#WritingWednesday Writing the Body with Danez Smith

Poetry, at its best, is our collective diary, not our best tool at saying what happened, but our best way of communicating how the happening felt.
— Danez Smith
Image by Hieu Minh Nguyen

Image by Hieu Minh Nguyen

Danez Smith is an African-American, H.I.V.-positive, genderqueer poet and speaker. Their poetry is volatile, spontaneous, passionate, unapologetic. Smith's work shines when spoken as slam or spoken word, but also work sing when read, elegant works of language that leap off the page. 

Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, Smith received an MFA from the University of Michigan. They authored two books, Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017), and [insert] boy (YesYes Books, 2014); two chapbooks,  hands on your knees (2013, Penmanship Books) and black movie (2015, Button Poetry); and have their work published in several magazines, online publications, and literary journals. Smith appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in February 2016. Smith is the winner of the Button Poetry Prize and the recipient of fellowships from the Poetry Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, and is a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow.

Smith is a founding member of Dark Noise collective, a nation-wide, multi-racial, multi-genre poetry collective, and is the co-host of the podcast VS with Franny Choi, funded by Poetry Foundation and Postloudness.

Smith has a rare talent for mapping the body and its authority onto the page.
— Dan Chiasson

One of the aspects of Smith's writing that I adore is how they demonstrate that the personal and particular is legitimate to write about, perform on stage,  and publish. Some of Smith's references go over my head, but that doesn't lessen my experience of their work. If I have to reach it is not a negative, it is how I enlarge my circle of understanding. It is not seen as problematic to read classic literature that will be entirely out of our realms of experience or to read about different geographies and cultures that we will never witness. Similrly, we shouldn't shy away from work that stretches us:

Source: Mic 50

Source: Mic 50

"My most annoyed thing from workshop in undergrad was somebody saying,'I don’t understand what this is' or 'I don’t know what this is, so you should take it out of the poem.' What that translates too is that you’re creating poems for the most middle-of-the-road, straight, white, Midwestern aesthetic of a person, which maybe poems do. But sometimes I write a poem, and it’s for fat, black, gay dudes who eat too much chicken on Friday. Whoever else shall gather in this poem and find themselves—or get a kick out of it: 'Sure, you come along, too.' But I wrote this with fat, black, gay dudes who eat too much chicken on Fridays in mind. And that’s who the hell this poem is for. We can’t shy away from that, because I think when we shy away from it that’s how poetry becomes bland and uninteresting. It doesn’t move the masses. There’s power in specificity. Once we try to make our poems for everybody is when we make our poems so wack, so damn wack. My book is for everybody, but I really hope there’s young, black, gay, or queer men that get this book in their hands. I wish I would have had this book when I was sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. I want this book to do for others what Jericho Brown’s Please did for me. I think every poem is for a somebody and the worst poems are for everybody." - Smith

 

 

a note on the body - Danez Smith

Danez Smith's back, the text is from Gravity by Angel Nafis; Source: http://tattoosday.blogspot.com/

Danez Smith's back, the text is from Gravity by Angel Nafis; Source: http://tattoosday.blogspot.com/

your body still your body

your arms still wing

your mouth still a gun

 

          you tragic, misfiring bird

 

you have all you need to be a hero

don’t save the world, save yourself

 

you worship too much & you worship too much

 

when prayer doesn’t work:      dance, fly, fire

 

this is your hardest scene

Source: behindthediva.tumblr.com/

Source: behindthediva.tumblr.com/

when you think the whole sad thing might end

 

but you live      oh, you live

 

everyday you wake you raise the dead

 

          everything you do is a miracle

From Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017) Copyright © 2017 by Danez Smith.

 

DanezSmith4.jpg

little prayer - Danez Smith

let ruin end here

 

let him find honey

where there was once a slaughter

 

let him enter the lion’s cage

& find a field of lilacs

 

let this be the healing

& if not   let it be

From Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017). Copyright © 2017 by Danez Smith. 

 

not an elegy for Mike Brown - Danez Smith

Source: inquisitr.com

Source: inquisitr.com

I am sick of writing this poem
but bring the boy. his new name

his same old body. ordinary, black
dead thing. bring him & we will mourn
until we forget what we are mourning

& isn’t that what being black is about?
not the joy of it, but the feeling

you get when you are looking
at your child, turn your head,
then, poof, no more child.

that feeling. that’s black.

