giovanni smith (they/them)
[trigger warning for the collection, this book contains some triggering content]
danez smith — a black, queer, poz writer — published their most recent poetry collection on Jan. 21 2020 titled “Homie.” smith is an extremely accomplished poet who has performed on many stages and garnered notable awards for their work. they are the author of previous works such as “Don’t Call Us Dead,” “[Insert] Boy,” and “Black Movie.”
the first two lines of smith’s poem titled “my poems” reads, “my poems are fed up & getting violent. / i whisper to them tender tender bridge bridge but they say bitch ain’t no time, make me a weapon!” this shows me that smith doesn’t see themself and their poems as perfectly identical or aligned, but rather, their words are an entity in and of themselves. even though smith-- more or less-- is the one writing, what ends up being said in the piece is not under their control.
smith reminds us that a poem can be anything-- or, more accurately, a poem is whatever it wants to be. this poem leans into this notion, saying, “my mentor said once that a poem can be whatever you want it to be. / so i bury the poem in the river & the body in the fire.” smith’s poem continues to take the shape of many different experiences, actions, places, and items that are never explicitly stated in this one page-poem, essentially questioning and grappling with the nature of poetry.
what are poetry’s limits? what is its meaning, and how clear does that have to be — or should that be — made to the reader? does any particular level of clarity make one poem better or worse than another? generally, the people i know who are not into poetry often express their main problem with the artform to be the lack of clarity. i believe there’s an assumption that after reading anything, you are always supposed to come out of it knowing exactly what happened, when it happened, and what it means. and further, that these answers are supposed to be given to you along the way by the author on a silver platter.
while some or all of these things may be true in some poems, art as a whole is rarely this concrete. poems are another way of expressing our deepest truths and conditions, which do not always have words in existance to communicate. even poems that have fairly certain meanings are read and understood differently between people, and often have different meanings than one might have thought. or a poem can have multiple meanings, if you were to ask the person who wrote it to explain the meaning behind every single choice they made in creating the finished piece.
humans often contradict themselves; we grow, learn new skills and values, unlearn bad habits. in smith’s poem happy hour, they recount death in the black community and how they have seen their grandmother navigate this, “grandma say she going to the funeral to see who all there like i say i’m ‘bout to grab a drink.” black death and the remembering of each one of those experiences all throughout life makes one value whoever is left even more. and this is a beautiful poem that made me think about how i see this same pattern in my family.
the poem directly on the next page, though, is titled, “waiting on you to die so i can be myself.” in it, smith writes, “i’m waiting for a few folks / i love dearly to die so i can be myself. / please don’t make me say who.” the poems “happy hour” and “waiting on you to die so i can be myself” are two independent poems, but juxtaposed one page after the other makes me think about how polarizing these feelings and experiences are, and yet the same author has written them both. are these two poems any less reliable because of this? do they have less of an impact just because on one page i felt the full weight of the value of life, and on the next i empathized with smith’s desire to live a happier life without someone they care about in it?
regardless of how these questions are answered, i appreciate “Homie” for sparking these conversations. i have been very uncertain about myself and my voice in writing lately, and this book helped me expand my view of what poetry can be. i also learned more about what i can be through writing, and that all my truths don’t have to neatly line up for others to understand them. in this poetry collection danez smith’s creativity shows up in their unique formatting choices and sophisticated yet simple voice. i would highly recommend purchasing and reading, even if you are not the biggest poetry fan. you can read about smith on their website. finally, here is a review of their book with an interview done by ashia ajani on them.us — a queer online news source.
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