by Lauren K. Alleyne
Love—a radical, inclusive, and transformative love—undergirds the work of poet Danez Smith. In the world of Smith’s poems, love is abundant: these poems love Black people, queer people, God, kin and self and strangers alike. These poems decenter through love, erasing margins and reconfiguring the world as a space in which the marginalized body is worthy, the dismissed spirit is honored. They imagine lovingly. They critique lovingly. They mourn and celebrate and insist lovingly.
Within this powerful framework, Smith’s poems offer a rigorous exploration of the systems we inhabit that corrupt love, that work instead through fear, oppression and division. Which is to say, there is no fluff here. Love is claimed as a powerful ally against injustice, a force harnessed in service of a greater good. There is love enough, these poems argue, to make a new world if we choose to, and they proceed to do just that. “summer somewhere,” the opening poem to Smith’s newly released collection Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017), for example, posits a radical counter-reality that sees, nurtures and loves killed Black boys in a heaven where they get to experience what it’s like to “live/on land who loves [them] back.” In this way, the poems constantly hold before us the chasm between the possibility of actualized love and the realities we inhabit:
please, don’t call
us dead, call us alive someplace better.
we say our own names when we pray.
we go out for sweets & come back.
The poems also show the difficulty of loving in the world as it exists. We are flawed, human, and fall short of our own possibilities. “& even the black guy’s profile reads sorry no black guys” shows how we have all been diminished in our capacity to love both ourselves and each other, and demonstrates a compassionate resistance: “if no one has told you, you are beautiful & lovable & black & enough & so—you pretty you—am i.”
Love, does, however, have its limits. In “dear white america,” Smith writes, “i tried to love you but you spent my brother’s funeral making plans for brunch, talking too loud next to his bones.” Excising hate, willful apathy and destructive blindness is also part of the work of love these poems manifest. Ultimately, Smith’s work serves as a call to love and act courageously, to expand our capacity for compassion and care, and to “Let ruin end here.”
In the studio at James Madison University, I spoke with Smith about how poetry can be a tool in the work of making better our imperfect yet wonderful world.
Smith is the author of [insert] Boy (YesYes Books, 2014), which won the 2014 Lambda Literary Award; the chapbook, Black Movie (Button Poetry, 2015); and Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017), which is currently a National Book Award Finalist.
Tell me about how you came to poetry.
So I started writing the earliest things that I could call poems around the eighth grade. I had this notebook that I covered in duct tape, and it said “Danez’s Thoughts & Ideas” in a Sharpie on it. And so there were poem-ish things that I didn’t know to call poems, words, maybe diary entries. There were also drawings and writings about my theories on time and how the universe worked and other weird stuff, and then extremely horrible misogynistic rap—very, very bad raps that were just like complete lies about all the women I didn’t want and cars I didn’t have—that I was trying to emulate from all my favorite rappers.
And then in ninth grade, my school, Minnesota Central High School, had a very storied social justice based theater program that I got involved in through my teacher Jan Mandell. The whole purpose of the class was to get us to think about social justice through the lens of theater. We wrote our own plays. We didn’t worry about learning scripts or all that, and part of writing our own plays and these community theater pieces was writing monologues. But they weren’t monologues per se because we didn’t necessarily have characters; instead everybody was talking about whatever social justice issues we decided we needed to address.
And then Paul Florez and Rafael Casal, these two poets who were based in the Bay Area at the time, came to our high school through Youth Speaks and Brave New Voices and performed for us, and it was amazing. We all looked at each other because we hadn’t realized that what we’d been writing as monologues were actually poems. They [Flores and Casal] were doing a better version of what we’d been doing. This was also the same time that Def Poetry was on HBO, bringing spoken word into the national consciousness again, and for me, for a long time, poetry had been dead. I didn’t realize there were people living who wrote it. We’d never been shown a living poet in school. And so we really latched on to it. Once we saw them, we were like, “Cool! We’re poets! We love poetry!” So we started a little open mic in our school, and the next year we organized a team to go to Brave New Voices International Teen Poetry Slam for the first time, which was in The Hague that year. And I was hooked. Ever since then, I’ve been okay/comfortable calling myself a poet.
Tell me a little bit about Brave New Voices and your experience with it.
