Imagining Better Gods: An Interview with Danez Smith

Talking with Danez Smith is a lot like reading his poems: an engagement with a powerfully complex and circuitous mind that is always recalibrating ...

Talking with Danez Smith is a lot like reading his poems: an engagement with a powerfully complex and circuitous mind that is always recalibrating, revising, attempting to find the most truthful and specific way of describing his thoughts and experiences. There is constant energy of self-reflection, humor, love, conviction, and joy. His first full-length collection, [insert] boy, is proof of Smith’s commitment to examining and unravelling the stories we tell about ourselves and each other, and imagining how we can tell those stories differently. Throughout Smith’s work, there is a consciousness of the manifold ways that stories both shape and are shaped by structures of power, and a belief that telling new stories is essential to imagining a more just and joy-filled world. Smith’s lyric channels an avowedly spiritual impulse and fuses that impulse with an accounting of the speaker’s intersectional identities of race, class, gender, and sexuality, as well as familial, romantic, and friendship-kinship relations. In these poems there is a palpable tension between contrasting life forces—love and fear, life and death, the Apollonian and Dionysian—from which Smith’s lyric emerges and is heightened.

Smith’s accomplishments are remarkable for a poet still at the beginning of his career. At 26 years old, he has already received the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, as well as fellowships from the McKnight Foundation, Cave Canem, and VONA. After this interview took place, his collection [insert] boy won the Lambda Literary Award for Best Gay Poetry. In poetry slam he has been a two-time Rust Belt Poetry Slam Champion, a National Underground Poetry Individual Champion, an Individual World Poetry Slam Finalist, and the festival director for the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam. He is also a founding member of the multiracial, multi-genre Dark Noise Collective. His writing has appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, Beloit Poetry Journal, Kinfolks, and many other publications. He earned a BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was a First Wave Urban Arts Scholar. In fall 2015 he began his MFA at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Perhaps more than any other poet of his generation, Smith embodies the coming together of the worlds of literary poetry and spoken word, a convergence whose effects have yet to be fully seen or understood but that surely represents one of the most significant forces in the present and future of US poetry. In this interview, Smith moves from discussing his poetic craft and process to questions of faith, spirituality, politics, race, illness, and community. Smith’s experiences as a Black, queer, HIV-positive man are fundamental to the questions and obsessions of his poems. What emerges over the course of [insert] boy (and also in our conversation) is Smith’s expansive vision as a writer, thinker, and human being. I am moved and inspired by his belief in the power of imagination, storytelling, and poetry. In his words: “To imagine better gods helps us imagine ourselves as better people, and as better communities, and as better societies.”


Isaac Ginsberg Miller (IGM): I’d like to start out with the idea of intersectionality in your writing. In an interview with Lambda Literary you mentioned that Chris Walker, one of your professors at UW-Madison, taught you that “we should bring our whole selves to a piece we are creating, to not attempt to segregate any part of our being from another.” You said that, as a result, “When I’m creating, there is no difference between what is spiritual, religious, the sexual, racial, real, fantasy, joyous or tragic.” Your comment reminded me of something the scholar and film critic Sukhdev Sandhu said, writing about John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses, that it “suggests that stories normally seen through the lens of postcolonialism could just as easily be seen in existential or mythic terms. In doing so, it invites viewers to reflect on the labels by which history—especially diasporic history—is framed and categorized.”


Danez Smith (DS): I look at [insert] boy (and even how that title came about) as a miraculous book of little failures. There were a lot of things that I was attempting to do, and this is the best product I could get at the time. I think creating is often about that, the joyous little failures that happen. I still believe that I can’t segregate any part of myself. Something that a lot of folks say when they’re commenting on my poems, they’re like, “I love how your poems take me way up here one second and all of a sudden I’m way down here.” You know, there’s a lot of levels to the things. That comment about the mythic is interesting. I do see the writing of self-narrative as the writing of the myth of the self, these legends that we are making through the living. When I think about myths and legends: they’re cluttered. We look to Greek mythology because there’s so much there to dissect. We can allow the story of Pandora’s Box to be about one thing until it’s not. We still have scholars who are talking about these things. You know, weird shit that Hermes might have done back in the day or whatever the hell. And that goes not just for the Greek but also for African myths. With Chris Walker I did a lot of study of Yoruban culture and the Orishas and stuff like that, why we still look to them. Or even in the biblical sense… why we still study the Bible.

