Danez Smith: The 17-Year-Old & the Gay Bar

Danez Smith is a unique poet. They are Black, queer, non-binary, and HIV-positive. We honour them with this selection of their work and hope you will explore their writings further.

The collection Don’t Call Us Dead was a finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry in 2017. As Smith describes it, the book “confronts, praises, and rebukes America,” and addresses the violence perpetrated against Black and queer bodies. Ultimately, Smith finds joy through their strikingly beautiful command of poetic language, cycling between couplets, prose poems, and free verse for an array of emotional effects. This approach exhausts what Smith critiques and breathes new life into what they celebrate, addressing history in its totality.

We have selected summer, somewhere, which opens the book. This long poem imagines an afterlife for murdered Black boys. Our reality seeps into this afterlife through artifacts of the boys’ memories, yet they have escaped. The final poem is a mere 16 lines of rhythmically hypnotic lyrics, as the speaker sings to the Atlantic Ocean to return the bodies lost in the Middle Passage.

The first selected poem, The 17-Year-Old & the Gay Bar, tells the story of a young person’s first time in a gay bar and the liberation they feel. Although they are not yet of age, they manage to get in with a fake ID, the bouncer knowing they needed this experience. It is a poem of liberation, coming together in a space of queer identities and finally feeling seen. Though written as one stanza, Smith uses spacing to define two different settings within the poem: the first half focuses on entry and the bar, and the second on the dance floor. Smith varies their use of enjambment and caesura to create a disrupted poetic meter. The poem is written in free verse, the lack of consistent poetic form reflecting Smith’s personal liberation.

The third poem, alternate names for black boys, defies analysis and interpretation. It is purely contemporary, socially-involved activist poetry. As Marcus Wicker best describes it: “These harrowing poems make montage, make mirrors, make elegiac biopic, make ‘dope ass trailer with a hundred black children / smiling into the camera & the last shot is the wide mouth of a pistol.'”

Smith is a brilliant poet with a fresh contemporary style, offering a remarkable twinned, double-forking spiral of youthful abandon and its mirror-awareness.

(A selection by Răzvan Ion.)

The 17-Year-Old & the Gay Bar

By Danez Smith

this gin-heavy heaven, blessed ground to think gay & mean we. 
bless the fake id & the bouncer who knew
this need to be needed, to belong, to know how
a man taste full on vodka & free of sin. i know not which god to pray to.
i look to christ, i look to every mouth on the dance floor, i order
a whiskey coke, name it the blood of my new savior. he is just.
he begs me to dance, to marvel men with the
                                                                                   dash
of hips i brought, he deems my mouth in some stranger’s mouth necessary.
bless that man’s mouth, the song we sway sloppy to, the beat, the bridge, the length
of his hand on my thigh & back & i know not which country i am of.
i want to live on his tongue, build a home of gospel & gayety
i want to raise a city behind his teeth for all boys of choirs & closets to refuge in.
i want my new god to look at the mecca i built him & call it damn good
or maybe i’m just tipsy & free for the first time, willing to worship anything i can taste.

From “summer, somewhere”

