Poems and titles have a complicated relationship. Often the poem needs to be written before the right title reveals itself. But sometimes the title arrives first and must wait for the poem—and the poet—to catch up.
The poem above is from Danez Smith’s newly released collection, Homie, but the early iteration was written many years ago. In the interim, Smith won numerous major awards, including the Forward Prize and the Lambda Literary Award, while composing lyrics of extraordinary vitality. A Danez Smith poem doesn’t just bring imagery to life; it pulses on the page. When I emailed Smith about doing this interview, they replied promptly. “My time,” they wrote, “has finally come.”
— Ben Purkert for Guernica
Danez Smith: I love this series! I’m obsessed with that little slider thing.
Guernica: It’s cool, right?
Smith: I love playing with it. I mean, your interviews are great, but I really get a ton of adult joy out of that slider.
Guernica: Talk to me about your two drafts. They’re so different!
Smith: Yeah, the only thing that stayed consistent was the title. There are similar ideas, of course. There’s a funeral scene, images of the body, an implication of violence. But yeah, they’re very different. In the early draft, I can see myself avoiding what I was trying to say.
Guernica: How did you know that the title needed to stay the same?
Smith: Because the title was the only part that felt true. “waiting on you to die so I can be myself.” It’s a hard and honest statement. I needed a poem that could carry it, and I had to grow as a poet in order to stand up to it. It took me many, many years! When I look at the early draft, it reminds me of who I was. I see the voice from my first book, Insert Boy. It’s more performance-minded. I had to learn how to calm down, and to understand what patience can do in a lyric. Sometimes you have a truth that you have to do both the living and the reading in order to be able to say it right one day.
Guernica: On the topic of patience, one of my favorite moments in the poem is “i’m stalling.” I love how you’re calling out your own silence there.
Smith: Right. And whenever I read this poem aloud, I’m very conscious of silence.
Guernica: How so?
Smith: I’m generally a pretty loud and active reader, but this poem demands a different tone. It’s more meditative, I think. And it all comes from the title. How do you configure your life around somebody who, you love dearly, and whose presence out of your life would mean a greater freedom, or the possibility of an unburdening of shame for you? How can you talk about that difficulty without poking a hole in your love?
When I look over the early draft, I think it’s not asking the right questions. Or maybe the tone is just off. It’s too gleeful. There’s dancing in the wrong parts. It’s too selfish and it doesn’t pay enough homage. I think that’s what the final draft is trying to say, that I come from amazing women, and that I’ve learned something about the self, about feminists, about girlhood. But the early draft didn’t love in the right way.
Guernica: “a thousand years of daughters, then me. / what else could i have learned to be?” The first couplet is paying homage to that lineage really powerfully I think.
Smith: This is the best poem in the book in my opinion. Other people might have their own favorite from Homie, but this is mine.
Guernica: What about the early draft, though? There are some lines in there (e.g. “bury the me you made with you”) that are so good! Do you just toss them?
Smith: I find a lot of fun in playing in my own archives sometimes. I try to keep all versions of manuscripts just so I can see how the poems changed. And sometimes I will sort of Frankenstein old work into newer work, or take a poem that didn’t quite work and reach into it and lift a stanza, or even just a line. For example, the poem “old confession & new” from Homie is really three older poems mashed together.
The thing about Frankensteining work is that it’s a great way to surprise yourself. Those meetings of your old and new self create such cool things, right? Taking something that an older you crafted, with the new knowledge and everything you’ve read and written since then—that is the work. It’s also one of the ways that we can be tender to ourselves as writers, is to not always ask ourselves to make it from scratch. Yeah, we can take care of ourselves in our creative process, definitely.
Guernica: Can we talk more about the creative process in general? I’m thinking particularly about this idea of how hard it is to be oneself sometimes, even in one’s own poems.
Smith: Right. And I think my poem is really talking about that difficulty, how hard it is to say everything you might feel. Maybe you’re waiting on a particular person or ideal or social structure to die; maybe that’s what it takes for you to feel comfortable talking openly in front of your people.
