National Book Award Finalist Danez Smith Discusses Writing One's Whole Self: Black, Queer, HIV Positive

Danez Smith
Danez Smith
David Hong

Danez Smith doesn't mince words. As a 2017 finalist for the National Book Award for his second book, Don't Call Us Dead, Smith has chosen to paint literary pictures of life as a black, queer, HIV-positive person living in the world. Smith spoke to me about his work, and the following excerpt of that interview is being published on TheBody to celebrate National Poetry Month.

Jamal Lewis: I read in a previous interview where you said, "You can't divide the body without ruining it," and I wonder, is there a difference in the self you brought into Don't Call Us Dead that is not present in earlier works?

Danez Smith: A more mature and self-aware self. I was trying divide [Insert] Boy into categories. What I realized is that you can't really separate all your "black poems" from your "gay poems" because you be black and gay at the same time, and they be popping up on each other, or they influence too much. I learned this lesson again in a different way with Don't Call Us Dead because it was two books: one was more focused along the line of thought about police brutality, and violence, and racism in America and the other was more about queerness, HIV, and sexuality. Don't Call Us Dead wouldn't be what it is if it were either of those conversations happening isolated.

The more I learn to live with my own complexity and contradictions, the more I'm willing to also allow those contradictions to be seen in the work.

JL: Talk to me more about HIV and how you explore it in Don't Call Us Dead.

DS: I was diagnosed in April 2014. April 30: I remember that. A lot of the poems that made it into the book were poems that were written closer to my diagnosis, which means that I was thinking about my mortality in a major way, even though I knew, because I had done my research, that I don't have to die. But at the same, touching your possible death in some way or being made aware of your own mortality in a different way is shell shocking. I went through the depression that is common for folk first finding out they are positive.

Related: The Disguised Blessings of HIV-Positive Poet Mary Bowman

The n***a who wrote those poems is dying in his mind. It takes a while in the book, very late, for the idea of living to feel possible. I have a lot more poems now that are going to make it in later collections that are more about what it actually means to live with HIV. Maybe the question of Don't Call Us Dead is not what is to live with HIV but what does HIV mean, and what does it mean to be made aware. The poems are more about diagnosis and seroconversion than they are about what it means to be a bitch that's had it for 10-20 years and is living their life -- than what it means to actually walk with it and not live in fear of it.

JL: "Recklessly" is such a powerfully haunting poem in the way that it juxtaposes seroconversion and incarceration in memory of Michael "Tiger Mandingo" Johnson's case. Can you tell me more about the poem?

DS: There are a lot of different fears in that poem because he is a prisoner: a political prisoner. The poem is complicated. It's trying to hold space for him and his justice that I believe he deserves, but also space for what it means to be scared of HIV. There is a little bit of tenderness for his accusers, too, in the poem and what it means to … I don't know. It's weird. It's about prison, the jail cell, the T cell, and also stigma as a type of prison. I know when I was caught in that prison of stigma at various points of my life, when I was younger and less informed, I was scared as shit because they make you scared as shit. I think holding space for that fear, too, and the fear I don't do the…. You know, I am always upfront with everybody about my diagnosis when I'm trying to sleep with them, but I also had to hold space for the possibility, because there is so much.

What his case shows us is that we still ostracize people living with HIV. Especially when you think about where you live, because that has so much to do with it. Because so much of queer culture is locked up in these metropolitan cities, having a conversation about stigma, safety, our justice, and about how free we can be is a lot different in a New York, LA, or Atlanta than it is in the middle of Missouri. That n***a was in the middle of fucking Missouri fucking with these white boys. The poem also reminds me of the many different conversations that we have to have about these shared bodies that we have and these shared narratives of illness that we have and how they differ. Even though they are shared and we all know something because we are brothers and sisters, in these ways, across queerness, race, and illness, it's different depending on where you are at.

JL: After all these years of HIV/AIDS activism, why do you think it's so hard for people to let go of stigma and shame?

DS: The slogan "silence equals death" is popping up in my head. In so many ways, too, not even just in illness, but stigmas towards people with different gender identities. All these stigmas that we as queer people carry, and I don't understand why we tend to propagate them ourselves. Nothing good has ever come from it. I've never heard a conversation about stigma that left me with a smile on my face or feeling good. Shame is such a big thing, and so much of my work has been about what it means to shake loose that shame.

The mistake I made when I was younger was I thought you shook shame loose one time and that was it, and I didn't realize the shame underneath the shame. So much of me starting to have these conversations with myself in different ways now was because I had to have the eight other conversations about the eight other kinds of shame with myself before I could get to other conversations or what I knew was there. It's like cleaning your house: You can't sweep your floors without until you get all the shit off the ground.

Book cover for Don't Call Us Dead
Black, gay artist Shikeith, "The Moment You Doubt Whether You Can Fly, You Cease Forever to Be Able to Do It" (Cover Design by Kapo Ng)

JL: What do you think the role of poetry today is in the HIV/AIDS activism world now centered on class ascension? How do you see your work connected to the lineage of black queer literature and activism like In the Life, Brother to Brother, and Other Countries?

DS: There was energy around those '80s and early '90s conversations that felt different when looking at the scope of poetry. I was cleaning my house the other day, and I picked up Brother to Brother, and so much of that work is about us -- it's about black queer folk -- and because of the time it was written, it is about HIV. It'd be dishonest to make a collection of black queer writings today if there weren't a significant amount of work around HIV because it still affects our community like, whoa. But I think it's weird, and I didn't really realize this, but I have homies telling me that, as my book is coming out, I'm one of few black queer writers publishing right now that is talking about this as forwardly and uncoded.

