Danez Smith is a Black, Queer, Poz poet from St. Paul, Minnesota. They have written three celebrated books of poetry, [insert] boy (YesYes Books, 2014), Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017), and most recently Homie (Graywolf Press, 2020). [insert] boy won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. Don’t Call Us Dead received the Forward Prize for Best Collection and the Midwest Booksellers Choice Award, and it was a finalist for the National Book Award. Smith has received fellowships from the Poetry Foundation, Cave Canem, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and they have appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and PBS NewsHour, been named to the annual Forbes “30 Under 30” list, and been published by Best American Poetry, Poetry, and the Academy of American Poets, for which they won a Pushcart Prize. With Franny Choi they co-host the VS podcast, which is sponsored by the Poetry Foundation and Postloudness.
In March 2018, Smith visited Butler University as part of the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series. During their stay, Smith had a laughter-filled conversation with Booth about how to AWP, the early stages of Homie, the beauty of friendship, and just a sprinkle of woo woo.
Caitlin Dicus: You’re just coming off your book tour and AWP 2018 and all that business. How does that feel?
Danez Smith: I mean, I’m used to touring. Traveling to do poetry is my main source of income at this point. And AWP is not as stressful as it used to be.
CD: Oh, really?
DS: Mainly because I don’t go to a lot of shit. I used to feel a lot of pressure to go to a panel every session or blah blah blah. I’ve gone to every AWP since the last time it was in Chicago—so what’s that? Six years? And what I learned is that, while the panels are great, the real meat for me is the offsite readings and having chances to spend a couple days communing with folks I don’t get to see that often—friends or mentors or heroes from other places. I think for me there’s been as much value in sitting in on a great hour-and-fifteen-minute panel as in being able to take a twenty- to thirty-minute walk around the book fair with somebody. Those things kind of balance out. So AWP the last couple years has become a much smaller, more intimate experience amongst all the chaos.
CD: I would think it would be stressful as a person who is recognized now. Has that had an impact on it for you?
DS: That’s stressful. I mean, sometimes it’s just inconvenient because you don’t wanna be rude, but you’re going to lunch and five or ten people want to talk to you. And it’s just like, “Ah! I just want a burger! Bout to start gettin mad because I’m hungry and I’m not an asshole” [laughs]. But it’s very rewarding to know that people are reading and actually getting something from the work, and so it’s good. It’s nice to remember that. But some people have no home training [laughs] and don’t know how to act around people.
CD: You said in your interview with Divedapper that people sometimes need to abide by their responsibility to shut up when reading poetry, and it seems like AWP might be a situation where people don’t follow that responsibility.
DS: Yeah. And it’s less responsibility to shut up, but I see writers I love too at AWP, right? It’s about knowing when and where. Some people just can’t read a situation—like sometimes I’m having a really personal or intense conversation with a friend and you just feel the presence of somebody that’s standing there waiting to tell you that they like your book. And it’s like, “Word, I see you and thank you, but this is obviously an interaction right now.” Like, I saw Vievee Francis, and I fuckin love Vievee Francis. I was just walking to the bathroom, me and a couple friends, and I was like, “Fuck, that’s Vievee Francis!” And I wanna go over there and take up an hour of her day just asking her questions, like “Can you sign every page in your book for me?” We talked about it amongst ourselves and, well, she was having a drink with a friend and we were like, should we go over there? And eventually we decided, let’s just go say, “Hey, we appreciate your work and we’re gonna leave you be.”
CD: And you were cool about it.
DS: That’s what we did. We took up ten seconds of her day like, “Hey, we just appreciate your work, continue to have your drink, we’re gonna bounce back outside.” I think people sometimes just get so excited about writers—and what a thing to be excited about, right? It’s like frickin the NBA All-Star weekend of writers, right? So it’s exciting! But I think sometimes people forget that popular writers are not just avatars for their writing, but they are . . .