Brave New Voices will be in its twentieth year in 2017. Youth Speaks is the local organization that focuses on bringing spoken word and hip hop to youth in the Bay Area, and Brave New Voices is the national organization. Youth Speaks is the largest national spoken word organization out there. Brave New Voices is one of their national programs that brings 500 to 600 youth from all over the world—English-speaking countries, mainly—to whatever city it’s hosted in that year, just for a festival of poetry and social justice, and getting to meet each other. I went for the first time in 2005, and it blew my mind! Not only did I know there were living poets now, but they all looked like me, and they were my age. It was completely transformative to experience that and to see that poetry was something viable and real and to know that it was still affecting people’s lives and that it was still harboring a community for folks. And so for me, falling in love with poetry through Brave New Voices and through my local community in Minneapolis was always a gift—poetry was there, but also there was that gift of community that it gave me, you know? Immediately in poetry for me, from the very genesis of my time as a poet, was communing with folks. It was about being in a room and sharing ideas. It was about creating and making each other laugh, and making each other think, and asking each other questions. So Brave New Voices was really mind blowing for me because it immediately shifted my mind about poetry from some solitary act to this global experience.
You’re a member of two collectives, Sad Boy Supper Club and Dark Noise. How are they different? What’s your role in them? How do they help you with your writing?
Sad Boy Supper Club is maybe a step below a collective. What had happened was … [Laughs] myself and three other poets Sam Sax, Cam Awkward-Rich, and Hieu Minh Nguyen were already a group of friends, and we wanted to slam together one time, so we went to the Rustbelt Poetry Slam, which is a regional poetry slam, and we just had a great time. Also, the folks of the Sad Boy Supper Club are some of my first readers. I think it’s important to note I never really had other queer friends, and so they’re my first group of friends that identified as queer that I have a lot of ties with.
Dark Noise was different. Dark Noise was actually brought together and formed in a very particular way. It was the brainchild of Fatimah Asghar and Aaron Samuels, and they sort of invited us all to have a conversation about what making a collective would look like. When Dark Noise came together we were all twenty-three; we were all at a similar stage in our careers and trying to figure out if we had careers; and it was just a space for us to sort of … feel. We needed a space where we could say the things that were uncomfortable to say in public spaces, a space to feel like our art was cared for and was insulated. We were all transitioning from the spoken word/slam realm to the literary world, which immediately felt more white and harsh to us. And so we were all very scared and didn’t know what it meant to have all these white folks looking at our work now. And, you know, both of those places I think about as homes—all the collectives.
With Dark Noise, when we were first talking about what we were besides a group of friends who love each other—and I do think that it’s important that we center love—everybody was more a performance collective or people who had open mics. But Dark Noise was different from that. We didn’t even live in the same city. We were six artists living in about five different cities, and that’s shifted all over the place since then. But we wanted to be radical and intentional about the ways in which we loved each other. And Dark Noise is really the only experience I ever had like that. With Sad Boys, I was friends with all of them to various degrees before we came together, and [the collective] solidified much of our friendships for me. And naming it felt important. Dark Noise was really an experiment in love for me. I didn’t know several members of the collective when we met up. But I remember we met at Jamila and Fati’s apartment in Chicago in the winter of 2012, and it was a magical energy in the room; it was something so spiritual. Having folks in this great literary landscape that are not as concerned about the words but are concerned about the vessel that is me, and that also support the words as well: that is what Dark Noise does for me. That is a very special thing. And I love seeing different collectives and people naming themselves. There is a power to naming these friendships and relationships we all have. But to be intentional about the ways in which I care for people: that’s what those collectives bring to me.
I want to step back to the idea of audience. You mentioned stepping back from the world of performance to the literary page, which you say felt harsher and whiter. I’m interested in that idea. As a creator, who are you thinking of when you write? You’ve said in some places that you write for the “queer Black boy,” almost in some sense for the self you were, and that’s really clear and present in [insert] boy and in Black Movie, but then you address other readers in your poems, too. “Short Film” for example, says “ … dear reader, what does it feel like to be safe and white?” That tells me that you’re aware of another audience, so how do you think about audience as you’re writing and scripting the work?
This is not a simple question. I think about audience all the time. I think it’s probably a question I’ll wrestle with for the rest of my artistic life! My first mind is usually to say that I’m writing for me, but that’s never really true, I think, because I come from a performance background, and there’s always a second thought behind the I’m just writing this for me that asks, What is this going to sound like in the ears of other people? and Who is this going to be useful for?
