Danez Smith Makes Room for the Messiness of Language

Danez Smith Makes Room for the Messiness of Language

Danez Smith Makes Room for the Messiness of Language

We talked to Smith about their new poetry collection, Homie, and what it means to create poetic space for your community. 


Danez Smith’s new poetry collection, Homie, moves through the full range of what it is like to live with openness and generosity in relation to people you love, while playing with different registers—the colloquial and the ecstatic, even the spiritual. Black queer lives are foregrounded in Smith’s work, as well. A previous collection, Don’t Call Us Dead, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, probed what it meant to experience the face of police brutality and a case of HIV.

Smith (who uses the “they”/ “them” pronouns) also cohosts VS, a podcast presented by the Poetry Foundation. In real life, as in podcasting (and as in poetry), Smith peppers their earnest talk with beautiful turns of phrase and some very funny asides. We talked about the ecstatic nature of Homie, duende, and play in poetry, and giving shout-outs to your IRL friends. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

—Rosemarie Ho

Rosemarie Ho: Homie is not really called Homie: It has two names, which points to the ways the collection expands space, especially space for black queer people. In the titular poem you write, “this ain’t about language / but who language holds.” Can you expand on what you mean?

Danez Smith Part of it is, I was trying to make room for the messiness of language. Because a book is nothing but paper and language. There was a time when I thought about actually calling the book just flat out My Nig, and I didn’t know how much of a spectacle that would create. One thing that has always been true for the n-word is that not all black people have felt the same way about it; we all have our own relationship to it. The double titling is another way of just announcing to an audience an intimacy, that is, I guess, always a question with my work: Who am I speaking to? Because I don’t assume some bodyless speaker when I’m writing. And so it was a way of announcing that this is a collection that different people have different amounts of access to, even where that word is concerned.

While it can be very obvious to always point to the history, the etymology of that word, and really contend with what it has meant through time, for the purposes of writing Homie/My Nig, I was more interested in what that word signals for me in how it relates to the people that I love and care for, broadly, in theory and intimacy and practice. I use it to think about how black people love, and to me it is a term of endearment, one that can’t always be reciprocated. It’s possible for somebody to be in my world, to be my nigga, but they better never say that same shit about me. This is just about language and intimacy, how we hold each other.

RH: Lots of your real friends, like Eve Ewing, are named in this book. What does naming do for the book, and what does it mean to create space for them in this collection?

DS: Often my friends are poets, and I wanted to shout out the undercurrent of those poems: who I’m actually responding to, who is on my mind and in my heart, and who I look towards when I’m thinking about poetry. But also, there’s a low-key hope that Eve, who is super popular right now, but still, maybe somebody will get into her work, that maybe somebody will pick up a copy of Ironheart if they want to go ahead and google past the stanza.

What is a name but the most intimate piece of language that we can infuse within a poem? If poems are these little light things that seek to be the most exact and specific language to describe a feeling, to describe a situation, then a name is another tool to help us locate where that poem is supposed to go. And so the naming of folks can help me to find, further and further, what the poem is actually trying to call for or be about. To name them, to name my friends, feels like, I don’t know, some type of tribute or like payback, even, within this small space.

RH: But when you’re writing in the confessional register, even when you’re messing around with the “I” of a poem, how do you negotiate intimacy and vulnerability and privacy?

DS: As confessional as a poem may be, a poem is not me, you know? Poems can get so adorned by image and metaphor and such that even if they start in the real, or in the self, they move towards something else, even if they’re super plainspoken. And writing a poem changes you, writing a book changes you; there’s no way I can give all of myself while doing that changing. Now I’m already somebody else.

To me, that’s what you agree to when you’re a poet—to be vulnerable in some type of way even if you’re not “confessional,” allowing yourself to be porous and affected by energies and by the work, to be vulnerable to the world enough to respond to it. That is the name of the game when it comes to making art; so much of art-making is about digging into this personal archive. Still, there is a deeper, a private self, a self that is not always working on a manuscript, a self that is not to be published, not to be shared, but to be taken care of and treasured. Knowing that I have created this space allows me to give more of myself to the poems, because I know that no matter what I do, it will never be the totality of who I am.

RH: Grief features quite a bit in Homie, but a through line of the collection is a distinct sense of humor, too. So how do you triangulate between the two?

