The PEN Ten: An Interview with Danez Smith
1. What was the first book or piece of writing that had a profound impact on you?
Game Pro Magazine. I couldn’t read worth a damn but my third grade teacher told me I could play the games better if I could read the articles. Video games, which I haven’t played in earnest for years, made me a reader. The first poem I ever loved was L.A. spoken word legend Shihan’s “This Type Love.” I didn’t know poems could have words that sounded like my words, that they could be funny, that they could be alive with the words and attitudes of today. Shihan was my first favorite poet, which thinking about it, maybe watching him so delighted on that episode of “Def Poetry” impressed upon me that poetry was big enough to hold not only my sorrow but indeed my joy and my play.
2. What does your creative process look like? How do you maintain momentum and remain inspired?
It never looks the same. If writing for the last 15 or so years has taught me anything, it’s that writing never gets easier or looks the same. You arrive to each poem, each era of yourself different than you did the last. I write when I feel called to language. When I haven’t felt called for a while, I show up anyway to see what happens. I used to write every day. Not anymore. I try to touch words, mine or others, every day. That’s often books and poems and interviews. Sometimes it’s writing, sometimes reading, sometimes editing, sometimes listening. As long as I am actively living in or alongside language, I think I am in process. Sometimes the task at hand is to live, to witness. Sometimes “the work” looks like getting the rest of your house in order so you can focus on the writing at hand. Sometimes “the work” is rest. It’s all about learning to pay attention to yourself, your own wants and needs, your own definitions of discipline and exploration. What I mean is: I don’t always have momentum. No one is always inspired. But I have invited words into my life. I pay them mind even when I feel stuff and grey, and even when I don’t have the time for words, I trust that they will forgive me when I return.
“If writing for the last 15 or so years has taught me anything, it’s that writing never gets easier or looks the same. You arrive to each poem, each era of yourself different than you did the last. I write when I feel called to language. When I haven’t felt called for a while, I show up anyway to see what happens.”
3. How can poets affect resistance movements?
Poetry is the drum in lieu of a drum. Poetry, when used the right way, can fuel the people leading the movement. Poetry brings more feet to the march, begs them to stomp harder. Poetry is food, water, and electricity for movements that don’t take these stanzas as casual buildings, but as safe houses for the people and thoughts that make movements happen.
4. What is your favorite bookstore, or library?
My favorite bookstore is Next Level Books in St. Paul. The poetry collection is no slack and if you got your money right there’s a deli around the corner that makes the BEST sandwiches in the entire world.
“Don’t let expectation or what you think will make you a ‘real writer’ get in the way of your curiosity or your strangest impulses.”
5. What is the last book you read? What are you reading next?
Last book: Rick Barot’s new The Galleons, which is a MUST READ this year.
Next Book: Very late to the party, but Children of Blood and Bone is sitting next to me right now waiting to get ate up.
6. What is the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words? Have you ever written something you wish you could take back?
The poem “waiting for you to die so i can be myself” wrecked me for a few years before it settled into its published form. Admitting there was relief waiting on the other side of grief was a grief itself. And of course I’ve written things I wanted to take back, I just didn’t publish them. Not everything I write is meant for the public and if I’m ever the smallest bit hesitant about a poem, I’d rather sit on it until I’m sure it’s an utterance I want to vibrate in the world than regret it later for the sake of a line on the CV.
7. What advice do you have for young poets?
Don’t let expectation or what you think will make you a “real writer” get in the way of your curiosity or your strangest impulses.
“The idea that there is only one kind of poet or one kind of poetry worth listening to is long dead. The room is so much more lively and awe-inducing the more folks arrive bringing themselves and their people to the table.”
8. Which poets working today are you most excited by?
Justin Phillip Reed, Safia Elhillo, J. Jennifer Espinoza, and Franny Choi are my favorite writers around my age. I think their poems feel at once intensely familiar as well as from a future I can only hope time is bending us towards. Each has a fierce, intelligent poetics that never forget the people waiting to be freed by them on their ways to a skilled, genius flex.
9. Why do you think people need stories?
Because we need to prove that we exist.
10. What excites you most about the literary moment you are writing and creating in?
The idea that there is only one kind of poet or one kind of poetry worth listening to is long dead. The room is so much more lively and awe-inducing the more folks arrive bringing themselves and their people to the table.
Danez Smith is the author of Homie; Don’t Call Us Dead, winner of the Forward Prize for Best Collection and a finalist for the National Book Award; and [insert] boy, winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. They live in Minneapolis.