You know, this book is cluttered. There are too many ideas going on in here. These poems are also in conversation with all the poems that didn’t make the book, or that will be in the books to come, or the poems that I was too scared to write when I was writing this book. The sectioning is an attempt to best dissect that cluttering so that there can be some idea of a path to go through. It’s sort of my best attempt at having some kind of organizational order in it, but really these poems are just like… whose essay was I just reading? Christopher Soto’s essay “On Duende & Death Culture.” The idea that the poems are that loud shout that you’re making into the darkness. I was trying to make sense of all this chaos that I was attempting to handle in the book. And also in that chaos trying to be strategic about where I let joy come through, because joy is always there, just sometimes it’s louder than other times.


IGM: Can you say more about the presence of joy?


DS: A lot of these poems deal with trauma or oppression, and I think about oppression as the suppression of joy. When I think about oppressing Black people, systems of racism, at their root, they’re intended to keep people of color from being able to fully experience untinged joy. That’s even a phrase I think I use in the book at one point, when I’m talking about my grandfather: untinged joy. Like, what does joy look like when it’s not because of the absence of something else? Oftentimes when I experience joy, it’s radical, in the sense that it’s joy in spite of something else: joy in spite of the sorrow, in spite of the sadness, the fight, the struggle, whatever. So I think joy is always the underlying thing in these poems. Sometimes joy gets to sing a little bit further through and we understand that, “oh, this is a joyous poem,” it’s anthemic in some ways. But even in the saddest poems I think there’s an underlying idea that the absence of joy is still talking about joy in some type of way. When I talk about trauma, I’m really saying: “Why the fuck won’t you let me have joy? Why won’t you let me be? Let me live.” Which is some colloquial shit that we say as urban and colored folks: “Let me be. Let me be me. I’m grown.” All these sorts of things are attempts at saying: “Let me have joy.” Let me just worry about that.


IGM: I’m really struck by the idea of this being a book of little failures, because it certainly doesn’t appear that way to me as a reader. It feels like a very thorough and intentional book in the way that you organized it.


DS: When I say “little failures,” it’s not a bad thing in my head. I think of art-making as a process of trial and error, and so even in those failures there’s something to showcase or something to be proud of. Every time we come to the page or to the studio space to do work, we’re trying out an idea, we’re trying to flesh something out. And we fail and we fail and we fail, especially when we have a goal in mind, just to figure out what the thing can be. So even when I say little failures, there’s some good there. Also, I say little failures just because I went into some of these projects with something in mind of exactly what I wanted it to be and it became a complete other beast. Or through the process the poem revealed itself to want to live in a different form.


IGM: Can you talk about what you learned from your long poem “Song of the Wreckage” that you’re taking forward into your new book?


DS: Yeah, so I think what I was trying to do is evidenced in the last section of “Song of the Wreckage,” where the black boys are turning into gods:


Let them cypher until their song is the new sun,

give them a joint & let them build a world from smoke.

Let them build a black boy’s world. Rhythm to replace time,

water free of the blood’s salt, peaches where there was once fire,

watch the boy gods care for the dark child they raised

from nothingness, how it started black & ends black.


I was trying to create this mythical land, which is what I’m working on in this long poem, which is called “summer, somewhere,” an excerpt of which will be published in the January 2016 issue of Poetry. Basically what I realized, and this is referring back to the first question too… In “Song of the Wreckage,” I was trying to make a myth while still holding on too much to the existing world. In this new poem I just start with the mythical. The new poem is an imagined afterlife or paradise for Black men who have been murdered. The difference is that instead of trying to start in the real world and work our way into the myth, I start in the myth. I reference the real world and the poem is trying to comment on race and American racism and colonial Western racism in some real ways. But it just starts within the mythical space, within the magical space. It embraces the magic, which is something I’ve been trying to do in my personal life too, just embrace the mysticism of everything and stop trying to make it fit into a “real world” construct. For that poem, I’m just like “fuckit: let’s start with the crazy shit.” Everything is a Black boy in this world, including that tree. You know, we’re gonna deal with that. In this new poem I can comment on my lived reality but write into the myth, honestly, first, before I try to do too much about the other world, the real world.


