The Church of a Better World

Suji Kwock Kim talks to Danez Smith on the eve of publishing their new book, Homie

SKK: How would you articulate what’s specifically ‘American’ about US poetry – keeping in mind all the limitations of that word – versus English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh poetry?

DS: I wish I had more of a handle on Scottish and Welsh poetry, but what UK poets definitely have on [Americans] is an appreciation for rhyme. Especially UK spoken word artists. Some of this comes from older ideas of poetry (and the ABAB format), but for younger BAME poets, their poetry is tied to grime and hip-hop, blending two worlds, high and low, underground poetics and music.

I’m seeing a lot of things. First books are first books, so we still see adolescent coming-of-age stories, but what’s beautiful about it now is that everybody’s allowed to write about their coming-of-age, not just straight white dudes. We’re getting all these different iterations of what childhood is, what life has been, for people who haven’t been able to speak into the zeitgeist before.

SKK: Did you see the recent National Endowment for the Arts report? Poetry reading has doubled among young readers, and grown by 76% among all readers, over the last five years.

DS: I think this has to do with how poets aren’t scared to consider their audiences anymore. There was a moment when poets started talking only to each other. Which maybe was an important act, but it shut off a reader who isn’t interested in scholarly work. There’s more room for accessible work these days. Work that blurs the line between spoken word and the literary realm, led by folks like Patricia Smith, Amiri Baraka, etc. I’m down with being a gateway poet for someone else. Maybe my accessible poems allow a reader to make their way to Phillip B Williams, or a book like Zong! We’re at a moment when we’re able to recognise the diversity of poetry, and our readers are benefitting. So they can read Rachel McKibbens and Rickey Laurentiis and Rudy Francisco and Safia Elhillo and Nate Marshall and Charif Shanahan and Shira Erlichman, and all these different kinds of work can be respected and loved.

SKK: For a while there, some poets and critics seemed too narrow and prescriptive, in terms of what they considered cutting-edge or ‘experimental’.

DS: What they considered experimental, and what people were just plain ‘allowed’ to do. You were talking with Kaveh [Akbar] earlier how there was this moment when some poets defined themselves by saying things like: ‘The “I” is dead! The “I” is dead!

What’s happening with the new generation is: the ‘I’ is dead? I didn’t know the ‘I’ is dead.

SKK: And which ‘I’?

DS: Exactly. Which ‘I’? I’m not dead, and the many folded people within my ‘I’ aren’t dead. We have some things to say!

I just try to operate from a place where we don’t have tofighttobetheoneintheroom,oroneofthefewin the room. There’s space for everybody. There are readers for all of us. There are so many ways to be a community. We don’t have to separate ourselves into schools. I’m not interested in only talking to folks who share my poetics. We’re only strengthened by our diversity. We can all be great in our own ways. The only value is gratitude, and joy.

SKK: Turning to the relation between the imagination and the infinite: which divine(s) speak most to you – God, love, desire, the mind, the body, the soul, the voice – and how does it / do they relate to your writing of poetry?

DS: This has changed a lot over the course of my life. I was in love with church when I was a kid, the choirs, the psalms. The first poets I knew were my pastors, growing up. The wave of spirit that would move through the church when the pastor would sing ‘My Soul is Anchored in the Lord.’ It was his go-to song, when we really needed a whoop-and- holler show. Seeing what it did to my mother and all the women in the church, jumping up and shouting and fainting, because of the rise and fall of the pastor’s voice.

Later on, I moved away from the church. The Baptist tradition I was raised in became volatile for me when I decided my queerness wasn’t going anywhere. There was no space for someone who lives the way I do. It became detrimental to me to try to serve God among God’s people, even when I kept God in my heart. But who am I to say my mother’s God isn’t real? What is your North Star leading you towards goodness? That is your God. God is your door to doing good.

Nowadays, I believe in the church of friendship and love and family. The church of community. The church of being there for folks. The church of checking in.

SKK: And of imagination.
DS: Exactly! The church of imagination.

SKK: Of dreaming of a possible world. A better world. Right here on earth, not in heaven.

DS: The church of a better world. Part of me is always talking to God in my poems. He’s the easiest one to turn to, but he’s not the only ‘divine’. I feel farther and farther from the Baptist God I was raised on, but I find myself rediscovering prayer. The divine has always been an important part of my work, even when I feel farthest from God.

When I think about what poetry does, poetry opens us up, and transforms us. That’s what I know to be God. God is transformation. Poetry is transformation. At its best, a poem is going to pick us up and leave us somewhere different.

SKK: Did you have any poetic influences that came from church, or slam?

DS: Definitely. Reverend McAfee at New Salem Baptist Church was a huge early influence. Def Poetry, especially Saul Williams. Remember that amazing moment when he’s in that prison yard reciting ‘Amethyst Rocks’? Shihan, who was my first favorite poet. He runs Da Poetry Lounge, a longstanding LA slam venue.

