Danez Smith (photo by Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune)
Danez Smith, a 28-year-old writer launched by the Twin Cities slam-poetry scene, is a finalist for one of literature's most prestigious prizes.
His second collection of poetry, “Don’t Call Us Dead” — published by Minneapolis' Graywolf Press — will contend with four other books for the National Book Award in poetry, it was announced Wednesday morning.
Smith got the word in Toronto as he arrived for a reading that night. "I was eating a breakfast sandwich, fresh off a flight, when I got the call," he told the Star Tribune in an email. "I had to walk outside so I could scream and dance without knocking over someone's hash browns."
In all, the 20 nominees announced Wednesday include four books from Minneapolis publishers. Winners will be announced Nov. 15 at a ceremony in New York City.
Two other Graywolf books also were chosen as finalists: "Whereas," a poetry collection by Oglala Lakota poet Layli Long Soldier that deals in part with the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War in Minnesota, and "Her Body and Other Parties," a story collection by Philadelphia writer Carmen Maria Machado that was nominated in the fiction category.
And a young-adult novel from Carolrhoda Lab, an imprint of Minneapolis-based Lerner Publishing Group — "What Girls Are Made Of," by California writer Elana Arnold — is a finalist in the Young People’s Literature category.
Smith, a two-time finalist in the world poetry slam competition, addresses intensely personal themes in his book, published just a month ago: the violent deaths of young black men; love and the perils of love, including HIV; a nation headed down the wrong path.
"People are responding to the book in a way I couldn't have predicted," he said Wednesday. "I knew having a book on Graywolf would be a different experience, but I feel a tad overwhelmed with the gush of love. At readings, the audiences are thankfully with me. They laugh when I need them to laugh, they cry at the same parts I didn't when writing the poems. It's a beautiful and rare thing to be able to see people experiencing exactly what you hoped they would."