Danez Smith@Grinnell

One of the perks of being at Grinnell is getting to experience Writers@Grinnell, the English department’s visiting author series. The first visitor this year was the Minnesotan poet Danez Smith. I’m often not much of a poetry person (whatever that means), though occasionally I’ll stumble upon a poem that really resonates with me (see Gina Myers’ “Memorial”), but I was interested in Smith’s visit because 1) they’re from Minnesota and 2) their next poetry collection, coming out next spring from Graywolf Press, is about friendship.

Another new professor told me she was going to the afternoon roundtable, so I decided to go too, though I wasn’t sure what to expect (I was hardly going to participate in a craft discussion about poetry!). It turned out to be a Q & A with mostly students (as it should be). Now, going in, I thought I’d never heard of Danez Smith before, but as they opened the roundtable by reading one of their poems, I was suddenly certain that they had written a poem I’d discovered a few years ago and loved. It was about being in California and missing the Minnesota cold (and something deeper). Later I checked, and I was right (but I’d been certain); the poem is “I’m Going Back to Minnesota Where Sadness Makes Sense.”

Smith kept reading, and the poem mentioned Hague St., and I started because when I lived in St. Paul I lived on Hague Ave., and Smith was from St. Paul. Was it…?

After reading one more poem (with audience participation), Smith fielded questions from students. The following are some bits of answers I liked best or found most intriguing (filtered through my memory):

  • Joy is hard to make special. So maybe this is why there’s less writing about happiness?
  • You should write about the things you think you’re avoiding because good writing is dangerous.
  • At the same time, while you find your voice in the place that scares you, you also find it in the spaces where you feel safety, love, and intimacy.
  • Your best work should surprise you.
  • Poetry is about being immortal, not inaccessible. (That is, poetry shouldn’t be abstruse work produced by members of a small elite for one another.)
  • They said they were excited for their next book, Homie, because it was going to force people to ask them about their friends (among other things).

In the evening, I went to Smith’s reading in the auditorium at Hotel Grinnell. It was very well attended, and this being a small town and a small college, I recognized all sorts of people I’d met in the less-than-a-month I’ve been here. They came from all manner of departments too. (I think this reading encapsulated exactly what I meant when I tried to express what appealed to me about small liberal arts colleges to faculty search committees!)

The reading was lively, powerful, alternately raucous and still, and Smith had no trouble engaging us all. Among the most memorable poems was “my president,” about all the people they would be proud and happy to call their president (celebrities, family members, and so on). Sometimes I felt like Smith was not talking to me, that I was on the outside looking in, because I’m not black, but this felt right in a way, because not everything we say is for everyone.

The most moving moment of the night, for me, was the reading of the last poem. Smith said they’d posted on social media asking people to give them a very brief description of when they knew their best friend was their best friend. I believe the responses fed into the poem, which is entitled “acknowledgments.” It was funny and beautiful and poignant, and I loved it.

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