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#NPRPoetry Month: Poet Danez Smith


And now our continuing celebration of Poetry Month. We've been asking listeners to share original, tweet-length poems. And all this month, we've been reading through your submissions with a guest poetry curator. Joining us for our final week is Danez Smith. Danez is a co-host of the "VS" podcast - that's the "VS" podcast - from The Poetry Foundation.

Danez, thanks so much for joining us.

DANEZ SMITH: Thanks so much for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: You know, I have to tell you that this is one of my favorite things all year - reading through the submissions by listeners. And I just was wondering whether this was a good experience for you as well.

SMITH: You know, I was - it was. I was a little nervous when I first got asked because who knows what I was going to find in that hashtag?

MARTIN: (Laughter) Solid point.

SMITH: But there were a lot of really great poems that - my heart kind of swelled up by all these people who - especially for me, where I feel like I'm so entrenched in the poetry community. And, like, I know and love a lot of poets. And so it was nice finding these small, wonderful delights by people I've never heard of - by people just sitting at home or on their couch just tweeting a poem away. It was beautiful.

MARTIN: I know. I know. Exactly, right? So why don't you share one of the Twitter poems you picked out?

SMITH: OK, cool. This one is by - I'm going to try names. I apologize ahead of time if I mess anybody's name up. But this is by Raina Manuel-Paris (ph). There's no title - just the hashtag.

(Reading) Juicy note passed on like school, red carpet celebration waiting to unfold as it did when you were a child and knew the dance of wheat, fields and wind, sun and water by heart.

MARTIN: Oh (laughter). What stood out for you about this?

SMITH: Well, one, I just love anything that just starts with the word juicy. Juicy note...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

SMITH: That's just a - that's a good way to - like, Raina, wherever you are, that's a good way to enter a poem - juicy note. Yes. And it hit on all, I guess, the right nostalgic factors for me. I know - sometimes I try not to trust nostalgia so much. But this one - just that - the excitement of a juicy note passed in school, just remembering that exhilaration of what happened whether your friend or your crush passed you that little, folded piece of paper.

Then going down to the red carpet celebration waiting to unfold - how that was sort of a grand, celebratory moment. I think, to me, that really builds up to, like, an innocence in how everything can kind of feel so grand, where the red carpet for so many of us can feel so distant. It's Hollywood. It's something we'll never be on. But to have that experience from the juicy note is everything for me - to think about how that can make you like your elementary school celebrity.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

SMITH: I just got a note from somebody. This is wonderful.

MARTIN: That's so true. That's so true.

SMITH: Yeah. And then the poem does - and it does some interesting things, right, like the child and knew the dance of wheat fields and winds. I think about all the dances we know as a kid. I recently - I call myself newly old. I don't know what the dances are anymore.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

SMITH: My students have to show me. And so (laughter) just thinking about that - when you were a kid, you were so limber, and you knew these dances. But the dances are in nature and, you know, it's just the water dance. Who knows what that is? But the poem also starts - Raina does an interesting thing that I don't think a lot of folks were doing.

She starts to use the space button in really interesting ways. And so sun and water has about six spaces in between it. By heart are on two separate lines. And so it was cool to see that even in the space of social media, Raina was thinking about the poem on the page in some way and thinking about that visual aspect of how poems operate as well.

MARTIN: Thanks for pointing that out because that isn't something you would necessarily know just hearing it.

SMITH: Yeah.

MARTIN: Let me play one that the poet has recorded for us. I think you'll like it. And it's also - but a very different tone. And this one is from Erika Berger from Philadelphia, and it's called "An American Death." And here it is.


ERIKA BERGER: His head barely visible beyond the large gun, he knelt, he knelt, and he shot me dead. They want to control the number of doorways. Today, I died an American death.

MARTIN: What do you think?

SMITH: I love that poem because of how hard it is and how sneakily critical it is, right? We start off with this, like, very bare image - his face barely visible above the large gun, right? And what that even says to us about the innocence of the shooter. Who knows how old or how statuesque that this person who we're imagining being the shooter in this situation is?

Then we get that rhythm. He knelt, he knelt, and he shot me dead. I love this for a couple reasons. One, this might be my Baptist background chiming in a little bit too much. But there's such reverence and ceremony that's based in kneeling for a lot of us, right? When you bend the knee - I mean, everybody - we're all living in "Game Of Thrones" land right now. That means something. So he knelt, he knelt, and he shot me dead.

What I read into this poem was a school shooting. And so thinking about how, sadly, school shootings might have become a kind of ritual in America, something that we expect, something that we kind of know the emotions of right now. And the poem really does that in some very great ways that sort of are pointing us towards song or hymn or ritual or all these things. You know, when we see repetition, we think ancient. Rhyme is one of those - rhyme and repetitions are some of those - the oldest things that we know. And they feel like the witchy tools of poetry to me.

MARTIN: So you have one more for us?

SMITH: I do. I do.


SMITH: I'm going to do this one because I think it's the reason why this month has been important. This is by Karen Rogers (ph) - no title.

(Reading) Words jumble up against my teeth, piling high, sharp edges poking my gums. Tight-lipped, I swallow them back. Once again, I am silenced.

When I read this poem, I was like, oh, this is why NPR does this hashtag because we do sit around with our words sort of caught up in our mouth. And we do swallow them back. And sometimes we are silenced, but even if just given the smallest door, the smallest window, you know, we can speak. And we have a voice. And that's the same reason I think so many of us come to poetry or writing or any type of expression that we have for ourselves because we have those sharp words, those sharp ideas that hurt to keep them inside.

And eventually, something, whether it be the page or the tweet or the microphone or the dance floor, something begs us to finally let it out, even if letting it out is saying, I have been silenced or I don't know how to use my voice. Even that first utterance is such a powerful statement. And so this - what Karen has captured in this little tiny four-line poem for me is the answer to the question, why poetry?


SMITH: Because it hurts to keep it inside, and so we have to let it out.

MARTIN: Wow. What a beautiful idea.

SMITH: Yeah.

MARTIN: Well, thanks for that. That is Danez Smith. Danez is co-host of the "VS" podcast - you can find that at "VS" podcast - and the author of "Don't Call Us Dead." And we reached Danez Minneapolis, Minn. Danez Smith, thank you so much...

SMITH: Thank you.

MARTIN: ...For capping off Poetry Month with us this year. Thank you so much.

SMITH: Appreciate you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.