In Danez Smith’s Poems, Love and Violence Live Hand in Hand
The poems in "Homie" center friendship and intimacy, but don't dodge harder issues
Danez Smith’s third full-length collection, Homie, contains all the love and magnanimity that the poet—author of the National Book Award finalist collection Don’t Call Us Dead—is capable of. The poems in this book are surprising and fervent, emerging from all the joys, sorrows, and complexities of friendship, intimacy, and desire. Tenderness, in these poems, is wedded to insult, love to violence. “With yo ugly ass,” Smith writes in “acknowledgments,” “at the end of the world, let there be you/ my world.”
To describe how deeply this book affected me I would need to sing. I would need to spend hours cooking an elaborate feast, large enough to feed all the characters of Smith’s world—and mine. And yours, too. Smith graciously spoke with me while they were at the laundromat and we discussed the crafting of Homie, the surprising shapes of their poems, and how paradoxes of love and violence figure in the book.
Roberto Rodriguez-Estrada: How are you feeling about this book being in the world?
Danez Smith: This was, I think, the most difficult and frustrating book I’ve written so far, because of the process. It was not always happy and fun mining or excavating. There was a lot of writer’s block, a lot of feeling like crap. So I am excited for the book to come out, and I’ve finally forgiven the book for making me write it.
RRE: Where did the frustration come from?
DS: I think I kind of stumbled into the collection, in the midst of working on this wayward chapbook project. So I had all these poems and I said let me see what I’ve been writing about and all of a sudden I have all these poems about friendship. I guess I’d been low-key thinking about friendship in the back of my mind, not even knowing I was writing a book. I think emotionally, I’d written some of the hardest poems in the book, so it wasn’t as emotionally trying as Don’t Call Us Dead, which had no emotional reprieve. So then I got to write the fun part. The problem was there was a pressure in my own mind because I had this one book that was into the zeitgeist in a very particular way and that had commercial success and critical success, and think I was very nerve-wracked about writing the next book. Don’t Call Us Dead did all the things that I hoped would happen at some point in my career and I was so appreciative but I was also like “ahhh, what do I do now?” There was a while when I couldn’t write poems while also, in the back of my mind thinking, is this going to affect people in the same way? Is this even worth writing?
RRE: Many of the poems in Homie are addressed to specific individuals or name particular friends. Can you talk about what it means to address these poems to so many people in your life, people whom you deeply love?
DS: I think it both enlivens the poems and focuses the language. It also brings up for me not living in the falsehood of the universal, and being intentional when writing a poem that’s not only for oneself. The act of being a poet in public, of writing and running into other people and sharing what I wrote, should require some sort of stakes or consideration for the people reading it. And for me, it just makes them intimate and better! You would write a letter to your mother differently than you would write a letter to your teacher than you would to a friend than you would to the whole town! And it’s great that the whole town can read it, but maybe I just want to talk to my mom or I just want to talk to my friend—I just want to talk to people. And that conversation requires a language particular to that person.
RRE: I really loved how different a lot of the poems felt. It’s a book about friendship, but it doesn’t at all feel univocal. For instance, can you talk about your poem “C.R.E.A.M.,” which is about money and debt?
DS: It was written after Morgan Parker’s poem “ALL THEY WANT IS MY PUSSY MY MONEY MY BLOOD” and I think closely draws from some of the moves in that poem. I wrote that poem a couple of years ago and was sort of thinking about a place of money frustrations. Money has been one of my main anxieties in my life. When you don’t have it, it’s obviously really frustrating. And also something I’ve been thinking about more and more, for instance, is that I have more money now than my mom did when I was young. I have more money than I did a couple of years ago. And I’m still not rich! But it’s weird, I didn’t think I could write about money before but it’s been constantly on my mind. When you have so little control of it, one way to process that is through verse and writing. For some reason writing about it made me feel like somebody rich, not currency rich but somebody rich. Morgan’s poem also addresses economic insecurity and I wanted to speak back to it in that way.