I’m usually writing for Black folks, I think, because that’s who I am of. I love to write poems that my family can engage with, the folks that I grew up with can engage with. In that question of audience for me is also a question of accessibility. I’m oftentimes interested in having widely accessible work that can be engaged with both by somebody who never engaged with poetry but is also interested in the work and the seasoned poetry reader. But then I think there’re a lot of times, too, when I think about the white gaze. When I first started being a writer in the public sense I was very taken aback by the idea of the white gaze, and what that did to my work, and what it meant. A lot of my early poems, at least early in terms of publishing, were very mournful and tried to mourn for Black people in a particular way—even a lot of the first poems in [Insert] Boy. But once I was aware that there were so many folks that didn’t know how to feel about that mourning in public, and about letting people into our intimate spaces, and about letting people into our Black and miraculous and fragile psyche, I wanted to do something with that looking. As in, If I have your attention, what am I going to do with it? If I know that you are engaging with my work, if I know you as an outsider who I might consider my kin, how do I manipulate your viewing of me so that it’s useful for the people that I’m usually writing about? You know, I know you’re looking; what am I gonna say to you now that I have your attention? And that is also an attempt to challenge the reader, especially the non-Black reader, or the non-queer reader, and also to invite them in in a particular kind of way. If we know that they’re looking, we can challenge them but also invite them to play, to take that step in. And not to step in to be comfortable, but to step in to wrestle. That’s become important to me. That question of audience is often hard, and sometimes I don’t know until the second or third or fourth draft of a poem who I’m really trying to write for.
Let’s talk about the process of writing a poem. Where does it begin? What are the stages you move through?
You know, I think I’ve gone through various modes of how I write. How I’m writing depends on my life at the moment. A lot of the poems from Black Movie, for example, started on my phone, and a lot of the poems in my next book, Don’t Call Us Dead, too. I was living in the Bay Area, and I had a 15 – 20 minute train ride to and from work, and there was nothing to do on the BART but stand there—your phone service doesn’t work, there’s all these tunnels—so if I wasn’t reading a book, I wrote on my phone and I knew I could get a pretty okay draft of something done in the time it took to go to and from work. Many of my poems started there. And then there’ve been other times in my life where I’ve had more strategic writing processes; I’m thinking of Sad Boy Supper Club. Me and Sam Sax would for a long time just sit up all night on Facebook Messenger, just talking back and forth, and if one of us got silent for a while, we knew they were writing a poem. I know for Black Movie, Sam saw all those poems, because some nights I’d just sit up and write three of them, because I was talking to a friend, and we were talking about life and poetry, and then he’d say something that’d spark something in me, and I’d go away and type away, and I’d be like, Here, read this, I just wrote it in the last 15 minutes. And so that’s where a lot of that comes from.
Right now, poems have been coming a little bit slower. I used to be a very fast writer. I used to be the type of dude that was writing 5, 6, 10 poems a week. Even if I didn’t use them all, I know I made words happen on the page. I can’t be that dude anymore. Now I look back and think, What were you on?! Now it’s a bit slower, now a bit of language comes to me, just a tiny bit, a fragment, and I’ll wrestle with it for a while. I have a little notebook (okay a lot of notebooks— some are small, some are huge and would take up this whole table) where I’d just write a phrase down a couple times, and it wouldn’t really announce itself, or what it wants me to do with it yet. I think about it while I’m grocery shopping, think about it while I’m in the shower. Eventually, I’ll sit down and write out the poem. Now I think I want the language to be more precious and rare. I think that’s required me to slow down a little bit. I think I’ve written all the poems that I know how to write. And now I’m trying to move into that space where I’m writing into the unknown, and writing to surprise myself. And that happens all the time; I think that’s how you know you’re having a growth spurt, that moment when you’re bored with yourself. I’m on the precipice of one: I need it to happen.
What’s your biggest challenge right now? Is it time? Is it getting the work together? What’s hard?
Right now the biggest challenge isn’t time per se … I think it is that element of surprise. I was just telling Fati the other day that I haven’t written a lot of poems lately, and by lately I mean two to three months, that have really… shocked me or surprised me. I’ve written poems that I knew I could write, and I think they’re good poems; they’re standard Danez hits. Sort of like you know Beyonce is going to give you a particular kind of song, and every album you look forward to that song. Or like Gucci Mane (I’m really big into rap) so like Gucci Mane and Azaelia Banks write the same song over and over again, and I know how to make the same kind of poem over and over again. So now it’s really just trying to reach towards and away from lexicons and dialects that I own. Like I want to write thriller poems that use the language that I use all the time when I’m talking with my homies, that raise Black dialect to the level of intellect, and that still wrestles with stuff but within the Black dialect. And I also want to reach away from what I know and find words and phrasings and thoughts and fragments that I don’t necessary deal with. And I’m having … I dunno if I’m having trouble with the poems, but I’m having trouble with my own patience. You know, I have to let it build. And I think I am learning how to not pump stuff out so fast, which is hard for me because I just want it to hurry up and come, but sometimes a poem takes two months or three months or a year to write, and it’s hard! And so now it’s getting used to that slowness, and being okay to wallow in the thought is what I’m struggling with right now.
