Danez Smith on success, critique, and the "co-misery" of Madison

The poet joined us for a conversation after their reading at the 2017 Wisconsin Book Festival.

  Photo by David Hong.

Photo by David Hong.

Danez Smith's reading on November 5 at the 2017 Wisconsin Book Festival was a complicated homecoming for the poet. Smith teared up while thanking their mentors and friends, saying, "It's good to be home," before leveling stark criticisms of the Madison's gross racial disparities.

Madisonians were clearly proud of the poet, who graduated in 2012 from First Wave, UW-Madison's multicultural hip-hop culture program. The crowd was standing-room-only, even after the event was moved from the Madison Public Library's Bubbler space to a bigger room upstairs, and each poem was accompanied by joyful snaps and cheers. Smith read from their latest book, Don't Call Us Dead, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry. The book, as Smith describes it, "confronts, praises, and rebukes America," and addresses the violence perpetrated against black and queer bodies. Ultimately, Smith finds joy through their strikingly beautiful command of poetic language, cycling between couplets, prose poems and free verse, for an array of emotional effects that seems to exhaust what Smith attacks, breathing new life into what they celebrate. History itself is addressed in its totality. The book opens with "summer, somewhere,"  a long poem that imagines an afterlife for murdered black boys. Our reality seeps into this afterlife through artifacts of the boys' memories, yet they've escaped.  The final poem is a mere 16 lines of rhythmically hypnotics lyric, as the speaker sings to the Atlantic ocean to return the bodies lost in the Middle Passage.

I had a chance to sit down with Smith, who also co-hosts the Poetry Foundation's VS podcast,  after their reading to discuss their relationship to Madison, their career and Instagram poetry.

Tone Madison: How did you become a First Wave scholar and how did the program shape your experience in Madison?

Danez Smith: First Wave was the only reason I stayed in Madison. I found First Wave through a pretty inglorious recruitment process. First Wave sounded like a rather interesting experiment and project, and I was excited to see how the program they described would manifest itself.

But, I don't think the university does justice by its students of color. I don't think the city knows what to do with its people-of-color population. And I think both of those populations are amazing and groundbreaking people. I'm very thankful for those communities, and a lot of those relationships were a co-misery, like, of what it means to be of-color in Madison. So, if there were no First Wave, there'd be no Danez in Madison.

Tone Madison: Is there anything in particular that pushed you away from the city?

Danez Smith: Whiteness. Racism. A lack of reflection of myself in the culture and power structure of the city. I think Madison likes to toot its own horn, but the liberal folks here do a lot of harm to people of color. It has a very whitewashed view of liberalism. I don't believe in toughing it out for some imagined good. The resources and love and rigor and growth I found in the communities of color is my Madison. My Madison is those people, and I'm not really interested in the white Madison, which I was trying to escape.

Tone Madison: Your career has coincided with a shift in how we read poetry that appears on the page and on computer screens. Is this something you grappled with?

Danez Smith: No, I don't think about mediums when I'm writing. I think about performance and reading, but I don't think about the internet. I'm not that fascinated or impressed by it. It's just a lot easier to put a link in someone's inbox, rather than a book in their hands, so in that way it's useful. When writing, the internet is completely devoid from my mind.

Tone Madison: It seems like maybe you think of the internet as a tool you've harnessed for your career instead of for influencing writing projects.

Danez Smith: Yeah. I mean, I'm a millennial. I was on Facebook as soon as they allowed people without college emails. I am of the internet generation. There are some people who are really interested in using the internet to harness power. There is a definite movement of people who use Instagram and Twitter to make poetry. But I'm just on Twitter, and happen to be a poet. For me social media is just a tool to get my work out there. I'm not thinking of it as strategically as others. I'm just a 28-year-old who was on the internet before I even started making a career with it.

Tone Madison: You've mentioned before that the speaker in your poems is slightly not you. I wonder if that's still true with the new book, and where that slight difference comes from. Is that simply from committing yourself to words?

Danez Smith: That comes from playing around with image and sound. The world of play in writing a poem requires you to fictionalize and reach above and beyond truth, or to reach towards something that is emotionally or imagistically or texturally true to that story. Most of my poems are me or an extension of myself if I'm using "I."

Tone Madison: I see your work moving as a movement away from the imposition of unnaturally simple structures that are used to control people, towards a more complex view of identity. Is that a productive way of reading your poems?

Danez Smith: Maybe it's uncontrollable. I don't know. People are complex. I'm complex and that's all I know how to write. I don't think I was ever concerned with that simplicity you're gesturing towards. I don't think I'm interested in it and I don't think about it. I don't see the world as simple. I love the complexity in things that seem simple. I'm just writing what I know and so I don't think that imagined simplicity exists. Poets of color and queer poets cannot have the luxury of writing toward a simple world. I hear what you're saying, but simplicity is a luxury that I can't afford. I'm not starting from simple. I was born into complexity, and that's where we're at.

