Danez Smith is a Black, queer, poz writer and performer. Their most recent collection, Don’t Call Us Dead, was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award.
In a 2015 interview with The Rumpus, Danez Smith said, “I create art for necessary reasons. It’s not a frivolous act to me or for the people that taught me about art-making. It’s not something that we should take lightly. Everything we write is an opportunity to speak something true or construct or deconstruct something for either the self or for people or community or another person that we love, hate, whatever.” These words resound in Smith’s work, moving effortless from page to stage as they speak deep personal and universal truths to an existence that is constantly misunderstood, scrutinized, and threatened. But even in their most seriously urgent works, Smith often finds a kind of sudden, infectious joy.
In the opening poem “summer, somewhere” from Smith’s most recent collection Don’t Call Us Dead, they write:
somewhere, a sun. below, boys brown
as rye play the dozens & ball, jump
in the air & stay there. boys become new
moons, gum-dark on all sides, beg bruise
-blue water to fly, at least tide, at least
spit back a father or two. i won’t get started.
history is what it is. it knows what it did.
As Smith imagines a euphoric place where Black boys feel safe and supported, they also hold space for the history that prevents this place from existing. As The New Yorker points out, “These poems can’t make history vanish, but they can contend against it with the force of a restorative imagination.” It is this fierce, adamant imagination that infuses the poems in this collection (and, arguably all of Smith’s work) with a “sit-up-and-listen” quality that is impossible not to obey. As the Kenyon Review says, “The result is bittersweet, but the sweetness is real, even when it’s grounded in imagination—partly because that imagination is so grounded in the reality it wants to refuse, but just as much because Smith, in fantasy and in grief, commits to giving pleasure.” Lit Hub calls the collection, “Aching and elegiac, these poems bless our world in all its ruin, beg it to be otherwise, and begin the bloody work of writing it anew.”
Smith is also the author of [insert] boy (2014), winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry; and two chapbooks, “hands on your knees” (2013) and “black movie” (2015), winner of the Button Poetry Prize. They are the recipient of fellowships from the Poetry Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, Cave Canem, Voices of Our Nation (VONA), and a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship.
Their writing has been featured widely, including features on PBS NewsHour and the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Their work has been published in Poetry, Ploughshares, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Kinfolks. In poetry slam, Smith is a 2011 Individual World Poetry Slam finalist and the reigning two-time Rustbelt Individual Champion, and was on the 2014 championship team Sad Boy Supper Club. In 2014 they were the festival director for the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam. They are a founding member of the multi-genre, multicultural Dark Noise Collective. Smith earned a B.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where they were a First Wave Urban Arts Scholar. Smith was born in St. Paul, Minnesota.