And also I want to move past grief. I want to move past shame. And I think that grief is definitely a useful emotion and a necessary one, but I am really interested in trying to find the poetics of joy right now, in trying to find those more nuanced and quiet places that I can look. I think for a long time I have looked to the loudest thing in the room, and written about it, and I’m trying to see what I’ve left unnoticed.
I want to follow up on the idea of a “poetics of joy” and a search for the “quiet things.” I watched your TED Talk, and in it you talked about that idea of being asked a question that then sparks something, some sort of ‘open door.’ What questions are you trying to name now?
Right now in my writing, I’m asking myself a lot of questions about friendship, and what the texture of that particular kind of love is, and what the basic necessity of a friend is. I’ve been having a lot of thoughts about the difference between when you grow up and have your family— you know, you love your mom because she’s your mom, but also because she feeds you and makes sure you have things, and buys you toys—and the idea of friendship. Your first friend is the first person you love that doesn’t provide you with anything but love, and that [understanding that] I necessitate nothing from you but you is a very interesting thing for me. And I want to figure out where we really hold friendship in our hearts and what are the particulars of that. And so I am writing about my friends a lot right now, and it’s fun.
It seems very clear that your self and all the ways that you think about self are the source of the poetry, and you’ve said in other places, “It’s me.” And the word confessional is itself a contested label to give to one’s work; I want to know what you think is necessary about the confessional? What’s important about writing or claiming the confessional?
There’s something so brutally honest about the confessional, but also it’s the way I was raised, you know? When I think about the confessional, I do think about all those great confessional authors that have led us to now, but I also think about church, and how I grew up, and the idea of confessing, and the idea of admitting, and offering it up. I come from a very Christian background: Baptist. And I think about all the times it was just like, “Let go. Let God.” You need to admit it, then lay your burdens down, and for me that’s what makes me feel the most clean. I need to write these confessional poems so that I can be clean. And I need to write in such a way that you see the dirt, you know, that you don’t always see the mucky water, but I want you to see the pieces of that dirt in there. I want you to feel that soot. And so the confessional for me is instinctual. It’s an honesty that I think I’ve been indoctrinated into. And maybe a dishonesty, too—I lie hella in those poems! [Laughs] But there’s still something true in there!
And I think for me in that question of audience and that question of accessibility also lies the roadmap to why I am so confessional. To confess, I think, means to be clear. You can’t really have a foggy confession—that’s not really confessing. You can, but, you know, it’s like saying Hey Pastor, I did some thangs. You can’t say that. You have to say the thing that was done, so I think that in that question of accessibility, it’s not also just giving people accessibility to what I’m trying to say, or my experience, but it’s also giving me access to myself. When I kind of move my own mirrors out of the way and I open up all those doors, and finally get to see clearly to the root of me … And that’s what I think confession does.
What does it do for the audience or the reader?
I think it invites them in, whether they want to be invited in or not I hope … well, I’ve heard it from folks, and I’m glad I’ve heard it, that they read my work, and they’re able to admit things to themselves, or they’re able to finally start to talk about the stories in their lives that they weren’t able to talk about. They’ll say “I’ve never seen somebody say this so bare, or say this so brave.” I’ve heard the word bravery thrown around, and I don’t know if its bravery, but I hope that it allows folks to stand up in themselves a little harder. And I hope it allows them, if not to speak that honesty or to speak that clearly about themselves, then to at least engage with it within themselves internally.
And then there’s the question of not just confessional poetry, but poetry in general. This is always a loaded question, but you write and talk about writing about grief, Blackness, “Black as hell poems,” queer poems, into violence and a very, very imperfect world. What’s a poet’s job or a poem’s job in terms of relating to that imperfect world?
Hmm … I think about poems as gathering grounds. You know I think we all can gather in a poem and really meditate on something, or commune around something, or feast on something. I think that’s tied to my coming to poetry through spoken word, which was a very blessed experience because I don’t necessarily understand the idea of the lonely poet toiling away in the night; for me the act of poetry is always necessitated by other people. You can’t be a spoken word artist by yourself. Or maybe you can? [Laughs] And so that idea of what we do when we gather, you know, what do we do together? We commune; we laugh; we cry; we mourn; we praise; we destroy; we build. I want the poem to be all that. I think poetry at its best creates co-conspirators in the work. Somebody comes into the poem and they become a partner in healing or your partner in mourning, or they become an activist homie in the work. It gets us riled up; it calms us down. But I think what poetry does at its best is offer that human connection.