DS: Living, breathing people, who pee and poop and get pissed and dadada. And I don’t want it to sound like I’m saying, “Nobody should ever talk to any writer that they ever appreciate.” It’s not that. It’s just that AWP is intense, and I think it’s up to folks on that more recognized side of it to manage ourselves because it’s not anybody else’s fault that they’re excited about writing. I know this one person who I’m desperately looking for on Facebook who I know I was rude to at AWP.
CD: Oh, no.
DS: It was because I had just talked to two other people, and they had said some wild shit. I had to circle back and be like, “Hey, I know you were trying to compliment me, but that was actually pretty fucked up and you need to examine some shit.” And here comes this third person. He was just trying to say something, and I just unleashed on him.
CD: Oh, no.
DS: Just a tad bit. And I feel so bad. I feel so frickin bad. But it’s hard to move through those spaces sometimes. It’s ten thousand people, and you don’t know what everyone’s day has been like leading up to you. And that was a situation where I was like, “Damn, I really wish I could take that back and handle that differently,” but I was on defense at that point. I was so ready for someone to say something fucked up that I was just like, “What is it this time?”
CD: I went to a panel called “The Literary Twitterati.” Eve Ewing was on the panel, and she said, “It takes everyday people doing everyday things to change the world.” So that’s why she feels it’s important to show the everyday banality of being a poet on Twitter or Facebook, wherever. So she’s real with her followers, and it seems like you are too. So that, combined with the fact that you tour constantly and are always viewed as being “available” to people—I can’t imagine how emotionally exhausting that would be. Are there lines that you draw to take care of yourself?
DS: I don’t know if I’m as intentional with my social media as Eve is. I think Eve is very much a person who has a platform and is thinking about how to use it. I had a Twitter and a Facebook when I was like nineteen years old, you know? Nobody knew who I was. And I still use social media in those same ways. In my mind they’re like my diaries, and I post memes and just talk about lame things, like when I’m at the strip club and I’m not enjoying it. So it leads to some funny interactions. Older poets, they’re new at social media and they’re like, “I’ve used social media as a tool for my career,” and I’m like, “I’m gonna talk about how big a poop I took.”
I don’t feel any kind of allegiance to social media. Other folks feel like they have to spend a certain amount of time in that space. I don’t. I just log off. I’ll read a book, and I’ll go be a normal human in other ways. When I’m not reading or teaching, I’m usually in my hotel taking a long bath and watching people get stressed over the homes they’re building on HGTV, what kind of cakes they’re baking, all those regular kinds of things. I think my self-care method is just actually living the banal life. Like, I’m just gonna sit here and eat an orange and look at my wall for an hour. Sometimes I do that.
CD: Something that’s been in discussion on Twitter a lot recently, even the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s account, is inclusion riders. After Frances McDormand’s speech at the Oscars, Roxane Gay and a few others have been talking about it in relation to their own publishing work. Do you think that can apply to the publishing world?
DS: Most definitely. One of the reasons I’m very happy to work with the presses I work with has been because two of them are women-run organizations, and all of them are interested in not only publishing people of color but employing people of color. That makes a huge difference to me about the texture of the place I’m going into. We might not have “riders” in the same way that actors and performers do, but we can be intentional about the people we decide to do our business with or where we decide to submit our work.
For me a big part of book publishing was going to a place not only that I felt supported my work, but that I was proud to be with, and that was as much about who was on their list as who was making that list—who was doing the work of making books. So when I looked at YesYes Books, I saw Katherine Sullivan, this brilliant woman running a small press and employing other women and people of color. When I went to Graywolf, there was Jeff Shotts—who is amazing, I love him as my editor—as the power behind Graywolf, but there’s also Fiona McCrae, the director. And the Graywolf office does feel diverse, with so many women and people of color and Queer folks working in that space. It’s just so beautiful when you know that the people behind the book are as diverse as the people within the book itself.
So I think we can be intentional about where we send our poems. We can demystify some of that old ivory tower shit about what gatekeepers we’re knocking on doors of. We can think, “I wrote this poem for this community, and where is this community able to see that?” And that might not be the New York Times, but it might be looking at a smaller journal and trying to place poems in odd places. We can always be intentional about who we allow to slap their names next to our work. I’ve withdrawn work from places because I didn’t like the editorial staff or some mess went down.
