On the phone with a modern master of the subject, we ask Danez Smith about words. Smith is one of America’s rising literary stars, a black, queer, gender-neutral, HIV-positive writer from St. Paul, Minnesota whose latest collection, Homie, just released via Graywolf Press. It’s the follow-up to their highly-acclaimed 2017 book, Don’t Call Us Dead, which was an unflinching exploration of serious themes like racism, police brutality, desire and mortality. The work was a National Book Award finalist and made Smith the youngest-ever winner of the U.K.’s Forward Prize for Best Collection.
Smith makes a stop this Friday at Brazos Bookstore to perform selections from Homie. In the day and age of so-called “fake news” and blatant rhetoric, we asked this expert about the value of words in 2020.
“Words, since the first utterance, have always been used for good and evil, for survival and destruction, and I feel like there’s an abundance of amazing writers and thinkers that are putting good thoughts and good energies and good blueprints into the world right now,” Smith said.
That positive note was followed by a deep dive into the nefarious use of words in Trump’s America. Smith fearlessly freestyles on the subject for a couple of minutes.
“It’s actually interesting, right? Like, not only does Trump spread misinformation, but he’s also maybe like the least literate president we’ve ever had and we’re so focused on his words. It’s not like his words or the words of the people around him are tricky, it’s not hard to understand how it’s propaganda or B.S. There’s certainly a gracelessness to his language that is rather easy to spot – if you want to spot it.
“I think there’s a lot of folks out there who, either through a long Republican project of trying to dumb-down the American public that can’t tell that Trump’s an idiot and a racist and all these other things, and probably committing fraud every day, or bribery, or who knows what he’s doing, but I think there is a large portion of – I don’t want to say our country, because I think there are a lot of misguided folks who have been indoctrinated into racism and classism, even classism coming from poor folks, and all these ideologies that I think represent the worst parts of a Republican base – but I do think there are a lot of willfully ignorant or playing willfully-dumb politicians right now who will let Trump be whoever the hell he wants to be because it greases their pockets.
“Where am I at? This is a question about words,” Smith reels back with a winning laugh. “I guess words have never been a truly good thing ever, they’ve always been dangerous, and I think it is the role of writers and thinkers and citizens especially to recognize that the same way words can be dangerous to the common good words can also be dangerous to the structures and people that would rather there be an elite, that would rather be a country that does not live up to its greatest promises.
“We can use language to be dangerous right back to those who are dangerous against us and words are a powerful tool for that,” Smith concluded.
At only 30, Smith has long been hard at work promoting such weaponry. They (Smith uses "they" as a gender neutral singular pronoun) found their way to poetry through a high school drama class and went on to distinguished work in spoken word poetry before penning 2014’s [insert] boy, which won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. Besides writing and performing hailed work, Smith has been featured in Buzzfeed, The New York Times, PBS NewsHour and on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. They’re on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list and work as part of the Dark Noise Collective and as a co-host on VS, a poetry podcast with fellow Dark Noise member Frany Choi, to keep the medium in the public eye.
Smith has just begun touring the new work, but is encouraged by its early reception. Publishers Weekly called Homie “An electrifying, unabashedly queer ode to friendship and community,” and Booklist’s review said the collection is “as dazzling as it is bighearted. Dynamic, breathtaking, and utterly brilliant, these poems are not only most magnificent weapons but also salves to share and songs to shout at the top of one’s lungs”
“I’m glad that people have really been responding to the work positively, both in reviews and in audiences. Anytime you look out and multiple people are crying, that’s like a good thing for a poet. I think it’s a big, joyful book that still has a lot of hard stuff in it and it’s been good to see people finding the work useful,” said Smith. “That is always the mission to my work, that it’s useful to folks.
“I think it’s nerve racking to release a piece into the world, even if you think it’s good or even if you think it’s bad, you’re always shitting bricks right before it comes out; so, to have it in the world now, to have people reading it and confirming that there is value in it is always wonderful.”
Smith unknowingly gave the collection a theme. The works touch largely on friendship and the roles friends play in our lives.
“I think friends have always been super important to me. You know, family is great and relationships, romantic ones, are also great, but as a person who is perpetually single – well, not now, actually – but I think friends have always been the rocks in my life and I think that’s true for a lot of queer people as well, that the idea of family is not something that you’re born into but something that you choose actively. It’s huge for us.
“I didn’t know I was writing a book about friendship until I looked at a bunch of poems and saw, ‘Oh, I’ve kind of been secretly writing this thing, all these poems that move into and throughout friendship and intimacy.' I think it was a surprise to me as well when it popped up that, oh shit, here’s this abundant thing that I have obviously been affected by and thinking about even unbeknownst to myself. I think for all of us, friends are the stuff. I think a friend is one of the best loves that you can experience in life, somebody that loves you for no other reason than that they love you. There’s no blood ties there, there’s no promise of sex and taxes there, it’s only that you enjoy each other. To me that has become one of the largest saving graces of my life.”
Smith has been to Houston before so we ask their impressions of the city, which they hope to create a broader friendship with on this week’s trip.
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“I wish I could speak to that, but both times I’ve been to Houston I’ve been there less than 24 hours, so I feel like I’d kind of be talking out of my ass if I talked about Houston,” Smith said. “I mean, I have a lot of respect for the city. I have a couple of good cousins who have moved down there and they love it and are never moving back to our snowy tundra. And, I have a lot of respect for Houston musicians, folks (from) the chopped and screwed movement, Beyoncé, Lizzo and Megan Thee Stallion. Southern hip-hop definitely has a huge influence on my writing. So, I guess Houston, as a place I don’t know intimately, has always been a place that has always been very right and influential in my mind, as a concept.”
Surf through YouTube and you’ll find Smith’s thrilling live performances, a hint of what to expect at Friday’s Brazos Bookstore reading. Because they’re versed in writing to the page and performing for an audience, we asked whether some poems are written specifically for live renderings.
“My only allegiance is to the poem first, the idea of what the poem was trying to say and hold,” they said. “The performance is another way to experience the poem and there are certain poems I choose not to perform. It’s a different medium, they don’t hit the same way in the air as they do on a page. There are some poems that you want people to be able to double-back on and read over again, or read lines over and over to really get the meaning. And then there are poems that offer themselves up to being read aloud just because of the virtue of how they’re written. My first job as a writer is just to make sure that the poem itself – who gives a fuck about if it’s going to be read of performed? – my job is to make sure the poem is saying what it needs to say and is in the state that allows it to say that best.”
Danez Smith’s book tour visits Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet, Friday, January 31. Smith will be joined by fellow poet, Tarfia Faizullah. 6:30 p.m. The bookstore will have copies of Smith’s new collection, Homie, available.