St. Paul poet Danez Smith shines in the national spotlight

Danez Smith and 'Don't Call Us Dead'
Poet Danez Smith's new collection 'Don't Call Us Dead' is on the longlist for the 2017 National Book Award.
Portrait by David Hong | Book cover courtesy of publisher

Danez Smith is a meteorite of the poetry world, blazing new territory with each new book.

A graduate of Central High School in St. Paul, Smith has earned praise from U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith and literary star Roxane Gay. Smith's work has been featured on the PBS NewsHour and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

And this week, Smith's latest, "Don't Call Us Dead," landed on the longlist for the National Book Award.

"Don't Call Us Dead" wrestles eloquently with what it means to be a young black gay man in America.

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It begins with a lengthy poem — "summer, somewhere" — that imagines a utopic afterlife for victims of racism and police brutality. It evokes names that have filled headlines: Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell.

An excerpt: "summer, somewhere"

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.
bad dog. bad blood. bad day to be a boy

color of a July well spent. but here, not earth
not heaven, we can't recall our white shirts

turned ruby gowns. here, there's no language
for officer or law, no color to call white.

if snow fell, it'd fall black. please, don't call
us dead, call us alive someplace better.

we say our own names when we pray.
we go out for sweets & come back.

/ /

An excerpt from "summer, somewhere," from "Don't Call Us Dead." Copyright 2017 by Danez Smith. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

"It was cathartic for me," Smith said of writing the poem, in an interview with MPR News reporter Marianne Combs. "To sort of build this world and to imagine this alternate ending, to imagine something past what we call an ending."

"It felt freeing for me. I had started to think about the finality of black life. I wanted to offer something other than a stone-cold death."

The poem, Smith said, still sparks tears. "I can't read through the poem without crying — mostly from happiness, because it's so freeing to be able to dream something out of turmoil."

"Don't Call Us Dead" was published by Minneapolis poetry power house Graywolf Press, which has three books on the National Book Award longlist for poetry, counting Smith's.

Smith credits Graywolf's poetry editor Jeff Shotts with shaping the collection, which began as two separate manuscripts. One focused on Smith's personal identity and sexuality, and living life while HIV-positive. The other focused on violence and brutality against black bodies.

"I had a book that was very much about my body and a book that was very much about bodies like mine," Smith said.

When Shotts suggested they could be combined, Smith's first reaction was: You're crazy. But in the end they melded and, Smith said, "it became a new book."

"Don't Call Us Dead" pulls inspiration from traditional forms of poetry — "I can't talk about sonnets too long without crying," Smith said, "I love sonnets so much" — and from contemporary music.

"Diana Ross, Beyonce, Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys lyrics... There's a black mixtape somewhere within all of this," Smith said. "Music makes sense for the book ... It's what I understand. It's a language I feel I am lucky enough to speak."

Smith's greatest hope for his poetry is that people find it useful.

"I hope that people find ways to use this book in their lives or find ways to use this book to do good in the lives of other people," Smith said. "I hope this book changes a mind or two, and allows people to see those who they normally don't choose to see as full human beings, as themselves."

The National Book Awards finalist will be announced on Oct. 4, and winners will be announced at a ceremony in New York City on Nov. 15.

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