by Jason Bayani
We’re debuting a new interview series here on the Berkeley Slam blog. And to kick it off we have the Berkeley Slam’s first feature of 2014, DANEZ SMITH!
I know you are a Cave Canem fellow and I was going over your poem, “Twerking as a Radical Form of Healing”. There are elements that remind me of one of my favorite poems from when I was an undergrad, “Victims of the Latest Dance craze” which happens to be written by [Cave Canem founder] Cornelius Eady. Both poems seem to utilize the act of dance as a force of resistance and I wanted to ask how you feel dance and movement are meant to inhabit your poetry?
For me, the body is too sacred not to include in poetry. Most of my poems start in the body, often coming from something physical that then inspires the words to come about. I think dance and movement is a thing of my life, not necessarily in a formal sense, but in a ‘I dance all around the house and on the bus stop’ sense. If I am to accurately write my world, then my poems must dance, they must sweat and get weak in the knees. Also, I hate the gym, so I make my poems do some cardio for me.
You mentioned in your TED talk that you didn’t start with writers in the canon, but ones that were your age and spoke to issues that were more immediate and relevant to you. How do you feel this helped to facilitate your interest in writing and literature and do you believe this is a more effective approach for younger students to draw them into these subjects?
For me, coming into writing through the writing of other young writers made it seem not cool, but possible. It made poetry feel alive and not as an old concept divorced from my present. For youth or anyone coming into a love of poetics, I am down for them to come into it however they damn well can. The ballinest part of poetry to me is that at any given time, there is a poem for every one! I think learning to love the words of a 15 year old writer can be just as powerful as learning to love words through some of the genius of Audre Lorde or some of the other masters, whether classic or contemporary. That being said, I think its crucial for young people to absorb the work of other young people so they can start the process of figuring out what poetry will mean to their generation and so they can understand themselves as peers, as budding griots, as sources of knowledge worthy of praise and destined for growth. Plus, youth poets are craaaaaaaaaaaaaaackin! Some of the best poetic ideas I’ve ever heard have come from 16 year olds who have been writing for 2 years or for 30 mins.
You appear to have a strong online presence and videos of your performances are quite popular on the web. What do you feel about social media’s place these days in helping to promote the work of an artist and do you employ a strategy around it?
In the scheme of things, I have a humble little online presence, but I think social media can be a great tool and a great distraction from the work. On the good side, I love that social media gives people access to great poetry that might not access poetry on their own. The idea of people scrolling their way to being a poetry fan is great to me, and I love that it gives access to poetry to communities who are often ignored by the academic poetic spaces. Folks like Button Poetry do a great job at that, and groups like Strivers Row or other poets have really figured out how to create interest in poetry through video and social media in cool ways. On the other side, I think social media and video sites also can confuse access and social media stats for talent. It scares me if the question for an artist shifts from ‘how am I doing the work/how am I getting better?’ to ‘how do I get people to see me more?’. For me, its less about the promotion in more about making sure what I have to promote is legit and its fullest self, I think the level of the work is often the true joy for me which often leads to a lull in promoting it, so maybe I need to get better at part 2. I think, for me, that what may look like strategy is just me using Facebook too much. I should change that.
We recently got into a bit of a tiff on Twitter about the rapper Too Short when you said that he had been making albums “for how long and still hasn’t learned how to rap” (to be fair you did stress the fact that this did not mean you did not love his work). Though I’m still outraged, I do get it. Do you have any other favorites (in any art form) where you feel they may be lacking in a certain area but there’s still something about the work they do that appeals to you. And why?
This is hard for me because i think this only applies to pop music for me, cause to me a bad poem is a bad poem and I can’t really get past that. Same with dance, theatre and other forms. If there is someone like that for me in those cultures, I wouldn’t call them a ‘favorite’, but rather I like one aspect of it but not another, like a poet I might view as a great performer or writer but not the other. That being said, Trina aka The Baddest Bitch aka The Diamond Princess is my damn jam and I don’t care if she is forever a subpar rapper because she is forever the Demigod of Ratchet and I live for it.
And for the last question let’s go with the standard broad-range question: What do you think makes a poem sexy?
A poem that isn’t scared to surprise itself, bare its ugliest bones, but still strut and fall out is sexy as hell! Give me that poem every time!