DS: The most memorable poems, or emotions, for me are the ones where several things are being lived at once, like laughing with friends until you start weeping. These are very intense moments when you’re swept into a range of feelings within a very short time. Joy is kind of cheap when it exists by itself, and so is despair, and it’s boring when a poem seems to convey, “I’m going to be a sad poem.” Then it is just a sad poem! I want to be transported when I engage with a piece of art, to see it venture off into unexpected territory a little—create a kind of tension that actually heightens all the emotions.

RH: Homie is certainly an ecstatic collection. Do you think of yourself now as an “ecstatic” poet?

DS: I love this tradition, and I definitely feel it’s a realm I pull from, but I don’t know if I’d consider myself 100 percent an ecstatic poet. Poems like “my president” and “shout out to my niggas in Mexico” are definitely ecstatic—always searching, always reaching, always collecting one more thing. But they’re not always doing what the poetic tradition requires of them in their endless hunger. That sort of ecstatic gathering was something I actually was thinking about when I put the book together: how poems that feel disparate can create a lush and complex arc. But it feels like I’m transferring the major concern of the ecstatic tradition from the poems onto the landscape of the manuscript as a whole.

It’s just that the ecstatic is, like, deep in my poetry dating profile. I feel like the first thing is, “Hi, my name is Danez. I’m a Leo. I’m a confessional poet. I believe that the personal is political,” and all this other shit. And then somewhere in this is, “I like ecstatic things.”

RH: You’ve said that form “has this way of allowing for delight even when writing about something traumatic and tender.” Do you consider yourself a “formalist”? How does form generate delight?

DS: I do very much feel at home with the word formalist, both taking on received forms, and also playing with whatever little shapes a poem can take. That’s where the fun of poetry is for me, in the form and the structure and the syntax. If I have already had this cathartic moment of the draft, where I’ve said what I needed to say, then the work, and also the fun, comes in trying to “collect the data”—think about the way the words of the draft have been said—and also to dig and see if there’s something else that the poem needs to say. Editing is an excavation that moves the poem through many forms, and from draft to draft the poems tend to look very different until they eventually settle into place or start to approach their final shape. From there, it’s play, it’s “okay, now how can I put my thang on this shit?” That’s where the fun with sound and rhythm and image really starts. Just sitting down and trying to figure out where I want to move the language closer to the colloquial or the understood, or if I want to push it into slightly stranger or surprising areas. Like, now that I’ve built this building, I get to go inside and fuck up the guts.

What brings me back to the hardest poems is the idea that language can be fun. Writers hate writing because it fucking sucks. It’s awful. It doesn’t do what you want it to do, even though you have a clear image in your head of what it is supposed to be like or sound or look like, but for some reason that translation is so impossible! But it’s also fun. It’s a puzzle: how do I say this thing as simply and as dazzlingly as possible? How do I say this in both a way that everybody knows what I’m talking about and also in a way that only I could? And that is such a fun challenge to me as a writer. That is purely the delight of returning to a piece of language, whatever it may be, and not being satisfied with it yet, and needing to find the right words.

RH: You’ve also said that what you carry over from your start as a performance poet is “a sense of duende” (which Federico García Lorca famously explained is “the fertile silt that gives us the very substance of art”) in your work. Could you expand on that?

DS: One of the great purposes of art is to shock ourselves back into life. Duende, this feeling of being on the edge of death, which is actually the most life you can ever experience, is the payoff of vulnerability. Vulnerability, experimentation, imagination are kinds of risk that if you, your energy, are willing to bear within the work, then you are rewarded with a process, hopefully, that is full of as much blood as you were willing to offer up to the work itself, that hopefully is bursting with the life that you allowed to enter the work. Flat poems oftentimes are not specific; there’s still something too safe about them. How can you get to the edge of death while playing it safe, you know?

RH: But then the question is, who has life shocked into them? The poet, the writer? Does this dichotomy between writer and reader no longer make sense?

DS: If it was only for me, then I would write a diary, not a book. The act of publication is saying that I have been moved by this collection as much as I can be. I have let it mess me up and open me up in all these ways—and now it’s something for you, you know? I released this public thing you pay $16 for (or steal or get from the library), and then I can’t really control what people do or how they interact with the work. But this is the thing about multiple intimacies: the book is just me telling you who was most beloved and mentioned in the room, not just how black people, queer people love, but what my circles look like, the richness of what happens when we see and hold and cherish and celebrate people.

That being said, my job is to do the work. I don’t really bother to contend with the question of “what will other people do with this?” My goal for Homie was for it to make people call their friend or somebody they love once they put the book down—the biggest thing I can ask for! But the ways in which we experience art are so individual and not controllable.

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