\\

think: once, a white girl

was kidnapped & that’s the Trojan war.

later, up the block, Troy got shot
& that was Tuesday. are we not worthy

Image by Robert Cohen—Getty Images

Image by Robert Cohen—Getty Images

of a city of ash? of 1000 ships
launched because we are missed?

always, something deserves to be burned.
it’s never the right thing now a days.

I demand a war to bring the dead boy back
no matter what his name is this time.

I at least demand a song. a song will do just fine.

\\

look at what the lord has made.
above Missouri, sweet smoke.

Copyright © 2014 by Danez Smith. Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database

 

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& even the black guy’s profile reads ‘sorry, no black guys’ - Danez Smith

imagine a tulip, upon seeing a garden full of tulips, sheds its petals in disgust, prays some bee will bring its pollen to a rose bush. imagine shadows longing for a room with light in every direction. you look in the mirror & see a man you refuse to love. small child sleeping near Clorox, dreaming of soap suds & milk, if no one has told you, you are a beautiful & lovable & black & enough & so—you pretty you—am i.

From Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017) Copyright © 2017 by Danez Smith. 

 

 

 

This is a reprint of an interview Mic 50 had with Danez Smith, a profile of the next generation of leaders, innovators, and trailblazers:

What’s the role of a poet?

Image by Daniel Schaefer 

Image by Daniel Schaefer 

I write America down. My job is to live and pay attention to other people living around me in order to archive it for whoever may stumble upon it. It's the poet’s job to make sure there is a record of what it meant to live, love, fight, rebel and be in their brief time on earth. Or something like that.

What can poetry do that other modes of expression cannot?

I think, but I’m not sure, that poetry is the best way to archive the feeling or emotions of an era. Film can document, music can sing, fiction can tell the tale, but only through poetry have I gained a sense of what it meant to be alive in its most tender and vulnerable ways throughout history. Poetry, at its best, is our collective diary, not our best tool at saying what happened, but our best way of communicating how the happening felt.

What do you wish you knew at the beginning of your career?

I wish I knew "career" didn't mean "has to be done today." Every day is about showing up for tomorrow.

What major change or innovation makes you excited about the future?

To be real, the future sorta sucks. At least the one our collective imagining is leading to. It’s dry, like no water dry, and sad. I'm interested in ways in which can use the current state of "suck" in the world with the creative innovations in technology and within ourselves to imagine new, better futures. I feel like technology looks more like good science fiction every day. Most science fiction is either a utopia or a dystopia. I hope we can imagine ourselves into the former. And fast.

 

My job is to live and pay attention to other people living around me in order to archive it for whoever may stumble upon it. It’s the poet’s job to make sure there is a record of what it meant to live, love, fight, rebel and be in their brief time on Earth.
— Danez Smith

juxtaposing the black boy & the bullet - Danez Smith

one is hard & the other tried to be

Source: therumpus.net

Source: therumpus.net

          one is fast & the other was faster

                    one is loud & one is a song
                    with one note & endless rest
          
                     one’s whole life is a flash

        both spend their life
        trying to find a warmth to call home

both spark quite the debate,
some folks want to protect them/some think we should just get rid
                                      of the damn things all together.

Copyright © 2014 by Danez Smith. Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database

 

I think every poem is for a somebody and the worst poems are for everybody.
— Danez Smith
Source: behindthediva.tumblr.com/

Source: behindthediva.tumblr.com/

 

Your Turn

Smith reminds us to be personal and to be passionate. Pick something intimate to yourself. What is something that gets you fired up yet can disconnect you to the world whilst connecting you to individuals in it? This is your fuel for the week. The personal is always political, there is no escaping it. 

Read one of Smith's poems on this page, borrow one of their books from the library, or listen to a poem performed by Smith on YouTube. Then sit for 5 minutes and feel your body. Listen to what it has to say and how it intersects with the world. Our identities can be complex. Pick one as a lens from which to look through.

Set the clock for 25 minutes and write!

 

Further Reading and Sources:

Danez Smith's Website

Danez Smith Speaker / Poet Reel

New Yorker Review of Don't Call Us Dead

Mic 50 profile of Danez Smith with interview

The Rumpus Interview with Danez Smith

Poets.org Profile of Danez Smith

Whatever your aims, we can aid you in achieving your goals with our individualised approach and flexible sessions. Contact us: