The Oberlin Review

Smith’s Poetry a Bible Verse, Queer Anthem

Louise Edwards, Arts Editor

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Slam Poet Danez Smith, hailing from St. Paul, MN, opened their performance at the Cat in the Cream Saturday with “Genesissy,” a piece that was part Bible verse, part hymn and part queer anthem. They balanced humorous lines like, “And on the tenth day, God wore a blood-red sequin body suit, dropped it low, named it Sunset,” with serious sentiments like “Jesus wept at the mirror, mourning the day his sons would shame his sons for walking a daughter’s stride.” Like a church service, Smith transitioned from reading their own recreation of the Bible to singing a mournful prayer: “I am on the battlefield for my Lord, for my Lord.”

The dynamic textures of Smith’s work make it clear why Smith is a widely acclaimed poet. Not only are they the author of two chapbooks, hands on ya knees and black movie, but also the winner of the 2015 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry and a two-time individual World Poetry Slam finalist.

Many of Smith’s poems are divided into sections, a medium through which Smith shows off their strength in constructing layered, multifaceted narratives. Smith introduced the next segmented poem by stating, “Now I’ll do a poem about dogs. It’s called ‘Dogs.’” While the audience laughed at the simple and unassuming title, the poem expertly expanded on the topic using reactions to dogs as a metaphor for race relations. The poem reads, “The dog upstairs won’t shut up, and I think about ending his life, but I have to remember it matters.” In another section, Smith rattles off a list of blunt commands: “sit,” “stay,” “bad.” These illuminate the following comparison, “I too have been called boy and been expected to come.” By couching experiences of racism in the everyday language we use to address our leashed golden retrievers and corgis, Smith speaks to how racism and power dynamics are imbedded in our daily routines and seemingly mundane conversations.

In “Dinosaurs in the Hood,” Smith mingles the everyday with the stuff of movies — literally. Smith prefaced the poem by saying, “If a movie has more than four Black people in it, it has to be titled, ‘In the Hood.’” Boyz ‘N the Hood, Bullets in the Hood, Leprechaun: In the Hood, Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood and Don’t be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood only scratch the surface of the many “hood movies” available. Smith’s poem proposes a new and improved cinematic venture: “Let’s make a movie called Dinosaurs in the Hood. / Jurassic Park meets Friday meets The Pursuit of Happyness. / There should be a scene where a little black boy is playing / with a toy dinosaur on the bus, then looks out the window / and sees the T. Rex, because there has to be a T. Rex.” Smith relocates “the hood” to a surreal context that is not bound by time or by social constructs created by white America. They imagine a world where “a cop car gets pooped on by a pterodactyl,” and grandmas are “on the front porch taking out raptors / with guns they hid in walls and under mattresses.” The poem reaches beyond the racist stereotypes of Hollywood, beyond the confines of segregated neighborhoods and white privilege to make room for the dreams of Black boys playing with dinosaurs.

However, Smith’s work is also rooted in current events, demonstrating the versatility of their writing. Smith wrote “It Doesn’t Feel Like a Time to Write” after handcuffed Jamar Clark was shot by a police officer in Minneapolis. In the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, where activists occupied the fourth precinct police station near where Clark was shot, five protestors were shot by white supremacists. Smith begins, “Being Black feels like a lot right now. They shot the man and then they shot the people mourning the man.”

They continue, “You hear the worry in your mama’s voice when she tells you to be careful driving because the ice is slick and the cops is bad and she knows both can lead to an accident.” The parallel Smith draws between fishtailing on a slippery Minnesota road and the terrorism the police state inflicts on Black communities again brings systematic oppression to the level of the everyday, as Smith does in “Dogs.” The closing line, “It doesn’t feel like a time to write when all my muses are begging for their lives,” brings the poem full-circle, illuminating the meaning behind the title. The piece is a eulogy to the creative minds that have been lost to police violence.

In an act of trust, Smith also gave a preview from their collection Don’t Call us Dead that will be published in 2017 by Graywolf Press. One of the main themes of the book is about being diagnosed with and living with HIV. “How will I survive white cops … inside my blood and hunting white blood cells?” they read. The work connects police violence to disease and disease to racism. Smith’s politically conscious slam succeeded in merging reality with the surreal and religion with newspaper headlines. It exists at the intersection of daily routines and imaginative dreams.

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