DS: Yeah, I withdrew work from . . . a very prestigious journal.
CD: Name redacted.
DS: Yeah, redacted. The Ruth Lilly finalists had just come out for that year, and I think it was like ten finalists, all of whom were either Queer or women or people of color. And I was like, “What!” And I posted the finalists and was just like, “No country for straight white men.” Not as a way of saying, “Straight white men, you can’t write ever again!” But what a powerful moment to see the Poetry Foundation saying, “Hey, these are ten of the best young writers,” and for it to be a completely different list from what would have been expected ten, fifteen, twenty years ago.
So the editor of this magazine pops up in my DMs and is like, “Hey, how would you feel if you were white? Just think about all the white men who are gonna look at that status and feel a certain type of way.” And I was like, first we have to pause, because if you’ve read my work, including the poem you’ve accepted from me, you know that white men’s feelings about a fellowship are so far from my mind. And also, that’s not an oppression. A white man not getting the Ruth Lilly is not equivalent to the years of shit that women and Queer folks and people of color went through to get to a space where we can talk about our work and have it celebrated in this way. I think you can handle one Black Queer’s stupid Facebook status.
We went back and forth for a while, and I was like, “Actually, this is exactly what I’m trying to fight against, this idea that we have to protect this white male envisioning of what the perfect writer is. So you are not gonna get these poems.” And it’s a little thing, but it’s about saying that I am not going to be complacent, and not just in actions but in attitude too. I don’t wanna submit work to that editor if this is how they feel about the world. And what does it mean you think about my work? Are you even considering it work in that same way, or are you now just like, “Oh, well, Danez Smith is this little, Black, Queer thing that we can put in our magazine now that he has good enough poems.” So, yeah, we can be picky and choosy. We can become the gatekeepers for our own work and not always be bowing to other folks to let us in.
CD: I love that idea of going Gwendolyn Brooks about it and choosing smaller places you particularly want to help out, like the small Black presses she went to later in her career. Everyone is acting like this inclusion rider idea is something new, but it’s not at all.
DS: It’s not. And I think that writers have actually done it better than Hollywood for a long time. Because of how low stakes and low capital poetry is sometimes, we do have more of a right to say, “These are the spaces where I want to be.” And we have to reframe ourselves. So many poets are in a rush to have a book. And, sure, I will agree the ways of poetry publishing are bullshit, the fact that it’s run by prizes and all these submission fees and blah blah blah. But we can pull back a little bit of our power and say, “I’m not gonna be happy until I’m happy, and just having the book isn’t enough.”
CD: That’s something that really excites me about working with Booth. Rob Stapleton, our publisher, will not do submission fees. He will not. We can’t keep people from submitting just because there are fees they can’t afford. Anyway, I would like to change gears and talk about your new book, Homie—which, congratulations!
DS: Thank you.
CD: What has it been like compared to your last two books?
DS: I’m already working on a new book by the time the one before it comes out. So I had two manuscripts that were already on their way to becoming Don’t Call Us Dead when [insert] boy was released.
CD: Just like you have Homie coming out now.
DS: Right. And from book one to book two I just felt like a stronger poet. In some ways I feel [insert] boy was a little rushed. I’m proud of it, and it did really well for a first book, and I’m glad for what it did in the world. But [insert] boy happened at a time when I was making the switch from my understanding of a career in poetry being strictly or predominantly based in spoken word to the understanding that there was a completely different game being played on a more traditional literary route. And I thought I needed a book. I was doing a lot of slam stuff, and I think for a lot of folks in spoken word and the slam world, a book doesn’t seem to mean the same as in the literary publishing world. It’s more just merch, you know? So I was like, let me just have something to sell at the shows I’m doing. But by the time I signed the contract, I was like, “Oh, actually this is a more literary game. There’s a different game here.” It doesn’t actually matter when your first book comes out. So there are things in [insert] boy that I love, but I wonder what a first book would have looked like if I had slowed down.