Tone Madison: Do you still see the poet's job as one of seeing the world and writing it down? It seems like your new book, especially the opening poem, "Summer, somewhere," no longer starts from the real world.

Danez Smith: I think I'm still taking in the world, and there are other things that drive the work like craft and form and image. That poem is still littered and populated with things from the world. As a poem that takes place in the afterlife, it is an imagined world, built from the world. It is the consequences of the world that allow that poem to exist. That's still part of the job, but I'm learning there are new ways into the work.

Tone Madison: You tweeted a while back about your negative views of poets like Rupi Kaur. Do you want to expand on that?

Danez Smith: At one point I called Rupi Kaur's work lazy. As someone who thinks critically about poetry, I still think that's true. Bad poems have been written for centuries, and that's fine. The tweet originally was, "friends don't let friends read Rupi Kaur unironically," and I ended up deleting that. I realized later after thinking about it for a while, and talking to the group of friends I'm lucky to have who are willing to call me out, that she's a young woman of color, and she's making money, and people find value in her work. Who am I to hate?

Do I think the work is rigorous? No. Do I think the work has something to teach me? No. But I don't want to be in the business of denying whatever truth or healing or reflection people find in the work. There has to be a reason why her poems resonate with so many people and that's a beautiful thing. For me, the poems are simplistic. A lot of the things I've read in the Instagram poetry movement—I don't even know if it's right to call it a movement—haven't felt fresh or new. They feel like recycled bits I've heard in many poems, or things I'd tell my students to take out of the work.

There's also a complexity to talking about poets like Kaur. A lot of folks make it impossible to separate the work from the trauma or the person. I believe that has to be a possibility, because I'm not interested in moving towards a world that is so in love with poets that we fall out of love with critique. I think that's fair and safe to say. Me saying that her poems aren't pushing anywhere artistically isn't saying that her experience is invalid, or that she doesn't deserve to have the things she has, or that people shouldn't like her work, or the way she's writing her way into the world isn't valid or meaningful. It isn't to shame survivors. I'm a survivor myself. But it is to say that I'm not going to sit here and pretend that Rupi Kaur is doing the same thing as Patricia Smith. I'm not going to act like a lot of the people who are interested in this Instagram-type work—that feels very rapidly produced and not thought through—are doing the same thing as me. That feels like a respect for craft and influence.

I hope that as we continue to move through poetry with a space left for critique. So, that's also not to say that my poetry is necessarily better. People find fault with my work and I love it. You have to be able to take critique.

Tone Madison: It seems safe to say that you're a part of the literary establishment. Do you want to define where you see yourself in the American context, and what you plan to do with the power you've accrued?

Danez Smith: I'm not sure where I see myself. I understand what power it is, and that I am amassing it. And that power also comes through capital. I know who I am. That's not to say that I think I'm the shit, but I know I've had a nice career so far. I don't imagine myself anywhere beside writing, and I appreciate all that's come to me.

I do recognize that I'm becoming a gatekeeper, and I want to use that responsibility well. I never want to be so self-interested that I shut the door behind me. I want to keep my foot there so people can keep coming through. I just try to put on other poets, and support people, whether that's mentoring people or writing 10,000 blurbs a year. There's power in saying people's name in a room, and supporting people behind closed doors. That sounds so scary and Republican. As I continue to grow, assuming my career doesn't crash and burn and the internet doesn't come for me after that thing about Rupi Kaur. I hope to make poetry a bigger place for more kinds of people.

Tone Madison: It's interesting that you say that that's "so Republican." Do you have any sense that you're making any concessions to be at this level of success?

Danez Smith: No. I was worried a long time ago about what success would mean, and selling out. It feels weird to be a poet who makes money. I got to a point where I was just an unorganized bitch, so I was like, I need an agent. I do have capital, and there is a career in poetry, and I'm glad I've made a life for myself outside the realm of academia. That's not to say I wouldn't take a tenure-track job, just in case someone at UW-Madison is reading this. I don't think I've made any conceits. I think I put my money to good use in my local community. And I think I continue to be a good citizen, which is something everyone should consider in their own lives. I try not to allow myself to feel like a sellout. I'm still the same, I just have some money.

Tone Madison: Are there any resources or experience you want to plug in Madison?

Danez Smith: There are amazing local poets in Madison, some of which run amazing series. I haven't lived here for a while, so I don't know the landscape so well, but Google is a thing. I would look up "poetry in Madison, Wisconsin," and I would go to everything. When I was here I was a student of the local scene. There's Just Bust through First Wave, and slam at Genna's Lounge. I went to those every chance I got. I think the university brings in a lot of great poets. For locals, I hope people feel that the university is there's enough to enter those spaces. I hope people are comfortable taking from the great resource machine that is the university. Plus, Madison is close to Chicago, so if Madison isn't feeding you, drive two hours. Chicago will feed you well.