Writing About Police Brutality, Danez Smith Beats Out Poet Laureate For $13K Prize

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Written by Dana Sanchez

St. Paul, Minnesota, native Danez Smith, 29, is the youngest and first gender-neutral poet to win the $13,083 Forward prize for Best Poetry Collection.

The prize-winning 2017 collection, “Don’t Call Us Dead,” (Graywolf Press) details the poet’s struggles with police brutality, white supremacy and HIV-positive diagnosis.

Smith prefers to use the pronouns “they” and “them” and defeated 2018 U.S. Poet Laureate Tracey K. Smith at the Sept. 18 awards ceremony in London.

Here’s Smith’s bio on the Forward Arts Foundation website:

“They first became aware of the possibilities of contemporary poetry through HBO’s ‘Def Poetry’, and honed their performance skills with theatre training and slams (Smith is the reigning Rustbelt Individual Champion). The poems which excite them most, they say, are those which ‘through language, better equip me to re-enter the world and proceed vigorously’.”

Danez Smith
Author Danez Smith attends the 68th National Book Awards Ceremony and Benefit Dinner at Cipriani Wall Street on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

 

In the opening sequence of the poem “summer, somewhere”, Smith imagines an afterlife for Black men shot dead by the police. In “dear white America”, a poem that went viral on Youtube (300,000 views in a few days), Smith writes:

“i can’t stand your ground. i’m sick of calling your recklessness the law. each night, i count my brothers. & in the morning, when some do not survive to be counted, i count the holes they leave.”

Smith said making the shortlist would mean that “someone out there will see my work – my black, queer loudmouth work on this platform – and recognize the worthiness in themselves,” the Guardian reported.

The aim of Forward Prizes is to celebrate excellence in poetry, increase poetry’s audience, raise poetry’s profile and link it to people in new ways.

Smith, who was also a 2017 National Endowment of the Arts Fellow,said they used their collection to speak to “Black people, queer people, people who know what it’s like to live with illness.” But Smith also wants to touch people outside those categories, according to NBCUniversal:

“I hope that the most Trump-supporting of readers stumble upon my collection and think about what it means to be queer,” Smith said. “There is a reading of the book that requires that even if they don’t know these lives, they can sit down it and consider it.”