So I think Don’t Call Us Dead in many ways is—I don’t wanna say my first book, but I felt more straight-up proud of it. I knew I could stand behind that work in a different way. And there’s ideas that I started in [insert] boy that come to fruition in Don’t Call Us Dead.
With Homie, it’s a lot different. I didn’t expect Don’t Call Us Dead to be as critically popular as it was. The week after it came out it was on the long list for the National Book Award, then it eventually made it to the shortlist. So I feel like there is a lot of pressure to do that again, to perform, to have a work that is as good. And I like the poems in Homie. But for a long time I was like, “OK, my next book is gonna be my downfall.” But Graywolf believes in it, and there’s a lot of other folks who believe in it. I think it’s a completely different work than what I’ve done. It doesn’t feel thematically tied to [insert] boy and to Don’t Call Us Dead as much. I think those two books are very linked, and this one feels like a scooch over into a different lane.
CD: This is about friends.
DS: Yeah, it’s about friendship and intimacy and loving difficult things. So I’m really excited to see what happens with it. I’m struggling now—I know the last four to five poems that need to go in there. The problem is that they have to be good [laughs], but I’m basically thinking about it as if I have a whole year to write these five poems, and I think that’s enough time to figure it out.
CD: What are the friendships that have helped you as a writer to get to this point? Not even necessarily writing friends, just people.
DS: I think it is writing friends, though. I think the beautiful part of entering poetry through the door of spoken word or slam is that it necessitates that you think about your art in community. You can’t be a spoken word artist just by yourself.
CD: That’s true.
DS: It requires an audience, and those spaces often require that you are in community with the poets around you, so a lot of my friends are poets, and a lot of us met at the National Poetry Slam or at other things like that. And I was part of a college scholarship program for poets and hip-hop artists, called First Wave, at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. So a lot of my best friends to this day are from that program. We all made art together, and it laid a good foundation down for us.
You know, friendship for me is such a clean, uncomplicated love. It’s different from romance and family and all those things, but just as powerful. So I’m having a hard time writing about the darker sides of friendship, the more negative sides. I guess the complication is, how do I not just gush on all my friends for seventy pages in a book? Even though that’s exactly what I want to do, write “love” down next to each one of their names and have that be a book. Friendship has really helped me be safe and allowed me this completely unsullied space of love. Whatever I’ve gone through in my life, no matter what it’s been, the truest space of non-judgement or “peace” for me has always been friendship.
CD: It is, like you said, an uncomplicated kind of love.
DS: There’s no other reason I love you besides that I love you.
CD: Yeah, it’s not because I was forced into being with you because I was born into the family—
DS: Exactly. It’s not like you touch my body right—
DS: It’s that I like being in a room with you, especially the best friends. We can be in a room together and not even say anything and that’s enough. Or, you know, the friend that you walk into a room and you see them and you both just start laughing. Nothing is even said, but it’s just like, biiiiitch. I love it. That idea, that’s what I’m trying to get at—what love can feel like when it has no obligations, or doesn’t ask for obligations, or does not have obligations put upon it.
CD: And so what if it’s gushy? If you’re really sowing the love into these poems that you’re talking about right now, I can’t imagine anyone reading that book and being sick of it. Speaking of friendships, do you think there is an archetypal type of friendship that feeds a poet? Like, what type of people should you have around you as a poet?
DS: Well, I think you need at least two non-poetry friends, like somebody who poetry never comes up as a topic of conversation.
CD: Like the coffee beans between the candles.
DS: Exactly. You need people who see the world differently from you but that wanna walk in the same places as you. It’s like, who’s gonna see what I’m not gonna see? And who’s gonna have the love for me to make sure I see it? Those are the people you need as friends. I have some friends who come from almost identical backgrounds as me, and I have friends that people probably look at us out on the street and think, Why the fuck are they hanging out?
CD: Yeah, like, how did you two meet?
