Inimitable writer and performer Danez Smith is the author of Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf, 2017), a finalist for the National Book Award, and [insert] boy (YesYes Books, 2014), winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. Their work has appeared on BuzzFeed, The New York Times, PBS NewsHour, Best American Poetry, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and many others. As the New Yorker recently put it, “[Smith knows] the magic trick of making writing on the page operate like the most ecstatic speech.”
We’re thrilled Danez brought some of that magic to Ace Hotel New York, where they were this month’s Dear Reader author. As writer-in-residence, Danez penned a letter to an imagined audience—a letter that’s been kept secret until today, when it will be placed bedside in each room. We caught up with Danez to talk holy texts, the “figuring it out/fucking it up” stage, and running through the dark house of your work.
TIN HOUSE: If you could correspond with any fictional character or literary figure via letters, who would it be? And why?
DANEZ SMITH: Probably Celie from The Color Purple because her letters to God and her sister are such vital and holy texts to me. I would love to be her pen pal and to help her plot on ways to win over women and bury her no good husband. Tho I worry that if I started writing her letters that’s all I would do. I would want each one to be as perfect and blood filled as hers.
Do you map out your writing, or do you discover your path as you go? How often does your work go in directions you never expected?
I don’t map my writing. I don’t think poetry is a genre that lends itself to mapping. The most I might “map” is adding some kind of formal structure or constraint to the poem, but even that is a tool for exploration and surprise. I would stop writing poems if they only unfolded in ways I expected. Art is about surprise, discovery, unlocking, manifesting, imagining, creating and I think that is best done by running through the dark house of your work on faith alone, trusting anything you crash into was meant to be crashed into. I think the same is true when I write non-poems. I’m working on a novel now and it’s only fun when I’m as clueless as the characters. The mapping happens more as a tool to direct the plot in some way, but that’s the boring part. I like the “figuring it out/fucking it up” part.
Dear Reader tasks you with writing for an imagined audience of strangers. How much do you think about your audience when you write? Have you ever been surprised by who is drawn to your work?
I think about audience, but who that is is different from poem to poem. Sometimes that audience is rather large, a general human audience that I am interested in talking with. I am not really surprised by who is drawn to my work through a lens of identity because I know that I also like work that wasn’t “meant for me,” but I have been rather shocked when people, especially writers, that I look up to are aware of my work. The idea of the people who made me want to write sitting down with what I wrote makes my brain feel like a very happy pudding.
What’s a book that you wish more people knew about?
All of Franny Choi’s books. I think a lot of folks in the poetry world know what’s up, but I want the world to know. There is really nobody who writes as damn good of a poem like Franny, and I think her poems have so much to teach us about our flawed, beautiful, glitching selves.
Do you have any rituals, ceremonies or requirements that accompany your writing process?
Dear Reader is a collaboration of Tin House and Ace Hotel New York. You can find this interview and other delights on the Ace Hotel blog.