I came to poetry through slam and spoken word. I immediately recognised its power from church. The Reverend didn’t write his sermons just to babble to himself in an empty church, right? He wrote them for us. A poet would get up there, and do their thing, and get to that moment when the audience could no longer hold it in, when ecstasy spread through the room, so people had to get up, had to snap, had to holler. I feel lucky this was the way I came to poetry, because from the beginning, my understanding of poetry was based in community. Spoken word doesn’t happen in a room alone. It only happens when we’re together, when we celebrate each other. It’s about audience, about collaboration, propelling each other forward to do our best work. Slam doesn’t allow you to be stagnant. Spoken word necessitates interactions between people. You communicate: you have a community. I’ve never thought of artmaking as a lonely act. This has been foundational for my poetics. It’s been a blessing. Poems aren’t poems if they make people feel dead. I want people to feel alive, even if it’s alive with grief.

SKK: Was it strange to transition to a more academic setting, such as Wisconsin or Michigan [where Smith studied]?

DS: When I was in high school I read poetry, but all of it was antiquated and everyone was dead. I had a great professor in undergrad at Wisconsin, Amaud Johnson. He said to me in workshop one time: ‘Danez, are your poems only going to be good when you’re around?’ That really fucked me up! So I quickly got down to the business of figuring out how to make my poems good when I wasn’t around. I’ve learned a lot about putting the body into words that can make the jump from performance to page. It’s been a constant struggle.

SKK: Who were some of the teachers at Cave Canem who were important to you? [Cave Canem is an American non- profit organisation established in 1996 to remedy the under-representation of African American poets.]

DS: I always start with a shout-out to Phillip B Williams, who was my first Cave Canem mentor and roommate. Patricia Smith: I don’t know if I’d be here without her, or her work. Chris Abani, Tim Seibles, Claudia Rankine, Terrance [Hayes], especially Wind in a Box, Natasha [Trethewey], Toi [Derricotte], Cornelius [Eady], especially Brutal Imagination, Nikky Finney, Evie Shockley, Angela Jackson, especially ‘The Man with the White Liver’.

The beautiful thing about Cave Canem is that it feels like one big community. It creates a safe space so we can ask tough questions of ourselves and each other. You don’t just learn vertically, you learn horizontally. Meeting or re- meeting folks like Angel Nafis, Morgan Parker, Mahogany L Browne, Airea D Matthews. I walk alongside them, and I’m learning as we walk, and I’m grateful to be learning with and from them. Cave Canem has blessed me with this nourishment.

Another great mentor is this poet from Chicago named avery r young, who I think is American poetry’s best-kept secret. His work blends gospel and blues and poetry, so his poems are often sung. When he sang his poem about Emmett Till at Cave Canem, we had to take a 45-minute break.

SKK: Because everyone was weeping?

DS: Because everyone was weeping. We were unable to go on. We had to acknowledge it, and take a moment. We all cried, and summoned our gods, and made peace, and came back into the room and finished the reading. Every black poet in America is grateful to avery. Whenever you see avery perform, you feel God being called into the room.

We were talking about the divine earlier. Poetry isn’t just craft, which you can teach in a workshop, but a spiritual act, a prayer and spell, an ancient ritual.

SKK: It’s soul-making, in the end, something which is unique, and individual, and unrepeatable. And always in conversation with other souls.

DS: Poetry at its best utters something we didn’t know we could utter. Moments when I read a poem and think: I didn’t know we were allowed to say that out loud! Saying the unexpected or impossible thing. So, soul-making, yes, but also soul-confirming. Letting people know it can be said. Hoping someone can see my black, queer, loud- mouth work and recognise the worthiness in themselves.

SKK: What I love most in ‘summer, somewhere’ is the way you combine an extraordinary plainness of language with an extraordinary complexity of thought and feeling, and completely unexpected images and lines (‘the forest is a flock of boys’, ‘we plucked brothers from branches / unpeeled their naps from bark’, ‘dead is the safest i’ve ever been’). Rethinking the words we take for granted: boydeadalivegonenamelawhome.

DS: Plain-spokenness is a great tool. To say something plainly and to say the easy thing are two different acts. I often hope to say something plainly, to speak with clarity, so I can save the mystery for what counts. I want to leave no mystery here, in the language. The mystery is over there.

SKK: In human love or hatred, violence – whether physical, spiritual, or national – desire, mortality, the relation between the body and the divine…

DS: Everything. I want the mystery everywhere but the language. I love to mix registers, high lyric and colloquial, then cut with the simplest language straight to the heart of what I want to say.

SKK: Is there a difference in the text between the Chatto (UK) and Graywolf (US) editions of Don’t Call Us Dead?