DS: Right, like what is this table’s story? And I love that. I think you need people who also don’t demand anything of you, and that’s why I call friendship that “clean love.” Friendship for me is devoid of expectation, but it wants responsibilities. When it’s at its best, your responsibility to somebody, it’s not because it has been placed upon you. It’s being able to say, “Hey, I wanna do this thing for you for no other reason than, like, you’re my shit.” That’s what you need. And you always need somebody that’s gonna tell you you’re out your mind. That’s a good friend too, someone who’ll be able to pull you back and tell you, “Bitch, you’re trippin.” That’s probably your best friend.
CD: I was lucky enough to witness some of your friendships at the live VS podcast you were recording, and it was such proof of that “golden age of poetry” that everyone has been talking about recently. It was this group of people that are all coming up in the poetry world and doing it together, and they’re all able to be themselves and loving each other and poetry all at the same time. The VS podcast allows other people to tap into that. So can you give me a look behind the scenes? Why did it start? Does it have a goal?
DS: There’s a couple of different answers to that. The Poetry Foundation approached me about hosting a podcast. I think they wanted something that would play to a younger demographic, a more millennial-type thing than what they were doing at the time, and so a producer recorded like six podcasts with me as the solo host, and oh they were so trash.
CD: Was it bad without Franny?
DS: It was bad without Franny! It was also because the Poetry Foundation really had to take a leap of faith with what me and Franny are doing right now. They wanted me to have a podcast, but they didn’t want me to have a podcast. They were like, “Oh, Danez Smith. He’s a popular poet. We publish him a lot. Let’s give him a podcast.” And it had no essence of my flavor and personality. It was like, I’m gonna sit here and read these pre-approved questions, and it was just very dry, horrible interviews. So it died. Those episodes have never seen the light of day. They’re trash.
And so they circled back and said, “OK, we wanna try to do this again. What would you need?” So I got a new producer, and I said I wanted a co-host. The only person I wanted was Franny Choi—I love her and she’s so intelligent! And I know me and Franny can have a conversation for hours and always be on different sides. We’re completely different people; we’re completely different poets. I think we speak to each other in a lot of ways, and that’s why we’re friends. But we’re such different people, and that comes across on the show. And Daniel Kisslinger is an amazing producer. He and Franny were both gifts. The three of us, we can make the thing happen.
So we wanted it to be a poetry podcast for people who don’t listen to poetry, where we can sometimes nerd out and people can listen in to that. But we didn’t want it to be intimidating to somebody who isn’t as learned in poetry. We wanted a poetry podcast for the “casual reader” and the person who wants to know more about the poet but not necessarily about the mechanics of the poems. Because sometimes you want to get to know Tarfia Faizullah—and not Tarfia Faizullah’s poems—better. And knowing the poets better sometimes gives you better access to the poems. So we have this conversation, this little interview podcast, that in my mind is designed to feel like sitting in on a good living room conversation with one of your favorite poets. And that’s sometimes goofy, sometimes sad. Often goofy, I should say.
CD: The one with Tarfia Faizullah was sad sometimes.
DS: Yes, but like any good living room conversation with your homies, you’re allowed to go there, and when you do go to the sad spaces, you’re not scared that you’re gonna get stuck there. That’s the show I want. I want it to feel like all my favorite podcasts, which are The Read, Still Processing, The Friend Zone, RuPaul: What’s the Tee? featuring Michelle Visage—these conversations that feel like, sure, these people know what they’re talking about in their field, but they’re also friends having a good time and a good talk. That’s what I really want this show to be, and I think it is that. That is the message that comes back often when I’m scrolling the VS Twitter. People say what they appreciate about the show is that familiarity, that people feel like they’re just sitting down with us for a little bit—just talking, you know—and if the poems come up, good, and if not, good. So that’s my little thing with VS. I really want to create more spaces for people to imagine themselves in the world of poetry without having to imagine themselves as academics or as poets straight up.