I’m not interested per se in poetry that seeks to push people out or poetry that blocks you from getting to its heart. Though sometimes I like it. I think every type of poetry is cool sometimes, but for me I think of Lucille Clifton, I think of Amiri Baraka, I think of Langston Hughes, I think of a lot of the great Def poets, I think of Suheir Hammad, I think about all these folks whose work for me has always been about inviting people, not only into the poet’s experience, but into their own experience, and inviting people to leave the poem and shout some shit out in the real world. And so that’s what I think poems offer us. They offer us temporary sanctuary, but after we leave that space, either we take a little bit of that sanctuary with us, or we go back into the world knowing about that imperfectness, and we leave with maybe a tiny tool to help perfect it a little bit more.
I want to go to the idea of the body, which is in these poems. There’s an interesting tension inherent in writing about the body: it’s what you’re in, it’s your vehicle; but it also is or can become abstract in the poem. I’m going to quote you to yourself: “The body is too sacred to be left out of my poems.”
Oooh! I said that?
You said that! So, talk to me about the body, about writing the body, and how you do that.
You know, as a Black queer man-looking thing moving throughout the world, I ain’t got no choice but to think about the body. My body is a point of contention all of my life, you know? How my body moves through space either as an actor or as an endangered artifact in this American context; how my body desires other bodies or pushes up against other bodies, and how that’s supposedly supposed to make me burn in some place; every act that my body can take, even just existing is dangerous, and so I’m always thinking about my body. But at the same time I think that the body is so holy and it’s beautiful. I think when you know the danger your body is in you have a different relationship to it, and you know just how precious that is because you know just how easy it is to lose it. And so I am always thinking about my body not even just in poems but as I move throughout the world—thinking about how I offer up my body to other people, whether that be through work or how I feed other people or whatever. It’s unavoidable. Wait. What was the question? I’m sorry! I’m just like, I’m gonna go on about the body!
How do you deal with that in language? What are some of the tools you take to all of that complexity?
Fleda Brown, an amazing poet from Michigan, did a Q&A one time at my MFA program and said that in order to really write about something, you should try to write away from it for a very long time. And I think I spent a very long time trying to write away from the body, and I know that there’s something very important that keeps on pulling me back. I’ll try my hardest to not talk about the body, especially like hands and mouths, which are my two favorite things to ever put in a poem, and they always come up, and I’m like, Okay, I tried to write away from you and here you are, so you deserve to be here. Like, Hi hand, hi mouth, good to see y’all again. I just deal with it because I don’t know any other vessel with which to touch other things in my poems, you know? It’s going back to that idea of the confessional, right? I think I have a hard time thinking about that idea that the lyric ‘I’ is just this voice speaking out into anonymous space. I dunno how to disembody the voice from the body, especially when my body is all that people use or need to make an assumption about me. My body speaks for me before I even say anything, and so if I am going to be this voice speaking into a room, my body has to be present; my body is what colors and textures that voice, my body is what holds that voice, and so… you know, it’s hard. I don’t know how to talk about the things I talk about and not bring in the body. I don’t know how to talk about queerness divorced from the body; I don’t know how to talk about race divorced from the body; I don’t know how to talk about God divorced from the body.
So for me the body is my link to everything else I write in my poetry. You know, it is about that physical act of touch that, as a person, is very important to me. I’m very touch heavy. It’s my love language. (Have you ever taken that test? It’s a good test! You’ve got to take the love language test!) I’m very heavy on touch, and so the body is that catalyst, is that bridge to everything else in my work. I can’t really engage with the world without first contending with this tiny world that I have.
I’m going to zone in on that tiny world, because you brought up queerness and race and I want to talk about gender and the specific role of it. [Insert] Boy is gendered, and I know you prefer gender-neutral pronouns, but there’s an emphatic masculinity, I want to say, in [Insert] Boy—a challenge to it, an exploration of it—so I want to know how you see gender in general, but also how you work with that note in the poems.
I identify as gender neutral, but I cannot divorce myself from boyness in any type of way. I’ve spent so much of my life being a boy and being socialized as a boy; no matter how I view myself I will always be my mother’s son— I will always be a grandson; I will always be the boy in the family. And I love boyness in that way. I do have a lot of fond memories of that. But romantically, I sleep with men—I say I’ll whatever with anybody, but most of the time they tend to be men more often than not—so I’m constantly wrestling with boyness, and I think I will for the rest of my life. The next book definitely contends with that, too. It’s how I learned to see the world; it’s how the world sees me.
