Criticism & Features


Small Press Spotlight: Danez Smith

By Rigoberto Gonzalez

[insert] boy, YesYes Books, 2014.

Danez Smith is the recipient of a 2014 Ruth Lilly & Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from Poetry Magazine & The Poetry Foundation. He is also the recipient of fellowships from the McKnight Foundation, Cave Canem, VONA, & elsewhere, and the author of the chapbook hands on ya knees (Penmanship Books, 2013). He holds a BA from UW-Madison, where he was a First Wave Urban Arts Scholar. He lives in Minneapolis, MN.

The opening pages of [insert] boy carry startling resonance given the current vocal protests against violence directed at black youth: “came out the womb obituary inscribed on the backside of your birth certificate… a cold black boy body is a prophecy fulfilled, you have always been a dying thing.” You name some important names (Sean Bell, Trayvon Martin), which in turn invokes more recent travesties (Michael Brown, John Crawford, Tamir Rice). The response on social media has been key in voicing the outcry, and one of those responses is poetry (#BlackPoetsSpeakOut). People usually ask what is the expectation of such expression, and that’s an important question. But I’m curious about the role of participation. What is the expectation of yourself as artist and citizen engaged with this (always) pressing issue?

Black people, and surely the people of any marginalized, systematic oppressed community, don’t have the privilege of being idle citizens. We often are not afforded the rights to fully realized citizen (life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, protection, service, equity, etc.). It feels like common sense to feel a need to be active & vocal in individual & communal ways if I have any desire to see a more liberated way of living for my kin and fellow folks. #BlackPoetsSpeakOut wouldn’t have been able to raise so quick if black artist across geography, time, and diaspora we’re not already creating work that seeks to elevate black life and dismantle that which threatens it. We had the songs, but Jonterri Gadson, Mahogany Browne, and the other Cave Canem fellows who lead that wave made us a choir. For myself, and I think many artist who you see actively producing work concerned with eroding traditional and contemporary American racism, there is an urgency in the work, it’s creation and it’s production, that is driven by a love for self, for family and friends mixed with a fear/anger/scorn/depression/deep down dark feeling for what America might decided to do next. For people writing the poems, marching, organizing, dying in, dying inside, troubling a line between peace and revolt, participation is not an option – participation, in whatever form it may take, is the only option.

Very quickly, the book queers the black body with the poem “Genesissy” and that takes the conversation into other important avenues, namely sexuality and the violence against queer black men. The line “ugly rumor begat the truth” speaks to the necessity to also make visible this particular experience. For the queer man of color, there is no separating race from sexuality, yet that is sometimes the case with social movements, even though there’s intersectionality in the groups that participate in them. Is the page one of the places in which such conversations can be mutually inclusive? How is your work part of a longer and larger conversation of writing simultaneously about blackness and queerness?

“Genesissy” come where it does in the book because I don’t want myself nor the reader to be able to separate the black boys from the black bois and gurls of the world. Though the poem is dedicated to two black trans woman, many queer men of color – including me – find message for themselves in that poem. I didn’t want to the narrative of straight black males being murdered to be the only black narrative in the first and last sections of the book, and in many ways I failed. Writing these poems made me question when queerness or race showed up. When I’m pulled over by the police for unexplainable reasons, it’s not because I am queer, at least not how I present my queerness. When I’m in bed with a black man, race is the farthest thing from mind. When I remember what America does to black bodies, it’s everything amplified.

On the page, I think it’s important to let a poem not do the work the work that another poem can. I had to learn not to overstuff my poems, trying to make them say everything instead of saying a single thing well. But want is important to me is to not take the identity of the author out. I’m not about the idea of “the speaker” in this collection. It’s me. It’s important that I wrote this. I queer man wrote those black poems. A black man wrote those queer poems. I want to move in the traditions of those of those communities, where they intersect and where they do not, but I also want them to reconcile whatever the have against one another in these poems, cause I have already reconciled with them. I mean I want to feel the tension between a judeo-christian southern blackness and a radical queerness in my body and my body of work, and sometimes I just want to let that tension fall and be free. I’m not sure how my work fits in, I’ll wait for a scholar to place me in a tradition of ____, but I in myself seek to build and learn from the work of Baldwin & Hemphill, the life of Bayard Rustin, to explore the glory & everydayness of being black and called sweet in America, while fighting for the space for it to exist free of worry.

Poems like “Mail,” “Craigslist Hook-ups,” “Dancing (in Bed) with White Men (in Dreads)” and the “10 Rentboy Commandments” piece make public the very private moments of intimacy in taboo relationships. They are fearless about leaving the window curtains drawn open, the lights on, and yet you manage to create very sympathetic characters of the young black men who find themselves in these sometimes devastating encounters. Why is it necessary to explore such situations and spaces on the page?           