As a boy, I wrote in what I thought was a very balanced way about my grandfather, and not everybody else in the family felt that same way. It was both difficult and beautiful because, for some folks in my family, it created a space where we could have nuanced conversations about violence and trauma. But for other folks, it’s more of a struggle. And maybe it’s also about distinguishing memoir from poetry. How do I have authority over my own story when there are so many people implicated in that, and when I’m the one with the microphone? There are many versions of the truth, but I’m the one with the readership in my circle. At the same time, I take comfort in the fact that I’m going to be writing about family forever. One of the long projects of my life will be turning over my childhood and arriving at old questions with new answers.
Guernica: Do you feel that you can be yourself in your poems? Or is your speaker more of a persona?
Smith: It’s me, for the most part. But sometimes I do go to poetry to trouble myself or figure myself out. Sometimes I go into a poem to reach outside of myself in a way.
Guernica: “i crawl out of myself into myself” captures it pretty well.
Smith: Exactly. And I think this poem is really interested in the relationship between the self and the body. It’s genderqueer in that way. Very femme too, don’t get me wrong. But I do think the body can feel like a dress sometimes, like it’s something I can move in and out of. That is one of the great freedoms of poems too, I think, is to be able to do the things you can’t do in the real world. I don’t know what the hell it means to crawl out of myself into myself. But I feel like if I could do it in a poem, maybe I can figure out how to do it in real life.
Guernica: Homie came out around when the pandemic first hit the US. How has it been launching a book during this difficult time?
Smith: It’s hard. I’m sad for me. I’m sad for all the poets. I’m sad for the bookstores. I’m sad for readers too. because yeah, it’s just been a really tough year for books. And of course I’m deeply sad about how this pandemic has impacted this country.
Is this interview going to come out before or after the election? Do I need to tell motherfuckers to vote?
Smith: Well, I hope we did the right thing! And if we didn’t, I’m very disappointed in y’all.
In terms of the book though, I guess I just mourn not being able to go to different cities and really feeling like the book is out there. Not just a thing I made, but is in the hands of folks. But mostly my heart goes out to every poet and writer this year, just because I think this pandemic has affected us, both in real material ways, but also creative and spiritual ways. I’ve never really felt like a lonely artist until COVID-19. I can’t wait for this shit to be over, but I guess we can’t do that because people won’t wear their goddamn masks. It’s depressing, isn’t it? Not connecting with others physically. And I’m single, too.
Guernica: Plus your Twitter account recently got hacked, right?
Smith: I know! It was my fault though. G Yamazawa, who is a great poet and rapper, DM’d me and he got hacked first. The person who hacked him DM’d me about some free Jordans and I surely was going to take them, haha. But yeah I got scammed over shoes.
Guernica: So are you permanently locked out of your account?
Smith: Not sure. I think the blue checkmark means I can prove that I’m me, and then I’ll get it back or something. But I kind of don’t want it back. I like having a little side Twitter account with way fewer followers.
Guernica: Is having a lot of followers inhibiting at all? Or are you still able to write the poems you want to write?
Smith: Well, I talk a lot with my students about this question of audience, and who you’re moving the poem towards. And for me, I don’t like to think about how many people will or won’t read my poems when I’m writing them. Because I couldn’t do it, you know? I’m a Leo, but that would only take me so far. I need to imagine a smaller group in my heart, named or imagined. Because if I think about a larger audience, the poems can’t meet the world in the way they need to.
Guernica: Do you see your audience as a part of your revision process at all? When you’re giving a reading, are you listening to an audience’s response to hear whether a line hits or not?
Smith: Sometimes. But I’m not trying to win that game anymore. And I can’t always trust that sound.
Smith: As a spoken-word artist, you’re going on stages and if people are quiet for too long, you’re probably doing badly. You need them snaps, you need them hoots, some sniffles, some somethings, right? Because it is a call-and-response experience in that way. But I’m not looking for that type of interaction with my audience anymore. Or maybe it’s just not what I’m interested in giving to them. When I was younger and still slamming, maybe. But that’s changed for me.
I do think it made me a better poet though, because, shit, your whole job is to get a rise out of people, right? And your whole job is to make people feel something, so that they give you a bigger number than the other poet that also got on stage. In its own way, slam is maybe not just a type of poetry, but its own genre. And there are lots of punch lines, and the poems can be very fierce. The reality is that that work will always be in my blood. I’m just asking my work to do different things now, and asking different questions of myself.
To read more interviews from our Back Draft archive, click here.