And I always think about the shackles of masculinity. Masculinity is a sad thing. Men are so desperate to be not-men, or to find a new way of doing it, Good Lord! And so I think for me a lot of that wrestling with masculinity that happens in [Insert] Boy is me questioning and wrestling with my gender as well, and really thinking about if I do wear this moniker of boy, of man, what does that mean? What tribe am I a part of then? What histories do I hold if I am that? And I think that I am that, and I wonder oftentimes, too, how my race makes my gender even more complicated. For a long time, I didn’t identify as gender queer because I had only seen it filtered through a white body, and I’d never seen other black folks who were still wrestling with gender. I’d met transfolk, but never anybody who was in that liminal space. And so I mean it’s still very new for me and I’m trying to think about it, although it feels true. And oftentimes I even wonder what my gender would look like if I maybe had less of a strong relationship to my family, or if sometimes I say, if my grandmother wasn’t alive… I care a lot about that woman, and being gay was hard enough … the gay thing was one thing, but I dunno if grandma can handle …
“Danez killed grandma!”
Yes, “Danez killed grandma. He showed up to Thanksgiving in some heels and micro braids…” and as much as I would love to do that, I mean, these are things that I think about, right? And so it’s like, what does gender mean as a peace that we negotiate with other people and with the world and what that intimate space is. And I think that what I’m trying to do is a play on masculinity: If we are to be men—cis men—in this masculine way. How does that body, that vessel, mean? How do we negotiate with the world around us? How does the world negotiate us and deal with us? And I think especially in that idea of violence and danger, right? Gender neutral or not, I have a Black man body, and I think about that. There’s no person of color, whatever gender, that doesn’t walk through the world wondering/knowing how dangerous that is, and so until I don’t, until I am not read as a Black man, or until the Black man identity is not as feared or unfairly mythical as it is, then I will always have to have these questions about my shape within the world. So masculinity is a tricky thing: I hate it. I hate it. I hate men so much. We’re horrible people! We do such bad things!
But again, I think there’s a wrestling because I think there’s also a tenderness to the boy, a tenderness for men in [Insert] Boy.
Well they need it, you know! I think that’s what’s missing from a lot of the common discourse about manhood: it’s tenderness. It gets to be such a hard, amorphous, just like—not amorphous, amorphable? Is that a word? It is this unmovable monument that so many men are stuck in. I want to bring softness. The masculine cannot exist without the feminine; it has to engage with it in some way, and who says that femininity is necessarily soft? But I want to bring that tenderness. I want to bring that softness. I want to introduce men to a wider side of manhood and to think about what it means to need, to be held, to need love, to need quiet, to need … to need. And to be okay with that needing is a lot of what I’m trying to do, and you know, I hope—especially for my straight Black men homies—that they can get past the queer stuff and see that there is a need for us to engage with vulnerability.
I think the poem about your grandfather is one that really wrestles with that, right? Here’s this guy at the end of his life who comes to need to be held to do things, and there’s almost a lifelong unlearning that has to happen by force in the poem.
You said “mythical.” So I’m going to turn to myth. Black Movie takes on The Lion King, Sleeping Beauty, fairy tales, the Bible—as does [Insert] Boy—all of these huge cultural narratives. Talk to me a little bit about your relationship to those bigger stories and how you work with them in a poem.
I’ve always been obsessed with the mythic, with the imaginative, in some way. I’m a big comic book head. I’m always up in somebody’s alternate-reality TV show and cartoon and all that kind of stuff. All that stuff fascinates me. And so those same desires are what gets me interested in the Bible—which could be a cartoon or could be a comic book very easily, you know—and the Greeks. I’m always obsessed with how we blend the magical and the real, and I think that is the space that I live in a lot of the time. I do believe in these types of things and I’m very interested in how the spiritual and unreal is real in our lives and so I think a lot of my work does seek to smash those right up against one another. You know, something like the Bible, I’m trying to subvert. I’m trying to take the Bible and push queerness inside of it, or take God, you know … I can’t write a sex poem without using some religious imagery somewhere in there, and it is recognizing this holiness that feels of my upbringing, but also feels instinctual.
I’m interested in language that lifts us into the surreal, because we are surreal beings. We’re real and we’re also surreal, and you know, we dream, which is the most surreal thing in the world. Any creature that has the ability to fabricate all these worlds within its mind subconsciously is worthy of bringing that same type of fabric-making that we have in dreams into our real world and into our writing. Through dealing with the surreal and dealing with the imaginative, we also show the real life possibilities of things. So if I want to show you that we live in this flawed world, I want to make it flawed in a way that’s so fantastic that it reaches past your understanding of the flawed world in a way that lets you come back to the flaw, thinking, but also to point us toward better realities, too. Ross Gay said in this panel one time that if we want to have a world without prisons, then we have to write about worlds without prisons, so that way people know that’s possible, right? And I think for me that’s ringing true a lot lately, so I’ve been trying to use myth and magic to lift us into safety and to lift us into freedom and to lift us into newer possibilities. Through the surreal we get that exaggeration for our audience and our readers that allows them to settle back into their own worlds, but a little bit extended, stretched. You know, you stretch it all the way out, so that way you come back a little bit bigger than you were before.
