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Danez Smith is the author of Don’t Call Us Dead, a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award which circles their Black, queer, and HIV positive status. At once haunted, sensual, explosive and intensely deliberate, this epic of intersectional identity is indispensable to contemporary poetry. The collection’s power is sourced both from the deep roots of American violence it traces and from Smith’s visionary, fantastical style: “I am best able to witness and transcribe the world if I’m allowed to see what could be, to peer over the surreal edge at another version of us,” they say in an interview with LitHub. “I don’t know exactly where that interest came from, but I trust imagination. I trust these queer and mythical lenses.” In this mode, Smith tangles with death even as they defy it—their subjects ranging from police shootings to gay dating culture to the disease that makes their own mortality so salient. “i’m not the kind of black man who dies on the news,” they write in a poem called “it won’t be a bullet,” “i’m the kind who grows thinner & thinner & thinner / until light outweighs us.”
Smith grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota and later attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a First Wave Urban Arts Scholar. They came to poetry through theater, their first poem written for an acting class in high school. Now their performance of this piece, “dear white america,” has been viewed by more than three hundred thousand people on YouTube. Refining their craft through performance, they have twice earned the title of Individual World Poetry Slam finalist and are the reigning two-time Rustbelt Individual Poetry Slam Champion. They have also served as festival director for the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam. Smith believes that “language lives and is performed by the body, transfixed just as much on the speaker as what’s being spoken,” and has said that “The deepest roots that led up to me being a poet are oral.”
Smith has published two chapbooks, hands on your knees and Black Movie, which lends Smith’s poetic eye to portrayals of Black Americans in film through poems like “Jim Crow, Rock Star,” “Sleeping Beauty in the Hood,” and “Notes for a Film on Black Joy.” Smith’s first full-length collection, [insert] boy, winner of both the 2016 Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the 2015 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry, explores and criticizes the erasure of of queer and Black identities, interrogating a society that views Black boys as “monster until proven ghost.” Smith files language to a point and drives it through each of their questions with a hot precision: “If race is over, did we lose?”
Danez Smith has been featured by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Guardian, Buzzfeed, Best American Poetry, PBS NewsHour and the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. They were the inaugural winner of the Four Quartets Prize from the Poetry Society of America and have received fellowships from the Poetry Foundation, Cave Canem and the National Endowment for the Arts among others. Smith is also a founding member of the multigenre multicultural Dark Noise Collective, a movement who describes their unifying ethos as a “commitment to using art as a site for radical truth telling.” With fellow Dark Noise poet Franny Choi, they currently host the Poetry Foundation’s podcast VS.
1. smoke above the burning bush
2. archnemesis of summer night
3. first son of soil
4. coal awaiting spark & wind
5. guilty until proven dead
6. oil heavy starlight
7. monster until proven ghost
9. phoenix who forgets to un-ash
10. going, going, gone
11. gods of shovels & black veils
12. what once passed for kindling
13. fireworks at dawn
14. brilliant, shadow hued coral
15. (I thought to leave this blank
but who am I to name us nothing?)
16. prayer who learned to bite & sprint
17. a mother’s joy & clutched breath
From [INSERT] BOY (YesYes Books, 2014)
but there is no proof but proof
no mark but the good news
that there is no bad news yet. again.
i wish i knew the nausea, its thick yell
in the morning, the pregnant proof
that in you, life swells. i know
i’m not a mother, but i know what it is
to nurse a thing you want to kill
but can’t. you learn to love it. yes.
i love my sweet virus. it is my proof
of life, my toxic angel, wasted utopia
what makes my blood my blood.
i understand belle now, how she could
love the beast. if you stare at fangs
long enough, even fangs pink
with your own blood look soft.
low-key, later, it felt like i got it
out the way, to finally know it
up close, see it in the mirror.
it doesn’t feel good to say that.
it doesn’t feel good to know
your need outweighed your fear.
i braved a stupid ocean. a man.
i waded in his stupid waters.
i took his stupid salt & let it
brine my skin, took his stupid
fish into my hands & bit into it
like a flapping plum. i kissed at
his stupid coral & stupid algae.
it was stupid. silly really. i knew nothing
that easy to get & good to feel
isn’t also trying to eat you.
knew what could happen. needed
no snake. grew the fruit myself.
was the vine & the rain & the light.
the dirt was me. the hands drilling
into the dirt were my hands.
i made the blade that cut me down.
but i only knew how to live
when i knew how i’ll die.
i want to live. think i mean it.
take the pill even on the days
i think i won’t survive myself.
gave my body a shot. love myself
at least that much. thank you, me.
thank you, pill, seafoam & bland.
thank you, sick blood, my first husband
dead river bright with salmon.
First published in Poetry (March 2018)
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)