St. Paul native Danez Smith’s award-winning poetry about Blackness, queerness, gender and HIV diagnoses has been highly praised. Smith, recently named to Forbes’ 2019 30 Under 30 in media list, noted it is often heralded as “raw” and “powerful.”
But, that’s not the whole story. “I think I’m pretty soft,” said Smith, who goes by non-binary pronouns, including they, them, their and themselves.
Smith’s work is passionate, like their live reading of a poem that was recorded and uploaded to YouTube and went viral, daringly exploring oppression and stigma.
But Smith’s poetry collections [insert] boy (YesYes Books) in 2014, winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and Don’t Call Us Dead (Gray Wolf Press) — this year’s Forward Prize for best collection — also contain soft-lighted scenes of Black joy lacquered in gay lust.
“People love to ignore all the gay stuff,” noted Smith, while sitting in an Uptown Minneapolis coffeehouse on a warm, rainy October day.
Smith said radical Black poetry is very sexy for White people — “They are like, ‘Ooh, guilt’” — and it sometimes appears to be the main thing driving coverage of Smith’s works.
People don’t seem comfortable talking about HIV, either. “To talk about my work and not talk about how queerness, how illness, how sex operates within it, is to not talk about my work,” said Smith.
Nevertheless, Smith said Blackness, queerness, whatever — those are just facts. “I get sick of stigma,” said Smith. “The person who wrote Don’t Call Us Dead was very much underneath the weight of the diagnoses of HIV.”
Since, Smith said they are walking beside the diagnoses, learning to live with it, even not thinking about it sometimes. There’s other stuff going on.
“Naps have been great lately,” said Smith, who prior to our interview had been writing, holed up in their Minneapolis home for nearly two days, save for a fast food run and now a stop at the nearby coffee shop.
“Something about being cramped in my apartment in the dead of winter,” said Smith. “I get my best writing done.”
Success has brought a lot of touring and travel. But Smith, who grew up a few blocks from Central High school in St. Paul, has love for the Twin Cities. They said they like going to the movies, hanging out with their grandmother in St. Paul, and going to their favorite bookstores.
After graduating from Central, Smith went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to pursue a career in education. That’s where they experienced a different kind of racism and institutional bias.
Smith got the sense that future teachers were being trained to see children of color as little more than classroom problems, theoretical conundrums to quell, not people with real lives.
“So I got pissed off, crying and cussin’ White people out and I said, ‘I can’t do another year of this,’” said Smith, letting out a deep, cathartic guffaw.
Smith eventually went on to study creative writing and found the current path of poetry and success.
“It would have been a different life,” said Smith about staying in the education field. “So, thank you, racists.”
Moving away from the Twin Cities, Smith was able to better understand White supremacy. Once in places like Madison and Ann Arbor, Michigan, Smith said they realized just how starkly suffocating White places like Minnesota and Michigan can be, and what the circumstance can mean for the life and psyche of a person of color.
“I’ve written most ferociously about racial injustice when I am sort of in spaces [where] I find myself flanked in Whiteness,” said Smith.
Smith said they feel Minnesotan in many ways and feels comfortable here. But, for them, appreciation for Minnesota and the Midwest might come from their success affording them the luxury to leave, to miss Minnesota as home.
“There’s this dissonance sometimes between the comfort of home and the need for home to change,” said Smith.
Smith also won’t allow themselves to be comfortable in poetry success. They are in the last stretches of a third collection, but, at the top of the year, Smith said they are going to take a six-month poetry break to venture into other creative outlets, like scripts and joke writing.
Smith aims to “stretch out” creatively because they have been performing their whole lives. At the age of three or so, Smith’s creativity manifested as an Elvis impression. Smith’s mother would call Smith into the kitchen to do it. “I don’t know,” said Smith. “I saw it on TV.”
Smith recalled putting on one of their mother’s weave bangs and do a little leg shake. “Thank you, thank you very much.”
Smith grew up Baptist. Their mother was “a runner and a fainter.” Though only reaching that feeling in church maybe once or twice, Smith said that’s what they are reaching for in whatever way their creativity manifests.
Well, whatever way except for the Elvis impression, which Smith has retired.
“I’m a grown a** man.”
Smith’s next poetry collection, Homie, will be published in 2020.
[insert] boy and Don’t Call Us Dead are available on Amazon. For more information on Danez Smith, visit danezsmithpoet.com.