FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
Danez Smith: “Def Poetry” on HBO was the first place I ever encountered poetry by a living, breathing poet. All of the poets I had been introduced to up until then had been dead, or I assumed they were dead like the rest of the poets we read. It wasn’t until I saw poets performing pieces about things I knew about, and places I had been to or seen on TV, using words that sounded like MY words… I didn’t know poetry could be contemporary and urgent to my life until then. Poetry itself was an easy sell – words are cool and I didn’t need to be convinced on the merits of art and language – but I didn’t know poetry lived outside of the past until someone showed me poetry all around me.
FAF: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
DS: Oh I don’t think that story has any use or interest, plus I come in and out of “feeling like a poet” about 10 times a day. But if anyone is out there reading this in hopes on finding some nugget of confirmation that you are a poet: you are. You need no one’s permission, publication, or prize to be a real-deal poet. Do you write poems? Do you walk into the wilderness of a poem and walk out bewildered or transformed? Does writing poems start a fire somewhere inside you? Congrats, you’re a poet! Go read good books and write bad poems until they turn into not-so-bad poems. Repeat.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
DS: I’m incredibly honored to be nominated for the Forward Prize as an American because, beyond my personal elation and giddiness, it shows that the nation of poetry isn’t interested in borders, just in what pulses at the heart of the work. I’m excited to be nominated alongside brilliant authors who push themselves and all of us forward (pun intended) and I hope someone out there will see my work – my black, queer loud-mouth work on this platform – and recognize the worthiness in themselves, similar to how other poets (like Forward Prize winner Claudia Rankine) have inspired me.
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
DS: I admire a great many poets each for their own reasons, but lately I have been thinking a lot on the poems of Safia Elhillo, Franny Choi, and Shira Erlichman. All three are taking vastly different approaches to poetry, but all of them make language feel delightfully slippery, slippery slipping to the possibility of language being malleable, malleable making the poems and the worlds caught in them feel possible. I’m most excited by poems that make me not only giddy about language and all that, but poems that, through language, better equip me to re-enter the world and proceed vigorously. These three poets make me want to never put their poems down, but they send me back into the world a better, more complex, and more inquisitive person.
FAF: What is next for you as a poet?
DS: A novel (plot twist!) but probably just more poems and occasional ice cream until the day I die.
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
DS: Read more than you write, write even when it’s bad, and when it’s bad it probably means you should read more.