IGM: I want to ask about the role of spirituality in your work. [insert] boy seems to be a profoundly spiritual book, so many of your poems speak of a relationship to God or the divine. I’m thinking in particular of the poem “Genesissy,” which begins where the Bible’s seven days of creation leave off. The God of this poem seems very much to be a Black queer God. The poem is dedicated to the death of two Black trans women, Dwayne “Gully Queen” Jones and Islan Nettles. The poem’s final lines question how God can allow evil to exist, in this case in the murder of these two women: “the aunt’s disgusted head shake / begat the world that killed / the not a boy-child / & stole her favorite dress / right off her cold shimmering body / & that can’t come from God right?” Can you talk about these poems’ relationship to spirituality?


DS: Well, for one, I do believe that there is a Black queer God, because we are created in God’s image, so that means that somewhere in the sky God is a Black faggot with a whole bunch of tattoos. And is also all the other things that we are, right? God has to look a mess. [laughing] God looks a mess! It’s sort of the same thing that we were talking about earlier: the poems’ relationship to spirituality is through my relationship to spirituality. The speaker is very much me, in many, if not all, of these poems. My first language was a language of spirituality. I was raised in the church. I come from a religious family where my mom and my grandma very much cared about God and didn’t miss a Sunday and were talking about it in the home, so that was my first language. That was the first community that I understood I was a part of, at three and four years old. So that’s engrained in who I am. If you don’t like spirituality then you shouldn’t buy any more of the books that I’m gonna write in my life. Because it’s always there. This next book has a shit-ton of spirituality in it. I have this ever-evolving, long-distance, polyamorous relationship with Jesus.


IGM: Could you say a little more about the performance version of “Genesissy?” Because I think in the erasure of the hymn that you sing there’s a point where you say “I battle / God.” It seems that the relationship to God in this book is a fraught one, that there are moments of struggle as well as joy.


DS: Yeah, because I think it’s important to recognize that. You know, a relationship with God does not always mean that it’s positive. The book tries not to ignore that, because it has to be a fraught relationship with God. For me, when I’m talking about a Christian God, our critiques of God have to be critiques of the Church. Because if I am to believe that God is who he is and that the church is a representation of God then I have to critique God’s people and what they’re doing and how they are carrying out his name. Especially in relationship to queerness and colonialism and all these things that are done in the name of Christ the Lord. In America, One Nation under a Christian God that murders Black people senselessly and incarcerates them in incredibly mind-shattering numbers. I have to critique God for that. I’m not interested in an inactive God, so I demand a lot out of him and I demand better of him, and by extension his people and his worshippers and his followers and institutions that are built upon his name.


IGM: I find it fascinating how you’re describing this polyamorous relationship with God and the multiple facets of God. That’s also a central aspect of this book, that God appears in so many different forms. For example, in “Healing: Attempt #2,” it says, “I pray to each God I know.” Could you talk more about the unity and multiplicity of God?


DS: I think that in terms of God as a concept, there’s a reason that we’ve created Gods throughout our time. As humans it feels almost instinctual and in our DNA to worship something. This idea of God has manifested itself so many times across so many cultures. There’s reasons why there are different myths that look the same in a lot of different cultures. Sometimes I think we have a common thing. Maybe it’s just because we have a limited number of things to make gods out of. In terms of my God, most likely when I’m talking about God, I’m talking about a Judeo-Christian God. But also I recognize the multiplicity of that comes from recognizing the power of all these other gods that have existed, or that exist. And I think part of my personal faith is accepting that any of those might be right, because I mean, my family worships a book that some dude sat in a room and edited. And I’m supposed to accept that. And that’s cool. You know, I love the Bible. I love Jesus, that’s my homie. But I have to believe that if there is some afterlife or some greater power, then that power would allow many different paths to come to it. If Jesus is the only door, then I’m not necessarily sure I want to go through. But the many gods of how we connect as people, I think I accept a lot of those. I don’t know, is that Unitarian? Is that what those people do? Maybe I’m Unitarian [laughing].


