and not just letting people become statistics or numbers in the background. When I’m talking about black death in the early part of the book—and a particular kind of black death—I’m not speaking to something anonymous, I’m speaking to people’s children, people that have already been named that should not be forgotten. Saying names, or claiming a thing, or putting a stake in it is a way for me to make the poems unmovable in what they’re trying to say. It’s a way of cementing it into the ground and letting it stand. Creating the strongest poetry possible for me includes naming.
FM: Totally. And ghosts came up so many times throughout the book in so many ways, along with god, along with, well, alive people and people who’ve died.
DS: Yeah, you mention god and I think it’s important to hold everything to that sort of reverence in the book. Everybody winds up being a god at some point in the book (laughs). You know, I’m a god at some point in there, all the boys are gods at some point in there, my grandma might be a god somewhere in there, cancer’s a god in the book. That goes into that naming: this power in the name of god to the point that some cultures won’t even spell it. There’s power in the naming of ourselves and of our people, and in our whatever-it-is that we’re either praising or damning.
To name that is to make a spell out of the poetry in a way. I don’t know, I’m weird and magical, I think there’s magic in everything, so if these poems are like incantations or curses, then they have to have the names, the specifics, in there.
FM: Definitely. And somewhere near the end of the book, you say “how could you call us gods” …
DS: Oh yeah, “how could they call us gods, what kind of god do you know that dies this easy …” Yeah, that’s an example of me getting sick of myself. There are things I love to do in my daily life, but then at the end of the day, at that point, I was like, uhh, no, we’re not gods actually. And that’s bringing it down to a bare bones humanness. On a lighter note, it’s also being real enough with yourself in that line to poke fun at your own poetry or get sick of it.
There’s another poem in the book called “I’ll Spare You Another Poem About My Mouth.” There are so many poems that are about my mouth in that damn book. Being able to disagree with yourself in the poem’s space is important too to provide a counter-approach to what even you have taken a firm stance in.
FM: I also want to talk about the healing attempt series in the book, and how in a way, many of the other poems are also about hurt and healing. That catharsis that’s either transformative (or maybe it doesn’t feel transformative, as you mentioned earlier) and confessional poetry, I think, to some of the Poetry Establishment is a bad thing. I’m wondering what your thoughts are about whether poetry has the power to heal, and if so, how?
DS: Saeed Jones just said it either on Facebook or in an interview (everything he does is brilliant whether it’s a tweet or a poem), he said, “poetry is not healing, good friends are healing, a night out with good music is healing, good sex is healing. Poetry is work.” And I take that to be true of my own work. What I took from that was for me, writing those poems is not actually healing. At a certain point, it was, especially when I was first discovering poetry. There’s some aspects that are healing when writing about it, but at the end of the day, it’s work and I’m trying to make a good poem. It might feel good to get it out there, but then I’ve got to make it better, and that’s not necessarily healing—that’s part of the grind—but I hope that the poem is going to be healing for somebody else.
For that series, whenever I heard about sexual assault or difficulties in the sex life that might expand from sexual assault or not, they never looked like me or they weren’t in my body. Less often they were male, less often they were black, and less often they were queer. And so really, those poems were important for me because they were poems that I hadn’t felt like I read. I think the real healing in it is that hopefully somebody else can read those poems and find their own healing.
I found a lot of healing through reading some of Aaron Smith’s work, or Jericho Brown’s work, or Carl Phillip’s work and watching them move through this black queer male psyche. And those are poems I found later, but when I needed to. Those poems were healing for me, and there’s this idea that I have to do other things to heal myself, but the poems where I might be getting out my own healing a little bit can go further for somebody else. And that’s not to say that poetry can’t be healing; I think that’s why a lot of us come to it.
And healing is work. It’s not just about the relief, it’s hard work and that’s why those are attempts and not totally successes (laughs).
FM: So of course, there’s a lot of religion in your work, and here’s a question: have you ever read any of your poems in a church?
DS: (laughs) Yes… But alternative used-to-be-a-church spaces.
Yeah, I don’t know if I can stand up in front of anybody’s congregation and say some of my poems. Well, some, maybe. I have what I call “nice” poems that are for my grandma because she always hears about how I have a book coming out and she’s like, “is it a nice book this time?” And I’m like, “No, it’s not a nice book, grandma” (laughs). I don’t know what her definition of “nice” is, but I have had a lot of people who are religious in Christian-type ways tell me how good my poems are for them. And I hope I can make my poems a little church … because I can’t go to church and do those poems.
FM: I want to ask: what are you reading right now?
DS: Right now, I’m reading and writing this essay on Amiri Baraka. I have his collected works, the new joint that just came out, S O S. It’s brilliant seeing how his mind was moving as his career waxed and waxed and waxed and waxed and waxed.
Last night I was reading Lucky Fish by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. I love her stuff. Just finished Ross Gay’s new book Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude. I joy wept on the plane several times and read this one poem called “Spoon” like twenty times over two days! And I’m hella Octavia Butler, reading a lot of Octavia Butler right now.
FM: I know there are a million and one answers to this question, but what poets should more people be reading?
DS: Hmm … more people should be reading … who aren’t folks reading? I don’t know, maybe they are. Fatimah Asghar. She’s a close friend of mine, but she’s also one of my favorite people to read. She’s brilliant in how she talks about identity and the identities of family and love and sex. She’s awesome and her language is really pushing too. I feel challenged by her work in the best ways.
Ocean Vuong, if people aren’t already reading him. Saeed Jones has that wonderful collection, but I feel like everybody’s read that now, maybe. And Marcelo Hernandez Castillo. He’s this poet who graduated from the Michigan MFA program and I’m obsessed with his work. Every time he has a new poem, I get so excited, and I can’t wait for him to have a book so I can read it. A lot.
FM: Do you want to talk about what you’re working on?
DS: Sure. I just got into two MFA programs. I think I’ve decided which one I’m going to, so I’m excited to spend the next two years working on something. And I just signed a contract for my second book. Sometime in 2017, my second manuscript will be coming out. The title’s in flux right now, but the core of it is about experiences with living with HIV, taking it through the first initial period at the seroconversion process and dealing with what that means. I’m excited for that one. I like that book a lot and there might be some other poems in there to mix it up.
Freesia McKee is a Milwaukee poet and nonprofit worker. Her writings have appeared in the Huffington Post, Outrider Review, Gertrude, Painted Bride Quarterly, and other venues. Freesia is a contributing writer to the PDXX Collective and volunteers in an ELL tutoring program with middle school students. Freesia has a BA in Gender and Women’s Studies from Warren Wilson College.
Danez Smith is the winner of a 2014 Ruth Lilly/Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. He is the author of [insert] boy (2014, YesYes Books). He is a Cave Canem, VONA, and McKnight Foundation Fellow. His writing has appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, Beloit Poetry Journal, Kinfolks, & elsewhere. He is a founding member of the multi-genre, multicultural collective Dark Noise. Danez placed second at the 2014 Individual World Poetry Slam. He holds a BA from UW-Madison where he was a First Wave Urban Arts Scholar. He lives in Minneapolis, MN.