RRE: Some of the poems take on these amazing shapes. “rose” for instance is a block of text that’s been tilted. “saw a video of a gang of bees swarming a hornet who killed their bee-homie so i called to say i love you,” displays a poem that’s framed by a repeating line: “we are in their love.” Does the shape come first or does it come about in the drafting process?
DS: The visual field, the experience of viewing a poem, is something that interests me. I don’t always write like that but I like to play with the visual from time to time. Sometimes it becomes part of my editing process where I can look up and say, is the problem with this poem the line, the lyric or a word or can this poem be remedied or be heightened in a visual way? The way this book ended up is that there’s a lot of visual play towards the front of it. With “rose” I thought it could seem selfish and a bit dishonest to write this apologia for an elementary school lover and if that happened to me I think I’d probably look at it with a bit of a side-eye. It’s tilted so that you do have to give it a side-eye. I also wanted it to look kind of like a note and something about turning it sideways makes it look like a page within a page which makes it feel like not just another poem in the book but this sort of found letter.
The frame around the “bee” poem—well I was reading it the other day and I wanted it to look like what I saw in the video. I wanted to give the impression of being circled or trapped, which is a particular kind of violence that comes up multiple times in the book, like the poem “jumped.” Entrapment also brings up the question of how do we hold each other? or what happens when the body is surrounded? Is that about love? Is that about violence? Can violence be a type of love? Can you commit violence as an act of love?
RRE: I’m glad you’re bringing up how violence figures into Homie; you interrogate it through multiple angles. I was really moved and surprised by “my poem,” which is incantatory and invokes this notion of words and language being wielded for violence. You write that your poems are restless: they’re “fed up and getting violent.” You write: “i poem a nazi i went to college with” and “i poem ten police a day.”
DS: Again, one of the big questions of the book is: when do you choose violence? What is our own capacity for violence? I think poetry can be a safer place to ask dangerous questions but people expect the answers to involve peace and love. So I’m constantly trying to negotiate this line between love and violence in the book. Violence in this poem is evoked while stopping short of actually enacting violence. I wanted to raise questions that are sometimes uncomfortable to address in poetry.
RRE: There are poems where, tucked between poems about friendship, you address sexuality and illness. “Undetectable” for instance, which is a sort of ode to HIV treatment.
DS: Most of the poems that deal specifically with HIV were some of the later ones to be added and I think the way they function in the book is similar to how they function in my psyche. I used to think about my diagnosis so much, but now, because I don’t have to as much anymore, the anxiety comes in flashes. These poems function in that same way, where the anxiety flares up because something aggravates it. I run into some ignorant stigmatizing motherfucker. Or I see some racist shit on Grindr. Or all of a sudden my medicine is gone. All these things that send off flares.
RRE: The book also takes on the concept of solidarity and complicates it a bit. I’m thinking about “shout out to my niggas in Mexico,” where you address and sort of invite a wide range of people of Latin identities to the conversation, and “what was said at the bus stop,” which observes a conversation between a young Pakistani woman and a white dude. In one line, you write: “‘solidarity’ is a word, a lot of people say it / i’m not sure what it means in the flesh.” What are your thoughts on solidarity and how it’s been appropriated under the umbrella term of POC-ness?
DS: Sometimes I get annoyed by POC-ness because it’s often equated with Blackness and hides anti-Blackness. When I talk about with my good friends it’s like a college diversity photo’s wet dream because my friends come from all these different backgrounds. I think those poems are trying to, on a large scale, what other poems are doing intimately and unnamed. Some poems are addressed to my Asian-ass best friend, whereas these poems are addressing the particularities of: I see you and you’re brown. And if I’m going to talk to you, then I’m going to say “hey” to the entire family. Because I was raised in this way where whenever I go to a friend’s house, the first person I address is the head of the family. I think those poems are trying to mirror that same thing. I’m saying hey to your family, hey to your people, and thank you for making that person I love.