Audio

Danez Smith Reads From "summer, somewhere"

August 28, 2017

Curtis Fox: This is The Poetry Magazine Podcast for the week of August 28th, 2017. I’m producer Curtis Fox with an archival edition of the podcast from January, 2016. The podcast was hosted by poetry editor Don Share and associate editor Lindsay Garbutt. They were joined later in the discussion of the poem by Christina Pugh, the consulting editor for the magazine.

 

 

Danez Smith: These are excerpts from “summer, somewhere”.

 

Don Share: “summer, somewhere” is the name of a long segmented poem by Danez Smith. It takes up about half of his upcoming book, Don’t Call Us Dead, and we have about a third of it in our upcoming issue.

 

Lindsay Garbutt: Danez Smith’s last book, Insert Boy, won the 2015 Lambda Literary Award in Gay Poetry. He’s a founding member of the Dark Noise Collective, and he’s currently living in Ann Arbor.

 

Don Share: “summer, somewhere” is a series of connected lyrics told from the point of view of, even though the title of the book is Don’t Call Us Dead, the poem is in the plural voice of dead black boys. We’re going to hear a few of these, but let’s listen now to the first one.

 

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.

 

Lindsay Garbutt: The poem doesn’t specifically say how the boys dead, but it becomes increasingly obvious that they all died violently. Now, let’s listen to the next few sections.

 

Danez Smith: 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.

 

Don Share: “If he asks where he is, say gone”. The poem as you can hear just from the beginning sections of it, really is about a refusal to let these young people be dead. They’re gone but they’re not dead. They come back, the poet and poem revivifies them and brings them back changed, with new names and new futures, with hope, the progress, with something else unaccountable. But the first thing I really noticed in listening to it is the diction of the poem, especially at the beginning where there’s a bouncing rhythm to it that has a playfulness to it.

 

Danez Smith: boys brown

as rye play the dozens & ball, jump

 

in the air & stay there.

 

Don Share: It’s obviously a very serious pome but there’s something about the ball and people jumping, the words and rhythms do that too. It’s very effective because it keeps you going along. For me, the ingenious devices of the poem really prevent this from becoming in anyway mockish or some kind of lecture to people which would fall on deaf ears presumably. I think what underwrites all this is a kind of fascinating sweetness that the poet has in a world of bitterness. It just refuses despair, although there is of course a pall cast over these events because they keep happening over and over again. It’s almost like the poet is saying every time there’s a victim, we’ll bring him back.

 

Danez Smith: 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!)

 

It is the job of the poet to record not just the first breath but the last breath of somebody. It’s really moving.


Lindsay Garbutt: It’s so moving. What really stood out to me upon first reading were the images also. The way he makes the boys both unique but also sort of united. In the first section in particular, he says “the boys brown as rye”, or “boys become new moons, gum-dark on all sides”, or “boy color of a July well spent”. In the media so often the word used is simply “black”, and Danez goes farther in order to give a real and descriptive image for just how these boys look.

 

Don Share: Right, “if the snow fell it’d fall black”, he says. “No color to call white”, “bad day to be a boy color of a July well spent”. It reimagines human flesh in every way imaginable.

 

Christina Pugh: I was interested too in the plural nature of it, the boys and the “we”. To me there was something very epic about this. I was thinking of things like Donte’s Inferno. It’s interesting, as you read through the poem sometimes it seems like the boys are in a kind of purgatory, other times they seem like they might be in a paradise. There may be a kind of trajectory that they move through, but just the idea that given all of this loss of black lives, can you come up with something that has an epic proportion to it? That participates in that, but does it so much differently. At the same time it’s doing things like what you were talking about Don, with the rhythms you can almost hear a sprung rhythm in there too. The beating of the language seems to enact that violence on a kind of subterranean level —

 

Don Share: Instress.

 

Christina Pugh: Instress, right. It’s also the kind of miraculous resurrection.

Don Share: But you’re right, the epic instinct here is that at some point you walk out into a new world. As an elegy for particular people as well as a sadly generic pattern of violence, the idea is that you revivify people and they do walk out into a new world. It has been created and we have to maintain it. I just love in the section we heard, “Does it matter how we got here if we’re all here to dance”. What you do in the dance is you grab a boy, spin him around, “If he asks for a kiss, kiss him”. When you’re born, that’s supposed to be what happens. But it’s realistic too, it’s not sentimental really because:

 

Danez Smith: if he asks for a kiss, kiss him.

if he asks where he is, say gone.

 

Lindsay Garbutt: Yeah Don, that celebratory dance that you mentioned really stuck out to me too. There’s a later section of the poem where Danez writes “come celebrate”, and that jogged for me the memory of Lucille Clifton’s poem which is “won’t you celebrate with me”. The way that that poem begin is “won’t you celebrate with me what I have shaped into a kind of life”. I think Danez really shapes a kind of possible life for these boys on the page. What makes it all the more upsetting is that this life isn’t actually possible. The way that Clifton’s poem ends: “come celebrate with me that every day something has tried to kill me and has failed”. The sad part of Danez’s poem is that something has killed these boys and they don’t get another chance.

 

Danez Smith: Let’s listen to how the poem ends with a kind of keep out sign to everyone but dead black boys.

 

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

 

Curtis Fox: You can read those excerpts of “summer, somewhere” by Danez Smith on poetryfoundation.org. Smith’s book Don’t Call Us Dead is coming out on September 5th, 2017. We’ll be back next week with a new podcast featuring a poet in the September issue. For The Poetry Magazine Podcast, I’m Curtis Fox.

In a special archival edition, the editors discuss an excerpt from Danez Smith's “summer, somewhere,” published in the January 2016 issue of Poetry.

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