IGM: In “Poems In Which One Black Man Holds Another,” you have the line “I believe God wasn’t real until we made him so.” It sounds like part of your poetic project is about that—the idea of creating God and creating a relationship to God.


DS: I believe in God, but God only has as much power as we give Him. I’ve been having a lot of conversations with friends and family about atheism. That’s the exact opposite of what I believe. I believe in too many gods. There’s another kind of power in us not being able to wrap our heads around, “How can anyone not believe in God?” But it’s what you have the power to do, to deny that. To imagine better gods helps us imagine ourselves as better people, and as better communities, and as better societies. We have to imagine a greater thing that we worship. [To himself] That’s radical. That’s radical, Danez. [laughing] That’s a thought. I’m gonna marinate on that.


IGM: I want to ask about the relationship between the political and the aesthetic. I read a quote by you that said: “Poetry can and has been used to fight, celebrate, heal, to love, to bury, to resurrect, start wars, end wars, keep the fires burning.” Do you believe that poetry has a responsibility to be political? What do you say to those who consider art and politics to be incommensurable?


DS: I think poetry is inherently political. Even the most apolitical poem. There’s a politics behind being apolitical. We can’t run from the politics. It’s that same phrase, “the personal is political, the political is personal.” That has to be true. I think there’s a responsibility for us to talk about injustices and to not shut up about those things but I also think it’s important for art to imagine the next step, the better, the possibility of the tomorrow of it all, as well. And also to warn of the possible destruction of it all. Especially in my work, something’s always burning down and something’s always growing from the dust. That’s important, for us to both dismantle and reconstruct in poetry. I think that’s an enormous responsibility. I think poets from marginalized backgrounds feel that the most. I’ve had a lot of conversations… I’ve heard it all: people wanting to be more political, people wanting to be less political, people wanting to be able to be political without being pigeon-holed into being “political poets.” I often see that in the ways that my work is talked about too: “Danez Smith talks about Black death.” And I’m like yeah, that’s a topic, but that’s not it. What is actually a poem about joy or some more complex feeling just becomes the poem about the dead Black boy. Long story short, to anyone who finds poetry and politics to be incommensurable I say: “Shut the fuck up.” Stop being dumb and let people do the work that is necessary. Thanks for being over there, I will see you never [laughing]. Good luck writing your super boring shit and adding nothing to this world besides crap.


IGM: I’m curious how you’ve negotiated writing about family. That has been a recurring topic of conversation with many writers that I know, asking each other: “How do you do that? What does that look like?” Would you be willing to share your experience?


DS: Yeah. Never show them your poems. That’s my suggestion. Never, ever show them your poems. I don’t know, my family has been interesting. It’s weird, because I love my family. When I write about them I try to balance the moments of joy outnumbering the terrible shit. Alright, “Let’s write so much about how much we love them and then let these five lines be complicated. Let these five lines hit at something else.” Especially with my grandfather in the book. At my book release my grandma and my aunt had a pretty strong reaction to me writing about our father, husband, grandfather in a way that wasn’t blindly praising him. He was a good dude. He was also a man of the 1960s in a lot of ways, and a man who learned some really terrible, poisonous, violent, patriarchal ways to be a man in an age when it was super easy to learn that and where there weren’t a lot of counter-narratives about being better to women and to society. I can’t ignore that. That’s a manhood that a lot of families know. That’s a patriarch that a lot of families know and still love, but it’s harder for folks to see themselves in that light. I think my grandma especially, which I feel bad about, just because I’m pretty sure she doesn’t want to relive her trauma. And so me writing about it is super weird and probably fucked up, but it also felt important for me to write about it personally, because the violence in your family is your violence and is your lived experience. And so, for selfish reasons, I put that work out there and wrote those poems. But my family is super complicated in other ways. I have family members who’d rather that I don’t talk about being queer out loud or about being HIV-positive out loud, but I do. So I think there comes a certain point where you just have to chuck the deuce to your family’s concerns about the work. And that line is always murky. It just comes down to: “When and when not?” And I think it has to be a personal judgment call. Later on I’m not sure I always make the best choices, but in the moment they feel like the right thing to do, and maybe that’s important.


