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Danez Smith Conjures Worlds of Possibility in Morris Gray Reading

Poet Danez Smith reads their poetry at a Morris Gray Reading on March 1.
Poet Danez Smith reads their poetry at a Morris Gray Reading on March 1. By Courtesy of Emma E. Chan
By Emma E. Chan, Contributing Writer

Poet Danez Smith perched precariously on the arm of a couch, chatting with students before their scheduled reading on March 1. On this chilly Wednesday, students, faculty, and visitors alike poured into the space as the sky outside the windows bruised to night. Even before the reading began, the Barker Center’s Thompson Room hummed with conversation, warm light spilling from the chandeliers.

The excitement only intensified with Harvard Professor of English, Stephanie L. Burt’s, enthusiastic introduction of Smith and their award-winning collections, “Homie” and “Don’t Call Us Dead.” Smith has won the Forward Prize for Best Collection, the Minnesota Book Award in Poetry, the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry, and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Besides their achievements, Burt focused on Smith’s searing emotional impact.

“What has reading so much Danez Smith done to me?” Burt asked the audience as she analyzed her favorite Smith poems, including an innovative list poem titled “depression food” which culminates in “consolatory sex.” The emotional appeal that Burt identified — sometimes relatable, sometimes fiercely personal — transformed Smith’s already powerful poems into forces to be reckoned with.

Smith is a poetic innovator, expertly shaping form and altering conventions to fit their purpose. Instead of the typical reading structure, which Smith identified as more like a lecture than a conversation, Smith redefined their reading as a collective, shared experience and encouraged the audience to respond to their works together.

“Poems, for me, are better when there is a sense of connectedness between me and you. I know some of us were trained to wait until the end of the poem to show a sign that you were excited or moved by it, and I don’t like that,” Smith said, even encouraging members of the audience to hold hands. “You can be here together, for a little bit.”

Smith maintained this “sense of connectedness” between author and audience throughout their reading, fueled by their own incessant energy and enthusiasm. Smith’s incredible written work gained a new charge when read aloud, suffused with a pervasive, infectious joy. As Smith read “My President,” the opening poem from “Homie,” their achingly emotional delivery pulled the audience out of their everyday lives and into a world of Smith’s creation, where “the boys outside walgreens selling candy for a possibly fictional basketball team” were their presidents. Smith’s voice was sometimes tender and confessional, while at other times desperate and pulsing with urgency.

Smith’s intense imaginative power allows them to push against the reality we live in. Many of their poems discuss police brutality or gun violence, and navigate the complexities of Smith’s Black and Queer identities. In particular, the poem “how many of us have them?” simultaneously celebrates friendship and mourns the dead, sliding seamlessly from self-deprecating jokes to scraping grief and back again. As Harvard Professor of English and African and African American Studies Tracy K. Smith expressed, Smith’s emotionally expansive poems “move us through many different stages of revelation,” as if each poem is composed of “seasons.”

“the wind is tangled / with the dust of the dead homies, carrying us over / to them, giggling in the mirror. hear them. hear,” Smith read from “how many of us have them?” This heart-wrenching juxtaposition of joyful memory and hollowing grief was made all the more tragic by Smith’s delivery, the repetition of “hear them” both a plea and a promise. Within a single line, Smith channeled both joy and sorrow, grief and hope, love and longing, an inimitable testament to their emotional range.

Smith’s other poems touched on sexuality, race, love, and the body, often collapsing these palimpsestic topics into a single, moving moment. “How many people have somebody in their family that you love but once they’re dead, life might be a little easier? Great, so everybody raised their hand! The queer mixer is next door,” Smith quipped before reading “waiting on you to die so I can be myself.” In “Tonight, in Oakland,” a lover proclaims to Smith, “I want to take you / how the police do, unarmed & sudden.” These stunning lines, coupled with the poem’s wishful, anaphoric litany of “tonight,” laid bare the synergy between grieving racialized violence and celebrating one’s identity.

Victor Terry, an educator from Boston and longtime fan of Smith, particularly connected with Smith’s raw depiction of their Black Queer experience. “I’m in awe of how honest and brave they are,” Terry said. “There aren’t many places I can find a true depiction of a Black Queer person in a male’s body experience, unapologetically.”

Burt also expressed her appreciation for the transformative experience of reading Smith’s restless, ever-shifting poems, especially from an identity that differs from her own.

“I’m super into the micro-pivots that their lines make,” said Burt. “My life experience is really different from theirs, and reading them, I have this experience of, ‘they’re speaking to me, they’re not speaking to me, they’re speaking to someone else,’ and it’s amazing to just be in the room and listen.”

Even while embracing complex emotions, Smith is insistent on remaining hopeful, and shifting the onus of affirming identity away from marginalized communities.

“I do want to argue for a better world, but I don’t need to argue that I matter. I want to move past that,” Smith said, reflecting on their earlier tendency to write as an affirmation of their identity. “It’s unfair to ask any writer or artist to bear the brunt of all the complications of the world. We’ve just got to do our fucking work.”

While they recognized the challenges of writing from — and about — marginalized identities, Smith ended by dwelling once again on poetry’s ability to make the possible tangible, to draw it close.

“The poem’s generosity is its porousness; it can hold so many things that it can be a space of conjuring things into life,” Smith said. “The generosity of the poem is the generosity to continue to dream.”

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