CD: I love that. Switching gears to Don’t Call Us Dead, I think poets don’t often go for topical books so early on. They’re just, like you said with [insert] boy, trying to get whatever they have into a manuscript and get it out there. But this book knows what it wants to say. I was wondering if it was an active choice to go straight into the HIV diagnosis and into the murder of Black boys? Or is that just what you found yourself writing toward at the time?
DS: Well, at first the book was two books. Beforehand, there was a book called Blood and a book called Blk. One of them was under consideration in one place, the other one in another place. Graywolf approached me—Jeff Shotts slipped into my DMs and was like, “Do you wanna have a talk? You wanna have some coffee?” and I was like, “You’re Jeff Shotts from Graywolf. You wanna talk about books? So here are some manuscripts.” Like, I’m not stupid [laughs]. So they ended up making an offer on Blood, which was the more “done” of the books at that time, but in our first meeting Jeff said, “You know, I think these might actually be the same book, and they might actually have a lot to say to each other.” I thought he was crazy. Turned out he was right. Thanks, Jeff Shotts, for the National Book Award [laughs]! But that cut out a lot of the fluff from those two books. Everything that was not cutting to the heart of what those two books were trying to get at, went out. And now you had the hearts of these two collections that were able to have a conversation that I didn’t expect to have. New poems also arose from that.
CD: Was “every day is a funeral & a miracle” one of those?
DS: Yeah, that’s one of those poems I wrote only when the two books got put together.
CD: That feels like one of the moments where the topics really came together, especially in the “Hallelujah / today i rode / past five police cars / & i can tell you about it . . . Now what to do with my internal inverse. Just how will I survive the little cops running inside / my veins, hunting / white blood cells & / bang bang / i’m dead.” How do you go about even writing a poem that has two such visceral and “unrelated” topics?
DS: It was all living in my body, you know? I’m just having two different conversations: what about the mortality of my body in relation to itself, and what about the mortality of my body in relation to the nation in which I live? For that poem I just started letting them borrow from each other, letting them really intermix. How do you talk about HIV through a lens of police violence? And how do you talk about the ways in which you’re killing a body—today my rights, tomorrow my liver, my kidneys? I think it’s really about allowing yourself the freedom to mess up. The worst thing that could have happened when I wrote that is that it could have been bad. But instead of having those fears and being like, “I don’t know how to do it,” I just attempted it. It’s thinking about, OK, this is the body I live in every day, these are the things I’m thinking about, so let’s just go in and do it.
It came out in these little vignettes. There’s something about sequencing that lifts a weight for me, so I’m not trying to figure out how the whole machine works, I’m just trying to invent a nut for the first time, and invent a screw. And I don’t need to worry about how the nut and the screw are going to interact, I just know there needs to be a nut, a screw, a conveyor belt—cool. I just throw it all in a box and now it’s a machine [laughs]. It’s giving the audience, the reader, the ability to make the machine on their own. Saying, “You figure out how this happens and how these things go together. I’m just gonna give you these little bits.” I know the bits work. I’m just not sure how they go together.
CD: The publishing world is often not so nice to the long poem—
CD: —and here you went and put “summer, somewhere” the first thing in your book. I mean, that’s a power move.
DS: There was just nowhere else for it to go.
CD: I wonder if you can talk about that. How did it not go elsewhere? What was it doing?
DS: Well, that poem was a motherfucker [laughs]. At first I was writing it and thought it was one section, and it was like, nope. And so it became this long thing. And then for a while I was like, is it a book-length poem? And that ended up being a staunch no. It would have been a very different thing. There would have had to have been a lot of different things going on in that poem for it to earn being a book-length poem.
I think that poem just transports you to such a place that I didn’t know where else to put it in a manuscript. It couldn’t go in the middle because it didn’t feel right to have poems based on earth go to this fantasy mourning land and then come back to earth. It just felt too jarring. And then it didn’t make sense at the end because it felt sort of like a false hope. You can’t really talk about how fucked up America is and then imagine this place—and even though this place is beautiful, it also deals with something hard—so it just had to go in the beginning.
CD: I mean, it worked!