There are some folks who, if you read the work, you have to be in the know a little bit to be able to see. They mention Atripla [efavirenz/tenofovir/FTC] here, and if you know what Atripla is, then you know what the poem is about. I think it's weird to be writing about this thing that I know so many people live with, but not to see that narrative pulled out a lot in writing. I wonder how much of that is from stigma. I wonder how much of that is urgency. I wonder how those two things play into each other. I wonder how much medical culture and undetectableness has changed our relationship to it in writing, too. It is two different conversations.

I do know so many writers who are positive, and it's like, wow, there is a community here, but it's not mourning in the same way. You mention class ascension, and it's funny, too, because it's inescapable from what you said. All the poems I'm writing now about HIV are actually about class. I can afford these pills. This is the n***a I know that can't. Or where stigma keeps him from even wanting to go get a test, and I can see this n***a is wasting away. He doesn't want to go get a test because that means health care and because it is expensive.

The poetics of it has to have a different conversation, because we are having to have a different conversation nowadays. My hope is that more people who live with HIV, or who have HIV as part of their lives in some way, do write about it. The "silence is death" thing is huge, and I wonder what would happen if we as black queer poets would address this more urgently in our writing. But that's not to say that folks don't.

JL: Folks are addressing it, but time, space, and location are very important factors in understanding how it spills over on the page. Writing in the '80s and early '90s confronted mortality in a different way.

DS: One thing that HIV/AIDS did was that it made sure that this conversation, in many ways, always stayed with new voices because a lot of people didn't mature into the later parts of their career. You read queer zines, you read anthologies, and you find (which is sort of the sad part) some folks where it is three poems and then nothing. No first collection. No second collection if they have one. And this is because [HIV] took so many people so young. What happened with a lot of queer poets and writers writing about HIV is that we don't have access to our ancestors in living, breathing ways, which then makes it difficult to explore the fullness of a conversation as to what it means to have a poetics be different at two different points of time.

I'm thankful forever that D.A. Powell is still in the world, and I love him, but the fact that we don't have access to Essex or Assotto, and so many writers that I have questions for that I can't -- or I have to find my answers in what they have left for us.

I think it's a different time. And what I think is different, too, is that (this is completely opposite of what I'm saying) we are writing about it, but also black queer writers have a higher profile than we did back in those days, too, and so we're not writing into shadows; our writing is in demand in poetry right now, and I think that's a very free thing. I'm excited to see what happens with that. It's a very interesting class of black gay/queer writers, most of whom are in their 20s and 30s, and I think it's going to be interesting to watch 10-15 years as we all start to mature and get older. It's going to be fun.

JL: I'm often angered by Essex Hemphill's lack of an archive other than Ceremonies, Earth Life, and other things scattered around us, possibly present at the Schomburg Center for Black Research and other places. There is such a weird tension between the public that are fans of his work and met him that way and his family that reared him but also cared for him in his death. I hate that we have no access to this archive or that we may never have access to it because his estate is in the hands of a family who is wrestling with what it meant for him to be black and gay. I'm curious to know what are the questions you have for him?

DS: I have questions around his relationship to the erotic and the divine, and how I see those two going hand in hand. Or what they have to teach each other. I want to know how he would see today. I want marching orders from him. He was such a brilliant, political mind that was also so enamored with love and tenderness. I feel like it's a time. I want to know how he would have laid a hand in the Black Lives Matter movement. I want to know how he would reposition us. I have been having a lot of thoughts about the necessity of enclaves or what we do with our smaller communities as this bigger shit tends to be falling apart. Essex always had an eye on the tribe in a really beautiful way. I just want to lay at his feet for a little bit, ask him all the random questions that come to my mind, and just hear him talk. Cause that's the thing, I don't know what question I have that is worthy of him, but I do want to be sort of greedy in that way and just take in his voice.

JL: How do you bring your work back home to Minneapolis, to your family, your cousins?

DS: I'm proud of my family. There are a lot of different conversations -- both between ourselves and about our personal relationships, and also about the world -- we were able to have a couple years ago. My family has really blessed me, and they see me as an adult now and lean on me for things, which feels important. I just try to keep it as real and honest with them as I can, and try to translate the world as best I can to them. My family is older, and there's not a lot of young folks in my family. I am one of the youngest on my mom's side. I'm really just trying to be a better caregiver in my family and start to step into that role more as folks in my family get older and their bodies change, or maybe they pass away. There is a lot more physically that I have to take up, in the family, being a young, able-bodied person that can come over and do the 80,000 chores that a 70 year old cannot. That's the way that I'm starting to take up space, to just be there, which I think is the greatest kind political act.

JL: Simply powerful and moving. One of the things I want to do better in 2018 is learn new ways to care for my family and friends as a love language, especially care that is about presence. And not a presence that looks towards digital interventions in the meantime, but presence that is someone showing up to clean your house, to cook you a meal, to rub your feet, to wash your body when you are unable to. I hope that we might be able to talk about how to care for each other in those ways as people whose bodies and histories carry what it carries. Given that, what is something you want to say in the work or the world that you haven't said?

DS: I would leave folks with one little thing that I have been chewing on for the last year or two, which is thinking about the ways to make our lives as small as possible. So much of American ambition had me for so long thinking about the bigness of everything and wanting more -- to multiply, to magnify (ugh … they be saying that in church so much). [giggles]

I think there is a blessing in smallness and closeness. And it has a lot to do with care. What is the smallest way in which you have the biggest change and impact? Like you were saying, we get so caught up in fighting these big topic issues, and that type of change feels so far away. How do you pour yourself into being massive in a way that can be felt even by a few? That's one of the most powerful things we can do as humans. Think small.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jamal Lewis is an interdisciplinary artist, writer, and public speaker living in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, hailing from Atlanta. She is the writer and director of the forthcoming film No Fats. No Femmes. More at or @fatfemme on all socials.