DS: No, the text is the same. Originally, I sent two collections to Jeff [Shotts, at Graywolf], who suggested we merge the two. I thought one collection was very clearly about police brutality, race, black life in the US. The other collection was about my sexual history, queerness, diagnosis with HIV. But what Jeff saw was the through-line of mortality. How it was much more intertwined and complex than I was letting myself see, because I was trying to keep them separate. After the fusion, I wrote some new poems, such as ‘every day is a funeral & a miracle’, to create some glue, or connective tissue, between the two original books.

SKK: After you merged the two collections, did you have to cut poems, to make room?

DS: Definitely. There’s a whole book of poems I had to cut. There’s a poem I’ve been trying to shove down every book’s throat since [insert] boy! Maybe it’ll end up in the fourth book. Maybe I’ll release a collection of B-sides.

Once I’m at the book stage, I’m no longer tied to the individual poem. I’m trying to create the overall arc. If a poem doesn’t make the collection, it doesn’t make the collection, even if it’s my best poem. The original draft of Don’t Call Us Dead didn’t have ‘dear white america’, ‘dinosaurs in the hood’, or ‘you’re dead, america’. I was tied to this idea that I didn’t want a poem to appear in a chapbook and in a collection. But Jeff encouraged me to put them in, and I eventually came around to seeing the value of putting them in. I liked how that massive chunk of poem that is ‘dear white america’ comes right after ‘summer, somewhere’ —

SKK: With its couplets, and multiple sections, and the silence between sections —

DS: With those light couplets, and the setting in a kind of heaven. Then ‘dear white america’ slams it down to earth. It didn’t go viral right away. It blew up two years after it was posted on the internet. It became viral out of circumstance. It’s sad how relevant that poem continues to be.

SKK: It’s horrifying. But clearly the poem speaks to so many people.

How would you articulate the difference in the journey, or process, of putting together Homie versus Don’t Call Us Dead versus [insert] boy?

DS[insert] boy was the outgrowth of my senior thesis from undergrad, which I then kept working on. With Don’t Call Us Dead, I knew I was writing a book, or books, long before I had all the poems I needed for it.

With Homie, I didn’t know I was making a book. I was just making poems. They were written across a much greater expanse of time. One day I sat down and made piles of poems, to see which ones were talking to each other. I realised I had fifty pages about friendship, or kinship in some way. I thought: hmm, let’s lean into that. Let’s see what happens. It’s been a much different process.

There are moments when the transatlantic difference comes into play. Some of my black colloquialisms won’t fly here. Some of my references are too American.

SKK: Maybe you’ll need translations or subtitles in the UK. [Laughter] Are you still calling Homie My Nig, on the inside? Are you still investigating access to different kinds of language?

DS: I am! The book has become far less directly about language and access, but the idea still holds because while that double-titling speaks to having many varied audiences, Homie/My Nig, out of all my collections, is the least interested in entertaining or troubling the white gaze. This book was written in a language closest to how I speak, how I love, towards those for whom my love feels most boundless.

The other thing about Homie is that it’s so joyful, I didn’t know how to trust it.

SKK: But you’re very joyful, as a person!

DS: I am! I am a very joyful person. But I’m always thinking about balance. The thing Don’t Call Us Dead does more successfully than [insert] boy is maintain hope, even in the trenches of sorrow. I’m trying to lean towards hope, towards joy, even in the midst of darkness, and lean towards justice, even in the midst of chaos.

With Homie, what happens when you start with joy? Do you end there? It’s been a much different book to write. I kept feeling like I had to cut poems, that they’re too sentimental, they’re just relics of people I love. It’s been a much slower process, with all this cutting.

But I didn’t feel like I could write another Don’t Call Us Dead, not for a while. That came right on the heels of my diagnosis with HIV. I didn’t feel like I could dive that deep down into my own darknesses again, right away.

SKK: You needed a breather. And I find poems of joy are much harder to write than poems of sorrow.

DS: Exactly. I feel joy, but I have no idea how to write about it! Homie found its balance, but the brightness is still turned up. There’s some presence of HIV, but more time has passed, unlike in Don’t Call Us Dead, where the diagnosis is fresh. The character in Homie is thinking through what it means to live with HIV, and not feel death is imminent.

The urgency in this collection is love. It’s a book about friendship and kinship, with some poems investigating a close friend’s suicide a couple of years ago, my own suicidal thoughts at times in my life, the difficulties of having kinship across a black-white divide, what happens when kinship goes bad. It also thinks about the reasons why we come to poetry in the first place. Writing joy, writing to the people and places where your joy lives. It’s not to be celebrated, but to celebrate something else: our communities, our loves, our survivals. To rip down walls and build bridges. To dream of justice, and our better worlds.

Suji Kwock Kim is author of Notes from the Divided Country, which won the Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets and was shortlisted for the Griffin Prize. She is a 2020 Poet- in-Residence at the Wordsworth Trust.

Danez Smith is the author of Don’t Call Us Dead (Chatto, 2017), winner of the Forward Prize for Best Collection, the Midwest Booksellers Choice Award, and a finalist for the National Book Award. Their third collection, Homie, is out now from Chatto.