DS: Yeah, but it was a gamble. Shout out to Timothy Liu, because I wouldn’t have believed that a long poem could go first if it wasn’t for his joint. I think, if I’m not mistaken, Natalie Eilbert’s new book, Indictus, also starts with like a fifty-page-long poem. I think long poems are having a moment a little bit. I think folks are embracing them. Especially look at folks like Robin Coste Lewis and her brilliant Voyage of the Sable Venus, all the books by Tommy Pico—
CD: And Citizen.
DS: Yep, and Citizen, thinking about that as one long poem. It feels like the typical structure of a poetry manuscript has been short poems, long poem in the middle, and then some more short poems at the end. I don’t necessarily have any feelings about that structure, but I’m willing to honor that because it’s so hard to place long poems anywhere else. It really depends on what your long poem is, and it’s very hard to figure that out. For me, I needed to be able to dream that dream and then deal with the reality I was left with.
CD: You’ve said that you hope young boys—Black, Queer boys—get ahold of [insert] boy, the ones who need it. Do you hope that same group gets ahold of this book? Or is it for somebody different?
DS: For me Don’t Call Us Dead is really written for Black folks with HIV. I think my one critique of Don’t Call Us Dead is that the HIV+ speaker, who is me, is dying and has not yet learned what it means to live with HIV. Some of those poems end up being Homie. So I want to have that co-mourning, to say that this shit is rough, and it’s hard and it’s difficult, and it sucks. A lot. I’m sick. I’m tired. I’m sick of being sick and tired. But there is that moment of, we’ll make it. We’ll be all right. We are still deserving of love, we’re still complex emotional beings, all these things. We’re human. And your virus is not you. So I think it’s for them, and I think it’s to fight against this movement where people don’t talk about HIV and AIDS anymore.
CD: It’s not like it’s gone.
DS: Yeah, people still get it every day, and it feels like just because there’s PrEP—and who even knows about and who has access to PrEP? I meet folks every day who have no idea what PrEP is and need it. So it’s about sending up a flare, saying, “We’re still here. We’re still living.”
CD: In your touring, have you found, with this book or with [insert] boy, that people have found something in a poem that you didn’t know was there or interpreted it in a way that was surprising and interesting for you?
DS: Yes, it happens all the time, and that’s really the beauty of poetry—and publishing or art-making in general. We make the thing, and then it’s out of our hands. It’s for everybody else to have their own experience with the book, so every once in a while I get someone who comes up to me with a pretty interesting reading of a poem where they go, “Were you trying to allude to this?” or “I really saw this.” And sometimes I think that’s the universe controlling your hand without you even knowing. Like, I guess I was alluding to that shit. I don’t even know what that thing is, but I was alluding to it [laughs]. And I think it just shows the slipperiness of language. We work so hard to get the exact meaning, and still somebody else can draw something else from it. I think that’s beautiful.
CD: People are going to see things that are meaningful to them.
CD: Now I have a few questions that are down to the word level. There are two times in the book where it seems like the poem is pushing back against the reader. So, for example, in “not elegy” where it says—
DS: “reader, what does it feel like to be safe? white?”
CD: Yes! And in “summers somewhere” when it says, “you are not welcome here, trust the trip will kill you,” and that one especially is so interesting because depending on who reads it, it means something different. You know, a Black boy reads it and hopefully they’re not welcome because they’re still living. And anybody else—especially a white person—it’s like, this is not meant for you, this is the one place where you don’t get to be. And that’s so powerful but really interesting because the Whitmanian idea of poetry is that it’s supposed to pull people closer and be communal, whereas these moments are not concerned with that. They’re pushing at the reader. What’s that craft voice like?