IGM: In writing about your grandfather, it seems like there’s a theme of the speaker caring for the body of a man who hates the speaker’s relation to other men’s bodies.


DS: I think it’s me talking to myself. My grandfather never knew I was queer before he passed away. He might have had his ideas, but I never actively came out the closet to him. We didn’t talk about it, we just talked about women. And yeah, I knew he was super homophobic so I kinda already knew what he might have said about it. It was even a thing of my mom saying, “Don’t tell grandpa. Please don’t do it.” The little family secrets that we all still have… That I write about, and then just keep people away from the books (and off the internet). So that was a lot of me reconciling with myself, I think, and talking about his body but also talking about his misogyny and homophobia and stuff like that. But also to engage his body in ways that felt real. Not erotic, but sensual. How we engage with the bodies of our ancestors, especially in sickness. Like there’s the poem “Shit,” where I’m cleaning my grandfather in his last couple days and those moments feel real, negotiating the male body in those ways. Especially negotiating his body in ways that he never would have negotiated it until he had no other choice but to let another man touch him there.


IGM: Thinking about the ways that an illness or medical condition can affect personal identity, have you felt since learning that you are HIV-positive that there are changes in how you act in the world?


DS: I think so. Mortality used to be something that I could talk about very loosely, but now it has very real implications for me. And also the way I live my life, sort of a caution and a fearlessness that I’ve gained with it. Caution in terms of wanting to live longer and wanting to take care of myself but also a fearlessness in being like, “All right, this is a thing that is typically seen as a marked death so now I want to live my life forward.” If I now know that a thing that can possibly kill me is within me then let me go ahead and just live the way that I’m trying to fucking live and not be scared of shit. Let me just do it. Because I might not be able to do it. So yeah, it’s made me more alive, in a lot of ways.


IGM: How has that affected your writing?


DS: Well it’s definitely a topic in the writing. I think maybe the range of joy and sorrow has gotten that much wider. Now it’s some real sorrow but also some pretty unbridled joy that’s coming through in the writing and also in my life. More intense sorrow because I think being able to touch death a little easier makes that sorrow a little deeper, and being able to touch death a little easier makes the moments when you’re not touching death that much more joy-filled. And even now, finding joy in mortality, which is a newer conversation in the last couple weeks that I’ve been having with myself: “Where is the beauty in passing on?”


IGM: Can you speak about the role of community in your writing practice? In particular, your involvement in the Dark Noise Collective, and how that has affected your work.


DS: Community has always been a part of my work. Especially coming into poetry as a youth through spoken word, and things like Brave New Voices. Even before that my first love in terms of art-making was theater, and so -from the beginning- art has always been about collaboration for me, and has not been possible outside of community. I mourn for poets who are coming from the opposite end where they write in seclusion for so many years and then come into a writing community. I’ve never not had a writing community. I’ve never not had an art-making community. And so art equals collaboration for me, at all times. I’m collaborating with something, either my nostalgia for other people, my lived experiences with other people, or the actual art-making process with other people. With Dark Noise, it’s powerful to have this active community, an intentional community. To have those folks who are still at the emerging stage of writing with each other is very powerful. Folks do a lot of stuff in different genres, but we all come back to poetry. It’s great having a crew to experience the murk of this emerging stuff with, that also care about the world in similar ways that I do. It’s beautiful and necessary. I’m grateful for it. I’m also part of this group called Sad Boy Supper Club, which is me, Sam Sax, Hieu Nguyen, and Cam Awkward-Rich. Which is kind of accidental, we’re just some friends that became a slam team and had a name and it was like, “OK, cool.


