My most jazzy poetic spaces: PN interviews Danez Smith
Associate poetry editor deziree a. brown chats with Danez Smith about music, weirdness, and self-care.
PN: The cover of Don’t Call Us Dead is beautiful, as is your other book and the chapbooks you’ve released. I’ve been told more than once that authors have little say in the design of their book. What’s your secret? How do you avoid a lackluster cover?
DS: I am a book cover geek and i also have been blessed to work with presses that also think about covers and the book as not just a vehicle for text, but as an artifact. I love visual art. I think loving a piece enough to let it be the gate into your book is a big deal. I think having as keen and loving an eye for the still image as I do the written word has helped me stay with a good cover. There is no secret. You just care and try or you don’t.
PN: In an interview with The Rumpus, you say there was a “weirdness” that came with publishing your poems in your first book, [Insert] Boy. With this book releasing three years later, how has that weirdness changed---or not changed? Has the written page started to feel less foreign?
DS: I don’t believe when I spoke about that weirdness that I was speaking to a discomfort or unfamiliarity with the written/page based word. What I was trying to get at was the finality of the book as an object, the drafts that are now cemented and final, and the vulnerability with releasing work so based in the self. And yes, that has changed. There is only 1 first book for everyone, and that experience was wonderfully weird and affirming. But I am coming to this book more familiar with myself, my world, the publishing world, and the world into which I am releasing these poems.
PN: How does Don’t Call Us Dead expand upon or move away from the themes in your first collection, [Insert] Boy?
DS: It does both at one time. We don’t get to choose what we gravitate towards and are called to call up as artist, so a lot of similar themes pop up, but I’m a better poet than I was when I wrote [insert] boy and, thankfully, I already wrote that book once so this book what comes next. Idk, I’m still black, still queer, still ready to fuck some shit up, still riddled with desire, still seeing the surreal possibilities in the world around us, but how I express that feels more mature, more exact.
PN: I noticed that you’re really feeling SZA’s new album (as anyone with ears should be). What else are you into right now? How does music influence your writing process?
DS: I listen to music from the time I wake up until I go to bed. I like to reach for music that creates a soundscape when I’m writing. The more layered or complex the sound, the more texture there is to the groove, the more encouraged I feel to experiment in image and sound. Poetry is a music to me, but i can’t write poems while listening to poems. Music helps me access my most jazzy poetic spaces. Lately, my jams have been H.E.R., Syd, The Internet, Nick Hakim, and an embarrassing amount of disco.
PN: In the days after Charlottesville, I found myself reaching out for your poem "Dear White America." Poetry heals, soothes…rejuvenates. How do you see your newest collection (and poetry as a whole) continuing to work against these seemingly never-ending systems of oppression?
DS: I can’t speak on poetry as a whole cause no one should ever speak for poetry as a whole. Not all poetry is invested in dismantling the same things. We don’t all consider the same things worthy or just. I don’t like making statements about what I see my work doing cause that’s not the artist’s place. My job is to create and others will decide if and what work my poems do. I just hope to be useful to those who need to heal, to charge, to settle, or to uproar.
PN: When you’re burned out/filled up/tired of the world, how do you rebuild yourself? How does Danez Smith do self-care?
DS: A lady has to have her secrets and private rituals.