Intimate AccessDanez Smith on Poetry as Purpose, Thriving with HIV, and Blackness as Home

mixed media painting featuring a black and white shirtless portrait of Danez Smith and black and white shirtless portrait of author George M Johnson surrounded by colorful patterns, strokes, and color blocks

Danez Smith, left, and George M. Johnson (Photo credit: Brent Dundore and Gioncarlo Valentine, respectively, with artwork by Nichole Washington)

This article was published in Sick Issue #86 | Spring 2020

In her 1985 essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” self-described Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet Audre Lorde wrote, “Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundation for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.” For Danez Smith, poetry has been the bones, skin, melanin, and water of the Black aesthetic. Through their works, including 2014’s [insert] boy, 2017’s award-winning Don’t Call Us Dead, and January 2020’s Homie, Smith has intentionally crafted a portrait of the Black existence that centers our narrative outside of the white gaze.

Smith, who is Black, queer, and publicly living with HIV, is unapologetic about choosing to live in their truth, both on social media and within their work. These intersections—Blackness, queerness, and being HIV-positive—are all parts of an existence that many Black queer people suffer under, the multiple systems of oppression often creating the impossibility of surviving or sustaining a feasible quality of life. Yet Smith continues to rise, refusing to be disregarded as just another Black statistic. In this interview, Smith opens up about their work, their health, and their decision to be unapologetically Black amid a white-dominated cultural landscape.

Let’s talk about the book Homie, which you revealed in a surprise Shonda Rhimes–esque plot twist is really named My Nig. Can you walk me through your genius decision to do that? Why was it important to not give power to folks who aren’t Black to use the term “my nig”?

I felt a lot of ways [about] this decision for a bit, like maybe it was just a half-step from going far enough. I didn’t want my book [to have the title] My Nig without that half-step of Homie and an author’s page that’s an invitation to community.

A lot of [my] work is [about] denying the fallacy that the imagined reader is always white from the start; that’s what Homie is supposed to be. We think about friendship and a lot of other things in this collection, but there’s also a door within the book that’s an invitation to more intimate access to Black folks, to Black queer folks, to Black trans folks. Not to say that everyone isn’t allowed to see this [book] as they need; the people who I refer to as “my nigga” in the collection are not always Black folks. But [the book] gets us thinking about language—how it’s beloved, how it’s dangerous, [and how] it has long histories. We’re thinking through some of the complications of the word “nigga” and how that bridges across other folks. [The collection] shrank a little bit; at one point, I was like, look, [this book is] very much about that, but it shifted somewhat to these remnants that are trying to signal who the book is for in some not-so-quiet ways.

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One of the poems in your book is titled “Gay Cancer,” and it invokes the names of Essex, Melvin, Assanto, and others who’ve been lost to the epidemic. As somebody who lives with HIV, I know that my writing as a Black queer person continues the trail first set by the Essexes and Joseph Beams who have now become our ancestors. Can you talk about your experience as a Black queer HIV-positive poet and the importance of showcasing the totality of who you are?

When I became poz, so much of my writing was about doing away with shame. That’s a heavy presence in the first book and some of my work before I started publishing. When I became poz, [there] was [never] really a question [about] if I was going to write about it and be up front about it. I have been very vocal from jump because I’ve always missed those ancestors who I’ll never know, all the people—Assanto, Saint, Essex Hemphill—the poem mentions. There does seem to be this disconnect between a lot of queer artists, especially Black queer folks, and our ancestors who died off in the 1980s and ’90s and left us with these books, poems, and ballads. HIV did leave a gap in a lot of ways, and we have folks talking about surviving that experience. I don’t think I’m so important that I could call myself somebody’s hero, but I am so grateful to the artists I looked up to for writing honestly and fiercely. I think I owe it to my readers to do the same.

It’s been shocking to me how many folks come up to me after readings and say, “I’ve never told anybody I was positive. I didn’t feel like I was going to live for so long. I need to work on this stuff.” I recognize that I have been afforded this platform, and I can use that platform to say poz people still exist and we’ve been living and thriving; it’s paramount and part of my responsibility as an artist. If I’m going to be engaging in this kind of confessional work, then it’s up to me to let my people see themselves in the pages of my work.

I often think about the different ways that Black queer people choose to tell our stories, whether it’s through an op-ed, a documentary, or photography. Why is poetry your purpose?

Come on, now! Poetry is something I latched on to at an early age. It came to me at the right time, and I love it fiercely. It’s one of the best tools for distilling down the essence of what the human experience is. That’s what poets do a lot of the time. We live and witness the world around us and then report back to other people who are living, witnessing right alongside us. I have loved other arts in my life. I love dance. I love theater. Poems just took off in a particular way, both [as] a career and my passion. There was a long time where I couldn’t stop writing poems, so then I was a poet.

Why do we do anything that we do? I was blessed to meet the right people that made me fall fully in love [not only] with the craft of poetry, but with poets. Poets are some of the weirdest, strangest, most interesting people on the planet, and I’m grateful for the art as well for [poetry] giving me access to those people.

On a different day in high school, maybe it could’ve been nonfiction and maybe I could’ve been writing novels. But I’ve been a poet for so damn long, I don’t remember my life without it. It’s like, why Black? I don’t fucking know. My mama said I was. I’m 30. I’ve been writing in earnest since I was 14; I think that’s the first time I ever called myself a poet to somebody else. That’s over half my life now. Poetry’s in my bones and my body. I’ll probably do other things with my art and with my time, but poetry is second nature.

We know that one in two Black men who have sex with men will contract the HIV virus in their lifetime. I’ve been publicly HIV-positive for more than five years, and a lot of my work still references the epidemic, the state of HIV now, and its future. Can you describe your journey and how you came to tell your story in such a beautiful and raw way?

I was diagnosed [in] April 2014, so a little more than five years [ago]. I couldn’t keep it from people and keep it out of my work. I didn’t necessarily think about it as my work right away, but I was doing a lot of journaling and a lot of writing. As much as art becomes our careers and our life’s work, for me, [art is] still how we process and release stress from time to time. Poetry has helped me make sense of diagnosis, this new look at my mortality and my body, and eventually, that became the foundation of my last book, Don’t Call Us Dead. The second half of that book weighs heavily on my HIV diagnosis.

The problem I had with Don’t Call Us Dead is the Danez character who [exists] in that book is very much still living within the shock of diagnosis and what it meant to touch mortality in that way. Not to speculate upon your death is to actually have a possibility that the thing now within you has killed the you [of] before. By the time Don’t Call Us Dead came out, I was just starting to come out of that haze and figure out my healthcare. Things have finally started falling in place in a way where I think about long-living with HIV. [Writing that book] gave me a lot of models for HIV work that call it “thriving despite.” I hate the word “despite” right there. I’m fighting alongside my diagnosis, like I’m a bad bitch.

I’m fighting alongside my diagnosis, like I’m a bad bitch.

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Homie is an homage to niggas, from the everyday boys on the block and celebrities to those in Mexico and everybody in between. We know the diaspora is spread far and wide, so I want you to talk about what Blackness means to you and your choice to use language that can often be deemed unacceptable by standards of writing that are controlled by cis white people.

I don’t care about white people. Truly. I had these questions I wrestled with for a while: What do I do with the white gays within my work? I don’t want to fit into a white literary canon or a white literary imagination of excellence. That’s not who’s important to me. Thank you, white critics who talk to each other about what they like, but I’m not writing for the New York Times or the Washington Post. I’m writing for Keisha. I write for my family and my friends, and I write for poets who excite me, who tend to write like me. I think a lot about those white standards; they’re boring, and I don’t think that wrestling with their concerns or their gaze really adds anything to my work. So as much as I can, I try to not think about it or think about them.

As far as Blackness, I like my whole life now; it took 30 years worth of shit. Blackness is everything to me. I would like to say that. I love Black people deeply. I was raised by Black people, loved by Black people, moved by Black people, hurt by Black people. But they have a light. I know that if we ever got [into] a race war, I’m rooting for everybody Black. Blackness is my family and the majority of the people I have loved romantically. Understanding the diasporas of my homies; it’s the lens that I wish to see the world [through]. Blackness is home for me, and I feel different in a room full of Black people than I do in a room full of other people. I try to stay around Black people. Black people just feel like “it.” If you were raised by niggas, then you really know how sweet it is to be a nigga. What else is there?

I’ve been following you on social media. You’re not afraid to showcase your uniqueness through your sexuality and gender fluidity. Can you just talk a little bit about your sexuality? What’s it like to publicly discuss sex as an HIV-positive person?

I haven’t always liked my body, but I like it right now, so I like showing it off. I don’t think too much [about] the hate that goes behind it. I like my naked body. I like other people’s naked bodies. Sex is a beautiful, important, and huge thing in all of our lives that’s definitely a highlight of my work. I talk about fucking enough in my work that I don’t feel ashamed and it doesn’t feel out of context if I’m talking about sex in any other space in my life

Why would I not want to talk [about sex] via social media, poems, or whatever else I’m writing or creating? Why wouldn’t I want to talk about something that has been hugely important and brought me great pleasure, and also taught me a lot of hard lessons about this world? There’s this weird kind of stigma. There was a q&a I participated in and this one woman asked a question that was riddled with stigma. It was [along the lines] of, “You became positive in 2014. PrEP was available then. What would you change? How would you do it differently?” I just said, I knew [about PrEP], but it was more of a rumor back then. How do you get it? Who has it? I was a person who engaged in risky sex and knew what the possibilities of that risky sex were, so I wasn’t fucking flabbergasted when I got HIV.

There’s still a lot of stigma. But it’s important for me to still view myself as worthy of sex and love. I stayed in this relationship way too long a couple years ago just because it was the first time I’d dated someone since my diagnosis. I thought for so long after [my diagnosis that] I would be alone for the rest of my life. I’m grateful for that shitty relationship [because it] proved to me that I was worthy of romantic care, of physical attention, and deep attention, not just fucking, but deep sex.

The online stuff doesn’t really feel like too much of a purpose or like I’m doing this with intention. I feel sexy. I would like niggas to look upon my sexiness and clap because I’m a Leo. And if there are other things about me that make my life public, I semi-wanna be a sex siren, political, or interesting in some type of way. But the impulse to share that layer and that part of myself is pure.

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by George M. Johnson
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George M. Johnson is an award-winning writer with work featured in Teen Vogue, Vice, BET, NBC and more than 50 national publications. His debut memoir, All Boys Aren’t Blue, will be in stores on April 28, 2020.