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Spotlight on: Danez Smith

The first time I encountered spoken poetry was through a tumblr post by Button Poetry. Like many people, I found them through Neil Hilborn's viral poem OCD  (which has been viewed over ten million times). Before I clicked play,  the phrase "slam poetry" only conjured up vague images of thin Frenchmen wearing black and snapping their fingers ominously.  After I'd watched it, though, I couldn't get enough. I must have spent half a day watching the Button Poetry playlists and exploring the accounts of some other well-known publishers and poetry slams (I was definitely too distracted to go to class). When I started this blog,  I knew it wouldn't be complete unless I found some way to incorporate my love of poetry (written and spoken word) into it. And if it's been a while - or a lifetime - since you cracked open a poetry book, have no fear! The Poet of the Week feature is here to serve as an introduction to some of the great writers and performers you've been missing out on. 

Danez Smith

In his own words:

"Danez Smith, a Cave Canem Fellow and 2-time Pushcart Nominee, works in Madison, WI, as an Student Adviser for the First Wave Program at UW-Madison. He likes tattoos, bad food, drinking Capri Suns, reading manga and good poems. His work appears or is forthcoming in PANK, Vinyl, Radius, Southern Indiana Review, and other places. He slams sometimes, placing 6th in the world at the 2011 Individual World Poetry Slam. His One-Man Theater Production “For Those Who Pray In Closets” is receiving critical acclaim and standing ovations wherever performed. Danez has traveled across the country and the globe to Mexico, Panama, Switzerland, and England to perform poetry and theater. A young artist walking and writing in the footsteps of Baldwin and Hughes, Danez seeks to continue to be a voice for hushed choir boys, the walking shadows, the joy, hurt, and journey of the black, queer men. Pulling from his artistic endeavors in music and theater, his voice on the page sings of his old soul, his experienced youth, his treasured mistakes, and all the things that imagine him human." 

And in mine:

When I first heard "Not an Elegy for Mike Brown" I knew that I had found a poet whose work I would want to follow for life. I found myself mulling over the opening line, the ending, every carefully chosen word, and above all else the sheer emotion reverberating throughout the poem. Since that day, I have gone on to learn more about other poets and artists, but Danez Smith remains the first modern poet whose work truly spoke to me. He's been published in a lot of different places & received tons of recognition from academics, critics, and the general public, so I am clearly not the only fan of his work, but even if he was just one of the many unknown poets plying their trade on the internet I would still want to share his work with you.

All art is shaped by the society in which it was created. Mr. Smith writes openly and honestly about being young, black, and gay at a time when the tension surrounding the black and LGBTQIA+ community has never been higher. And despite the fact that he has never shied away from talking about current, controversial topics, his poetry feel timeless. I can easily imagine his work continuing to resonate with readers decades after the social issues it revolves around have changed. In his written work, he experiments with form; draws attention to both important social issues and the small, ordinary tragedies of living; and writes with one of the most consistently powerful voices that I have ever encountered. 

Selected Works:

1Alternate Names for Black Boys: This is one of his simplest and most poignant poems. Every word feels powerful and well-considered. Every word makes you ache and ache and ache. 

2. Tonight, in Oakland: There are poems that celebrate love and there are poems that remind you of what comes after. This is a poem for dancing on rooftops with only the glare of a thousand police cars for light. This is a poem about desire and thirst and desperation and its frantic images will haunt you long after you've finished reading it.  

3. Genessisy: A twenty-first century creation myth. Watch this and laugh and weep and marvel at all the wonderful things he can do with language. 

4. "Not an Elegy for Mike Brown": This was the first poem I ever saw him perform and it's still the one I think of most. 

"look at what the lord has made.
above Missouri, sweet smoke."

Support His Work:

He has a book out called Black Movie, available through Button Poetry's press, and another one called [insert] boy through YesYesBooks. You can also find him on Twitter and Facebook


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