By Danez Smith

somewhere, a sun. below, boys brown
as rye play the dozens & ball, jump
in the air & stay there. boys become new
moons, gum-dark on all sides, beg bruise
-blue water to fly, at least tide, at least
spit back a father or two. I won’t get started.
history is what it is. it knows what it did.
bad dog. bad blood. bad day to be a boy
color of a July well spent. but here, not earth
not heaven, boys can’t recall their white shirt
turned a ruby gown. here, there is no language
for officer or law, no color to call white.
if snow fell, it’d fall black. please, don’t call
us dead, call us alive someplace better.
we say our own names when we pray.
we go out for sweets & come back.
this is how we are born: come morning
after we cypher/feast/hoop, we dig
a new boy from the ground, take
him out his treebox, shake worms
from his braids. sometimes they’ll sing
a trapgod hymn (what a first breath!)
sometimes it’s they eyes who lead
scanning for bonefleshed men in blue.
we say congrats, you’re a boy again!
we give him a durag, a bowl, a second chance.
we send him off to wander for a day
or ever, let him pick his new name.
that boy was Trayvon, now called RainKing.
that man Sean named himself I do, I do.
O, the imagination of a new reborn boy
but most of us settle on alive.
sometimes a boy is born
right out the sky, dropped from
a bridge between starshine & clay.
one boy showed up pulled behind
a truck, a parade for himself
& his wet red gown. years ago
we plucked brothers from branches
unpeeled their naps from bark.
sometimes a boy walks into his room
then walks out into his new world
still clutching wicked metals. some boys
waded here through their own blood.
does it matter how he got here if we’re all here
to dance? grab a boy, spin him around.
if he asks for a kiss, kiss him.
if he asks where he is, say gone.
no need for geography
now that we’re safe everywhere.
point to whatever you please
& call it church, home, or sweet love.
paradise is a world where everything
is a sanctuary & nothing is a gun.
here, if it grows it knows its place
in history. yesterday, a poplar
told me of old forest
heavy with fruits I’d call uncle
bursting red pulp & set afire,
harvest of dark wind chimes.
after I fell from its limb
it kissed sap into my wound.
do you know what it’s like to live
someplace that loves you back?
here, everybody wanna be black & is.
look — the forest is a flock of boys
who never got to grow up, blooming
into forever, afros like maple crowns
reaching sap-slow toward sky. watch
Forest run in the rain, branches
melting into paper-soft curls, duck
under the mountain for shelter. watch
the mountain reveal itself a boy.
watch Mountain & Forest playing
in the rain, watch the rain melt everything
into a boy with brown eyes & wet naps —
the lake turns into a boy in the rain
the swamp — a boy in the rain
the fields of lavender — brothers
dancing between the storm.
if you press your ear to the dirt
you can hear it hum, not like it’s filled
with beetles & other low gods
but like a mouth rot with gospel
& other glories. listen to the dirt
crescendo a boy back.
come. celebrate. this
is everyday. every day
holy. everyday high
holiday. everyday new
year. every year, days get longer.
time clogged with boys. the boys
O the boys. they still come
in droves. the old world
keeps choking them. our new one
can’t stop spitting them out.
ask the mountain-boy to put you on
his shoulders if you want to see
the old world, ask him for some lean
-in & you’ll be home. step off him
& walk around your block.
grow wings & fly above your city.
all the guns fire toward heaven.
warning shots mince your feathers.
fall back to the metal-less side
of the mountain, cry if you need to.
that world of laws rendered us into dark
matter. we asked for nothing but our names
in a mouth we’ve known
for decades. some were blessed
to know the mouth.
our decades betrayed us.
there, I drowned, back before, once.
there, I knew how to swim but couldn’t.
there, men stood by shore & watched me blue.
there, I was a dead fish, the river’s prince.
there, I had a face & then I didn’t.
there, my mother cried over me
but I wasn’t there. I was here, by my own
water, singing a song I learned somewhere
south of somewhere worse. that was when
direction mattered. now, everywhere
I am is the center of everything.
I must be the lord of something.
what was I before? a boy? a son?
a warning? a myth? I whistled
now I’m the God of whistling.
I built my Olympia downstream.
you are not welcome here. trust
the trip will kill you. go home.
we earned this paradise
by a death we didn’t deserve.
I am sure there are other heres.
a somewhere for every kind
of somebody, a heaven of brown
girls braiding on golden stoops
but here —
                                      how could I ever explain to you —
someone prayed we’d rest in peace
& here we are
in peace             whole                all summer

alternate names for black boys

By Danez Smith

1.   smoke above the burning bush
2.   archnemesis of summer night
3.   first son of soil
4.   coal awaiting spark & wind
5.   guilty until proven dead
6.   oil heavy starlight
7.   monster until proven ghost
8.   gone
9.   phoenix who forgets to un-ash
10. going, going, gone
11. gods of shovels & black veils
12. what once passed for kindling
13. fireworks at dawn
14. brilliant, shadow hued coral
15. (I thought to leave this blank
       but who am I to name us nothing?)
16. prayer who learned to bite & sprint
17. a mother’s joy & clutched breath
Danez Smith was the youngest winner of the Forward Prize in 2017 for best poetry collection for their work Don’t Call Us Dead. They was a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the Lambda Literary Award. They have won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and have been a finalist for the NAACP Image Award in Poetry, the National Book Critic Circle Award, and the National Book Award. Danez’s poetry and prose has been featured in Vanity Fair, The New York Times, The New Yorker, GQ, Best American Poetry and on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Danez is a member of the Dark Noise Collective. Former co-host of the Webby nominated podcast VS (Versus), they are the recipient of fellowships from the Poetry Foundation, Princeton, United States Artists, the McKnight Foundation, the Montalvo Arts Center, Cave Canem, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Danez has been featured as part of Forbes’ annual 30 Under 30 list and is the winner of a Pushcart Prize. Smith is 34 y.o. and they live in Minneapolis near their people.
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Source: Poetry (Poetry Foundation magazine)
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Cover image: Illustration by Răzvan Ion
Photography by Hieu Minh Nguyen

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