The writer’s maxim is “write what you know.” For Danez Smith, that means writing about life as a black, queer, HIV-positive person. In the St. Paul-born poet’s second book of poems, Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press), Smith comes to terms with that diagnosis: “i have too many words for sadness / i touched the stove & the house burned down.”
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The virus isn’t the only threat to Smith's life; being black in the U.S. can be just as fatal. “America might kill me before I get the chance,” they (Smith's pronoun preference is they, their, them) write in the aptly titled poem, “every day is a funeral & a miracle.”
The book isn’t all death and violence, however; Smith also excels in sweet expressions of love and incisive cultural criticism. Distress, courage, and eroticism weave their way through this essential read.
Smith is the author of the 2014 award-winning collection of poetry [insert] boy, and is a founder of the Dark Noise Collective. We spoke to them ahead of the Don’t Call Us Dead launch on Tuesday.
City Pages: There’s a line in your poem “recklessly” that goes, “many stories about queerness are about shame.” What have been your experiences with that kind of shame?
Danez Smith: A lot of queer people’s narratives are about shame and that being a first hurdle in coming out or existing in the world, having shame in your body of what you desire. I think that’s sort of been, even for me, a first point of connection with a lot of other queer people: an understood shame. I think folks do a lot of work to do away [with that], too. I talked about it a lot in my first book as well -- how you do away with shame? -- but what I keep finding is that it keeps on coming up in these poems.
With the poem “recklessly,” too, it’s about Michael Johnson, who is imprisoned in Missouri because he was HIV-positive and there’s tension around whether he disclosed that to his partners or not. He says one thing, they say another. There’s a lot of racial politics wrapped up in it. That, for me, even comes to the question of shame: Who’s scared to admit what about themselves?
CP: How and when did you decide to become public about being HIV-positive?
DS: I was diagnosed positive in 2014. It’s kind of like an open secret. There are some people in my family that don’t know -- that will never know, hopefully. But I talk about it publicly, and I do poems about it. For me, part of my processing it had to be learning to let that be part of my vocabulary, and not be scared to talk about it and demystify it. By hiding it, I felt like I was going to give it too much power over me. When I was diagnosed, I went through periods of depression, but I didn’t want it to win. I wanted to accept this thing about my life and move forward.
I started writing about it right away because writing is the way that I process my own shit. I didn’t want to hide it from my friends. I had a couple tearful conversations with people that I love, but I didn’t want to pretend like it wasn’t true. And you still have desire and wants and sex and you have to be open and honest about that part, too. I also didn’t want to be a person who didn’t openly share my status with partners – as I maybe would’ve hoped somebody would have done for me.
CP: What is your prognosis?
DS: I’m fine. The poems are very sad but I’m good.
CP: It’s hard to tell from the book. At times, the poems feel – understandably – desperate. It makes one worry for you.
DS: That’s where I was: figuring it out. I think what the book is really about is less “sad Danez,” it’s more about when you have to touch your mortality for the first time. The first poem, “summer, somewhere,” imagines an afterlife for murdered black men and they’re on the other side of mortality, having touched it and having seen death and how that shakes you. I think that theme follows through the book of what happens when you are rubbing up against your mortality and how do you continue after that on either side of the plane. Because of that, the tone of the book is scared, is of a very scared boy. ‘Cause I was.
CP: In the book, there’s also a mix of love and violence, be it criminal violence from other people or violence from within your own body. How do those two things play out in your life?
DS: I think love is violent. Like anybody, I have a complex history with both. I think the two things slip easily between each other, sometimes in dangerous ways, sometimes in ways that are enjoyable. Especially when I think about how people who call themselves men tend to express their love, it tends to be in violent ways or how it manifests is violent. Sometimes love is absent and it’s just violence; sometimes the violence is absent and it’s just love.
That’s on one side, but I think we all have a relationship to violence, too, when we’re thinking about the world we live in. Two violences in the book are the love violence that happens on all planes of intimacy, whether that intimacy be sexual or familial or whatever and also how that violence manifests itself in outside forces and messes with love on the inside.
CP: You mentioned that you write to sort out your own shit, but who else do you write for?
DS: In a perfect world, I write for all kinds of black and queer kids and adults who eat too much chicken on Fridays. That’s my perfect audience.... As long as I’m doing things that both please me and doing things that I would like to bring in front of those people that I love, then I’m good.
CP: Given that we’re in Minnesota and it’s poetry, I’d assume there are a lot of white people in your audiences. Is that true?
DS: Some things in Minnesota are very, very white. There are also a lot of rich black spaces here and rich queer and diverse spaces that I’m privileged to be a part of.
CP: In the future, will you continue to write poetry or will you experiment with other literary forms?
DS: I think that I’ll always write poems because I love them and they’re fun and they’re tricky and I still don’t know what a poem is. But it’s not the medium for every story. There are things I want to write that I know poetry is not the vehicle for. Whether that be a script or prose or audio or music, I’m just trying to create things. But I like poems. Poems are cute.
IF YOU GO:
Danez Smith, Don’t Call Us Dead
Black Dog Café
7-9 p.m., Tue., Sept. 5
Free and open to the public
Black Dog Cafe
Free; $10-$26 VIP.