When I read poets like Audre Lorde, Jericho Brown, Cynthia Cruz and Toi Derricotte, it reminds me of the necessity of writing down the stories and narrative that I have the agency and experience to write, less they appropriated and off-key in someone else’s hands. What we mark as “taboo” is reality for many, so the necessity to write what I know to be normal and what is queered by the world lies in the urge to normalize these stories of complicated desires and sex work. I’ve never been one for assimilation, it gives me the creeps, so I’m giving these experiences over to the page to expand the world until it can more adequately accommodate me. I also know that there is someone out there who can find themselves in these poems, who can seen and hopefully can see whatever redemption they seek possible through the work.

Although an early piece in the book warns “I am sorry I have no happy poems,” you actually close on more positive or affirming language in the last two poems—“Thank you for not fading to ash & memory./ Your existence is so kind.”—“Who says the grace of a black man is not perfect/ as a tusk in the sun or a single leaf taking its sweet time to the ground?” This creates an interesting arc in the book. By the end the black body is still facing danger but he perseveres. He understand his difficult position in the world a little better, not that that makes living within it any easier. When you reach out to queer youth on the stage or on the page, what do you hope they take away from your work? Can you share an anecdote about a particular response to your work?   

My hope to break down the separate between bodies queer and black by the end of the collection. In particular, I hope queer black youth and queer youth of color will fill full, more complete through these poems, hopefully able to find the joy in the midst of the madness we wade so gracefully and violent. Though the structure of the book seeks to section the boy into his (Oh, let’s just say he’s me) intersections and identity, it fails. You can’t divide the body without ruining it. I want youth, any reader, to see the different between damage and ruin. I have a manuscript in progress that more closely explores that through lenses of queers and illness. I think this is going to my lives work, to attempt and fail to breathe live into what is believe dead or destined to die too soon, to champion that which is more feared or shamed. I’m all about pride and celebrations at the end of the day, stigma and hatred have got to go.

Thanks to social media, I’m lucky to get to hear responses to my work a lot, for the good and the bad. I love getting to meet people in person who have been effected by my work in some way, makes me feel like I’m not just a crazy babbler locked in my room all day. I get to tour a lot, which means I also get a lot of this. Most of the time it’s pretty standard, but as few times, and one particular time, I get a black boi who just comes up to be crying and unable to even say something for a while. One boy/boi was so upset we had to talk a walk around the block and get some coffee to talk it out. It was overwhelming to know that my work could touch someone in that way, and it was beautiful to get to sit down with a brilliant mind and heart that was so moved. We talked my work, his work, about all our literary gods and heroes. I had a friend that day for sure.

[insert] boy is in perfect company with some other recent powerful titles (Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Saeed Jones’ Prelude to Bruise, Jericho Brown’s The New Testament)—indeed, this year was such an incredible display of synchronicity by the African American poetry community, though in many ways, these were the books that had to be written at this time. What other important issues are deserving of our attention at the moment and is there someone already doing that labor? Can you recommend a few more titles that we need to paying attention to? And why?

Until, in America, normal does not mean straight, white, Christian, male, and with a little money, until there is truly equity for all, until in other national reconciles and restores justice to their oppressed, there will always be a issues worth our attention. When it comes to the lives and value of black people in America, there are many doing the work across many sectors. In poetry, I look to local organizations like TruArt Speaks in Minneapolis, Kummba Lynx in Chicago or a number of local agents for poetry as it relates to justice as beacons for how make meaningful change in our communities. Artist/Intellectuals like Kristiana Colón and Dream Hampton who remind me every day that while creating work and writing essays are important, so is supporting people and doing action in real time is necessary.

Franny Choi’s debut Floating, Brilliant, Gone (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014) is beautiful in how it meditates on grief, but is fierce and sharp in its feminism and care for the Asian body. I’m really excited for two 2015 debuts, Morgan Parker’s Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night (Switchback Books) and Nate Marshall's Wild Hundreds (University of Pittsburgh Press). Parker is using some masterful craft to write these gospels of black womanhood across a wide emotional landscape, I’m always excited for her work and it’s unflinching honesty. Marshall’s debut, some of which is available in the chapbook Blood Percussion (Button Poetry, 2014), is a beautiful love song for his hometown of Chicago’s South Side and he is grand in his voice and skill. I look to all these fellow young poets and others as inspiration everyday. We’re not concerned with some of the opinion of poetry and it’s possibilities set forth by our staler ancestors. I see these new poets embracing braver heroes and really changing the landscape of what poetry can make possible.
Author Photo: Travis Chanter