IGM: How do you see the internet affecting your poetry? Since your poems exist over multiple social media platforms, including YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, how do you feel about that relationship? Is it an entirely positive one or are there downsides to it as well?


DS: I don’t know. Sometimes it’s weird. Especially for more personal work. To just be like, “Look how many retweets my trauma has. Look how many people have watched me cry on YouTube.” I think that can get weird, but it also comes with just being an artist. You have to be okay with putting it out there and with it staying out there. I think it’s a little bit easier nowadays to be reminded that people are engaging with the work. Before the age of Twitter, you would just write your book and I guess people had to write you letters, if they were so inclined, so that you would know that they read it. I can search my name on Twitter and see how many people have said something about me, which is weird. It can be interesting and it can also be detrimental because I think there have been times when I’ve been like, “Okay Danez, you need to stop looking at what people are saying on this YouTube video.” Just calm down. Calm down. Especially during times of flare-ups, especially with Black Lives Matter, that whole movement (I hate the fact that we have to call Black Lives Matter a movement, because we should just always matter). The last couple months it’s been interesting to see how my work has been there for people, how certain poems get shared a lot. I don’t know what I necessarily feel about that. It’s nice to know that the work is able to be there for people when they need it and that it does have an effect on folks.


IGM: So speaking of having an effect on folks, I’d like to ask you about the influence of Jericho Brown. You posted on Facebook recently about how your copy of Jericho’s book Please finally gave out after what, like six years?


DS: Yeah, I put that book through a lot. I think Jericho was the first person I read that talked about Black queer masculinity in a way that I felt seen in the work. In some powerful ways. Even with James Baldwin… Baldwin was talking about Black male queerness, but it was often in relation to white men. And Langston talked about it in some really masked ways. So I found Jericho before I found, like, Essex Hemphill. But when I found Please I was just like, “This is my life! On the page. What do I do with this?” You know, I loved a lot of other folks but I had never read a Black queer male author who I felt like was talking to me. I felt like that’s what some Black women feel when they read Toni Morrison. I love Toni Morrison, but when you hear some people’s reaction to like a Sula or The Bluest Eye, and like, “That was me on the page,” I had never been able to have that moment. I’d been able to have something close to that moment by recognizing certain people half-way, like some Black male characters, but they weren’t really queer in that way, and then [claps his hands]: there were Jericho’s poems! It opened so much. It was like reading my own diary. The New Testament is still like that. I don’t know where my work would be without Jericho Brown and what he’s done. We got lunch yesterday. He was like, “What are you doing? Come to lunch with me.” And I was like, “You’re Jericho Brown!”


IGM: How do you feel that the field of poetry is shifting? Particularly around who is writing and receiving recognition in terms of race, class, gender, and sexuality. How do you see it shifting and how do you want to see it shift?


DS: It’s shifting a lot. It’s not a good-old-boys club anymore. It’s not just white males being rewarded for being white males and writing about, you know, pastures. I think we see that with a lot of the book award nominations and wins and even a lot of these fellowships. They’re going to a more diverse group of poets. There’s more of a presence of Black authors, of Asian authors. I think we still have a long way to go in terms of visibility for Latino/a poets, indigenous poets and Trans poets, particularly Trans female poets and non-binary poets. They’re out there but I think we finally just have to embrace them more as readers and as fellow writers. We have to make sure that they’re there as we start to hold positions of power. I think the writers of poetry are incredibly diverse right now and that’s beautiful. I think also of the people behind the scenes: the editors, the foundation heads, the readers, the judges. I would like to see the publishing industry now become more diverse, as the people who are publishing become increasingly diverse. It’s ridiculous how behind-the-scenes at those presses it’s still, what, some ridiculous figure, 89 percent white in the mainstream publishing industry. Saeed Jones just wrote a really good essay on this that was on BuzzFeed recently, “Self-Portrait Of The Artist As Ungrateful Black Writer.” There’s been, of course, tons of other things written about this. That’s the reason something like the VIDA count has to happen. As the writers of poetry become more diverse, the infrastructure around that also needs to become more diverse. icon

Featured image: Danez Smith. Photograph by Travis Chantar