Luke Cage? What do you think?
I have not watched too many episodes of it, but he is fine. He is definitely fine. I do not appreciate the respectability politics of it. You know, he had that whole thing in the second episode about the N-word, and I was just like, Get away. But the women on that show are fantastic. And I do love that Luke Cage has always been a character for decades now.
I’m not a comic head, so I don’t know the back-story.
Oh, yeah. So Luke Cage was Blaxploitation Superman, had been with his lil afro back in the day. There’s always been something to the bulletproof Black man that is such a … and especially in this moment, right? So the fact that Luke Cage in 2016 is getting this hit TV show is big! And that’s always what I loved about Marvel is that they’re not scared to actually raise our world, to actually use their characters to say something very strong about our world. Before Luke Cage, it was Jessica Jones, who is this woman who has all these powers, whose whole storyline was dealing with domestic abuse, and trying to get rid of this lover. And I love that Marvel is not scared to take it there and to really give people powers that would be useful in the real world. How many of us wish to be Luke Cage? I wish we could be bulletproof in those moments. And so, yeah, it’s phenomenal in some ways. But there’s also other things that I kinda side eye.
So the other theme I noticed resonates both in the book and in your comments during other interviews, and I think even just when you’re talking; you reference this idea of multiples—multiple realities, multiple gods, multiple selves. Tell me more about why that idea of plurality is so intriguing to you?
You know, I like me some Whitman. I am large. I contain multitudes of crazy motherfuckas. But I like playing with how we view a thing. I like the idea that I can show you this—my own body, let’s say—from six different vantage points, and over here I look like a fish, and over here I look like a tree, and over here I look like a halfway decrepit building, and over here I look like a fire hydrant, whatever. I like playing with those views because it goes back to that idea of mythic-ness. I always like the gods that could turn into a thing. You know Zeus (problematic a character as he is): I like that sometimes he’s a swan, sometimes he’s a cloud of gold dust coming down and descending on folks, and I like to think that in poetry I’m allowed to live these other experiences in that same way. In poetry I am allowed to be winged; I am allowed to exist in ways that this physical reality does not let me, and so there’s a lot in those multitudes, a lot of childhood imaginations; when you’re a kid you want to be everything when you grow up, and in poetry that’s my way to be everything. I like blurring those lines between what’s a god and what’s human, you know, the ways in which we are godly. Those multitudes allow me to play with that image and to play dress up—to drag—as these different entities in a cool way.
Tell me about what you’re working on now.
So, my next book is gone; it’s away from me. [Laughs]. It’s called Don’t Call Us Dead and it’s closely related to [Insert] Boy and Black Movie, I think. Well, in some ways. There’s a long poem in there called “summer somewhere,” which I think is a more accurate attempt of something that I tried to do in [Insert] Boy with the poem “Song of the Wreckage,” which was supposed to be a quadruple sestina that failed … it was bad …
Quadruple sestina: Twenty-four 24-line poems. I wrote them. They were trash. I kept eight. But “summer somewhere” seeks to build an imagined paradise or heaven that is exclusive to murdered Black men and boys. And so there are those same themes of violence, but this time I’m much more interested in healing than I am in grieving—although that sense of grief is there. But then it contends with my own mortality. I was diagnosed with HIV in 2014, and a lot of the book stems from there, and this sudden shift that I had from this fear of the external world and what it would do to my body to now this internal view of what might body could do to itself. And so it wrestles with those differences; some of the poems I wrote when I got diagnosed, and I was trying to process and sort of learning to live with this virus and what it means to renegotiate mortality. And then there’re some poems that blur those two worlds together: What does it mean to be? To live in a world where the world and your body are both coming at you at the same time? So that’s the next book, and then, there’s a chapbook about friendship that’ll come out at some point. Maybe that’ll be a full book one day—I like writing about my friends.
So what’s that process like? Do you say, “I’m gonna write a book,” or do you write a poem at a time and then amass them? And then what’s the process of moving from “here’s a scrap of language” to “Here’s a poem” to “Here’s a collection that I’m gonna shape and organize and them present to the world?” What’s that movement?