DS: I’m very interested in breaking the fourth wall. There’s a lot of breaking of the fourth wall in [insert] boy, which is one of my favorite techniques. I used to do a lot of theater back in the day, and any time there was a breaking of the fourth wall I felt like that was my jam. And when I was writing my own plays in college, there was always a moment where there was a hint-hint, wink-wink, or I would go into the audience and pull somebody onto the stage, or some shit like that. So as much as poets say we’re not thinking about the reader, I always like to turn and wink and say, “Hey, I’m not thinking about you, but I know you’re in the room” [laughs]. And there is a pulling closer that happens in the pushing away, and I want to shock the reader sometimes into being aware of their own bodies. Especially a white reader. I think it can be so voyeuristic and weirdly pleasurable for white folks, sometimes, to read about situations of violence against people of color, and so that is a moment, especially in “not elegy,” where I’m just trying to have a moment of, “Hey, we’ve been talking about my body and bodies like mine for a long-ass time, and I want you to now feel yours. I want you to be aware of your legs a little bit.”
CD: Like you were saying, I’m not writing this for you, but I know you’re here.
DS: I know you’re here, so now we’re going to address you real quick, and I’m going to go back to not paying attention to you [laughs]. But for that brief moment it’s sort of checking in, like, “Hey, you still have a body and are you complicit?”
CD: During the podcast recording at AWP, you were wearing a sweatshirt that said “words mean things.”
DS: Shout out to The Read, my favorite podcast.
CD: So in that vein, in this book you capitalize words like Trayvon, Othello, America, HIV, but not I. Can you talk about that choice?
DS: Oh, I stole that from Nate Marshall, who stole that from Gwendolyn Brooks.
CD: But what does it mean to you?
DS: It just looks pretty. I mean, my reasons are more purely . . .
DS: Yeah, I don’t like the capital “I.” I don’t like a lot of capital letters. I think lowercase letters are very pretty in the poem. And it brings everything down to the same level as much as possible, and then I usually let my editors argue with me about what should be capitalized in my uncapitalized world. And Nate Marshall said he likes that the little “i” with the dot looks like a little Black boy with his head floating. And I was like, “Aw! I want little Black boys on all my poems!”
CD: I love that! So in the Tarfia Faizullah podcast you were talking about learning to love your language, and one thing I noticed you said a few times is “woo woo.” I don’t hear many people say that. Can you talk about what “woo woo” means to you? And what is “woo woo” about you?
DS: I suggest reading Angel Nafis’s poem “Woo Woo Roll Deep” on Buzzfeed, but “woo woo” is just anything that’s slightly magical and mystical, but also it’s a bit ghetto and bougie. Tarot cards are woo woo, keeping some crystals is woo woo, superstitions are woo woo. All the things you do that feel like they come from an older knowledge are woo woo.
CD: You have a lot of crystal rings, I’ve noticed.
DS: Yes, I’m very woo woo in that. I keep a broom against my door to block out the bad spirits.
CD: Sounds like you’re describing my apartment.
DS: Yeah, I think the way I set up my apartment is very woo woo. How I like the light coming into the room, how I set up everything, certain things that I do when I cook are woo woo. I can get real woo woo when someone is sick and I’m healing them—I have all my little woo woo tricks. So “woo woo” for me is being open to the possibility that there is a knowledge that’s less tangible and a medicine that you can’t touch.
CD: I like that! All right, last question: Here the staff jokes about looking for submissions that have “Boothiness.” It’s our X factor, I suppose. Like, you could use a person’s name to say, “She just Jane-ed me” or “That’s such a Jane move.” If you turned your name into a noun like “Daneziness” or a verb, “to Danez,” what would that mean?
DS: Oh, it’s a little too raw for this interview!
CD: Okay, then maybe a PG-13 version.
DS: If you look at somebody and then blink a moment later and they’re halfway across the room and halfway up the wall, maybe they’re just “Danezin’ out” over there.
CD: That sounds like a horror movie.
DS: I’m kind of a horror movie [laughs]. Like, if the girl from The Ring crawled out of your TV but was just like, “Biiiiish,” and handed you some Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, I think that’d be me.
CD: OK, that’s amazing.
DS: Yeah, she’s not gonna kill you, she’s just gonna hang out and then go back into the TV. That’s me.
CD: Maybe leave some crystals behind. Rearrange your brooms.
DS: Maybe she does a quick little tarot reading, you know? She brings you some Popeye’s, reads the bones, and then that’s it.