Our good friend, poet Ilya Kaminsky, knows contemporary poetry like no one else. We’re proud to be publishing his mini-reviews and one-question interviews with poets we admire.
Homie by Danez Smith is so many different things in one: a hymn to friendship, an elegy and a thrilling, dynamic political stand ("& colin kaepernick is my president, who kneels on the air / bent toward a branch, throwing apples down to the children & vets // & rihanna is my president, walking out of global summits with wineglass in hand, our taxes returned”). There is warmth in these poems that isn’t something one often finds in American poetry. There is humor in this warmth (as when poet writes of their grandmother: “cabinet is her cabinet / cause she knows how to trust what the pan knows / how the skillet wins the war”) and there is sadness (“how often have I loved a thing because you loved it? / including me”). Homie is as exuberant and bold as it is heartbreaking.
QUESTION: Despite so much tragedy, there is also a real sense of warmth in this book. Might you speak about that? Might you also speak about the relationship between language of poetry and community for you?
DANEZ SMITH: How I was brought up, poetry and community are inseparable. Be it a community of poets resonating, responding, and riffing off one another or the community we exist in between the poems in the living world that make the poems possible, poems, or should I say my poems, depend on people. Fatimah Asghar talks about community and collaboration being her genre, that no matter the field (poetry, film, fiction, whatever) relationships and shared knowledge & histories is what ultimately fuels the work. I can think of no better way to think about how even the most solitary of arts becomes a collaborative act. When I sit down to conjure a poem up, I’m sitting down with poets I’ve known, read, and heard, sitting down with what my grandma said last week and eight years ago, I’m sitting down with the news and my friends and my neighbors whose mere existence sneaks its way into the poems without me looking. I want my poems to be filled with language that reflects the communities that make me possible. So, so far, my poems end up oscillating between registers, sometimes “sounding like a poet” with all the lush adornment and blessed difficulty that implies, and other times finding more colloquial, human, earthy sentences to get the poems right. I think Don’t Call Us Dead did this more dramatically than Homie, but it feels like a lifelong project (I’ll let you know how it ends up). When I wrote DCUD, truly, I wanted to stunt. I wrote those poems to save my life, but once I was saved? I worked them, me in my little craft lab, until I felt like I made something that I was happy to give to the world and to poetry. What I mean by that is along with the people loved and mourned in those poems, poets were another audience I was playing to. With Homie, I don’t think I cared as much about the stunt, about playing to poets. I wrote that book more to say “I love you” and “this is how you’ve held me up” to my peoples, and to say “this is what I will not stand, because I love us” to this country. With Homie, the community felt smaller, less imagained, more tangible. These are poems for people I can name and touch. For being I grieved up close instead of from a distance. The community shrinking, that circle tightening, made way for more humor and a grateful imperfection in Homie than previous collections. My language, because of who I was speaking to, had to cover less ground and I think what resulted, is a body of work written more by “Danez the person” and a little less by “the poet Danez Smith,” if that makes sense.
As for warmth: I had to fight this book to settle on that warmth. I wrote into the sentimental for a long time, being at peace with that gush after gush of tenderness that showed up in the drafts. I also wrote some poems trying to conjure up the “bad” friends I’ve had over the years, but those poems didn’t sing the same way. I know following DCUD, I was attracted to warmth and brightness in poems cause I had just written and toured a super heavy book, so it makes that my appetite ran towards joy, even before I noticed and leaned into it. The funny thing about “this moment of crisis” is that for poetry collections, the moment those poems manifested to me was so different (or not so different at all) from the time others find those poems in. It’s strange how poems speak across time like that, makes me realize how slow time really is. What moment of crisis was I in — personally, nationally, globally, physically, spiritually — when those poems burrowed towards warmth? Is there ever a moment in this country when we are not in a moment of crisis? For Black folks, I think this might be a country of crisis (shit, a world), a place we learn to strive in despite its attempts on our lives and happiness. If that’s true, if America is Black folks’ terminal condition, then I can say I learned to find warmth in the midst of the hailstorm from my family, from jazz, from hip hop, from the darker and queerer canons I have to reach towards, so many ancestors who somehow found glory in the midst of times arguably bleaker than our own.