Black Movie was very intentional about being a book. I wrote “Dinosaurs in the Hood,” in January 2014 and then a month later I was like, Oh, I wonder if I could do that again?! And for a long time that was my process. I have so many series of poems that will never see the world because they’re trash, but if I wrote one thing, I would always try to dig the well until it’s just empty. And so Black Movie was like “Dinosaurs in the Hood” happened—that was the first poem (it was the last poem in the book)—and the second was “Sleeping Beauty in the Hood” (which is the first poem in the book). I was really trying to dive into this idea, and I found myself obsessed with trying to write through this lens of film.
[Insert] Boy was just a modge podge: like, I want a book! And what could it be about? And it’s actually interesting; the version of the book that got accepted by YesYes is completely different than the version that eventually got published. I think there’s something like thirteen poems that were in what got accepted as compared to what actually got published, so basically a complete overhaul.
But yeah, I think a lot of times I do have that same question, like if I have a question I’ll write the poem I’ll know the poem doesn’t answer the question completely, and so its about trying to write those other poems that kind of complete the question that sort of make up the answer to that one simple question. But then sometimes it’s by accident, like this friendship stuff. It was very much by accident. I just looked up in the middle of summer and I was like, If I had to have a book right now—I was in my MFA program, so, I was like Oh, I have to write a thesis next year,soif I had to have a thesis tomorrow what would it be about? And I was like Oh, I got like thirty-five pages of new poems about friends, and oh, well this is half way there. But oftentimes, I don’t know what I’m interested in. A lot of times for me it’s the poem, then the poems, and then, eventually, maybe, the book.
Do you have a secret or a trick for organization of a collection? You have done it twice…
I know. You want me to reveal my tricks. My only secret is that I always try to end with joy. I understand that I write a lot about heavy stuff, but my only thing is that you should leave the book uplifted. Even if we move through hell and high water, I want always want people to leave the book feeling like something else is possible, and like we’re moving toward solutions, and feel like we’re moving toward joy. That’s my only thing with how I tend to order. So now, all the books I ever publish will tend to joy [Laughs]. It’s really the only thing. Otherwise it’s just about putting it all out there and asking the poems to talk to you, and really that’s kinda what my friends are for. I’ll be like, Listen, I feel this is where it’s supposed to start, this is how it ends, tell me how the middle goes …
What is something that keeps you sane outside of writing?
Cooking. Especially for other people. Or just for me. When I’m sad I make myself a steak. And working out. Which is new. (Well, it was like that, and then it wasn’t like that, and now it is like that again, where if I haven’t run for a couple days I’m very aware of it.) It helps to clear my head. And then, you know, I am a very big location person, and so I know that I’m not okay if I haven’t been to Minneapolis in a long time, and I think actually that’s where I need to live for the rest of my life, because I know how to be there. I know who I am there. And there’s nothing better than sitting on my porch with my grandma; we split a watermelon—and [Laughs] yes, that’s the most stereotypical thing I’ve ever said, but it’s totally true. We split that watermelon, and just watch people walk by.
If you could go back in time to any age and tell yourself something that you at that age needed to hear, what age would it be and what would you say?
Hmmm. I would go back and tell my 14-year-old self that it was okay to be nice, and you don’t have to be the loudest or the meanest person in the room in order to take care of yourself, because I was definitely mean. Like, if you made fun of everybody, then nobody could make fun of you. I’m nice now. And I’ve always been nice to homies, but I have a list of people that for our high school ten-year reunion, I have to go back and apologize to, say, I was mean to you for no reason. I actually really liked you, and I just didn’t know how to act as a human.
And I think I would go back, since we’re thinking about this, I would go back to 22- or 23-year- old- Danez, and tell him that it’s okay to slow down, and it’s okay to wait. You don’t need to try to rush everything. I tell my little homies in the literature world this, and they look at me like What are you talking about because you had a book at 23-24? But the act of slowing down is so important. I think I was in such a rush to have a something— especially getting caught up in between the literary and spoken-word worlds—I was so ready to have a book. I needed it at that moment, and I’m glad that it happened. It’s hard to regret your first book when it did well, but I was in such a rush. I think there are still ways in which I am very much at the beginning of my poetry career. These two books, like, I love them, but also I was just running and running and running, and I think I needed to take a breath and breathe.
And you’re breathing now! What advice would you give to the readers and viewers of The Fight & The Fiddle?
A good mentor of mine, Rafael Casal, said you should take in three times as much art as you output, which I find to be very true. Even when I’m stuck, I realize I haven’t gone to a museum in a while, or haven’t listened to music in a new way for a while or haven’t read a book in a new way for a while. And then, I think we’d talked about questions a lot, I keep a literal list of the questions I’m asking myself. And so if you figure out how you’re trying to figure out the world, I think your writing will figure out itself. I always have to know what I’m trying to look at in my daily life, and that sort of guides me to where I’m looking in my poems.
Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Associate Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014)