Anyone who has seen Danez Smith perform spoken-word poetry knows the poet’s performances are intense. Smith doesn’t recite poems so much as live them, speaking fiercely with urgency, sorrow and rage.
On the page, the poems are no less intense; Smith’s voice rings from every passionate line. The writer’s second collection of poetry, “Don’t Call Us Dead” — newly published by Graywolf Press — is long-listed for a National Book Award. The poems are grounded in themes Smith cares deeply about: the violent deaths of young black men; love and the perils of love, including HIV; a nation headed down the wrong path.
But if you really want to get Smith excited, ask about the volta.
“Oh, yay, voltas,” Smith said, delighted, in a recent interview.
A volta is a pivot toward the end of a sonnet, the moment when everything in the poem shifts. “I love sonnets. I think they’re the perfect form,” Smith said. “The volta is an important moment — a poem is boring if you enter it the same way you leave. Any chance you can pivot the reader or the heart, it’s good.”
Jeff Shotts, Smith’s editor at Graywolf, said, “The truth is, Smith is a troubadour poet — a 17th-century troubadour poet dropped down in Minneapolis.”
Smith, 28, lives in Minneapolis and has performed spoken-word poetry all over the country, all over the world. They (Smith prefers the gender-neutral pronoun) performed with rapper Macklemore on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” were a two-time finalist in the world poetry slam competition and a three-time Rustbelt Poetry Slam champion.
Smith’s own personal volta might be a recent pivot from spoken word to written word. Smith still performs poems (“I don’t want people to say when they saw me read poems, I was boring”). But these days the writing is as important as the show.
Evolution of a ‘poem nerd’
Danez Smith was born in St. Paul and grew up in the Selby neighborhood with their mother and grandparents.
“I loved it,” Smith said. “I feel like a very St. Paul kid; I feel like I had a very typical black St. Paul experience.” Smith graduated from St. Paul Central High School and from the University of Wisconsin.
“I’ve lived in California, Wisconsin, I’ve traveled all over the world because of poetry,” Smith said. “But the place I’ve always wanted to come back to is here.”
Smith’s interest in words was not immediate. As a child, “I had a very difficult relationship with reading,” they said. “I couldn’t read for the first few years of elementary school. In third grade, I had a teacher who told me if I knew how to read, I could read video-game magazines.” That was all the inspiration Smith needed.
“There were books that stood out for me as a kid,” Smith said. “ ‘The Skin I’m In’ [by Sharon G. Flake] — I read that book over and over. I think I started to become a bigger reader as I started to get into poetry — Toni Morrison and James Baldwin and even Mark Twain.”
Smith started writing and performing poems while at St. Paul Central. “I think spoken word was kind of coming into national consciousness at that time. I was one of many Minnesota kids to catch that wave.”
It wasn’t until college that Smith started to think more seriously about the craft of writing. “I like to study poetry. I’m a poem nerd. Some people binge-watch a season of something, some people learn everything they can about sonnets for three hours.”
‘How could you miss Danez?’
Smith — co-founder of the Dark Noise Collective, a national multigenre poetry group — has won fellowships from the McKnight Foundation, the Poetry Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Smith has won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, the 2014 Button Poetry Prize, and the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. Their first book, “[insert] boy,” was one of the Boston Globe’s best poetry books of 2014.
All of which helped Smith’s second book land with the prestigious Graywolf Press, home to U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith and Nobel winner Tomas Tranströmer.
It was the spoken-word performances that drew Shotts’ attention.
“How could you miss Danez Smith?” said Shotts, who is Graywolf’s executive editor. “Danez has such a huge following and presence on social media. I saw so many people sharing those remarkable YouTube performances of ‘dear white america’ and ‘you’re dead, america.’ Seeing the hundreds of thousands of people sharing these things and being moved — well, I became one of those people.”
So Shotts contacted Smith the way anyone contacts a social-media star: He sent a note on Twitter. The pair spent the next two years working on “Don’t Call Us Dead.”
The poems in the new collection question “What can our country be in the face of police violence and Donald Trump, and what it means to be a gay black man,” Shotts said. The way Smith tells these modern stories while writing in conventional forms is unique, he said.
“What Danez is doing is very new and very contemporary,” Shotts said. “He has a firm foot in the contemporary voices, but also, yes, he’s thinking about Shakespeare, he’s thinking about 17th-century voices.”
In the poem “every day is a funeral & a miracle,” Smith writes:
“on the bad nights, i wake to my mother / shoveling dirt down my throat / i scream mom! i’m alive! i’m alive! / but it just sounds like dirt / if i try to get up, she brings the shovel down / saying i miss you so much, my sweetest boy.”
When people feel strong emotions, Smith said, they reach for poetry. “We know that poems are something that helps make sense of what the heart is trying to say,” Smith said. “I think in that vein my only job as a poet is to write the poems. I think the goal is to have a roomful of people read your book or your poem, and if all of them have had a different experience, you’ve probably done your job.” -- Laurie Hertzel • 612-673-7302 • @StribBooks