Engage, Listen, and Show up for Tomorrow

from my work UntitledTown (in anticipation of Danez Smith’s craft talk and keynote reading a few years ago)

In 2014, NPR asked “Where Have All The Poets Gone?” The article was a cry to arms for poets to come back and lead the political charge on the front lines like poets Langston Hughes, Jack Kerouac, and Frederico García Lorca did, stating that, “At its root, poetry is the language of protest.”

After reading this article, I was flabbergasted. I mean, have they not heard of poets like Andrea Gibson or Alex Dang or Guante or Pages Matam? Surely they have not heard of Danez Smith. Because if they had, they wouldn’t be asking where the [political] poets have gone.

While Smith does not see their work as purposely political, they do acknowledge that the act of writing itself is political – especially when someone is “a capital-B Black, capital-Q Queer, HIV-positive, weird, strange, funky, loud American” (PW). To Smith, “[i]t’s the poet’s job to make sure there is a record of what it meant to live, love, fight, rebel and be in their brief time on earth…I write America down. My job is to live and pay attention to other people living around me in order to archive it for whoever may stumble upon it” (Mic 50).

And Smith has done just that with two chapbooks, hands on ya knees and black movie (winner of the Button Poetry Prize), with two collections, [insert] Boy (winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and Lambda Literary Award) and Don’t Call Us Dead (nominated for and finalist of the 2017 National Book Award for Poetry), through their membership of the Dark Noise Collective, and as co-host of a Poetry Foundation and Postloudness sponsored podcast VS with Franny Choi.

Some people may ask – why poetry? Why are we looking to poets to lead the political charge? According to Smith, “I think, but I’m not sure, that poetry is the best way to archive the feeling or emotions of an era. Film can document, music can sing, fiction can tell the tale, but only through poetry have I gained a sense of what it meant to be alive in its most tender and vulnerable ways throughout history. Poetry, at its best, is our collective diary, not our best tool at saying what happened, but our best way of communicating how the happening felt” (Mic 50).

And why Smith? Well, because Smith is someone that we all can learn from.

For one, Smith is authentic and unapologetic. According to one of their mentors, Chris Walker, one should always bring their full self. “For me,” Smith says, “writing through a persona moves me further away from my honesty…I needed to bring my faith, my sexuality, my gender, my race, my every experience into every poem” (Divedapper).

For another, Smith believes that it is more important to engage than to understand. Smith hopes that “we can move all literary writing…to a place where not everybody feels like they need to understand…I don’t need to understand what it is to be a woman to engage in women’s writing. I don’t need to understand how somebody identifies as trans to engage with the joys of trans writing and trans art. I don’t need to understand shit. I just need to engage” (Divedapper).

In addition to being engaged, Smith points out that it is important to know how to listen. “When I read books that are outside of my identity, I tell myself to shut up. I try to take people at their word about their experience. I hope people can engage with the book, but I also hope there are parts of the book that people are a little more puzzled by. I want them to just shush, and listen, and let me talk about this singular black experience for a while. I want them to let me talk about my feelings and not try to tell me about what blackness or whiteness or America is or isn’t” (Divedapper).

And last, just as we need to recognize that we as an audience cannot expect one voice to speak for an entire community (known as tokenism), Smith points out that, “if you recognize that you have some kind of voice, you have to be highly critical of yourself. It’s this balancing act of saying what is necessary for you to say, but also making it clear you are not speaking on behalf of everyone in your community” (Divedapper).

I would never dare ask another individual to teach me about themselves or their life or their history or their lived experiences because it is up to us to educate ourselves. But when someone steps up to the chalkboard (or microphone) and says listen, how can we not? And Smith is asking us to listen. They are asking us to engage and learn and then to teach our own truths. 

Want to know the best piece of advice that Smith can give to any writer? Smith says that they wish they had known that “‘career’ didn’t mean ‘has to be done today.’ Every day is about showing up for tomorrow” (Mic 50).

So take your time, and I’ll see you tomorrow.

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